The Emergence of Web Fonts

The Emergence of Web Fonts For most of the Web’s life, copy has been stuck with a small subset of type choices; those fonts that users on different operating systems have in common. These boil down to perhaps a dozen of so choices amongst Mac, Windows and Linux OSs. We’re talking about old standards like Arial, Verdana and Georgia. Not very exciting and about as unique as a Walmart in the suburbs.

Any attempts to break away from those standard fonts in the distant past – and even today – often involve using graphics for select items like nav bars, mastheads and headers which is at best a broken and problematic solution. There have been other attempts to overcome this limiting hurdle. For some years now, we have been using a common technique called sIFR to replace headers and sub-headers with custom fonts. It’s a decent technique but relies on the use of Flash and javascript – things that aren’t in place 100% of the time for users.

In the last year or so though, there’s been a big emergence of the use of the @font-face property to deliver custom fonts to users when viewing a website. This CSS property essentially lets a web designer define any custom fonts for use in their website. When a user views the site, the needed fonts are downloaded behind the scenes and used for display in the site. Easy, right?

Well, for the most part it is easy but it’s faced some significant hurdles which have kept it out of widespread use – even though support for @font-face has been around for some years in most of the major browsers. The biggest issue has been font licensing. Almost all commercial font licenses do not allow the licensee to transfer the font files to someone else (with the occasional exception in the commercial printing world). This means that using a commercial font via @font-face means you are essentially breaking the law.

However, the emergence of @font-face recently has come about in large part due to the launch of a variety of services over the last year or two that provide commercial fonts with all the licensing issues taken care of. Services like Typekit allow you to subscribe for a monthly fee and gain access to many commercial fonts for use on websites. Typekit does all the legal wrangling to put the correct licensing agreements in place. On the surface, this seems like a win-win for web designers and type foundries that want to be compensated for the use of their fonts.

In reality though, I think there are some issues here that have made me wary of such services. One concern is in regards to the idea of “renting” fonts and tying websites to the continued and ongoing monthly transaction with Typekit (or whatever service) to maintain access to the fonts being used on said website. If for any reason that transaction ends, boom – your custom fonts are gone. From a business perspective, this is awkward. If that client is no longer a client in 2 years, they and their website will still be relying on your business relationship with the web service. Secondly, I have an issue with the whole concept of websites relying on external resources. In this day and age, it’s become a necessary part of web development in many contexts to rely on external services. Still, I always prefer to keep website assets as self-contained as possible. Perhaps this is just an out-dated notion from an old web designer but it still rankles.

For at least the former reason above, we’ve been reluctant to jump on the @font-face bandwagon but thankfully some things are changing. We’re seeing the emergence of open source fonts and while selection and quality is still rather poor, it’s an encouraging trend. Services like Font Squirrel show great promise. As well, some services like Font Spring are coming online with a view to working out agreements with font vendors that let web designers purchase the appropriate online license for fonts so that they can embed them on the actual website and not rely on them being delivered to other third party services.

These recent trends have gotten us looking at web fonts more closely and if you haven’t already, you should too. We’ve been vetting some open source fonts and combing through other licensed fonts and are finally getting ready to launch some projects using some custom fonts. It’s an exciting time.


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