Typography

Stop using Open Sans – Why your font choice matters

Say it after me: “I will not use Open Sans. There are plenty of other typefaces.” The second episode of Pimp my Type is about this omnipresent typeface, why it is that popular and how to embrace more typographic diversity on the web by making your projects unique.

Open Sans, Open Sans, Open Sans! It’s everywhere. It ranks among the most popular Google Fonts with more than 1.5 trillion views in one year. Countless websites use it, including big brands like: IKEA (actually it’s Noto Sans, but they are almost the same), Chase Bank and WordPress (on the website until it’s 2020 redesign and switch to Recoleta).

However, there is nothing wrong about Open Sans specifically, my point is that it’s just overused, it’s the new Arial. And I guess most people might use it just because it’s popular. When something has so many views it can’t be bad, right? Wrong! Choosing a typeface is an opportunity for your website, app or digital product to show personality, be memorable and stand out among its competition. And if you’re just using Open Sans you’re missing out on that.

Open Sans an it’s alphabet

In this article I’ll cover why your font choice matters, why Open Sans is that popular, and where to find alternatives for more diverse typography on the web.

Why your font choice matters

There is almost no website, app or digital product that exists without text. And typography is the clothes your words wear. It sets the tone of voice or the vibe for your project. And as Jason Pamental said in a talk “Type is never neutral“.

I love you written in three different typefaces
Where do you feel loved? Different typefaces from top to bottom: Winsome by Laura Worthington, Helvetica by Max Miedinger, and Elliots by Emigre. Example inspired by Jason Pamental

It makes a difference if I set these famous three words in different typefaces. From heart-warming to dull to creepy. So the form of these characters influence the way we receive a message. And since we live in a mobile first world, distinctive typography has gotten even more important. When looking at a website or app on your phone, what remains from your branding except colors and images – it’s mostly text. For the mobile view of a website there is not much room left for a special layout. And for an app the UX conventions are mostly predetermined by the given platform like iOS or Android (which they should be). So the choice of a font is your chance to stand out.

There are two main things a solid typeface selection can provide:

  1. Function – Makes your message easy to read: Font follows function.
  2. Branding – Sets the vibe for your message and makes it distinguishable and memorable: Font follows feeling.

Why Open Sans is so popular

Let’s take a closer look at the main reasons why Open Sans is so popular and what arguments are against that.

It’s easy to read and has a friendly appearance

True. But there are plenty of other fish in the typographic ocean sharing the same characteristics that should be seen, admired, and loved. Open Sans is not the only one.

It’s got many of styles and supports a lot of languages

Absolutely, it’s five weights with corresponding italics make it suitable for a range of applications. But do you really need all these characters and styles? For most projects you might be good with regular, bold, maybe italic. So remember, less might be more.

It’s free and brings no hassle with licensing

That’s probably the main reason, right? And everybody loves to save money and administrative effort. But money spend on a typeface is well invested. If you use it for a small project – licensing isn’t that expensive. If you use it for a big, wide-spread project the budget for a more rarely used font is most certainly there. We just forgot about that since we got so used to not paying for fonts which could also be not paying for your project’s individuality.

Typographic power to your inbox!

  • FontFriday: I personally recommend one typeface per week and for what application it’s best. Every second week, it’s a free font.
  • Pimp my Type: Every second Tuesday a short article or a video from the YouTube channel that help you improve the design of your website, app or digital product.
  • No Comic Sans, Open Sans 😉 or any other BS, like annoying ads. Your email will only be used to send out the newsletters, unsubscribe anytime.

What you can do about it

I encourage you not to use Open Sans, or Robot, or Lato, or PT Sans, or Montserrat, or Helvetica … just because it’s popular. Try something else for diversity’s sake. Show the uniqueness of your project and bring out the best of it by choosing a font that is not so common in your project’s industry.

1. Check out alternatives to GoogleFonts

There are a lot of other fonts out there, some also free and open source, that are an equal good choice. Take a look at my list where to get good fonts. I really want to encourage you to look at the tiny foundries, distributors and type designers that license them for a reasonable price, just to mention one of my favorites like DJR, fontfabric, latinotype or futurefonts.

2. The least you can do

Reverse the order on Google fonts for popularity and then check out the others. And yes – there is a lot of crap there too that might not be suited for your project. And I’ll cover a follow up video on how to judge a good typeface for your body text in one of the next videos. But for now I just want to motivate you to get fresh perspective and look for other options.

3. If you want to blend in and “stay neutral“

Maybe you use Open Sans intentionally because your project should not stand out and you want to stay “neutral”. As I wrote before, type is never neutral, but you can to go “invisible” or fully integrate in the used platform by picking the system fonts. Segoe UI on Windows, San Francisco on Apple devices, Roboto on Android or even Lucida Sans provide a decent user experience. This way you won’t bother downloading a web font and save your users some kilobytes.


I hope I could show you why your font choice matters and how you can make a difference in looking beyond the popular selections. Is there an omnipresent typeface you are you sick of? Leave it in the comments below!

18 Comments

  1. I am not a professional graphic designer, just a curious admirer of the way type can as an aesthetic form can convey emotion and meaning. Thank you for opening the doors!

  2. I work selling real estate in Los Angeles. Most real estate marketing is boring. Thanks for this article, very thought provoking to not settle for boring.

  3. I really think the main reason it’s so overused is just because it’s the default selection on most website builders. It’s even worse than choosing it deliberately – it’s about not choosing anything!

  4. So you are opinionated. Fine. Please share, what you are using on this very page. Here when I had read all the way through, I realized, that whatever you are using for this page is rather bland too, except for the z-logo top-left.

    I got linked here from Typewolf and have never been here. You are a designer, so is this your idea of “standing out”? Your intro-paragraph “Say it after me…” looks nice on my screen, the rest is rather generic. I am not saying this as criticism, just seems that you could (at least on this very page) show a more distinct example of how to realize your own message.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Martin! I use Basic Sans for the headlines and Bressay for the body text. It might seem “blunt”, but typography is with the details. This understated typography fits my personal style but I agree with you that for the article it could have been more striking.

  5. Hello! This article showed up in my weekly League of Movable Type email newsletter.

    You do have some valid points about Open Sans as a popular choice – it’s clean, varied in weight, and free – but the way you present it comes off like those are bad things and in the end you are basically advocating people spend money on fonts they may or may not stay with. At least with a free, varied family like Open Sans one may experiment and if not satisfied only invested time in that rather than time AND money. I do commend you on actually proposing solutions to the concerns you’ve presented, however, rather than just complaining about a thing just because you don’t like it without solutions like some other bloggers do.

    While I would also agree that Open Sans is likely “overused” I would not call it “the new Arial.” Digital Arial was intentionally made to substitute for Helvetica and I’m pretty sure nothing about the design of Open Sans can substitute for Helvetica no matter how many people incorrectly claim they look alike. Open Sans more closely resembles Segoe UI than it does Helvetica by a mile, but there are likely reasons that Segoe isn’t as ubiquitous a typeface as Helvetica.

    Overall, the thing to remember is that regardless of how thoroughly an experienced designer would try to make a thing happen, clients will more often than not gravitate towards “free” over “paid” and “good enough for free or super low cost” over “perfect but paid/expensive.”

    1. Hey Alex, thanks for your in depth comment! As I wrote before, Open Sans is a good typeface, I’m aiming towards motivating people to think about alternatives. Thanks for your input about Arial. You’re right, it’s got nothing to do with it design wise, I was relating to it’s ubiquity. And you’re definitely right, it’s hard to convince clients to pay for something that’s decent enough and they can have for free.

  6. Museo, Harabara and strangely Ethnocentric are very popular in my country Brazil.

    I like Open Sans, for reading even more than Noto. Noto Sans is very good for devices with little space, but when I put it next to the Segoe UI on the desktop there is a big difference in readability.

  7. Thank you for this, Oliver; I recently stumbled on your blog and have been going through some of your articles (particularly appreciate the video recordings!).

    You mention one of the reasons that Open Sans is so popular is that it supports many languages & scripts… But never really refute that excuse. I know that most websites and apps do not need this, but I work in an industry where it is not uncommon to have to support numerous languages. For example, a website I am working on has content displayed with Latin (Turkish, Polish, Indonesian, Croatian, Serbian), Cyrillic (Ukrainian, Russian, Serbian), CJK (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), Arabic (Persian, Urdu), & Greek characters, as well as mathematical formulae.

    How would you try to achieve that balance between creative/inspired typography and (international) content accessibility? With limited resources and no knowledge of non-Latin scripts, I have no option but to trust that the most-popular typefaces will look good for all of these languages!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Soph! I’m glad you enjoy the videos! You’re right, when it comes to international content that goes beyond European scripts, I’d go for Open Sans (Noto) on the free side, since it provides you the scripts and language support you need. If you have any budget, there are also very well-developed paid alternatives which might be more unique. E.g. Aktiv Grotesk (not CJK though), Great Sans (no CJ, but Korean). A good resource here is the filtering by languages at Typotheque Font Collection. It kind of also narrows down the options when you have to support so many scripts. And – to say that again – Open Sans is not a bad typeface. Use it and feel good about it, if there are no other alternatives when you have to support all these scripts.

  8. Hey there, great shout-out! I see your point and I definitely support it… – but what if you have to choose a font to go with in 53 markets, and if you have to cover Devanagari, Japanese, Hindi, Korean and a bunch of other exotic lingo? Any suggestion on how to stand out fontwise in that specific setr of requirements will be highly appreciated.

    1. Great point! Yeah, in IKEA’s case it was exactly that they had to cover a lot of different scripts and languages and therefore went for Noto (Open Sans). But in such a case and situation – if it was a global brand or something – I’d invest in creating a custom typeface.

Leave a Reply to MJ Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *