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 allow us to put “friendly, well-rounded and warm font” in our presentations.

All that is either wrong or pointless because:

  • Using system fonts is the only conclusion to a user-based chain of reasoning for many interfaces, especially applications.
  • Every conscious choice is a design decision – I would even argue that it’s the definition of design.
  • Engineers are 100 per cent qualified to make such decisions.
  • System fonts are made or chosen specially for interfaces.
  • “Warmer” and “friendlier” are the first two words in my design presentation bullshit bingo.

Meeting expectations #

Most fonts look the same because we’re not looking at them but reading the text. The more interactions in the application or site, the more invisible the font should be.

Users want to be able to read without being made aware that they are reading. They want to work without being disturbed. At best, users notice if there are serifs or not – or when things switch from one to the other.

The level of detail doesn’t matter as long as the expectation for readability and usability is met. If we switch to a different font with the same level of readability, a minority of our users will notice that “something’s different”, but not what. With a serif switch, more will notice, but most will probably not care.

If we hope users recognise us by the interface font, we have to do a reality check on what interfaces are, what they do and how users work.

Branding fonts go unnoticed

Making and implementing company fonts in interfaces is an immense waste of time. We need a font that draws attention to itself to achieve significant visual branding. That goes against a central principle of making interfaces: Don’t stand in the way of the users and their tasks. We don’t make things intended to communicate much beyond necessities.

This sort of dissonance dooms every branding font to look more or less the same based on the style of the times. The uniqueness one hoped to achieve is 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 organisational visuals because they are unrelated to interfaces. We do not achieve coherency or branding through company fonts. What we do in your static formats, digital or not, should remain there and not taint interface work.

Users will not mistake us for Microsoft, Apple or Google when the interface uses their system font. If the users expect anything, it is that fonts match the ones in their system.

Things like browsers, operating systems, other applications and common interface patterns should be major factors in coherency work. That’s what’s familiar; that’s what users interact with to get to your service. That’s what they customise to their needs and preferences.

The system font says something about belonging natively. It will change from system to system, but that’s the nature of the interface. We are trying to make interfaces work their best in the hands of the users.

The users are in control and don’t have to download fonts – another win.

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. And as system fonts improve, we get those improvements as well. With variable fonts, we can tune the same font differently.

Certain fonts are prettier than others, even among closely related ones. Even though I mostly stopped picking fonts, I have a few that are great looking, but I will probably never have any use for them. I don’t mistake my own style-related needs for user-friendliness.

In my 15+ years of picking fonts, I can confidently 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.