Halvor William Sanden

Keep using system fonts

"System fonts" sounds boring, like a choice not made. It has the air of "something an engineer would pick", it doesn’t feel like a design decision. And it doesn’t give you the opportunity to put "friendly, well-rounded and warm font" in your presentation.

I think that’s the wrong approach because:

  • every choice is a design decision, the title of the person making it doesn’t matter
  • for a lot of interfaces, especially applications, using system fonts is the only conclusion to a user-based chain of reasoning
  • system fonts are made or chosen specially for interfaces
  • "warmer" and "friendlier" are the first two words in my presentation bingo

Meeting expectations #

Most fonts look the same because we’re not looking at them but reading the text. I’m not talking about logos here, I’m talking the kind of texts you find across interfaces. The more interactions in the app or site, the more invisible the font is or should be.

At best, users notice if there are serifs or not – or when things switch from one to the other. Users want to be able to read while not be made aware that they are reading.

If you switch to another font with the same level of readability, a minority of your users will perhaps notice that "something’s different" but not what. If you make a serif switch, more will notice, but most will probably not care at all. It’s a level of detail that doesn’t matter as long as the expectation for readability is met.

This means that fonts have minimal impact when it comes to recognising a company.

Catch 22 of branding fonts

Putting your company name on a font is an immense waste of time. It tasks the font with something it can’t fulfil.

Not standing out and not communicating beyond the message itself are central principles for making interfaces. In order to achieve anything significant branding-wise, you need a font that is so different that it draws attention away from what users are reading. A font that tries to be visibly unique and something in and of itself will fail in that sense. The text, through the way it looks, becomes self-referencing and competes against the message and the users’ needs.

This dooms every branding font to look more or less the same. The uniqueness one hoped to achieve gets beaten by the fact that it has to look in a way that makes most people unaware of it.

Coherency with users #

It usually is valuable to make interfaces coherent – but not primarily with other company visuals unrelated to your interface. Employing one font as the company font, hoping to achieve coherency, is a misunderstanding. What you do in your static formats, digital or not, doesn’t translate to the world of interfaces.

No one thinks you’re Microsoft, Apple or Google when your interface is rendered in their system font. If the users expect anything beyond what’s already mentioned, it is that the font matches the one in their system.

Users have to navigate an interface in order to get to yours. Things like browsers, operating systems, other applications and common interface patterns should be major factors in your coherency work. That’s what the users know and those are the things that should feel familiar to them. That’s also a way of making your different interfaces coherent with each other – if needed.

The system font says something about belonging natively. It’s about meeting expectations about the interface being based on known principles more than the users having a preferred font. It will change from system to system, but that’s the nature of the interface. What we are trying to achieve is that interfaces work their best in the hands of the users.

And there is no need to download fonts. Another win for all.

Aesthetics and typography #

System fonts are great, default web typography is crap. Typography doesn’t disappear as a task. The challenging parts of it are still left to figure out, over and over again. And as system fonts improve, you get those improvements as well. With variable fonts, you can tune the same font differently, if needed.

Certain fonts are prettier than others, even among closely related ones. That’s partly why I started to use Roboto for this page many years ago. Which is somewhat ironic … maybe I should change it.

I mostly stopped picking fonts. I have a limited pool that I update every five years or so if I need something different to meet different expectations. But I don’t mistake my own style-related needs for user-friendliness. And I recognise the beauty in many fonts, but that doesn’t mean I have any use for them.

In my 15+ years of picking fonts, I can with some certainty say that people who don’t pick fonts don’t care much about fonts. And that’s a good thing.

I made a Style Stage contribution using system fonts.