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/ log / 21st Dec, 2007 /

What Future for Web Typography & Screen Fonts?

The browser wars of yesteryear were a frustrating period for anyone working on the Web. We’ve come a long way since then. Following the vanguard of Opera, Safari and Firefox, IE8 will be the first Microsoft browser to pass the ACID2 test when it’s released in 2008. Congratulations to the IE team! 2008 may well be a seminal year for Web standards.

However, the same might not be said for Web fonts. While we have commonly supported standards with which to author information for the Web, we still only have ten core Web fonts to present it, with six most commonly used. There are hundreds if not thousands of outstanding typefaces. A few are shipped by Microsoft, Apple and Adobe with their software, allowing us to use them with font stacks. That leaves a multitude of beautiful, important typefaces that can only be used as text in images or with kludges like sIFR. The current situation is like the browser wars, or perhaps, the type wars.

In a world where the Web is the platform, having ten core Web fonts makes no sense. It stifles innovation in the same way that poor Web standards support used to.

The core Web fonts, then & now

The Microsoft core Web fonts project was started in 1996 and discontinued in 2002. To put that in context, 1996 was the same year that Internet Explorer 3 was released with a CSS gallery to test IE3’s first tentative implementation of W3C CSS.

Today, the core Web fonts remain in stasis. Apple have renewed the license with Microsoft this year but there are no plans to expand either the typefaces or the font variants. Back in 2006, Andrei Herasimchuk made an excellent proposal closely followed by Jeff Croft’s own worthy suggestion, both of which have unfortunately not come to fruition.

Other Web fonts with @font-face

More recently, Web fonts and the @font-face CSS property have come into focus. Håkon Wium Lie’s article on A List Apart started some valuable discussions. Ascender also recently announced new licensing for Microsoft faces which could apply to downloads, and the observations of people like Richard Rutter give us all hope for the future.

However, as people have already mentioned, @font-face support is not a reality yet and there are questions over support across platforms that have not been addressed. Think mobile phones for example. End-user license agreements (EULAs) will need careful consideration and the methods of protecting type designers’ and foundries’ rights are still a matter for debate.

Universal Web Type

If the Web is the platform, and browsers are the gateways to it, then we don’t just need standards for layout and object rendering, but also a standard type library that is universally available to all, with a mechanism to allow new faces to be added over time.

This is not an alternative to @font-face—there will always be a place for very specialist typefaces for specific uses—but it is a compliment to it.

I would like to invite you to contribute how you think this might work. This is how I see it:

  1. Organisation: We should form a grass roots organisation to provide universal Web type. It could be part of, or complimentary to the Web Standards Project and the W3C. It would reach out to, and include anyone who has a stake in implementing, creating or using Web fonts.
  2. Structure: The organisation should be co-operative and democratic, with membership open to all. Intellectual copyright and assets would be jointly held by the group on behalf of everyone.
  3. Purpose: The group would strive to find common ground between all stakeholders to research or support common standards, find funding to create a font library with complete typefaces that would be freely distributed.

The group could be funded by a mixture of micro-finance, donations of time and money, public funding and sponsorship. It would also affirm the right of type designers to proper remuneration for their work, and foster recognition of type’s importance to the Web.

I’m deliberately publishing this idea to elicit your feedback and comments. The way forward is not clear, and I do not claim to have the answers, but I believe that between all the interested parties—whether individuals, companies or organisations—we have the ability to give everyone a better typographic experience.


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  1. 1. By Fernando Figoni on 21st Dec ’07 at 10:08am

    I think that the legitimate aspiration to better typography on the web will clash with font EULAs. Hoefler & Frere-Jones has already stated that using @font-face violates their license and it is clear for me that only an open source font could be freely usable on the web.

    For the other fonts (and these are the majority a web developer would use in his site because of the better legibility or design) the problem will remain the same because if we try to find a way to seclude the font file from the rest of our downloadable files there will always be someone who will try to find a crack.

    In the end it is my opinion that better typography is strictly connected to copyright laws but I can hardly believe tha type foundries will be kind to us and give freely their most valuable fonts

  2. Jon 陳’s profile 2. By Jon 陳 on 21st Dec ’07 at 12:34pm

    Fernando, this is a proposal for a grass-roots organisation that would expand the core Web fonts by paying for appropriate licenses—or by specifically commissioning type designers—then distribute the typefaces for free. I believe this is worthwhile and possible, but I’d like people’s thoughts on how it might work.

    @font-face is a separate matter, but as you rightly point out the licensing problems under current EULA are manifold.

  3. 3. By Fernando Figoni on 22nd Dec ’07 at 01:47am

    I think I could explain better my point of view, sorry. I will try to do it now.

    An "open source" font project is certainly possibile, even commissioning typefaces for free distribution by a grass-roots organization is possibile. I think so because good free fonts (in open type format) are available even now on the web for free use and free distribution and it is likely that font desginers would collaborate to such a project for various reasons that are not to be questioned now.

    But in the end the problem would not change. I mean … instead of six core fonts, developers will have a greater number of “core fonts” but no other form of control on their typography.

    Would that be an improvement from today situation? I think it would, because, for example, such commissioned font will have better support for non western languages, but even with more typefaces available for choice developers will not have complete control over their typography because of the well known differences between every single user or visitor.

    Furthermore there is also a wider design problem with typography. Even if we have let us say 25 or 30 “open fonts𔄙 there will always be someone who will need a particular typeface on his web page (i.e. for headings or certain kind of text) for which the “open fonts” will not provide a suitable substitute.

    That explain the @font-face observation. As far as I know that would be the only way to implement the control I spoke before. But then the copyright issues are very likely to stop innovation in this direction.

    It was a very long comment … I hope I did not get out of the way

  4. 4. By Ryan Miglavs on 26th Dec ’07 at 15:32pm

    Jon, I think your suggestion of a "standards body" of sorts, organized around web fonts, is a great idea. This group could coordinate efforts and push influence with the many parties involved (browser-makers, the W3C, font foundries, etc.). Currently, as Fernando is pointing out, each of these parties is trying to jealously guard its own interests, when really we would all benefit from better type on the web.

    Fernando points out that there are several free/open-source fonts available on the web now. This is true, but what we don’t have is wide support from browser vendors. There is not much incentive to implement @font-face if it has the potential to piss off typographers (and business partners, in the case of Microsoft), especially when designers (like myself) don’t see many open-source fonts we'd enjoy using, or even that have all the features we need (e.g. multiple languages, a full set of glyphs, ligatures, lower-case numerals).

    A group focused on advancing web typography would benefit all of us, including type-makers. Coordinating, convincing, and implementing, however, are out of the scope of most people who use or make these things; this is why I like your idea so much, Jon.

    Such a body should focus on what is already being defined (i.e. @font-face); advocate both open-source type licenses and licenses that permit web distribution; create usable example licenses for typographers; commission or purchase beautiful typefaces; and spread information about standardized fonts and best web font practices.

    Cheers, Jon. I hope your suggestion gains weight.


  5. 5. By Mike Gioia on 26th Dec ’07 at 22:32pm

    I’m not sure I understand this correctly. I think the idea of having an organization supporting the spread of more standardized fonts is a great idea. But how are these fonts going to make their way to the user’s computer? Even with a set of standard fonts that are all freely distributable it will be difficult trying to get them installed on users’ machines. It’s in this regard that I think the organization will have a problem.

    I know @font-face isn’t the subject here, but that is the only reliable method that I feel can work. This puts the font in the developers hand, residing on the server. And I fully realize that anyone could have access to the font (which could violate terms of service) but perhaps there are ways around this. One would be to somehow only support font’s that pass our organization’s standards and are freely distributable. Another would be to port the @font-face functionality to server-side scripting with the font file residing on the server inaccessible from user’s eyes.

    Just my thoughts on the matter, but again I am all for and fully in support of any organization trying to expand new fonts to developers.

  6. 6. By rck on 27th Dec ’07 at 13:06pm

    Just a simple way to include an open-source font--without resorting to sIFR--would be a huge leap forward.

  7. 7. By Martien van Steenbergen on 11th Feb ’08 at 03:16am

    I'd be very happy to support this with, say €100. Say you have 1,000 others who feel the same. That’s €100k!

    So, let’s go ahead and use crowdfunding to create a comprehensive and coherent set of universally available platform neutral open source fonts? Not unlike the C fonts.

    Suppose a company like LucasFonts is willing and able to create them when at least €30k has flown into the FontFund. Until that limit is reached, you can safely and trustfully reclaim your contribution. As soon as the limit has been reached, the money is allocated and reserved for the creation of the fonts. Reduces risks for all parties.

    Results: 1) good looking and consistent looking documents and websites across all platforms; 2)extreme (market) exposure for its creator(s); 3)very good financial compensation for creating them (probably better than when ordered by a company like a newspaper).

    Any surplus money into a FontFund to finance maintenance, support, new variations, etc.

  8. Jon 陳’s profile 8. By Jon 陳 on 11th Feb ’08 at 04:24am

    Ryan: Thanks for the support of the idea. I think that @font-face has a place but in this case, this makes more sense to me: Following the Core Web Fonts model and engaging the support of OS creators like MS and Apple by commissioning typefaces and giving them to OS creators to distribute freely with their systems. The obvious benefits of this may even appeal to them enough to have them help fund the effort. This also answers Mike’s question:

    how are these fonts going to make their way to the user’s computer?

    Martien, thanks for such a positive endorsement and your thoughts. This is a great one, and perfectly fits the concept:

    Until [a] limit is reached, you can safely and trustfully reclaim your contribution. As soon as the limit has been reached, the money is allocated and reserved for the creation of the fonts.

    Duly noted in my stickies. Expect to hear more about this as soon as workload allows. I’ve currently got some corporate sponsorship secured, and I’m trying to reach out to other typophiles to get ideas and support.

  9. 9. By Leon Paternoster on 14th Feb ’08 at 01:07am

    I really don’t think it matters: there are more important typographical concerns than choice of font. I rather like being restricted to a handful of fonts! As your own site demonstrates, with a bit of imaginative and thoughtful CSS you can create great-looking and – more importantly – easily readable web pages.

  10. 10. By Ragdoll on 18th Feb ’08 at 11:30am

    I think a good start would be to get well-designed fonts into the mainstream in bulk, similar to the 6–10 core web fonts that are distributed with every browser. Can we get a group of respected and influential typographers together to hand-pick another ten fonts and say:

    These are fonts of the highest quality.

    These fonts have complete character sets.

    These fonts are readable on the screen.

    These fonts are freely available for licensing.

    (Alternatively, if you can get MS, Apple, Moz, and Opera to pay a nominal licensing fee, all the better for the fonts’ creators.)

    Then shop the font pack to the major browser vendors, and just have them push them out with the next update. You'd only need to talk to four groups to begin with, and leave it up to the smaller browsers to come to you.

    Some good, free screen fonts are Bitstream’s Vera and the Liberation font sets.

    This would be so easy, and would double the amount of fonts with which we have to work.

  11. 11. By Matej on 19th Dec ’08 at 01:36am

    Well, it would be nice to have more general purpose fonts for web to choose from, BUT IT IS NOT AN ISSUE!

    10 fonts we have is more that enough for general purpose.

    What I’m concerned about is "preserving the identity" of projects on the web. So when I work on project that uses say "Sauna" font on the poster, I want to be able to use "Sauna" on the web as well, not just some font from larger pot of standardized fonts.

    We need a technology that will display font in browser, but protect the font from theft. Like on the poster, you see the font, but that’s all. Anything else is just partly solution. We know this for example from .pdf documents. There are millions of .pdfs around but I personally don’t know anybody who can extract and use font from pdf.

    Another issue is the quality of fonts. If you have font that is not properly hinted, forget about using it for body text. But still you could use it at least in headlines without sIFR.

  12. 12. By Anon on 13th Apr ’09 at 08:20am

    I hate as a webmaster staying between these browser wars. Its a good piece of information. Man can not see a lot of blog like you have :) Well done.

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