Email Design Basics: What Are “Email-Safe” Fonts?

Melanie Balke
June 19, 2024

It may seem like a silly detail — a mere stylistic choice — but your font style can make or break email campaigns. The little lines at the ends of letters (known as “serifs”) can set the tone for your content. Likewise, omitting those lines can send a completely different message!

Just think about it.

Text makes up the bulk of an email message, and how those words look dictates your subscriber’s mood. The right font style will match your content’s audience and mood. It must be bold enough to grab a reader’s attention without sacrificing its readability. (And I’m not entirely discounting script fonts. Choices like Cursive Courier have their place as headings.)

There are thousands of font styles, but that doesn’t mean they’re all fit for email marketing. Of those countless options, only a few are deemed email-safe fonts.

The 3 Basics of Email Fonts

An empty classroom with a blank chalkboard. "The Basics: The 3 Principles of Email Fonts."

When email was first invented — back when it was still called “electronic messaging” — you only had one font choice. Everything was a blocky, sans-serif mass of text. (Today, a close approximation would be Monospace Garamond.) However, over time, our choices expanded. Eventually, you could choose to use serif fonts. Then, you could choose “fun” fonts, like the infamous Comic Sans MS.

Today, thanks to the advent of embeddable web fonts, there are thousands of email fonts, making it impossible to choose just one! So, let me start with the basics.

Every email looks the same when you strip away the fancy flourishes and alternative layouts. Three characteristics ultimately distinguish your text:

  • Font family
  • Size and spacing
  • Readability

1. The “Type” of Your Type

All fonts — regardless of their status as “web-safe” or even “email-safe” — are classified into font families (or “typefaces”). Each font family has a unique look and feel based on its stylistic pedigree. Web-safe fonts fall into one of thirteen categories, although not all are necessarily applicable to email marketing.

For brevity’s sake, I’ve narrowed the list to six entries. These are your “must-know” font families for CSS (cascading style sheet) coding. (I’ve omitted three groups entirely. The “emoji” and “math” families render their respective characters, while “fangsong” is reserved for Chinese language formatting.) Whenever you’re choosing fonts for email content, you’re picking from one of these groups:

  • Cursive: Cursive fonts are rarely used in email marketing. They’re exactly what they promise on the box. These are flourishing, handwriting-like fonts. Due to their poor readability and scaling, most are limited to short headers. The most commonly used web-safe fonts in the cursive font family are Apple Chancery, Brush Script MT, and Lucida Handwriting.
  • Fantasy: This group is a bit of a catch-all. Fantasy font styles are primarily decorative, resembling highly stylized period typefaces (e.g., Medieval scripts, pages from a typewriter, or vintage newspaper print), although some are little more than fancy print. Examples include Curlz MT (similar to older Jokerman fonts), Herculaneum, and Papyrus.
  • Monospace: A monospace typeset works like a typewriter. Each character has a set width. You can draw a straight line down each line of text, and every character will follow that guide. While some font styles are purpose-built for monospace usage (e.g., Lucida Console and Monaco), others are variants of existing fonts (e.g., Arial Monospace).
  • Serif: These are your formal fonts. Serif fonts have “caps” at the ends of each letter, giving them a classical printed look. Commonly used examples of this font family include Serif Georgia, Times New Roman, and Lucida Bright.
  • Sans-Serif: Sans-serif fonts are the most commonly used fonts on the Internet. They lack the formal flourishes of a classic serif font, giving them a more modern look. Most email clients use a sans-serif font as the default style. Examples include Arial, Open Sans, and Trebuchet MS.
  • System-UI: You’ll rarely use this group, but it may be helpful for tech-oriented branding. A “system-ui” font style pulls from the user’s computer terminal. Usually, the result is a blocky, small type, sans-serif font. You can slightly modify the result by asking for specific variations (i.e., ui-monotype, ui-rounded, ui-sans-serif, and ui-sans-serif).
Overlapping leaves. An infographic demonstrates each font family with a particular font choice. All samples use a bold (or "heavy") font weight.
Note that not all of the examples in this image are web-safe fonts.

2. The Font Size

Next, consider your font sizes. You want your content to be legible, but overly large fonts eat up email space. Most emails use a 12–18 point font size for body text; headers are more variable. The uppermost header (H1) is the largest, with each subsequent nested level decreasing in size. So, for example, if your H1 is a 50-point font, then H2 will likely use a 40-point font.

There’s no firm rule for font size, though. At most, you want to ensure your readers aren’t straining to understand your content.

Nonetheless, there are a few general guidelines worth following:

  • Consider Your Backup: Even web-safe fonts can fail. If a client lacks the necessary technology or space to display your ideal font choice, they’ll see your fallback font. Older machines may use system fonts as fallbacks, but most modern email clients display web-based fonts. Your “right” fallback font should have the same look, feel, and spacing as your ideal choice.
  • Optimize Headers: Cursive and fantasy fonts may not be the most popular options anymore, but they’re still helpful for adding personality and visual distinction to your email marketing campaigns. However, they’re more difficult to read when scaled down. Most of these decorative fonts should be restricted to a 20-point font size minimum.
  • Optimize Spacing: Single-spaced content may be hard to read. Instead, try 1.5! You’ll give your content more “breathing room” and prevent potential graphical glitches should a client need your fallback font.
  • Make Small Text Readable: It’s neither illegal nor uncommon to use tiny text for disclaimers. Still, you want that information to be legible. Serif fonts are harder to read when scaled down, so stick to the sans-serif font family for tiny text.

3. Readability

Finally, you want your font stack to be legible. Remember: An email-safe font isn’t always a reader-friendly font. You must consider how the font appears on different devices.

Some fonts are “gimmes.” Most serif and sans-serif fonts are safe choices. Arial Courier, MS Sans Serif, MS Serif, and Times New Roman are timeless, reliable choices. They scale well and work well as an inline style. Moreover, their widespread distribution ensures they’ll display correctly on most web clients, including Apple Mail, the Gmail App, Microsoft Outlook, and Yahoo Mail.

So, there’s good news for modernist email campaigns!

However, if you’re a more expressive brand, your font choices may be more complex. Again, there are no solid “rules” for choosing email-friendly fonts, but there are some invaluable tips:

  • Avoid Blocks of All-Caps: Aside from the whole “looks like you’re screaming” issue, blocks of capital letters lack accessibility. A heavy font weight only emphasizes the problem. Instead, limit those capital letters to headers and emphatic phrases.
  • Increase Scanability: Left-aligned text is more readily absorbed. While there’s nothing wrong with using center-aligned content for photos and headers, the bulk of your email should stick to left-aligned or justified text.
  • Keep It Simple: Pick a default font for every element. You’ll increase brand recognition, of course, but you also boost readability. Using too many fonts in email campaigns can backfire, turning otherwise splendid marketing into a craft store word salad. When using multiple fonts, most brands use three or fewer distinct options.

What Is an Email-Safe Font?

Lines of code. "Email Safe: Finding the Right Font."

Here’s where things get dicey.

Web-safe fonts aren’t always email fonts.

Many popular options are considered web-safe fonts, but they don’t always play nicely with email clients. They work perfectly as web fonts, but they may not mirror how an email appears. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad fonts; it’s more of a general warning. There’s nothing to stop you from using web fonts in email marketing campaigns, either! As long as you have appropriate fallback fonts, you can go about employing web-safe fonts to your heart’s content.

However, an email font is guaranteed to work on all but the oldest devices. Your selection is more limited, but every choice is an inbuilt default font on today’s most popular email clients. The following fonts are guaranteed to be email-safe choices — regardless of email client, web browser, or file format:

  • Arial
  • Courier New
  • Georgia
  • Tahoma
  • Times New Roman
  • Trebuchet MS
  • Verdana

Using Custom Web Fonts

Notably, your list of email fonts is limited to “formal” styles. There are no “fun” options; for that, you’ll need web font services. Think of them as the equivalent of your cloud-based font list in Adobe Photoshop. Web font services store their massive selections online, and web browsers can download them as needed. Today, Google Fonts is the most popular option.

Using web fonts is an acceptable way to spice up your email campaigns, but it can backfire. Some email clients—particularly older enterprise models—do not support web fonts. So, consider how your content looks using your fallback fonts. For the best effect, use specific web fonts and fallbacks in your font stack instead of generalized families.

Consider, too, that your email font won’t appear at all if a reader receives the plain-text version.

What Are the Best Fonts for Email Marketing?

Overlapping leaves. "Hire the Pros: Let a Team of Experts Help."

Ultimately, there’s no clear “best” choice. The best fonts will match your brand’s tone, audience, and vision. They may be default fonts, or you may have to embed web fonts. Either way, they’ll convey the mood and “vibe” of your brand.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to find the perfect email-safe fonts, either! You must consider your brand’s needs and ideals, compare them against your options, and build a font portfolio to match your business — not someone else’s. Alternatively, you can find an email marketing expert to help you define the best fonts.

I’ve hand-picked everyone at The Email Marketers, assembling a team of top-shelf professionals capable of delivering whatever your brand needs. We understand the best fonts for email marketing and how to optimize your inline style. We can refine your email signatures and unify the experience across all email clients. More importantly, we’ll handle everything.

Schedule a free strategy session to see how The Email Marketers can make your marketing campaigns shine. You’ll get a custom-built email marketing strategy for your business, and I can answer any questions you have about email font selection.