Well, maybe not your life. But certainly your reputation with people of good taste.
Helvetica, the hip font of choice for brands and typeface nerds, is the default font setting for Apple Mail. Gmail defaults to Arial, a font one designer called Helvetica’s “ugly bastard son.” If the browser doesn’t support Arial, Gmail will use Helvetica instead.
While Helvetica is beloved by design nerds for its neutrality, its uniformity and lack of consistent spacing make it hard to read in large chunks of text. “The letters are too close together,” said Nadine Chahine, a type designer at Monotype. “That makes it too tight.”
Arial, like Helvetica, has what font designers call “ambiguous” letter shapes that make it difficult to parse lots of words in a row. “If you imagine b, d, p, and q, those are letter forms that all the children always mess up. They are mirror forms of one another,” font designer Bruno Maag said. “That feature is emphasized in a font like Arial, where the shapes are literally mirror forms.”
See how the b and d mirror each other below, and how the space between the h and the e in Helvetica is slightly larger than it is between the t and the i? These may seem like nuances here, but both make the words harder to read when they’re packed in great swatches of text and you’re reading a lot of email.
And you are. Working Americans spend almost a third of the workweek checking and reading email. In a 40-hour week, that’s over 11 hours a week reading online communications in fonts that aren’t doing our eyes any favors.
Email “clients” — the programs you use to check your email, like Gmail, Apple Mail, and Outlook — tend to favor sans serif fonts, in which the letters don’t have end strokes, like Helvetica, Arial, and Microsoft Outlook’s default Calibri. (Gmail, Outlook, and Apple Mail are the three most popular desktop email clients, a study of over 1 billion emails found.)
“It used to be, until relatively recently, that most readers in a corporate environment would not have very high-resolution screens,” typographer Gerry Leonidas said. Simpler fonts, without all the details and design elements that come with serifs, would render cleaner on those lower-resolution screens. But “in the recent four or five years, we have significantly higher resolution to get good spacing, clean separation, so you don’t get grayscaling of characters,” Leonidas said. So email clients no longer have to use sans serif fonts.
Under the weight of decades of history, though, they often default to them — tragically, in Maag’s view.
“The argument that a serif font is too fussy doesn’t cut it anymore,” he said. “You want a font where the letter forms are not ambiguous.” Serif fonts, because of the additional stroke added to the ends of each character, tend to have that quality. See how the serifs in Georgia, below, give each letter its own character.
The key to a good font is legibility, a combination of speed, comprehension, comfort, and a kind of emotional acceptance of the font. The way the letters are shaped, the spaces between them, and the spaces within the letters themselves all determine how easy something is to read.
“When we read, we don’t read letter by letter,” Jose Scaglione, who designed Literata, the custom font for Google Play books, said. “We recognize a group of letters and recognize the interaction that exists between black and the white.”
Bookerly, the new font designed by Maag for the Kindle, is a serif font, which many believe is better for reading long blocks of text, although there is much debate and conflicting research about its merits over its sans counterpart. “Each character shape is very unique,” Maag said of Bookerly. “It creates a harmonious, varied word shape.” According to internal tests done by Amazon, Bookerly reads 2% better than previous fonts on speed, comprehension, and emotional acceptance, Maag said.
Literata was designed with the same principles in mind. The designers elongated the ascenders and descenders — the top of the d and the bottom of the p, for example — to improve recognition of word shape. They also made the characters a bit wider.
Although the daily grind often requires sifting through a novel’s worth of email, we interact with digital communication in a different way than we do books, and ideally fonts should reflect those varied experiences. Bookerly was designed for sustained reading of a single document and takes fatigue into account. For emails, we generally scan a couple of paragraphs. Having letters with wide, consistent spacing is most important for quick reading, the designers we interviewed said. A serif font will also make it easier to distinguish between letters.
Even today, users don’t have to subject their eyes to Helvetica’s or Arial’s blunted letter shapes. Gmail’s preferences offer six additional fonts and customization of the width of the letters. Apple Mail has even more font options.
In fact, anyone who knows anything about fonts does change the settings. For his own email experience, Maag likes Verdana (sans serif) or Georgia (serif), which both have more “open” shapes than Helvetica and Arial. Verdana, as you can see below, has more, and more even, spacing between letters. Scaglione also likes Georgia. Chahine has an affinity for Calibri and Verdana. Leonidas used to use Verdana but upgraded to HD screens and now uses a font called Input.
Maybe it’s time for email clients to change the default settings. “I do believe that organizations can certainly improve lives by specifying better fonts, which of course has an effect on how you read your email,” Maag said.
Even better, what about giving the people a Bookerly for email? “In theory, yes. A font for reading emails could be possible,” says Scaglione. Dare to dream.