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Font fundamentals: What fonts are best for email marketing?

This article shares the best system fonts for email marketing, balancing brand identity with the technical limitations of popular email clients to improve readability and engagement.

Navigating the thorny landscape of email newsletter design can feel like a trip back to the ’90s. Despite the evolution of tech and digital design tools, the foundational practice of using HTML table design and not using custom fonts stays.

Limitations of font options for email marketing

The approach of not using custom fonts ensures a level of consistency across various email clients, a critical aspect when you consider that popular inboxes like Gmail and Yahoo restrict the use of custom fonts in emails altogether. This limitation propels us towards a “lowest common denominator” strategy, emphasizing the importance of system fonts—those pre-installed on every computer. System fonts are also called web-safe fonts.

How to write a font stack for both Mac and PC

When it comes to email design, the discrepancies between Mac (Apple) and PC (Windows) system fonts necessitate a strategy of compromise. That is why you often see font declarations like `font-family: Helvetica, Arial, sans-serif;`, where Helvetica caters to Mac users, Arial to PC users, and `sans-serif` stands as a fallback for devices lacking these fonts. This approach emphasizes the importance of prioritizing compatibility over ideal aesthetic expression.

Here’s the formula:

font-family: 'Mac font name', 'PC font name', 'fallback font name';

You can add as many font names as you want and you can swap the Mac and PC font names if you like. A device with which your email will be read, such as an Android phone, iPhone, tablet or computer, will try the first font mentioned; if that font is not available on its system, it’ll try the next one and so forth.

Finding a system font that’s close to your brand’s identity

Given these constraints, the strategy shifts to aligning your email’s typography as closely as possible with your brand’s identity. Whether your brand utilizes serif, sans-serif, or even monospaced fonts, the goal is to select a system font that mirrors this look. Unfortunately, the options are limited.

Sans-serif font options

For brands that use sans-serif typefaces, available system fonts include Helvetica/Arial, Impact, Lucida Grande/Lucida Sans, Geneva/Tahoma, Trebuchet MS, and Verdana. These fonts, while echoing the design sensibilities of two decades past, offer the following solutions: Helvetica/Arial, in particular, maintains a semblance of modernity and class, whereas Impact, with its bold and condensed character, can serve well for headlines.

Serif font options

When it comes to serif fonts, choices narrow down to Georgia, Palatino, and Times New Roman. Georgia offers a wider frame for better readability, Palatino exudes sophistication, and Times New Roman, being the more compact option, allows for space efficiency.

Monospace font options

For a typewriter or monospaced look (all letters have same width), Lucida Console and Courier New are your two options.

List of system fonts for Mac and PC

If you want to take a deeper dive and see all of the options out there, you might find this complete list of system fonts for Windows 11 (current version) useful. Consider that your email readers might have lower Windows versions. You’ll find other versions linked in the page’s sidebar.

Here’s the list that covers Apple’s system fonts.

System fonts over image design

A less advisable alternative involves bypassing these typographic constraints altogether by embedding your newsletter’s design as a single image. While this might initially seem to offer creative freedom, it introduces numerous issues:

  • Slow load times
  • Inaccessibility to screen readers
  • Poor scalability on mobile devices
  • The inability to text search

These drawbacks stress why such an approach is generally considered a last resort when designing and sending marketing emails.

Summary of what fonts are best for email marketing

In summary, email marketing design within today’s technological constraints isn’t about achieving 100% design compliance but finding the best possible alignment with your brand’s identity within the given limits.

The email design journey might be more restrictive than you thought when it comes to using custom fonts in email marketing. Regardless, with a thoughtful selection from the available system fonts, maintaining brand consistency and ensuring broad accessibility in your email marketing efforts is fully achievable.

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