Changing The Typeface Of The Web (Part 1)

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Web fonts have been through the mill over the years, but they’re finally living up to their early potential.

A good web designer recognizes the importance of typography and will have explored the type-based controls that CSS provides line spacing, type size, paragraph alignment and so on. But how many have thought seriously about the most important typographic element of all, the typeface? More specifically, have you ever considered breaking out of the box and moving beyond the basic web choice of serif or sans?

A good web designer recognizes the importance of typography

A good web designer recognizes the importance of typography

For designers from a print background, the web’s restricted choice of typefaces seems quite bizarre. While web designers treat text as a neutral carrier of information, print designers understand that text is made up of words, made from letters, made from graphical glyphs that are neither neutral nor interchangeable. Those glyphs are the product of a complex creative process whereby a font designer thought long and hard about just what effect they were trying to produce, not only for that particular letter but for the whole typeface. In other words, you shouldn’t treat the text on your pages as the opposite of graphics, but as a sequence of further design-intensive graphical elements that you can exploit for best effect.

When a print designer starts a job, almost the first thing they think about is which typefaces will best suit the style of the project. They’ll have acquired an armory of easy-to-read body faces – such as Garamond, Frutiger, Optima, Souvenir and Palatino – they know and like: perhaps the x-height is particularly large, which makes the text open and friendly; maybe its ascenders and descenders are deliberately exaggerated for a slightly old-fashioned and austere look; perhaps its unusually geometrical bowls and counters lend a modernist feel. Each body typeface has its own unique identity and produces its own subliminal effect.

Designers will also know a far wider range of display fonts they can use for short sections of high-priority text such as headings, callouts and logos, where impact rather than readability is the prime issue. There’s a bit more creative license here for fonts that look handwritten, or hark back to the days of copperplate and black letter, or Soviet propaganda posters or American Western “Wanted” posters, for example. Perhaps what’s needed is a subtler effect such as heavier, lighter, more condensed or expanded headlines that work well with the body text (generally speaking, body fonts don’t scale well). Then again, you might need a very localized effect where a single-out glyph – say a lower-case g, upper-case Q or ampersand & - might catch the readers’ attention and give the project a unique identity.

If typography is so central to good design, why aren’t we using great typefaces on the web?

If typography is so central to good design, why aren’t we using great typefaces on the web?

If typography is so central to good design, why aren’t we using great typefaces on the web? Ten years ago I was asked to write a book that explained “all you need to create fantastic web type”, but I quickly discovered there were very good reasons not to bother. The problem isn’t in specifying a font, which is nowadays simplicity itself thanks to CSS’s long-standing font-family property – reference any typeface installed on your system, then switch to design view or preview in your browser to see it. The problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee your site’s visitors will have that font installed, in which case the text will just display in their browsers’ default fonts. That’s why you should always specify fallback fonts, say:

Body {font-family:”PalatinoLinotype”, “Book Antiqua”, Palatino, serif;}

That way, you can at least control whether they are seeing serif or sans.

Clearly, what’s really needed is a way to enable site visitors to view your pages in whatever font you originally used. Ten years ago, the magical key to achieving this was Microsoft’s Web Embedding fonts Tool (WEFT). In practice, this involved specifying which fonts you wanted via styles, or the now-deprecated <font> tag, and then opening the WEFT wizard and pointing it at a list of pages to process. WEFT would analyze your pages and produce a compressed Embedded OpenType (EOT) font object, then add the necessary @font-face CSS rule to link each page to a server-based font, something like:

@font-face { font-family: ‘CalligraffitiRegular’ ; src: url(‘Calligraffiti-webfont.eot’); }

Once everything was uploaded to your website, visitors would see your pages just as you had designed them, even if they didn’t have those fonts.

The potential was exciting, but there were significant downsides. Not all font foundries permitted embedding, so, in an attempt to avoid font stealing and maximize performance, Microsoft not only tied EOTs to particular domains, but also employed font subsets, in which only those characters used in your text were included in the file. Therefore, if you added a page containing a single new glyph, you needed to go through the while upload process again. Worse still, while WEFT did indeed enable both Mac- and Pc-based site visitors to see your fonts, this was only true if they used Internet Explorer, because EOT was a proprietary Microsoft format.

EOT was a proprietary Microsoft format

EOT was a proprietary Microsoft format

But the real showstopper was more fundamental still: ultimately, scalable font outlines need to be rendered to the screen as bitmaps, since screens are very low resolution compared to print on paper (the default at that time was 72dpi). Mapping a glyph outline onto a low resolution grid led to problems such as different stroke widths on either side of a glyph, missing serifs and even gaps. Font hinting, which intelligently changes the outline to match the available grid resolution, helped, but it depends on how much effort the font’s designer has put in and can go only so far. When you have only a few pixels to play with, you can’t recreate fluid strokes or intricate serifs; whatever you try looks awful.

So, font embedding faced serious practical problems: the setup time it imposed on the designer; the performance hit on downloading the files; the restriction to Internet Explorer; licensing problems that limited the range of faces; and low-resolution screens leading to body copy that was less readable than browser defaults. My how-to book on fantastic web typography turned out to be a practical guide to why you couldn’t do it. The only universal solution was to bypass HTML entirely and employ GIF, SWF or PDF graphical text, clearly undesirable because it wasn’t truly integrated, search-friendly, accessible to screen-readers or automatically machine translatable.

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