If you are reading this in Times, or Times New Roman, I think you are making a mistake and I'd like to demonstrate it. You may, in the end, disagree, and that's fine; I'll be happy if you have just considered the question.
My guess is that most users of the web, now it has grown beyond geekdom, are not very expert or even interested in how it all works, and may be short-changing themselves by failing to over-ride some of the defaults. Those who have put more energy into customizing their browsers may find this a good opportunity to reconsider; personally, I change my choices occasionally if only to ensure I've got them right.
More and more pages are specifying fonts, but your default is still important, and will remain so for a long time yet. This page shows you how to make an informed decision, and possibly how to improve you options without even spending money.
I've got an interest in this: I want you to read my stuff. So I want your reading experience to be as pleasant as possible. It's known as doing well by doing good.
What's Wrong With Times?
For many printed purposes, nothing at all. It is a great typeface. It is unobtrusive, it fits a lot of words per line, it is legible at small sizes, it is, in fact, almost perfect for newspapers and textbooks; and you could have much worse defaults for laser-printed documents.
But the screen version is simplified, especially in Apple's version, to where a paragraph of text looks like a picket fence, all up and down and squished together. It doesn't look like what you get out of your printer (unless you have a very ancient dot-matrix one). Try it. Hold up your printed output to the screen and see how different it is.
This is normal. All fonts look different on screen (see the next page), but some work better than others and in my opinion the curves of Times have been so badly compromised on screen that it's just not adequately legible.
Right below this, I offer some screenshots to illustrate what I mean, and some suggestions about using more appropriate fonts, which don't have to cost you any money.
Some people seem to think that if it's not in Times, it's not correct. A friend of mine, a graduate student, was recently told that "Palatino is not a serious typeface." There is not a lot to say when confronted with this kind of ignorance, except "You don't know what you are talking about." I am not a big fan of Palatino, but it is a perfectly respectable face. Gets used all the time, in proper books and everything. Probably more than Times does, in trade books.
Times is not bad for printing. I think you can do better even there, but I am certain you can do better on-screen.
Choosing a Font
Personally I feel like an idiot because until I read the advice to change my font on some else's page, I stuck with an ugly version of Times; and when I ran across text that filled the whole screen, even after I got a 17-inch monitor, I just passively read it left-to-right, muttering occasionally about the inconsiderateness of the person who put up the web page and didn't constrain the text.
Having got used to the practice, I strongly recommend getting into the habit of limiting the window if you are reading wide text; the full screen is only a mouse-click away. The text-width problem is getting less important, for users, as more and more people use tables &/or frames to limit the text area. But when you do run into a page with wide lines narrow them.
And having picked another font I'm certainly not going back to Times.
There is more detail about Screen Fonts and Leading on the next pages, but here is an overview of some of the choices you can make, whether you use Mac or Windows. It may surprise some Mac users, but Windows offers better built-in choices; fortunately, we can get them too.
Here are four lines each of five different typefaces, all at 12 point; they are partial screen shots made from Netscape Navigator on my Mac, of the same page, with nothing changed except the default proportional font. (If you are using Windows, bear with me a moment and look at what most Mac users put up with.)
Top to bottom, the fonts are Times, Helvetica, Palatino, Caslon and Stone Sans. The first three come with the Mac, while the bottom two are Adobe fonts.
Clearly, if you want to squeeze the most words onto a page, Times wins. If you want the text to be readable on-screen, however, my choice of these five is Stone Sans. The letters are simpler and clearer, and the space between the lines is much greater, which helps a lot. (There is more detail about Leading elsewhere.)
Caslon has the leading, but the letters themselves are tiny and terribly over-complicated, which is a great shame, as I discuss on the next page. Palatino is adequate, but it looks annoyingly jagged to me. The Helvetica is simply a waste of time; the 'cl' looks like a 'd', the 't' seems to be so lonely it clings to whatever follows, the 'rri' is much narrower than a single 'm', there is absolutely no space between the top of an 'h' and the bottom of a 'y' and the overall effect is one of unsightly blobs of black dripped over the screen as if by a leaky pen. Even the Times is better.
Mac users are generally rude about Windows, but one area Microsoft is doing well in is fonts, and fortunately Microsoft is giving them away, yes, even for Macs. The next screen shot is again from a Mac, but uses fonts that are standard with a Windows machine.
Here is the same sample text, this time in Times New Roman, Arial, Trebuchet and Verdana:
I still prefer Stone Sans to any of these, but I much prefer the Microsoft fonts to the Apple ones.
My choice of the four is Trebuchet, the third one, followed by Verdana, the fourth. I think I prefer the former largely because the relative space between the lines is slightly greater (the absolute space is the same, but the Verdana letters are bigger), but I also prefer some of the characters; without being jarringly odd, they seem more distinctive to me. This helps to group them into distinguishable words and phrases, which are after all the units we read.
(For a good discussion of what elements of the letter, word and sentence we focus on when reading, see the Typography I section of the Yale Style Manual.)
Arial is popular among web page designers who use font calls, but I find it a bit cramped, as though the up-strokes were pushed together, which in fact they are. Look at the 'o' in each font, for example: the other three all have 'o's (at this size) one pixel narrower than they are wide (5 x 6 or 6 x 7), while Arial's is two pixels narrower (5 x 7); it's roughly as tall as Verdana and only as wide as Trebuchet, which to my mind makes it less readable than either. My favorite, Stone Sans, has a 6 x 6 'o' which I think is the best of both worlds.
And I still don't like Times, even in this somewhat more generous form, which I examine in more detail on the next page.
Mac users can download these fonts from Microsoft, even if they don't want to use Internet Explorer, which includes them. Obviously this is part of the Redmond Master Plan to take over the CyberUniverse, but what the hell. They are making these fonts available so that reading on screen will be easier, which in turn will promote the web's use, and I see no reason not to exploit their generosity.
There are, of course, other options. MacUser has put out a free Browser font, which is a great idea but personally I don't like it much. Or you can start spending money. For example, Adobe chose Frutiger for their on-screen documentation; I haven't bought it yet, but I will, because it may be even better than Stone Sans.
I definitely believe that on screen, sans-serif fonts (the ones without the little curlicues at the ends of the letters) look better. Warning: For printing, serifed fonts generally look better. For all-purpose writing and printing, you need something that will work tolerably in both modes (Minion is my current favorite, having supplanted Adobe Garamond); in your browser, however, you don't need to think about printing. So go for what looks best on screen.
The theory behind all this is interesting to me, and the practice is easy to observe, so I have gone into the look of things in more detail on the next page, with blown-up screenshots to illustrate what I am talking about. But even if you don't care about why different screen fonts have different strengths and weaknesses, please give yourself a break and do a test. Live with a different font for a few days (it may take a while to decide). See what you like.
Keep Up to Date
Mrs Beeton, in her 1861 Book of Household Management, is supposed to begin her recipe for Roasted Chicken with the sage advice, First Catch Your Chicken. (Think about it free-range, fresh, home-fed ... makes sense to me.) In which spirit:
First, make sure your browser is fresh. Lots of people are still using year-old or older pieces of software, and they would definitely benefit by upgrading. I know, it's a pain; and given the time it takes to download and install, it's scarcely free, but it sure is cheap. And worth it.
This is from someone who is still using a 1992 word processor (Microsoft Word 5.1a for Mac). The difference is that Word does all I need it to do; if I want more capabilities I am quite happy to use a different program. But more and more web sites are using Java scripts the older browsers can't handle, and are or will be using Cascading Style Sheets that you may not even know are there unless you have a browser that recognizes them. You gotta keep up, unfortunately.
If you've got one of those older browsers, then next time you're ready for a break, direct it to Netscape or Microsoft and let the machine go through the tedium of retrieving the upgrade while you make dinner, run a marathon, read a good book, write a letter by hand, mow the weeds, make love, or in case of a very slow connection, all of the above. Once it's on your machine, installation is generally a point-and-click snap, and your old Preferences and Bookmarks/Favorites should be retained automatically. If not, please don't blame me; I don't really trust them, but it did work last time.
How To Change the Default Font
In Netscape Navigator, go to the General Preferences under the Options Menu and select 'Fonts' from the tabs at the top. You may have to wait an annoying moment while it figures out what the choices are, but then you get a group of pop-up menus, of which the most important for this purpose is the 'Proportional Font'. You can choose any font currently available in your system, and one of several sizes from the menu next door.
In Microsoft Internet Explorer (for the Mac at least), you reach the font choice by going down the Edit menu to Preferences, thence to Web Browser and Language/Font. To change the size, however, you have to go to Browser Display, where you choose from Smallest, Small, Medium, Large and Largest (and this after the industry has spent fifteen years teaching us all about font sizes!); it's medium for me, even without bifocals, but I can see why some would consider large to make it easier on their eyes. Small seems like a poor very well, rotten; but not as bad as smallest choice for reading.
The following short paragraphs are size samples. If you pick, say, the 'larger' ('one size up' or 14-pt) size as your standard, the browser will automatically show all the text in that size, and increase and decrease the others proportionally. The red headlines I use are 'two sizes up' so if you pick 'largest' for your standard, they'll get huge.
This paragraph is two sizes up and suitable perhaps for headlines and such-like.
This paragraph is one size up and when my eyes are tired I sometimes think this is the one I should be using.
This paragraph is normal, the same as all the lines in the main text of this page and indeed all the other pages on my site and most others.
This paragraph is one size down and suitable for use by people who want to be able to say they told you so, while still hoping you won't actually bother to read it.
If you can read this, you are driving too close. This one is strictly for the fine print artists so hold onto your wallet.