Web fonts: How to make them work perfectly in email

From my very scientific study (I observed my daughter as she started writing reports over this past year), I have learned that one of the first aspects of design that people ever start playing with is typography. When you first start writing reports, you spend hours trying to figure out the best font to use. Ok, maybe not hours, but most people spend a bit of time on it. Because, as big brands know, typography matters. And it matters in email.

But accessibility matters, too. So stop trapping your message in images, and start using live text with web safe fonts and web fonts instead. After all, text that isn’t dependent on images and can be read by a wider audience leads to a great subscriber experience. And as your best customers—email returns $36 for every $1 invested—that’s great for your overall marketing strategy.

In this blog post, I’ll break down:

Web fonts vs. web safe fonts

There are two different ways you can do live text: web safe fonts and web fonts. Although they sound the same, there are definite differences. In order to understand these differences, let’s take a look at how fonts work in your emails.

When your email is coded, the font is declared using a CSS property called font-family. This font-family property can have just one font name or multiple font names—often referred to as a font stack. Including multiple font names ensures that if one font doesn’t work, there is a fallback or backup font of your choosing. Without listing multiple font names, the email client gets to decide your backup font. When your subscribers open your email, the browser reads the font-family property and pulls in the font to use.

Web safe fonts

With web safe fonts, the browser pulls the font from your local font directory. That means these are fonts that are already installed on your computer. All computers come with pre-installed fonts, and these are what’s considered web safe. They’re safe to use because there’s a really good chance your subscriber will already have them, too.

The downside is that there are a limited number of web safe fonts compared to web fonts. And they’re used pretty frequently, so you’re less likely to stand out (if that’s what you’re aiming for).

The obvious web safe fonts are:

  • Arial
  • Helvetica
  • Verdana
  • Georgia
  • Times New Roman

But there are several other ones out there that you can use with a certain degree of confidence. So break out of the standard Arial or Helvetica font loop, and find a web safe font that works for your brand.

The best resource I’ve found for web safe fonts is CSS Fonts. I love that they include a percentage of use for PCs and Macs for each font so you know approximately how many of your subscribers might see the font you want and how many will see your fallback instead.

Web fonts

Web fonts are pulled from a server—either one you host yourself or an external one (such as Google or Adobe). Because of this, the variety of fonts that can be used is much larger, and they can be used on any computer… as long as the browser or email client can pull the font in. In some cases, your subscriber may already have a web font downloaded and installed on their machine, so these fonts will work even in email clients that don’t support web fonts!

So while web fonts give you much more variety and creative freedom, they do come at a cost: limited email client support (which I dive into more further down).

Why web fonts?

So you might wonder, why bother with web fonts at all? As a marketer and designer, you know the pressure to stay on-brand in email with colors, design, and—yes—typography. Web fonts let you show off your brand without relying on images for your text.

Locking important copy in images has been a standard practice in email design as a way of staying on brand and being creative. But “hiding” text in images limits the accessibility of the email because screen readers can’t read the text on the image.

Email with and without images when using a webfont


Email with and without images when using text in images

And, having text in your images hurts the subscriber experience if they have images turned off by default. This may not be a huge part of your subscribers, but there’s really no way to know if someone has their images turned off and opens your email. So why not provide the best experience for the widest audience possible?

Web fonts open up new avenues of creativity in typography, allowing email designers to be creative and accessible—and stick to their brand’s look and feel.

Can I use web fonts in email?

If you haven’t already guessed, the answer is yes! But—as in all things email—there are caveats.

Email client support

Web fonts only work in some email clients, and care has to be taken to ensure that where they aren’t supported, the font falls back gracefully.

Email client Web font support
Apple Mail ✓ Yes
Outlook 2007-2016 ✘ No
Outlook 2019 ✘ No*
Outlook for Mac ✓ Yes
Outlook Office 365 ✘ No*
Gmail App ✘ No*
iOS ✓ Yes
Outlook App ✘ No
Samsung Mail ✘ No*
AOL Mail ✘ No
Gmail ✘ No*
Office 365 ✘ No
Outlook.com ✘ No
Yahoo! Mail ✘ No

*Has some wonky results depending on email embed method, discussed later.

It’s worth taking a look at your subscriber base to see how many are viewing your emails in an email client that supports web fonts. If enough of your subscribers are, then it’s a wonderful way to give your email an added touch.

If the majority aren’t, it simply wouldn’t be worth your time and effort, especially if you’re considering using a paid web font.

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Web fonts were originally designed to be used solely on websites, so their licensing is typically for use only on websites and mobile applications. The reason many web font services didn’t allow use in email is because it’s seen as distributing the font, which goes against many of the services’ End User License Agreement (EULA).

All of the web font providers we contacted supported using their fonts in email. Each provider had a different license that was required, so there isn’t a standard way fonts are licensed in email. If you are looking to use a font, reach out to the company to find out exactly how they license their fonts.

Where to find web fonts

So you’ve thought everything through and decided you want to give web fonts a go. With seemingly endless options, you can find ones to fit your brand. But it’s also important to keep accessibility in mind.

Some fonts are easier to read than others.

Ornate or decorative fonts, such as display or handwriting fonts, can make it difficult for people with visual impairments or dyslexia to tell the difference between letter shapes. Sans-serif fonts (fonts without extended features or curls in their letters such as Arial, Calibri, Century Gothic, or Helvetica) and slab fonts (fonts with thicker lines such as Museo Slab and Rockwell) are considered more accessible.

Here are a few good places to start looking.

Google Fonts

There are loads of web font services available, but Google Fonts is our favorite. The service is totally free, and you can download the web fonts to your computer if you’re mocking up designs in Adobe Photoshop, Sketch, or another design software.

Adobe Fonts

Typekit has become Adobe Fonts as of October 2018. They now support both the <link> and the @import method for using fonts as web fonts (more on that next). The service isn’t completely free, but if you’ve already got any Creative Cloud subscription, it’s included with that.

Web font services

There are several other web font services available on a paid basis. You’ll need to make sure you get the correct license to use them in your email.

With the web licenses, there may be a choice to host the font yourself or to have the font hosted by the provider. In some web licenses, you pay for a certain amount of page views with each email that loads the font counting as a page view, so make sure you take that into consideration when you are purchasing a license.

How to embed web fonts in emails

Because web fonts typically aren’t found on someone’s local device and instead are hosted elsewhere, you have to “embed” or import your web font into your emails first before you can actually use them.

1. Get the URL of your font file

You’ll need your web font’s URL to call it into your email. Your web font service should have this URL. But if you’re hosting the font file yourself, get the URL from where the web font sits on your server. Make sure it’s a public URL and not coming from a local server. Otherwise, your subscribers won’t be able to access the web font and will see a fallback font instead.

If you’re using Google Fonts, finding the URL is a little tricky, but not too difficult. Find out how in the next step for the @font-face embed method.

2. Import the web font using one of three methods

There are three methods for embedding web fonts in email (and a caveat that may limit which method you can use). The three methods to embedding your font are:

  • <link>
  • @import
  • @font-face

So why would you choose one method over another?

The @import method defers the loading of the web font that’s being imported until the HTML it’s embedded in is fully loaded. This can lead to your web font taking a little longer to appear in your email, while the rest of the email is loaded. Conversely, the <link> method loads the resource inline as the HTML file’s code is read (from top to bottom), which could delay the loading of your email if your web font file is particularly large.

Another thing to keep in mind when choosing a method to use is what your ESP supports.

You can make beautiful code that works in Litmus all day long, but if your ESP changes your code, as we know most of them do, then nothing you do will matter. Make sure your ESP doesn’t change your code in a way that would cause your fonts to stop working. At Litmus, our ESP doesn’t let us include MSO conditionals around style elements. So the <link> and the @import methods won’t work for us as they aren’t well supported in Outlook, which we discuss further below.

Using <link>

Using the <link> method is a relatively simple method for embedding fonts in your email. Place this line of code in the <head> of your email, near the top:

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