A multilingual website has content in several languages. This might be just a few pages – or the entire site.

Website localisation is the process of adapting your site so that no matter what language your reader speaks, no matter what culture they hail from, they will receive the same message and find your site just as natural to use.

Getting your multilingual website design right is more important now than ever before. Because modern internet users are increasingly demanding the ability to interact with any website in their own preferred language.

What’s more, research shows that consumers will be happier – and spend more – on sites which let them do this.

One of the key decisions to make in this process is the font you’ll use:

  • A bad font can be hard to read, not supported or completely off-brand.
  • The perfect font, on the other hand, is seamless. It will help you reach your target audience in any market as easily as you do at home.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how to choose the right font when localising your website.

The challenges of fonts in multilingual website design

1) Character size and spacing

Both the size of different characters and the spacing between them varies between fonts. You only need to open up your favourite word processing software and switch between a couple of the more extreme English-language fonts to see how many changes there are – in size, the spacing between the characters, line height and more.

It’s an obvious point, but it’s one that comes into sharp focus when designing your website for multiple languages. It’s especially important when you consider the often unique needs of readers in certain languages:

For example, a Thai or Chinese version of your website might be hard to read if you use a standard English font size. That said, logographic languages – where a single written character represents an entire word or phrase – often habituate users to reading far smaller symbols than you might expect them to be able to. They may also become used to layouts which are very information-dense.

This means that testing should always play an important role in your website localisation process.

Some factors which will affect your ideal font size will include:

  • The purpose you have in mind for the text in question
  • The context it will be placed in
  • Your audience
2) Language direction

Some languages are read from left to right. Others from right to left. Some may even be read vertically on occasion.

Selecting a font which supports the requirements of all of your target languages will usually take some serious thought.

A fallback option is to select several different fonts. But there are better ideas. We’ll get to them!

3) Diacritical marks and Cyrillic characters

Accents, breves, circumflexes, dots and other diacritical marks can dramatically alter the meaning of words in different languages.

Not only does the readability of diacritics need to heavily factor into your considerations of whether a certain font is suitable for any given target language, but you also need to consider the additional space they will take up. This space may be above or below the line of text, and often both.

Cyrillic characters should also be given the same kind of considerations.

4) Font style, weight and readability

Whenever selecting a font style for a multilingual website, readability concerns should always override your stylistic preferences.

This is a sensible web design strategy no matter what language you’re targeting. But, again, it’s thrown into sharp relief when considering multiple languages.

If you are using font styles like italics or oblique, or different weights like lighter or bold, you need to be sure that they:

  1. Are readable in your target language
  2. Are understood in the same way (for example, does italics add emphasis in the same way as in English?)
5) Brand consistency

One final consideration and challenge of designing websites for multiple languages is to keep your brand consistent across all language versions.

If you are not using a font which is suitable for all of the languages you are targeting, you will need to find an alternative which retains your brand’s look.

Simply pressing ahead with a font which is on-brand but illegible isn’t a sound strategy!

Tips from professional multilingual website designers

1) Build in multilingual website capability from the start

If you have any intention of making your site multilingual in the future, it’s easiest to build the capability in at the design phase.

Having a single source website which creates localised proxies is one of the better approaches. If you do it in the right way, adding extra languages at a later date is relatively straightforward.

This is far superior to the language sliders or automatic browser language detection and preference storage methods of old.

2) Use a responsive web layout

One of the not-so-hidden challenges of website localisation is the fact that strings of text will expand and contract when written in different languages. For instance, a phrase written in German will tend to be longer than the same phrase in English.

Using a responsive web layout which has been designed with localisation in mind will make sure you’re prepared to handle strings of text in any font as they expand and contract in different languages.

3) Consider Unicode fonts

The Unicode Consortium is a non-profit organisation which maintains the Unicode Standard, an encoding scheme which is compatible with multiple-language environments.

Unicode fonts – fonts which support Unicode character encoding and are fully Unicode-compliant – are a solid choice for multilingual websites. They don’t support all languages as yet, but they’re relatively close.

If you absolutely must select a non-Unicode font, make sure you choose a back-up font for when your main font isn’t supported. This is particularly important for Chinese, Japanese and Korean (CJK) website versions, especially on Android devices.

In fact, so many of the logograms which make up these languages don’t display correctly that certain groups have developed specific fonts to make sure they’re covered…

4) Consider Google Noto Fonts – especially for CJK languages

Noto stands for “No more Tofu.” “Tofu” being the slang for the “character not found” glyph which is displayed if the correct character or font style options are not supported.

Google and Adobe introduced Noto Fonts to combat this. A group of over 100 fonts, Noto Fonts cover the 93 scripts of Unicode version 6.0 (the 2010 version) in up to eight different weights.

Though it’s tempting to think of Chinese, Japanese and Korean as just three more languages amongst many, remember that CJK speakers combined make up around a quarter of the world’s population.

It’s important to get things right for these audiences.

5) Don’t forget your images

After all of this talk of the best fonts to use in multilingual website design, it’s easy enough to forget that this is only a part of the process.

Remember that you will need to carefully consider your:

  • Images
  • Symbols and icons
  • Buttons
  • Links
  • Subtitles and embedded text

The cultural relevance and appropriateness of images varies to a huge extent. In some parts of the world, advertising which includes alcohol may be widely frowned upon, for example. In others, there may be legal concerns relating to how various items or groups are portrayed.

6) And don’t forget your multilingual SEO

Finally, you won’t want to overlook the importance of multilingual SEO. Your original, well-researched English-language keywords will not have the same popularity in all parts of the world.

You will need to:

  1. Research the most suitable local keywords.
  2. Create an inbound link-building strategy for your target country.
  3. Not forget site mapping and coding – hreflang attributes, country code top-level domains (ccTLD) and localised URL directories.
  4. Make sure you’re using the best search engines for that region – Google and Bing may be popular in many parts of the world, but Yahoo is big in Japan, China has Baidu and Korea has Naver.

Find out more about website localisation

If you try to handle your website localisation on an ad hoc basis, you might find the process something of a struggle.

On the other hand, if you start as you mean to go on, taking sensible steps like carefully choosing and testing the right font your multilingual website to begin with, you’ll find that making your website accessible to readers in any language can be both simple and straightforward.

Need to know more about localising your website? Or about what makes the best font for websites with multiple languages?

Contact us or leave a comment below.