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Top 20 fonts for the web

Fonts
(Image credit: Marek Levák / Unsplash)

To say that right now is an exciting time for web typography is to make something of an understatement. Recent technological leaps and bounds have brought us one step closer to typographical nirvana on the web, and it's been an awfully long time coming.

The freedom to use typefaces beyond the 'web safe' fonts installed on most systems has come about largely thanks to three major and near-simultaneous technological factors: firstly, the widespread support for @font-face in browsers (which allows custom fonts to be loaded on a webpage as specified in the CSS); secondly, the emergence of font delivery services such as Typekit and Fontdeck; and thirdly, the development of a new font format – the humble WOFF file – to address many of the foundries' privacy concerns.

But with great power comes great responsibility. Just because we can choose from a vast library of typefaces doesn't mean we have to; there's something to be said for painting with a limited palette. Not only that, but there are a lot of sub-standard fonts out there, and with many of them being free, their usage is often widespread but undeserved.

In fact, this is part of a much larger problem: the misconception – particularly within the web design community – that fonts aren't worth paying for. This is damaging for both the worldwide network of talented type designers and the design community as a whole.

A typeface, like any form of design, is created by craftsmen over a substantial period of time, using the talent and experience they've been honing for many years. The benefits of a professionally designed font — various weights and styles to form a complete family, carefully considered kerning pairs, multi-language support with international characters, expressive alternate glyphs to add character and variety to type-setting — are very rarely found in a font available for free.

It's for this reason that we've focused almost entirely on 20 fonts that require some sort of purchase, although many of the Typekit-served fonts are available within their free package.

We've also focused primarily on typefaces that work well for the relatively small body type we use regularly on the web, rather than display faces more suited to very large headings. So turn over and discover 20 typefaces you'll want to use again and again…

Avenir

(Image credit: FontShop)

1. Avenir

Available from: FontShop

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Adrian Frutiger

Avenir's design is based upon the ubiquitous Futura (which was created as 'Die Schrift für die Neue Zeit' – 'the typeface for the New Time'), but Avenir is described by designer Adrian Frutiger as having a more human touch.

Despite its popularity as a corporate typeface, it's a well-rounded geometric sans with a subtle personality that adds a friendly smile to serious content.

Several years later, Akira Kobayashi completed Avenir Next, which refined the original and added italics and small caps.

FF Kava

(Image credit: FontShop)

2. FF Kava

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Yanone

When Kaffeesatz was released for free around the time browser support for @font-face became more prevalent, it found popularity among many web designers and brought creator Yanone to the attention of FontShop FSI, who commissioned him to produce a professional version of the typeface.

Rather than simply adding extra glyphs to the font, it was completely redrawn from the ground up, keeping much of its character but including features such as a black weight, small caps and international language support. The result is FF Kava.

Times New Roman

(Image credit: FontShop)

3. Times New Roman

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Serif

Designer: Victor Lardent, Stanley Morison

As strange as it may seem to list a system font associated with the world of Word documents and suits who can't be bothered to change the defaults, Times New Roman is a surprisingly robust typeface when given a little TLC.

The 2008 Seed Conference website made particularly good use of Times by giving it the feel of a display face. Simon Collison, a designer known for his appreciation of Times's flexibility and use of it on his personal site, says that "it actually feels quite good to be taking a tired old typeface and trying to squeeze every possible ounce from it".

Bree

(Image credit: FontShop)

4. Bree

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: José Scaglione, Veronika Burian

Full of personality and unashamedly casual, Bree might seem suited only to headings rather than body type, especially as it was born from TypeTogether's logo. However, a closer look reveals that, while headings are certainly its forte, Bree performs surprisingly well at smaller sizes.

It's also just one of the many beautiful typefaces to be born of the collective brains of José Scaglione and Veronika Burian, two type designers who met while completing the MA in Typeface Design at the University of Reading, a course widely considered to be one of the best in the world for aspiring type designers.

FF Trixie

(Image credit: FontShop)

5. FF Trixie

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Typewriter

Designer: Erik van Blokland

Trixie was one of the first true typewriter fonts and is an excellent choice if you're going for distressed headings. Simulating the aesthetics of ink being misprinted by a typewriter is no mean feat when the text also needs to remain totally legible, yet Trixie manages to succeed on both counts.

Lato

(Image credit: Google)

6. Lato

Available from: Google Fonts

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Łukasz Dziedzic

Lato originally started its life as a corporate commission. The client eventually decided to go in a different direction, so this font became available for a public release and is currently part of Google’s vast free library. The designer wanted to create a typeface that would be unobtrusive when used in a body of text, but could display some unique traits the bigger it got.

We’d say Łukasz Dziedzic achieved his goal, and created a simple, clean and elegant sans-serif font that looks great at any size, and comes with a large family of styles suitable for most needs.

Fedra Sans

(Image credit: Typotheque)

7. Fedra Sans

Available from: Typotheque

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Peter Bil'ak

At the heart of Typotheque's font library, Fedra is a super-family that was designed to work just as well on screen as in print, and actually started life as a corporate typeface for German insurance company Bayerische Rück.

The design faced disaster when the client first acquired and then cancelled the project, then faltered again when Typotheque's office equipment was stolen. But, with designer Peter Bil'ak being forced to go back and re-examine the typeface, the final design was all the better for the set-backs, and the eventual result was a set of extremely versatile fonts.

Museo Slab

(Image credit: FontShop)

8. Museo Slab

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Slab serif

Designer: Jos Buivenga

The original version of Museo has become extremely popular among web designers and is one of the few semi-free fonts (several of its weights are free) to make it onto this list. Its newer slab variant is a little less playful than standard Museo, and so offers a slightly more authoritative tone, along with a welcome element of variety, given how widely spread the original version has become.

Clarendon

(Image credit: Adobe)

9. Clarendon

Available from: Adobe Fonts

Classification: Slab serif

Designer: URW

This classic British slab serif is a must-have on any 'top typefaces' list. Redrawn by Hermann Eidenbenz to include several weights and widths, Clarendon is offered as a web font by Adobe.

Also of note is Sentinel by Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones. Their Clarendon-based typeface added true italics, and is available in different versions, including a web one from Hoefler&Co.

Proxima Nova

(Image credit: Adobe)

10. Proxima Nova 

Available from: Adobe Fonts

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Mark Simonson

Described as a design that straddles the gap between typefaces like Futura and Akzidenz-Grotesk, Proxima Nova is remarkably versatile, and the family includes several weights and widths, bringing the total font count to an impressive 42.

Extremely readable thanks to its geometric clarity and humanist feel, it's a hybrid that works in a variety of scenarios.

FF Unit Slab

(Image credit: FontShop)

11. FF Unit Slab

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Slab serif 

Designer: Erik Spiekermann, Christian Schwartz, Kris Sowersby

The slab style of the Unit super-family – which is often referred to as the grown-up sister of Meta – is a personal favourite of many.

It comes across as powerful and almost brutish at its heaviest 'Ultra' weight, yet can be seen as deceptively subtle at its thinnest 'Thin' weight – the typeface is a great all-rounder that's just overbrimming with personality.

A variation of Unit Slab – Espi – is used as Edenspiekermann's corporate typeface.

Calluna

(Image credit: FontShop)

12. Calluna

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Serif 

Designer: Jos Buivenga

Born as the result of an experiment designer Jos Buivenga was performing with an early version of Museo Slab, Calluna is actually his first serious text face. Much like Meta Serif, it manages to exude no small amount of personality even when used at smaller, body type sizes.

Like many of Jos's latterday fonts, there are plenty of OpenType features included, and the regular weight is available completely free.

Ronnia

(Image credit: FontShop)

13. Ronnia

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: José Scaglione, Veronika Burian

Condensed faces are often used for attention grabbing headlines, and often we reach for hard, industrial faces such as Alternate Gothic and its ilk. Sometimes something a little softer is required, though, and that's where Ronnia's condensed flavour comes in.

Its gentle, playful form works well with Bree, although it comes across as a little more authoritative: a friendly face with some gravitas.

Droid Sans

(Image credit: FontShop)

14. Droid Sans

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Steve Matteson

A truly modern type super-family, Droid was designed by Ascender's type director Steve Matteson for use on mobile devices; its name is derived from the Android platform. The sans is a highly legible, friendly typeface with upright stress, open forms and a neutral appearance.

To make the most of type appearing on small screens, the letterforms are very slightly condensed. The entire family features multilanguage support so is well-suited to far-reaching websites and applications.

FF Tisa

(Image credit: FontShop)

15. FF Tisa

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Serif 

Designer: Mitja Miklavcic

Although initially designed for use in magazines, Tisa has become popular on the web, perhaps because – like the majority of typefaces here – its large x-height makes it highly legible as on-screen body type.

Taking slab serifs as an influence and then offering a softer, low-contrast end product, the typeface was originally designed by Miklavcic to fulfil the requirements for the aforementioned MA in Typeface Design at Reading.

FF DIN

(Image credit: FontShop)

16. FF DIN

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Albert-Jan Pool

DIN embodies the spirit of German efficiency (DIN stands for 'Deutsche Industrie-Norm' or 'German Industrial Standard') and has its roots in signage – everything from road signs on the Autobahn to house numbers.

It was celebrated for its no-nonsense geometric style and adorned German design for years in the form of DIN 1451: DIN-Mittelschrift and DIN-Engschrift, its condensed companion. It was updated and expanded into a family of five weights by Albert-Jan Pool in 1995 and has recently been given more stylistic variants, including DIN Rounded.

Helvetica

(Image credit: FontShop)

17. Helvetica

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Max Miedinger, Eduard Hoffmann

It seems almost impossible to discuss the subject of typography without mentioning Helvetica. Thanks to its generous usage by what seems like every designer in existence, the typeface has achieved legendary status; its name and style known to the general public as well as type aficionados, partly due to the 2007 film by Gary Hustwit.

Originally named Die Neue Haas Grotesk and created to compete with Akzidenz-Grotesk, it represents the Swiss style of graphic design from the 1950s, but its widespread appearance in virtually every design context has resulted in the typeface becoming somewhat homogenised, and it has been re-imagined in various (inferior) forms such as Arial. Nevertheless, it remains a modern classic.

League Gothic

(Image credit: Adobe)

18. League Gothic

Available from: Adobe Fonts

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Tyler Finck

League Gothic is a revival and reworking of Alternate Gothic, released by The League of Moveable Type as an open source typeface, after the original foundry went bankrupt.

A fantastic typeface for headlines, it’s a hugely popular choice for those in need of a hard-hitting, almost brazen typeface. Legible at relatively small sizes despite being condensed, it's a bold and formidable face; a slice of American industrialism performing magnificently in the digital age.

F Meta Serif

(Image credit: FontShop)

19. FF Meta Serif 

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Serif 

Designer: Christian Schwartz, Erik Spiekermann, Kris Sowersby

Erik Spiekermann describes his Meta family as, "the nearest thing I'll ever have to a classic," and he's being modest, because Meta really is a classic; especially its serif. It's an authoritative typeface that works well in a variety of scenarios and offers a logical upgrade to designers who have previously been using Times New Roman.

It works well with the other flavours of Meta and also with the Unit super-family. Support for international characters and a wide variety of glyphs for numerals, fractions and so on mark it out as a high-level professional font.

Georgia

(Image credit: FontShop)

20. Georgia

Available from: FontShop 

Classification: Sans serif 

Designer: Matthew Carter

As hard as it may be to believe, Georgia comes up again and again as the people's favourite when talking about type that works well on the web. Perhaps it's because it was designed for screen rather than print; perhaps it's because it manages to offer timeless beauty in its simple, understated design; perhaps it's because it has Old Style Figures as default!

Extremely legible at small sizes and somewhat majestic in its italic form, Georgia proves its worth despite the new wealth of alternatives, and reminds us that sometimes the best tools are sitting right in front of us.

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