5 Simple Ways to Improve Web Typography

Type is one of the most-used elements of the web. Think about it. Unless you are YouTube or Flickr, chances are your site visitors are coming for your text content – not the fancy packaging that surrounds it. So why are web designers still treating text like a secondary element?

Good typography brings order to the page and increases legibility. It allows people to process information faster.

A more scannable, readable site means happy visitors. Happy visitors return often, buy products, leave comments, and share the site with friends. See why it might be worth thinking about?

I could blather on forever about how far typography has come on the web, and how far yet it has to go. I have frequently bounced between web and print design. When you’re going from InDesign to TextMate, the limitations of web type are crystal clear.

But plenty has been said about what web type can’t do. This isn’t going to be another rant. Instead, let’s focus on a 5 easy fixes for the typographic eyesores that abound across the Web.


1. Use A Reset Stylesheet

Stupid, but true: No two browsers use the same presentation defaults. Differences in padding, margins, headings, and indentations are rampant. If you want your page layout to be more consistent across browsers, it pays to start with a CSS Reset stylesheet.

Use a reset stylesheet for better web type.

Two I recommend:

Yahoo’s CSS Reset Stylesheet
Eric Meyer’s CSS Reset Stylesheet


2. Watch Your Measure

Measure refers to the length of a single line of type. A longer line = a longer Measure. Studies have shown that for optimal readability, running text columns such as your main body copy should be somewhere between 45 – 75 characters (30 – 50 ems) including spaces. This is one of the reasons that fluid designs (ones in which the columns expand and contract to fit the browser width) are harder on the eyes.

Additionally, your leading should increase with the length of your Measure. Leading is the amount of white space between lines of text, and is controlled via the CSS line-height property. If you need to use an extra-long Measure, make sure your leading opens up.

Likewise, if you have a small column such as a sidebar with a short Measure, your leading should be tighter. I find the default value most browsers assign is a little too tight. A line-height of around 1.4em works well for most body content.


3. Tend To The Space Between

It’s not just about your text – its about the space that surrounds it. Too little space makes text hard to read, but so does too much. The key is to find a simple balance that guides the eye from one element to the next.

Whitespace Example

One of the common mistakes new designers make is to fill every inch of space. White space refers to the empty or “negative” space around your content, and it is crucial. Take a look at a well-designed magazine such as Dwell or Good and you’ll see that even though it costs the publisher money to print each page, they leave abundant amounts of white space around the text. The page will be in balance and your eye will move from space to space effectively.

In addition to adjusting your line-height (as mentioned in #1), try increasing your padding and margins. Unless you’re trying to pull of a crazy visual trick, there should always be a good amount of white space around your text. Don’t let it butt up against other elements, especially images. Let your content chunks (headings, paragraphs, sidebars, etc.) breathe.

Mark Boulton wrote a very informative article about White Space for A List Apart, check it out.


4. Don’t Go Font Crazy

A good rule of thumb for any designer is: use no more than two font faces in your design. Two font faces can look very stylish. A List Apart uses variations of Georgia and Verdana to create an elegant and polished look. But continuing to add font faces to your interface creates unnecessary confusion. Similarly, avoid using too many font sizes, colors, or treatments on a page or in a paragraph or they will compete with each other instead of adding emphasis as intended.

Although font stacks and technologies like sIFR and Typeface.js allow you to specify just about any font you want as the default, resist the temptation to go wild with the body copy. Decorative fonts are best kept to headlines because they affect readability. Think about it – when is the last time you picked up a paperback novel set entirely in Comic Sans?

When creating font stacks, pay attention to the size of your pairings. Some fonts that look similar render at very different sizes. Verdana and Arial are a great example of this. Typetester is a great tool for comparing core web fonts and creating a successful stack. Another useful tool called Font Stack Builder shows you what percentage of users will see each variation.

Regardless of what fonts you decide to use, make sure they are not teeny tiny. I know its hard… tiny text looks cool. But think about the poor, squinting users! Keep body text above 10 or 12 pixels. If you insist on teeny tiny, at least use relative sizing for all those IE 6.0 users who otherwise couldn’t make it larger. Read Wilson Miner’s article on font sizes for a great take on the debate.


5) Don’t Neglect The Details

The client provided the content. Adding it to the site is just a matter of copying and pasting, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is a trap web designers fall into all too often.

Even those of us who diligently add heading tags, format each paragraph and organize bulleted lists with care forget some important typographic details. Many (including me) missed out on formal typography training, so you can’t blame us entirely. But the devil is in the details. Its time we embrace these basics:

Use smart quotes

What’s the difference between smart quotes and dumb quotes? Smart quotes (also known as book or curly) are curved and have both an opening and closing style. Dumb (straight) quotes are usually straight up and down. An apostrophe is typographically just a single quote so the same problem applies. A dumb quote (also called a prime) should only be used between measurements. For example, 6’4″ uses double and single prime quotes.

Web Typography Smart Quotes

Unfortunately our keyboards default to prime quotes. Microsoft Word and other text editors just correct them for us as we write. Adding smart quotes to HTML pages requires more work from the web developer because you need to use markup to produce opening and closing quote symbols. I see the same problem with em and en-dashes, ellipsis, trademark and copyright symbols. Coders take the easy way out by replacing them with hyphens, multiple periods, a large TM and the infamous (C). Using the right symbols does make a difference visually. Do it right and make editors everywhere smile.

How to make smart quotes:

#8216; = opening single quote
&#8217 = closing single quote
&#8220 = opening double quote
&#8221 = closing double quote

I know – no one wants to spend all day hunting down quotes. Luckily, tools like SmartyPants and Textism can do much of the legwork for you by automatically formatting text that includes smart quotes and the like.

Read “The Trouble with EM and EN” from A List Apart for more detail on the subject and the UTF-8 character encoding for most common special characters.

One caveat – lots of CMS text editors (like the one this site uses) won’t let you implement smart quotes without extra plugins. Sad, but true.

Stop putting two spaces after a period. Please! It’s not necessary and its actually rather annoying.

On your links, use border-bottom: 1px solid instead of text-decoration: underline. Underlines can run through the descender characters (g, j, p, q, y) making them hard to read, especially when using smaller font sizes.

And while it has nothing to do with typography, running a quick spell check never killed anyone. Even if all you did was copy and paste, a spelling error that slips through to a live site reflects badly on everyone involved.

Pay attention to those 5 fixes and your site designs are sure to improve. Remember that these are just a starting point. Good typography is a learned skill just like anything else, and it requires study and practice. Always keep an eye out for sites that are getting it right and make note of what they are doing. Need inspiration? Check out the sites below for examples of great web typography and post examples you find to be inspirational.


Inspirational Type:

Written exclusively for WDD by Mindy Wagner.

What do you think of these simple ways to improve your typography? Do you implement them on your websites? We’d like to hear from you!

  • Kumail

    That was a great post, Concise yet informative. Enjoyed, dugg, tweeted! :)

  • http://mil-an.co.uk Milan

    Nice article. However, you’ve just forgot the ; ‘s on the speech marks/apostrophe codes.

  • http://www.theroxor.com Kevin

    Some really useful tips. Thank you.

  • http://resnodesigns.com Bryan P.

    This is a good source to improve typography. I think this is a great source for people in web design.

  • http://webit.ca Dimitry Z

    Thanks for this post. As you state in point #5, I rather enjoy reading type that is decorated with standard text formating. Often, little else is needed other than some bold-ing, a list or two, smart quotes and appropriate white-space (#3).

  • http://www.thefloatingfrog.co.uk/ Frog

    Never considered the smart/dumb quotes before, so thanks for a shroud lesson in typography

  • http://www.1stwebdesigner.com Dainis Graveris

    short bet very useful article! Thank You for reset css, someway I lost it :)

  • http://wpcult.com The Frosty @WPCult

    Very good tips on typography :)

  • webdevhobo

    That first tip is a standard really, but why go through the effort of typing all the existing HTML tags when you can just do this:

    * {

    Seriously, it’s a waste of space. The * symbol was introduced with CSS 2.0 and makes the declerations within its block apply to every single tag. It was invented for the very reason of replacing all the junk in the example image with 1 single symbol.

    • Amit

      It is frowned about in some circles to use * { } as a reset, because it resets everything, one of which is form styling. Form styling across different browsers varies widely, causing you to have to redefine your form selectors in your css. It is best to use one of the above resets, and add or remove as you see fit.

    • Daleylife

      The * symbol will cause the browser to check every element on the web page because css evaulates from right to left.

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  • cenzi

    was that a joke that in 5) you use ) and not a . ?

  • http://abdusfauzi.com abdusfauzi

    the tips about using smart quotes really sounds interesting. Hmm. maybe i should try that later.

    p.s: i’m also using my own typography template for the site. the tips helps me. :)

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  • http://www.vintagefactor.com Bob Dye

    In general, useful tips for new designers or those who may not have read up on web typography.

    I’m not sure I agree with your comments on Smart Quotes. All of your other recommendations clearly affect the readbility of web pages. The comments on Smart Quotes seem to be simply personal preference or an attempt to carry over print quidelines to the Web no matter what. If you have evidence that their use increases readbility, why not provide it?

    • http://kristian.bjornard.com Kristian

      @Bob Dye: Well, you’re right, the quotes issue isn’t specifically about “legibility” — but it is about clarity. Double Dumb Quotes, aren’t dumb, they just aren’t actually quote marks, they are inch marks. So, using them for quotes could create confusion if they are used nearby actual measurements that actually need foot and inch marks. And it’s not a print-only typography rule, it is just proper, general, editorial correctness. An editor worth their snuff would notice the difference too, not just a designer with a typographic bone to pick. The problem is that we’ve made it far to hard to type actual quotes, and far to easy to type the incorrect ones. Most text writing software these days, even google docs, automatically figures out if you mean inch marks or quotes, but the web has yet too.

  • David Hucklesby

    A very nice summary of techniques I find most valuable. Bookmarked – thank you.

    I’d add a caveat to #1 though– don’t use a reset unless you know exactly what each rule is doing (and which values are not universally supported, e.g. “inherit”).

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  • http://www.bhutan-360.com Gelay

    Didn’t know about smart quotes. Thanks.

  • http://www.designsbyjacquelyn.com Jacquelyn

    Great post! I didn’t even know there were character entities for quotes!!!

  • http://blog.insicdesigns.com insic

    hahaha! i cant believe im using a dumb double qoute. lol

  • http://www.leemunroe.com Lee Munroe

    Great tips Mindy. I too am guilty of being lazy and not using quotes properly. Until now :-)

  • http://www.tomperry.nl Tom Perry

    “running a quick a spell check never killed anyone.”
    A spell checker would’nt trap this one.

    • Elise

      Too true :)

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  • Diogo Duarte

    Nice article…


  • http://www.basement.org Richard Ziade

    Nice post. We actually tried to adhere to a lot of these guidelines when creating our Readability bookmarklet.

    Well done.

  • http://www.kcaran.com Keith Carangelo

    Nice post. But it is much easier to remember ‘, “, ’, and ” (l = left, r = right, s = single, d = double) than the hexadecimal equivalents.

  • http://hiddenson.graphility.com hiddenson

    A refreshing article, thank you.

    Interesting information about smart quotes.

    On the other hand, I don’t want to be picky but you preach measure and space, and I don’t see much of these on this design ;)

  • http://marketingdonutblog.co.uk/ Paula Hillier

    Great article, thanks. I have had the same issues with smart quotes and en/em dashes when using our email marketing system. It is a very manual process to correct it, but I completely agree that it does make a difference.

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  • http://www.smick.net smick

    #3 is good advice, don’t get me wrong but your example shown, and the claim that designers want to fill every inch of space isn’t quite what’s going on there. What I see is the annoying default spacing set for right or left-aligned images, not something the designer wanted. If the designer didn’t create more space there, it was because they didn’t know how, not that liked the way that looked.

    Still the advice is correct, make that spacing more comfortable. Funny how we feel a sense of the crowding. We actually sense that we need space there.

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  • http://www.hamroawaaz.com Rahul

    I like this post, specially the “reset css” which I’ve been overlooking for quite a time now. Thanks for the reminder to me ;)

  • http://larryroth.net/blog/ Larry Roth

    Great tip about using a reset stylesheet. Often overlooked, but adds quite a bit when implemented.

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  • http://www.misty-blue.net Sarah

    Helpful post! I often forget about the smart quotes in web content since WordPress has the “curly quotes” feature. And the two-spaces after the period thing is a hard habit to break. When I first learned to type, two-spaces was the standard. Nonetheless, I’m going to make a conscious effort– one space is the standard in most style guides anyhow.

  • http://disordereddesign.com Krystian

    Nice article. As for reset.css – it should not be used as all-purpose tip. There are some advantages and disadvantages.
    Smart quotes tip – very usefull, thank you.
    I can add, that very important thing is to rightly use font size (see http://www.alistapart.com/articles/howtosizetextincss/)

  • Abbie

    Good basics, here, thanks. One item to re-consider: telling designers to stop using two spaces after a period.

    Using two spaces improves readability (more white space) especially for fast and speed-readers. And, as more people scan–instead of read–text, that one extra space between sentences helps the eye take in an entire sentence instead of just a few words at a time.

  • http://www.crearedesign.co.uk Amelia Vargo

    This is really good. Do you have any tips for making flexible sites with a specified line length, because it really bugs me when the line lengths are too long (actually I just don’t bother reading it anymore) I really want to design more flexible websites but the line length issue kills it for me!

  • http://blog.filecatalyst.com Greg

    Abbie, I was originally inclined to agree with you (right up until this very moment I was a two-spacer), but before putting my foot in my mouth I decided to do some reasearch. I knew that it was a holdover from the days of monospaced typewriters (I, too, was taught to use two spaces in typewriting class in front of an actual typewriter– younger audiences still may have been taught on a computer by someone who themselves learned on a typewriter and are set in their ways). The thing that’s going to stop me from typing two spaces is only habit. It’s absolutely reflexive and habitual for me to put two spaces now, and is going to be tough to change.

    But, all research seems to point out that fonts/rendering engines will put sufficient “white space” for a single space after a period. I have to admit, I’ve never read an any text on the ‘net and thought to myself, “I wish they used two spaces after their periods.”

    I’ll have to humbly admit to having been forced into changing my mind by the author of this post… I’ve been staunchly defending two spaces for years without questioning my own opinion on the subject.

    Nice article. Thanks for the links to the outside resources, though I’m not 100% sure the Typeface.js is working on my platform (Windows XP, FireFox, latest Java, re-installed Flash just to be sure)… going to the example pages I’m still seeing web-safe fonts.

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  • http://www.blazebit.com/ Bernd Artmüller


    really nice article with usefull tips. one thing every webprogrammer should do, is to reset the default css. otherwise there will occour some stupid visual errors like too much padding or margin and that sucks


  • http://nettephp.com David Grudl

    I thing this:

    Strong { font-weight: inherit; }
    em { font-style: inherit }

    should smart web designer never do. Other tips are fine.

  • http://www.simoncreative.com Simon Dabkowski

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  • http://gfx-inc.net Gary Callaghan

    Thanks for this great article, It really taught me some brilliant stuff. Hopefully m new web designs shall be greater and more user friendly now.


  • prkchpsndwchs

    You know, I really agreed with a lot of the things I read here, until I saw this:

    Stop putting two spaces after a period. Please! It’s not necessary and its actually rather annoying.

    For someone who seems to be so uptight about formatting, you seem far too nonchalant about something like this. In the English language, we have this thing called formal writing, and like it or not, placing two spaces after each period at the end of a sentence is not only necessary because it’s proper, but it’s also necessary to keep oneself from looking like an idiot to anybody who knows anything about printed literature. Not to mention this also falls under white space. Articles written with large blocks of text are easier on the eyes with two spaces after each period.

    Small picture people like yourself seem to forget that the period (.) can appear in writing more than simply at the end of the sentence to delimit a stop.

    For future reference, try not to spread such bad habits as this to people who may or may not be impressionable enough to remember/implement them.

    • Hermit

      Yeah… the whole double space thing was adopted from the type-writer age when that was necessary. Ive read from MANY different sources that this is no longer the “proper” way to do things and that it is old fashioned and should be eliminated. I wish I had some links to reference. I just wanted to put my opinion in to point out that you have stated your point of view… not an official statement on what should be done in this case.

    • factotum218

      We look forward to your rebuttal on the correct methods of typography design.

      You’re missing the point of the gratis learning experience.

  • http://www.bananacore.com jd

    Excellent post!

  • http://www.bananatools.com daniel

    Very useful, thanks!

  • http://www.xtence.be Xtence

    Nice post, everybody who build websites should read this and the web would be a lot prettier!

  • http://Mixeduperic.com Eric

    Cool Post! Came across you site on stumble upon.

  • Ryan

    I totally agree with the following:

    Stop putting two spaces after a period. Please! It’s not necessary and its actually rather annoying.

    prkchpsndwchs (#36) is living in the past. http://tinyurl.com/99gb2p

  • http://www.borgetsolutions.com CSS Specialist

    Indeed a nice artical.

    Now there are more things to look into for compiling good Typography.

  • http://www.websitedesign1.com Roger

    This is a cool site with so many good articles

  • Keith P

    Nice article. However, I think it is very ironic that you have the line “running a quick a spell check never killed anyone”. Maybe you might want to add a grammar check as well. :)

  • http://www.one.ie tony

    Great post thanks..

  • Mike

    “Stop putting two spaces after a period. Please! It’s not necessary and its actually rather annoying.”

    [Sigh] Did you bother to double-check this one?

    I hate to break it to you, but as far as web-browsers go, only one space will be rendered in any block of plain text. This goes for any amount of spaces, tabs, or carriage returns. Extra spaces would only be preserved if you swapped them for non-breaking spaces ( ). Unless you have a script somewhere that dislikes finding two spaces in a row, it really shouldn’t matter.

    The two-space rule is a holdover from typewriters, which wrote solely in monospace. In web browsers, word processors, and anything that uses variable-width fonts, one space is all that is needed to be typographically correct.

  • http://www.portalbella.com Bobby C

    This article is quick, current, and to the point. Excellent suggestions for anyone that’s just getting started or a seasoned developer.

    I only wish everyone would follow these standards…the web would be a much more pleasant place! :)

  • http://jhoyimperial.wordpress.com/ jhOy

    nice post! thanks, i learned much :)

  • tom

    a well designed web page LOOKS nice. if it doesn’t then your design is flawed somewhere somehow.
    this is the best test of a well designed page-the looking right.

  • http://blog.ivi.tv Abigail

    Thank you for spreading the religion, or at least giving folks a taste of it. All perfect small things that can be done.

  • http://webitect.net Kayla

    Great tips here! I especially love the dumb vs. smart quotes tip.

  • Barak

    Excellent Tips.

  • http://mindywagner.net mindy

    Great notes and tips from all – I’m just laughing at how adamant people are about two spaces after a period! Mike, it was always my understanding that HTML would render two spaces without using a non-breaking-space tag. Maybe I’ve had it wrong all these years? In any case, most WYSIWYG editors (like those used in blog software, for instance) will add the extra space so we should be aware of it.

    I put great faith in The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhusrt, and many of my personal “rules” for typography come from that book. In the companion piece for web typography – http://www.webtypography.net/Rhythm_and_Proportion/Horizontal_Motion/2.1.4/ – using a single space is encouraged. The Chicago Manual of Style agrees: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/OneSpaceorTwo/OneSpaceorTwo03.html

  • http://www.snakebytez.com Vikram

    Good article, Perfect!

  • http://www.boniko.pl/ Boniko Strona Startowa

    Interesting advice. It is taken up. Thanks.

  • charlie

    Just one thing. I use to love reset.css but then I read this: http://kurafire.net/log/archive/2005/07/26/starting-css-revisited

    Instead or a reset.css you should think about using a initial.css, think that you are going: browser-default -> reset.css -> initial.css, when you could avoid reset entirely and go directly to your initial.css.

  • http://www.bbwebs.nl Björn

    Absolutely Great helpful article. Especially the tip about using the border-bottom for hyperlinks was an eye-opener!


  • nikhil

    thanx for giving ys a great advise sir
    these things can help a webdesigner to improve the quality and popularity
    i’ll applied these suggestion in my website
    tahnx a lot

  • http://www.gabrieldimartino.com Gabriel

    Nice tut

  • http://creativeacclaim.com AlfredN

    You had me sold at the quotation marks on the thumbnail; nice one!

  • Naveen

    Wow….This is realy good

  • http://www.cliffordwhittaker.com Clifford

    THanks, nice post. Typography is a important factor!

  • http://www.snurf.co.za Snurf

    Great Post, Thanks for the info on how to create the qoute’s…

  • Ben

    good post, but instead of typing all those tags…why not go

    * {
    padding: 0;
    margin: 0;


    • David Hucklesby

      @Ben – Relatively few elements have margins, padding, etc.. Those that do generally need them. So applying zero to every element is overkill, to say the least.

      This rule also prevents some form elements from working in some browsers. I suggest you don’t do this.

      • Ben

        I just thought instead of writing down all of your tags, you could just use the *. I like to have everything at zero..I feel it gives you more control because you know that all your tags have been ‘zero’d’. I had no clue it could effect some forms, maybe I’ll re-think that.

        Thanks for the info Dave…

  • http://www.module23.com Module23

    Resetting the default css is a thing every developer should do as a first step. Very useful article. Thanks for collecting and sharing!

  • http://www.tuvinh.com TuVinhSoft

    This is great article. Thanks for sharing.

  • John Winters

    Thank you – some very useful information there.

    One thing puzzled me – the bit about not putting two spaces after a full stop. I know I do it (done it for years – since long before technology became clever enough not to need it), but I don’t see how it would affect the rendering of a web page anyway. It doesn’t matter how many spaces you put in your HTML source – it always renders as one space. You can put half a dozen blank lines and it will still render as just one space. You’re not going to get the extra space appearing unless you do something special to make it happen – are you?

  • http://www.manynetworks.com Many

    very nice tut

  • http://www.psprint.com/postcards Ashley Adams : Postcard Printing

    You have some really informative tips here. And thanks a lot for NOT making the list unnecessarily huge like others. By the way, I found the tips on smart/ dumb quotes very helpful.

  • http://maustingraphics.com Michale Austin

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve been trying to pay attention to all typography lately after a few print jobs I had to work on.. Now I know somethings that will speed up my designs.
    Thanks Again

  • http://www.traffiq.com/planning media planning

    Great tips, should really help a lot of web designers improve their sites.

  • Rick


    “The Trouble with EM and EN” http://www.alistapart.com/stories/emen/

    Should be http://www.alistapart.com/articles/emen/

    Please remove comment.

  • http://www.poundproductionsllc.com/ Azim

    Great information,
    Thank you for share :)

  • http://jordankoschei.com Jordan Koschei

    I am constantly surprised by how much bad typography is still around on the web… here’s to fighting for quality!

  • http://parscat.com Norik

    I must not agree with the link underline part, as you are guilty as charged. Also, link should act like links, because that’s what users are accustomed to see. But the rest I mostly agree. Nice collective summary.

    PS. the match question is hard, what was wrong with 2+2

  • http://www.lewisdesignonline.com Anthony Lewis

    Thanks for the great article.

  • http://www.amanjani.webs.com Pradip Jani

    Great information,
    should really help a lot,

  • http://www.alejandroperazzo.com Alvaro Hernandorena

    tank you it is very instructive.

  • http://www.gostomski.co.uk Damian Jakusz-Gostomski

    Another great post. Reinforces all the key points of good web typography, and Type Tester is something I havn’t come accross before, thanks!

  • http://www.clippingimages.com Clipping Path

    The tutorial that you have presented is really simple to follow. i’d like to try myself…

  • http://blueprintds.com Chicago Web Design

    Great post! Nowadays most designers forego great typography. Im not sure if this based on a lack of understanding, or simply being too lazy. Either way, this should help designers interested in learning more on the topic get educated.

  • http://www.ozdtasarim.com fireRox

    excellent post! very nice tips.

  • http://healthypages.us healthypages.us

    yup, simple way with simple thing.

  • http://www.logoinn.com/ Custom Logo Desgin

    That’s wonderful stuff, i got it informative.

  • ninja
  • http://carlossardi.com Carlos Sardi

    Really good post as a basic introduction of web typography.

  • http://www.techtic.com njmehta

    Good typography brings order to the page and increases legibility. It allows people to process information faster.

  • http://thehottesttopicsnt.info/ Penney Ainley

    This is actually among the list of far better content articles involving those who Concerning continue reading this subject of late. Wonderful work.

  • http://www.templatesrule.com TemplatesRule.com

    how is using both font families on one page? will it be a good idea to use one font in serif and other in sans-serif? i dont know how other people take this mixture font families