Web fonts vs. web safe fonts: what’s the difference?

One is known a “web safe font” and the other a “web font”:

  • Web safe fonts: also known as “system fonts” or “browser fonts,” web safe fonts are the fonts installed on all devices and browsers.
  • Web fonts: although vague, web fonts refer to all fonts that are not web safe fonts, particularly commercial and independently designed fonts.

Which one should you use in web design?

They both have their own particular advantages and disadvantages.

For web design, which is the medium under focus in this article, the main advantage of web safe fonts is that they load faster, reducing the amount of time it takes for your site to load. This isn’t a huge difference, but if you’re looking to cut out every wasted millisecond, they make a difference.

The downside of web safe fonts, though, is that they’re generic. There’s nothing unique or original about them—they’re literally available to everyone. If you want style or artistry, you’ll have to use another web font.

What about the individual font aesthetic?

But deciding between the best web fonts and the best web safe fonts isn’t your only decision. You also have to decide what style of typography would suit your branding and function of the site. Different fonts work better for long blocks of text than for attention-grabbing headlines, to say nothing of how they influence your brand perception.

In this guide, we break them all up into three categories that are based on typeface aesthetic: serifs, sans serifs and decorative. For those who don’t know, serifs are those little tags or “flags” that sometimes appear at the ends of letters. We’ll explain the recommended usage of each below, as well as how they reflect on your brand identity.

The best web safe fonts with serifs:

Baskerville

One for the history lovers, Baskerville was designed by John Baskerville in the 1750s. It’s a solid, popular serif font, promising readability and character.

Cambria was designed specifically to be read onscreen. Its spacing and proportions are particularly even, so it’d be a great option for text-heavy sites like a blog.

You may recognize this one from the Vogue title font emblazoning their magazine covers. Didot is curvy, stylish and harking back to the late 1700s; it’s timeless.

Perhaps the most unusual out of this bunch of web safe fonts with serifs, Garamond is a favorite for designers. Be aware that this font works best in print—it’s great for text-heavy designs as it’s proportions are so easy on the eyes.

Ever-serious, always direct, Times New Roman works really well with factual, formal content such as academic text or a law firm’s font of choice for text bodies.

Apparel feels like it belongs in a coffee table magazine to me, it’s so styled and minimal. It would suit branded copy of a similar aesthetic, so perhaps if you’re launching a fashion or interiors brand, this could work brilliantly in your style guide.

This one is a gorgeous title font, it works well with a minimal aesthetic and high quality or luxury product. It could work introducing recipes in a new cooking book, on the website for an upmarket salon or introducing your latest photoshoot in an online portfolio.

Bogart is a smooth, nostalgic and innovative title font that was designed in 2020. It’d pack a punch of personality to connect with audiences in product packaging designs or book covers.

Read between the letters: the spacing of a Giveny font is to be appreciated. Together with the simplistic structures of its letter, Giveny boasts accessibility and would do well for designs with short, impactful copy such as posters, banners or business cards.

Juana contrasts thick and thin strokes, curves and edges. It feels hypnotic to look at and would distinguish brands from competitors across logo designs, magazine editorials and landing pages.

Another versatile number, the charming Maiah could work across mediums for the right brand. It works well with a minimal aesthetic and a top quality product or service.

Arial, in my opinion, is a cool, no frills sans serif web safe font. It’s versatile across industries and offers great readability, after being designed primarily for digital use.

Casual and easy to read, Dejavu Sans shines with lighthearted copy. It also can make technical content more accessible, so it could be good if you’re a consumer-facing finance brand.

Geneva is known for following the Grotesque style. It’s slightly narrow and a favorite for big brands like Facebook and Apple (the company from which it originated).

Helvetica is renowned for legibility. Some think it to be the most popular contemporary font, it’s long been regarded as “safe” for reflecting long, dense amounts of copy.

Devant Pro is almost spilling over in character. It feels like it just hopped out of a film poster from the 60s—strong option for contemporary brands wishing to develop their own style.

IBM Plex Sans was designed to represent the relationship between machine and mankind. The result is arbitrary but friendly—use to give your brand a more humanistic feeling.

A major point about Monolith is that it has full multilingual capacities. It has a light and a regular version and it’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

TT Norms Pro is a high flyer amongst the geometric fonts. It’s simplicity and legibility means that it’s pretty universal to different mediums and copy types.

Copperplate is known for working well with stationary products and brands; it adds a touch of quirky character to understated designs.

Sublimely Gothic, Luminari lights up any page it graces. Medieval, magnetic and niche.

A digital alternative to handwriting, Admara adds intimacy but it isn’t the most accessible. It’s actually only permitted for personal use, so it won’t be appropriate for commercial materials.

Danielle Signature is elegant, personal and fragrant. It would be a great logo option for an independent retail brand.

Kooky, unconventional and fun! Wonder night is brilliant for brands targeting younger audiences, perhaps where text bodies are short. It could be a great tool to liven up educational copy!

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