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We run a B2B, information dense web application (a helpdesk) and our base font is currently

13px Helvetica Neue",Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif

We've been thinking about using a webfont to improve this. We would need one with liberal licensing (we need to distribute the app, it is not only SaaS) so google web fonts are ideal. Our software is used in multiple languages and character sets so that is an important factor as well.

Is there any font that is recommended for this purpose that is superior to the default ones?

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3 Answers

superior, for dense information? Helvetica. Perhaps, if you like Frutiger's work better, you could try to go on with Univers (I guess they have an Univers Next version for digital media), but Helvetica is the font for text on screen, period. That's why it's used for such applications, and that's why it's the default font on Windows (Arial is close to Helvetica), OS X, and pre-ubuntu linuxes (ubuntu uses a Dalton Maag font called - surprise - Ubuntu, that supports all major languages).

Personally, I don't think there's a superior font for Helvetica.

But readability is not just a choice based on the font itself: you need to take into account the actual font rendering system used (text on OS X is much more readable than on Windows because of the different anti-aliasing technology), of course the font size, but also line-spacing, word-spacing and letter-spacing. You can bring out different effects from the plain old Helvetica just by increasing its line-spacing and combining it with other sans-serifs.

Every single foundry who has created a webfont claims they've designed their font for readability, but gosh!

Most US-designed fonts on Google webfonts don't even support Latin-1, and when it comes to Latin-2, or asian character sets, they're dropped dead. This applies to PT Sans, the body font for Smashing Magazine, it doesn't support Latin-2.

You can get away with two or three fonts for the application so it won't be that monotonic.

Verdana was designed for screens in the 90s, but it was done so with much lower resolution (as in, points-per inch) screens than what we have today. I don't think we need Verdana today, although I wouldn't say you shouldn't use it.

You can try out font combinations with Google Fonts on font-combinator and you can download its sourcecode in case you need any modifications to it.

Smashing Magazine has an excellent collection of articles on how to choose fonts, like here or here.

You can read about typography in Bringhurst's The Element of Typographic Style (applied to digital media here) which is considered the modern typographic Bible, or Tischold's The New Typography, which is a nearly hundred-years-old title.

So, no, I agree with those in the film Helvetica that there's no superior font than Helvetica.

But perhaps it's just my style...

(And truth to be told, I also use Avenir Next (the optimized-for-digital version) in one of my main projects just for that subtle mood-changing effect it has... Helvetica is neutral, Avenir is a bit, a tiny bit different)

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Typefaces like Verdana have better hinting for screens than most Helveticas I've seen (MacOS being an exception--though note that that is not Neue). The screen resolution isn't really relevant yet...yes retina displays on iOS and MacOS help...A LOT...but unless you are targetting those devices specifically, not everyone is there yet. –  DA01 Aug 22 '12 at 21:30
    
Well, my mac's native resolution is about 110 ppi , which is much better than the resolution of my previous monitor which was 96ppi, and its predecessor was about 75ppi. I don't use retina devices daily yet, but perhaps the OS X hinting technology (which triples horizontal resolution, throwing it above the magical 300dpi) does help a lot. If you ask for a Helvetica, windows will automatically replace it with Arial, so still I guess specifying "helvetica" would be a safe path. –  Aadaam Aug 22 '12 at 22:04
    
In that PPI range, however, the same hinting is being used, however, just some are physically smaller. Font smoothing does help, but it's a bit of a misnomer to consider it 300dpi. (It's basically just smaller anti-aliasing) –  DA01 Aug 22 '12 at 22:31
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"If you ask for a Helvetica, windows will automatically replace it with Arial" In CSS, no, it won't automatically swap it unless you also ask for Arial (which is easy to do since you can list alternative faces in the font stack) –  DA01 Aug 22 '12 at 22:32
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Well, perhaps the browser is doing something (such as Arial being the default font) but in terms of CSS, it won't automatically swap fonts for you other than putting in the default one if it can't find any of the ones you listed. In terms of getting used to forms, certainly. It's been shown that people read best (in terms of type) what they read the most. –  DA01 Aug 23 '12 at 3:04
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In my opinion, using the native fonts of the OS you're targeting is best bet. Those fonts have been designed for legibility on the screen for that particular platform, and they will also feel natural to the daily user since he's already used to seeing them on the whole environment.

Segoe UI was designed for Windows 7 and above if I'm not mistaken.Lucida Grande is used in MacOS X. The most popular Linux distribution uses the Ubuntu font. So, going with a font family like 'Segoe UI', 'Lucida Grande','Ubuntu','sans-serif' will, most of the time, make your app use the font of the platform where it is being used.

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Arial tends to perform better on screen than Helvetica does at smaller sizes. But there are certainly many other options without having to revert to embedding webfonts. Many of the default windows typefaces are well designed and built to accommodate screens. Georgia, Verdana, Tahoma have all been around for a while and with Windows 7 faces such as Calibri are excellent options.

I wouldn't recommend web embedding fonts for text faces anyways due to the still inconsistent rendering of embedded fonts across browsers and operating systems.

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