Don’t Compromise Text Legibility for Aesthetics

In recent times there’s been a bizarre trend going on where website owners insist on using very light font weights + light font colors on body text, it’s almost as if some websites attempt to make their body text all but disappear. I suppose they think it makes them look more modern or elegant?

Lato (16 pixels, font-weight: light):

light font weight on text

Lato (16 pixels, font-weight: normal):

light font weight on text
Much better!

Not only does light-weighted body text make you look like you don’t care about your audience, this is the expression on your readers’ faces when they attempt to read your content on less than stellar displays:

Man squinting his eyes
This happens when you take “subtle design” too far

Having hard-to-read text not a minor detail, it’s the difference between people consuming important facts about your products or not. Website owners with retina displays and great eyesight are likely to overlook this problem. Let them know what’s up!

If for whatever reason your client insists on using extremely light font-weights, this is where you step in and explain the difference between readability & legibility, and how you can still get away with using thin font weights, if you:

  • increase their font size and e.g. use them for headings or pull quotes
  • use a strong color contrast ratio.
  • use them sparingly — not on your small body text

Note: if your customer analytics tell you that 99% of your audience uses high-end displays on their devices, and most of your audience consists of young people (below 40), you might be able to get away with using thin font-weights on your body text. But as a rule of thumb, don’t assume that your audience has great eyesight nor high-quality retina screens on all their devices.

Most clients won't have the same level of interest in the intricate details typography as you do, but it's always good to be able to explain the mechanisms of type, in case they ask. I mean, they do care about expressing the message of their brand as precisely and effectively as possible to their target audience, right? Well, it just so happens that typography plays a huge role in reaching that goal.

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