Typographic Design Patterns and Best Practices


Even with a relatively limited set of options in CSS, typography can vary tremendously using pure CSS syntax. Serif or sans-serif? Large or small font? Line height, spacing, font size and padding… The list goes on and on.

To find typographic design patterns that are common in modern Web design and to resolve some common typographic issues, we conducted extensive research on 50 popular websites on which typography matters more than usual (or at least should matter more than usual). We’ve chosen popular newspapers, magazines and blogs as well as various typography-related websites.

We’ve carefully analyzed their typography and style sheets and searched for similarities and differences. We have also put together a spreadsheet of the study1 that displays the websites’ various values (for example, the ratio between the line height and line length).

Ultimately, we identified 13 general typographic problems and issues related to typographic design and tried to find answers to them through our research:

  1. How popular are serif and sans-serif typefaces in body copy and headlines?
  2. Which fonts are used most frequently?
  3. What is the average font size?
  4. What is the average ratio between the font size of headlines and body copy?
  5. What is the average line height of body copy?
  6. What is the average ratio between line height and font size in body copy?
  7. What is the average ratio between line height and line length in body copy?
  8. What is the average amount of spacing between paragraphs?
  9. What is the average ratio of paragraph spacing to line height in body copy?
  10. How are links styled?
  11. How many characters per line are common in body copy?
  12. How often are links underlined?
  13. How often is font replacement (sIFR, etc.) used?

We ended up with solid data, which we evaluated and prepared for this article. Based on the statistics, we have identified several “rules of thumb” for working with type. Please note that these rules can often, but not always, be considered best practice.

1. Serif vs. Sans-serif

Whether designers should use serif or sans-serif fonts for body copy is one of the most discussed and unresolved questions about typesetting on the Web. Some designers prefer to give their headlines serifs (which are short, decorative lines at the end of letter strokes) to give them more appeal. The main reason to choose a serif font for your headlines is that, at a large size, serif fonts are easy to read and look great. The contrast between a serif font for headlines and a sans-serif font for body copy can be interesting, too.

Some designers prefer serif fonts for body copy because they believe the lines at the end of letter strokes help guide readers from one letter to the next, making scanning and reading more comfortable.

Sans vs. Sans-Serif in headlines.

According to our study, sans-serif fonts are still more popular than serif fonts for headlines, although they seem to have dropped in popularity in recent years.

  • 60% of websites use sans-serif typefaces for headlines, mostly Arial, Verdana, Lucida Grande and Helvetica. Among them: CNN2, ArsTechnica3, Slate4, BBC5 and NewScientist6.
  • Only 34% of websites use a serif typeface for body copy. Among them: New York Times7, Typographica8, Time9, AIGA10 and Newsweek11.
  • The most popular serif typefaces for headlines are Georgia (28%) and Baskerville (4%).
  • The most popular serif typefaces for body copy are Georgia (32%) and Times New Roman (4%).
  • The most popular sans-serif typefaces for headlines are Arial (28%), Helvetica (20%) and Verdana (8%).
  • The most popular sans-serif typefaces for body copy are Arial (28%), Verdana (20%) and Lucida Grande (10%).

Two thirds of the websites we surveyed used sans-serif fonts for body copy. The main reason is probably because, despite the growing popularity of advanced font replacement techniques, such as Cufón12, most designers stick to the core Web fonts, which essentially give them only two viable options: Georgia and Times New Roman. And because of the stigma attached to Times New Roman (that it often makes a modern website look outdated), they’re left with only Georgia. Sans-serif fonts offer a wider variety of options for the Web.

Serif vs. Sans-Serif in Body Copy

2. Which Typeface Is Most Popular?

Surprisingly, despite the growing popularity of font replacement techniques and growing availability of new pre-installed fonts (e.g. Windows Vista and Mac fonts), designs in our study mainly used the traditional, core Web fonts, the only exceptions being Lucida Grande (which comes installed only on Macs), Helvetica and Baskerville.

Most popular typefaces

As one would expect, Arial, Georgia and Verdana are used for the majority of body copy today. In our study, around 80% of websites used one of these three fonts. For the remaining 20%, designers’ favorite Helvetica is a popular choice, as is Lucida Grande.

With options such as Verdana and Arial available as fall-backs, a designer really has no reason not to specify other non-standard fonts to achieve the best effect. You can learn more about advanced CSS font stacks in Nathan Ford’s article Better CSS Font Stacks13 and CodeStyle’s Build Better CSS Font Stacks14.

Jon Tangerine15
Jon Tan16 uses serif typeface Baskerville for headlines and serif typeface Georgia for body copy.

Verdana is used minimally for headlines. Only 10 websites use it for body copy to begin with, and only four use it for headlines. The main reason is that Verdana puts a lot of spacing between letters, which makes it not as tidy to read at a large size. If you are going to use it for headlines, you may want to take advantage of the CSS letter-spacing property. Georgia and Arial are most popular fonts for headings.

Finally, we note that “alternative” fonts are used much more for headlines than for body copy. Designers seem more willing to experiment with their headings than with the main body. If you want to bring some typographic variation into your next design, headings may be the easiest place to start.

3. Light Or Dark Background?

We were curious to learn the extent to which designers were willing to experiment with dark background colors. We looked out for any typography-oriented websites that had a dark color scheme and were surprised to find not a single one.

New Yorker17
The New Yorker18 has a light color scheme, with Times New Roman used for headlines and body copy.

Pure white background for body copy won by a landslide. However, many of the designs avoid the high contrast of pure white on pure black; text color is often made a bit lighter than pure black. Designers clearly focus on legibility and avoid experimenting with background colors. The contrast of black on white is easy to read and is, at least among these websites, the status quo.

4. Average Font Size For Headlines

Of course, the choice of headline font size depends on the font used in the design. In any case, in our study by far the most popular font sizes ranged from 18 to 29 pixels, with 18 to 20 pixels and 24 to 26 pixels being the most popular choices.

Heading font size graph.

Our study didn’t yield any clear winners. The average font size for headings is 25.6 pixels. But note that any size between 18 and 29 pixels could be effective; it depends, after all, on how your headings fit the overall design of your website. Still, you could try experimenting with larger sizes, because displays are always getting larger, as are display resolutions.

An obvious outlier is Wilson Miner19 (screenshot below), who uses a massive font size of 48 pixels for his headlines. His website is a special case, though, because all of his posts have extremely short titles, only a few words.

Wilson Miner's website20

5. Average Font Size For Body Copy

Do you remember about seven years ago when Web designs had tiny, barely readable elements, and body copy was set to 8 pixels in Tahoma? Small font sizes are out, and more and more modern designers are turning to large font sizes. From our sample size, we saw a clear tendency towards sizes between 12 and 14 pixels. The most popular font size (38%) is 13 pixels, with 14 pixels slightly more popular than 12 pixels. Overall, the average font size for body copy is 13 pixels.

Body copy font size graph.

We noted (as one would expect) more and more attention being paid to the smallest typographic details. Dashes, quotes, footnotes, author names, introductory text and paragraphs have been carefully set, with optimal legibility in mind. Type setting is usually very consistent, with a lot of white space, leading and padding.

Large intro fonts on Typographica
Typographica21 uses a large font size for the introductory paragraphs of its articles, and then reverts to a normal size for the rest of text.

Heading to Body Font-Size Ratio

To better understand the relationship between heading and body font size, we divided each website’s heading font size by its body font size. We took the average of these ratios and derived a rule of thumb for you to work with:

Heading font size ÷ Body copy font size = 1.96

The overall value, then, is 1.96. This means that when you have chosen a font size for your body copy, you may want to multiply it by 2 to get your heading font size. This, of course, depends on your style; the rule of thumb won’t necessarily give you the optimal size for your particular design. Another option is to use a traditional scale (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 18, 21, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72) or the Fibonacci sequence (e.g. 16 – 24 – 40 – 64 – 104) to get natural typographic results.

6. Optimal Line Height For Body Copy

Leading (or line height) will always depend on your chosen font size and measure (or line length). In general, the longer the measure, the longer the leading should be. Therefore, presenting a chart of the most popular choices for leading in pixels wouldn’t make sense here. More appropriate would be for you to use a relative unit, such as an em or percentage value, that determines the relation between leading and measure and between leading and font size.

According to our study:

  • line height (pixels) ÷ body copy font size (pixels) = 1.48
    Note that 1.5 is a value that is commonly recommended in classic typographic books, so our study backs up this rule of thumb. Very few websites use anything less than that. The number of websites that go above 1.48 decreases as you get further from this value.
  • line length (pixels) ÷ line height (pixels) = 27.8
    The average line length is 538.64 pixels (excluding margins and paddings) which is pretty large, considering that many websites still use 12 to 13 pixels for their body copy font size.
  • space between paragraphs (pixels) ÷ line height (pixels) = 0.754
    We were surprised by this result. It turns out that paragraph spacing (i.e. the space between the last line of one paragraph and the first line of the next) rarely equals the leading (which would be the main characteristic of perfect vertical rhythm). More often, paragraph spacing is just 75% of the paragraph leading. The reason may be that leading usually includes the space taken up by descenders, and because most characters do not have descenders, additional white space is created under the line.

Paragraph spacing size graph.22

AIGA23 is a perfect example of optimal leading. Its font size is 13.21 pixels (converted from ems) and its line height is 19.833 pixels (conversion from ems). In fact, 19.8333 ÷ 13.2167 = 1.5011.

So, once you have decided on your body copy font size, multiplying this value by 1.5 will give you the optimal line height. Once you’ve got that, you can multiply this new value by 27.8 to get your optimal line length. Note that the layout will also need gutters, margins and padding to let the body copy breathe.

20.1px paragraph spacing

The New Scientist24 has 20 pixels of spacing between paragraphs.

7. How Many Characters Per Line?

According to a classic rule of Web typography, 55 to 75 is an optimal number of characters per line. Surprisingly, our study shows that most websites have a higher number. We counted how many characters could fit on one line using the design’s default font size. The result, which is an average of 88.74 characters per line (maximum), is extremely high. Of course, this maximal number is different from the average number of characters per line, which in general ranges between 75 and 85 characters per line. Still, the range is way above the conventional range — quite peculiar.

Number of characters per line.

Between 73 and 90 characters per line is a popular choice among designers, yet we also found outliers: Monocle2725 (47 characters per line) and Boxes and Arrows26 (125 characters per line). To get a more exact reading for each website, you would need to take an average character count from multiple lines.

Other Findings

  • 46% of websites underlined the links in their body copy, while the others highlighted only with color or a bold font weight.
  • 6% of websites used some kind of image replacement for headings or body copy (e.g. Monocle2725, New Yorker28, Newsweek29).
  • 96% of websites do not justify text.
  • Websites gave their text a left padding of on average 11.7 pixels (counting from the left content area border).


The study shows a clear set of common practices and guidelines for setting type in Web design. Note, though, that these findings are not scientific and should serve only as rough guidelines:

  1. Either serif or sans-serif fonts are fine for body copy and headings, but sans-serif fonts are still more popular for both.
  2. Common choices for headlines are Georgia, Arial and Helvetica.
  3. Common choices for body copy are Georgia, Arial, Verdana and Lucida Grande.
  4. The most popular font size for headings is a range between 18 and 29 pixels.
  5. The most popular font size for body copy is a range between 12 and 14 pixels.
  6. Header font size ÷ Body copy font size = 1.96.
  7. Line height (pixels) ÷ body copy font size (pixels) = 1.48.
  8. Line length (pixels) ÷ line height (pixels) = 27.8.
  9. Space between paragraphs (pixels) ÷ line height (pixels) = 0.754.
  10. The optimal number of characters per line is between 55 and 75, but between 75 and 85 characters per line is more popular,
  11. Body text is left-aligned, image replacement is rarely used and links are either underlined or highlighted with bold or color.

Of course these “rules” aren’t set in stone. Rather, they are a set of rough guidelines that you can use as a basis for setting typography. Every website is unique, and you may want to modify your choices at each stage of your design to suit your layout. You can also take a look at the spreadsheet of the study30 and export its data for further analysis.

Related posts

You may be interested in the following related posts:

More Studies On Smashing Magazine?

Interested in more studies? Let us know what you’re interested in, and we’ll see what we can do!



  1. 1 http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0AsK4MoYiBVMldE12V3FJYk95YVRUZ18xNDJNOVRrSHc&hl=de
  2. 2 http://www.cnn.com
  3. 3 http://www.arstechnica.com
  4. 4 http://www.slate.com
  5. 5 http://news.bbc.co.uk
  6. 6 http://www.newscientist.com
  7. 7 http://www.nytimes.com
  8. 8 http://www.typographica.org
  9. 9 http://www.time.com
  10. 10 http://www.aiga.org
  11. 11 http://www.newsweek.com
  12. 12 http://wiki.github.com/sorccu/cufon/about
  13. 13 http://unitinteractive.com/blog/2008/06/26/better-css-font-stacks/
  14. 14 http://www.codestyle.org/css/font-family/BuildBetterCSSFontStacks.shtml
  15. 15 http://jontangerine.com/
  16. 16 http://jontangerine.com/
  17. 17 http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2009/08/24/090824crmu_music_frerejones
  18. 18 http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2009/08/24/090824crmu_music_frerejones
  19. 19 http://www.wilsonminer.com/
  20. 20 http://www.wilsonminer.com/
  21. 21 http://new.typographica.org/
  22. 22 http://aiga.org/content.cfm/when-its-cool-to-say-cool
  23. 23 http://aiga.org/content.cfm/when-its-cool-to-say-cool
  24. 24 http://www.newscientist.com/
  25. 25 http://monocle.com/sections/edits/Magazine-Articles/If-you-please-sir-/
  26. 26 http://boxesandarrows.com/
  27. 27 http://monocle.com/sections/edits/Magazine-Articles/If-you-please-sir-/
  28. 28 http://newyorker.com/
  29. 29 http://newsweek.com/
  30. 30 http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0AsK4MoYiBVMldE12V3FJYk95YVRUZ18xNDJNOVRrSHc&hl=de
  31. 31 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/24/a-small-study-of-big-blogs/
  32. 32 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/31/a-small-survey-of-big-blogs-further-findings/
  33. 33 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/04/web-form-design-patterns-sign-up-forms/
  34. 34 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/07/08/web-form-design-patterns-sign-up-forms-part-2/

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Michael Martin writes about Web design, WordPress and coding at Pro Blog Design. You can subscribe there for advice on making the most of your blog's design, or follow him on Twitter.

  1. 1

    Ah fair enough. Either way, good post.

  2. 52

    I have to say that is certainly an eye opener but it also makes a certain amount of sense. I wasn’t too surprised with the results after thinking about it. It is amazing though when you think about the fact that a lot of use the same font’s in the same exact ways.

  3. 103

    Another webiste with a typography-based design I found via webcreme.com is Filmaster.com.

    Very original, although a bit inconsistant at times (the headers for articles seem a bit too large to me).

  4. 154

    Good Work

  5. 205

    This is a fantastic post. I have really tried to engross myself in typography recently. I like the various correlations in the figures. Very useful.

  6. 256

    excellent!!!!! thank you smashingmagazine, merci beaucoup!

  7. 307

    Sweet! Now I can actually say I know what it means to do typographic design!

  8. 358

    Interesting. I was taught just the opposite for print design — that serif type is easier to read as body copy, and sans serifs make better headlines. Maybe that’s why the Web versions of some publications (New York Times, New Yorker, Time, Newsweek) use serif fonts for body copy.

  9. 409

    thanks I was waiting something like this!

  10. 460

    Tahoma not popular? Interesting…

  11. 511

    Matěj Grabovský

    August 21, 2009 5:24 am

    @Peter Craddock (#39): Fibonnacci doesn’t always have to begin with 1.

  12. 562

    Jewen Soyterkijns

    August 21, 2009 5:28 am

    I guess I am the only fan of “Trebuchet MS” for both body and heading copy.

  13. 613

    Great article, typography is something I really need to work on more in my designs. So some of these finds are great and I will use them on my current site I am creating right now.

  14. 664

    so much to read.. really good stuff here.. @Jewen , i too am a fan of trebuchet and developing it as the copy in my upcoming site… i think it will catch on more and more.

  15. 715

    Definitely some interesting research here. One thing to keep in mind when reading this is that these stats are based on content heavy sites. The sites you and I work on may or may not fit into this category so what’s best for content heavy sites may not be best for more graphical or stylistic sites.

    This makes sense, though, because I’m guessing that if you picked fifty popular sites from the design/portfolio/media arena you’d get a much greater diversity of fonts, font sizes, leading, etc.

    Great round up – thanks for the research!

  16. 766

    Very good article, thanks for putting this together. I usually reference the alistapart.com CSS file for my typography questions, but it’s really nice to see all the data in one place like this and know how the community is dealing with it. Thanks Michael, nice read.

  17. 817

    Great article!

    I would like to see something on well-designed service-oriented websites (government, non-profit, etc). If you can find any, that is.

  18. 868

    Fascinating that not a single site was found to use MS Trebuchet for body copy OR headlines?

  19. 919

    sshhweet – The top one says sans vs sans serif in the graph area, it should be serif vs sans serif

  20. 970

    Nice studie… Learn about it & make the difference !

  21. 1021

    Great study. Thanks for the detailed info. Regarding the future studies, I would be interested to see analysis of social networking sites.

  22. 1072

    Trebuchet MS for the win. I can’t believe this wasn’t used by any of those websites! It’s a great font and a nice change for any designer/developer from the same ol’ Arial/Verdana.

  23. 1123

    Very helpful, and reassuring. But, thanks to this, I decided to beef up my headlines (H1) a bit, change the font and switch to italic. Thankfully, I’m using CSS, so it was just a simple tweak.

  24. 1174

    How did you select the sites to examine?

  25. 1225

    Very very intersting!!
    Tks SM!

  26. 1276

    This was a cool Post.. learned some great points here, really informative ! :)

    About answer to the Poll:
    I’d like to study about UI Design. A Good long article please ! :)

  27. 1327

    Just what I was looking for. Thanks SM.

  28. 1378

    This may be the best post I’ve read on Smashing Mag so far. It will defiantly influence my blogs redesign.

  29. 1429

    very informative…

  30. 1480

    Alejandro leijnse

    August 22, 2009 1:37 am

    This cant get better. Exactly the type of reserach i needed to kick some good articles on my recent booklet about typography. Thanks a lot

  31. 1531

    Trebuchet MS will be on my next design in body copy too. That’s a pretty lovely font!
    French web standards reference uses it, for example.
    Nice article, SM =]

  32. 1582

    Brilliant! Well – written and incredibly fascinating!
    way to go!

  33. 1633

    This was a very good read, thank you.

  34. 1684

    Thanks for conducting this study and putting it up.
    Now i very much wish to break all the popular practices ;)

  35. 1735

    Great article. Very in-depth and actually sets some guidelines to typography rather than leaving it vague.

  36. 1786

    Why is one section described as a rule of thumb, then another seems to be presented as gospel and yet another has no guides execpt a batch of random numbers obtained from a batch of sites.

    Each section could have a rule of thumb/gospel bit as well as trends.

  37. 1837

    Great post! Thanks for this information. As a non-designer I find it very interesting to know the industry standards.

  38. 1888

    Some really neat figures there.. It would be good to see a more extensive survey with a few more sites… and also, as other people have mentioned, other types of sites.

    One big problem with some of the data, though… the title to body ratio for ex.. you absolutely need a table for that or some indication of whether the 2.03 is anywhere near the mode or the median.. would be nice to know if that average is just random.. there were some other entries that would ahve beena lot more useful with some elaboration.

  39. 1939

    Great article! just what i was looking for. This kind of studies are so usefull when we have to explain or argue our decisions at designing.

  40. 1990

    Very nice article. It is always nice to see some great typography. It still to this day is the most underrated tool in a web designers arsenal.

  41. 2041

    Very interesting………..

  42. 2092

    Interesting read. I always tend to favor Sans Serif type when it comes to web design.

  43. 2143

    Very interesting study, I wish however it would’ve involved a slightly larger sample of sites, as well as a more general selection. Still, even with those limitations there are some very interesting tidbits of info here. Thanks.

  44. 2194

    Great study. Must read for all web designers. It would be interesting to open it up to more sites. Thanks for sharing.

  45. 2245

    Would love to see how to create Job Arregators sometime soon :)

  46. 2296

    Great post.

    Here’s a another example of great typography on the web using CSS text-rotation. Too bad it only works on the newest broswers. Link

  47. 2347

    love it much…

  48. 2398

    looks like a good articles…i’ll save it for later

  49. 2449


    August 28, 2009 2:51 pm

    sweet article for and present and future reference!

  50. 2500

    I appreciate to study the philosophies of classic typographers and learn from their ways to handle typefaces. Studies like this here lead to more stereotype websites because too many people will misunderstand this as an encompassing description for “good typographic design”.

    To know about the motives of famous designer like jan tchitchold, adrian frutiger or otl aicher is not a duty to get good typographic results but you’ll feel better with the typographic descisions you make.


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