Thinking Outside the Font

For decades, Web design has been straitjacketed by a narrow range of fonts. Even as graphic design and printing technologies in the real world have been undergoing an explosion of creativity and beauty, nearly all the actual text you read while browsing has remained set in a handful of typefaces: Verdana, Courier, Arial, and Times are the most prominent; there are a few more, but not many.

Why, nearly 20 years since Netscape and the rise of graphical browsing, have we not opened up a more varied and beautiful toolkit for Web designers? Well, it’s a bit complicated.

The familiar names listed above have become known as “web-safe” fonts, meaning that any random user of your site out in the world is virtually guaranteed to be able to see them on his or her computer. Fonts are, after all, not always free, and you must download them in order to have them appear correctly on your screen. Not everybody has access to the same ones. A controversy has been raging over whether (and how) to break down this wall, and progress is being made.

If a web page has been created with CSS rather than basic html, the @font-face rule allows for the embedding of any font, which is simply downloaded by the end user so he or she can see it. This capability has existed for a long time, but its use has been limited by legal factors (because of course, depending on the font, this could be seen as piracy).

The solution is, therefore, to make a large enough bank of freely licensed fonts available to the Web user. Luckily, two of the tech industry’s heavyweights are actively working on this.

First, Google Web Fonts is an ongoing project that has been assembling a library of open-source fonts (at press time, 501 font families had been made available) for web designers to use free of charge.

Adobe, meanwhile, being the 500-pound gorilla of all things graphic design, purchased the startup Typekit in October of 2011. Unlike Google Web Fonts, Typekit is a subscription service, but you can get a free account that enables you to use two of their fonts on one website. For expanded access, paid subscriptions start at just $24.99 per year. 729 different fonts are available, as Typekit is not limited to open-source typefaces like Google Web Fonts.

Which is right for your business? It’s hard to say, as this question could come down to something as arbitrary as one particular font that you simply must have. As these services continue to grow (and parallel innovations will surely keep springing up on a smaller scale), the future of online aesthetics, marketing, and self-expression may make 2012′s Web look dull and stodgy by comparison.

Familiar with personal information screenings and online background checks, Jane Smith regularly writes about these topics in her blogs. Feel free to send her comments at [email protected].

Featured photo (on home page) provided courtesy of tarrytown.

Filed in: Feature Articles, Technology, Website Development

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