Despite the vast selection of digital fonts to choose from, most users resort to a handful of standard font types such as Arial or Times New Roman when designing texts.

One of the reasons is that there are simply too many options out there, explains graphic designer Dan Mayer. “Selecting the right font requires both intuition and knowledge of certain rules,” Mayer says.

“But it takes years of practice to really become good at it.” In his article for the specialist publication “Smashing Magazine,” Mayer lists five design rules, the last of which has the paradoxical caption “There are no rules.” This “rule” is meant to imply that no standard is an eternal truth. While all typographers agree that a font should be highly legible and must suit the nature of the text, when it comes to the question of serif vs sans-serif, opinions diverge.

A serif font is characterised by the small “feet” that embellish the end strokes of a character. A few examples of serif fonts are Times, Garamond, or Georgia. Arial, Verdana or Helvetica are sans-serif fonts.

For a long time, the opinion was that serif fonts offer a focal point to the eye, explains Herbert Braun, who works for German computer magazine c’t. But when working at a computer screen, serifs are considered to be more of a distraction than a boon. However, “lately the serif font has been undergoing a kind of renaissance,” Braun says.

Reasons for this may include the higher screen resolutions of modern monitors, as well as advanced technologies such as anti-aliasing or subpixel rendering, also called ClearType in the Windows world. This technology smooths angled character edges to hide exposed pixels, resulting in very clear font rendering.

“Readability is a big topic and new findings are being published on a constant basis,” says Lorenz Schirmer from font provider Linotype in Bad Homburg, Germany. Good readability also depends on reading habits and on the type of paper used when printing text. Schirmer advises private users to print out a sample text in multiple fonts to allow them to directly compare the results.

Braun adds that there are alternatives to Arial, Verdana, or Times New Roman for creating a stylish website. Google, for example, offers a directory of freely available web fonts that can be integrated into HTML documents using the CSS layout standard for webpages. Linotype also has a broad variety of fonts that are available for free for non-commercial use.

“Users should keep in mind that fonts are software too,” says typeface expert Schirmer. “That means that no ownership rights are acquired when making a purchase, but instead only the license to use it.” Many free fonts come with a few limitations, adds Braun, such as the lack of special characters or kerning information. The latter refers to adjusting the horizontal spacing, the so-called white space, between individual letters.

Specialist author and typeface expert Ralf Herrmann advises against using “generic 1,000-font packages offered at media outlets or free fonts from the internet.” These are often of low quality and not viable even for semi-professional use, he says. However, the internet is a good source of information and exchange, allowing users to research viable fonts for their projects.

“I would not recommend purchasing a commercial font for private use,” says Braun. However, for businesses this makes sense — for example, to design a professional company logo. Competitors of Linotype include FSI Fontshop International, based on Berlin, or International Typeface Corporation (ITC) in New York. The creatively inclined can even design their own font with tools like Fontcreator from High—Logic.

The Opentype (OTF) standard format designed for all operating systems by Microsoft and Adobe was published in 1996. OTF is also supported by the Web Open Font Format (WOFF), enabling the transfer of fonts in compressed format. WOFF is a major standard supported by all modern browsers.