Picking Fonts

Picking fonts is a massive rabbit hole. The pickier you are with your aesthetic, the deeper it gets. Worse still if you’re not really inducted into the legions of typographical luminaries, with their intimate knowledge of kerning and x-heights and serifs. I wasn’t satisfied with my previous combination of Quicksand and Open Sans, and wanted to change it up. I’ve also been rather enamored of the font choices on Medium of late. There’s a bit of an old-school charm to using serifs on the web. For longer-form articles, I much prefer having serifs. Then again, I’d also wear a pocket watch if I could find one I liked, so use that as your baseline of trust. Charged with some inspiration, I dived headlong into yet another frivolous expenditure of my free time.

To Serif, Or Non

The traditional wisdom is that serif fonts are better for reading, because they guide the eyes. They were, however, intended for physical type, at a much higher resolution than what is possible on a computer display. Sans-serif fonts were simply cleaner at low resolutions, so for the most part, sans-serif fonts came to dominate the internet.

But then technology happened, along with a design revolution of the internet. More emphasis was placed on web-based typography, and computer font engines got better and the font foundries started producing higher-quality fonts for the screen. Take a look at the most popular serifs on Google Fonts, and you’ll find that many of them are quite palatable.

After a couple of hours of mucking around, I thought I rather liked the combination of Josefin Sans for headers, and Merriweather for body text. On a whim, I pulled up the site on my Windows desktop to do more A/B testing and was horrified to see that Merriweather, quite frankly, looked terrible.

Wherein I Waste More Time Learning About ClearType

Why did fonts on Windows look so bad? Turns out, it’s not entirely Windows’ fault. ClearType’s been around for a long time, and in comparison, ClearType makes fonts look a little crisper than their Mac counterparts. It also depends much more on the quality of the font, relying on font hinting instructions to improve the visual presentation of characters. In contrast, OS X ignores hinting and uses just subpixel anti-aliasing.

What OS X is doing works really well, apparently. The baseline for fonts is much better than in Windows. But there’s that Apple “I know better” philosophy. A part of me hates the fact that the font may be rendered in a way that the designer did not intend.


Armed with this information, I started A/B testing on both a Mac and Windows box, and finally settled on Oswald for headers, and Droid Serif for body text. PT Serif was a close contender, but I ultimately felt that Droid Serif worked better at a larger range of font sizes than PT Serif, and decided to just go with that. Keep in mind that these are free fonts, though, and there is a world of exceptional paid fonts, like Medium’s FF Tisa Pro.

TL;DR - Test your fonts in Windows, too. Oh, serifs and bowties are cool.