Real Fonts and Rendering: The New Elephant in the Room

My friend, the content strategist Kristina Halvorson, likes to call content “the elephant in the room” of web design. She means it’s the huge problem that no one on the web development team or client side is willing to acknowledge, face squarely, and plan for.

A typical web project will pass through many helpful phases of research, and numerous beneficial user experience design iterations, while the content—which in most cases is supposed to be the site’s primary focus—gets handled haphazardly at the end. Hence, elephant in the room, and hence also artist Kevin Cornell’s recent use of elephantine imagery to illustrate A List Apart articles on the subject. But I digress.

Without discounting the primacy of the content problem, we web design folk have now birthed ourselves a second lumbering mammoth, thanks to our interest in “real fonts on the web“ (the unfortunate name we’ve chosen for the recent practice of serving web-licensed fonts via CSS’s decade-old @font-face declaration—as if Georgia, Verdana, and Times were somehow unreal).

For the fact is, even bulletproof and mo’ bulletproofer @font-face CSS syntax aren’t really bulletproof if we care about looks and legibility across browsers and platforms.

Hyenas in the Breakfast Nook

The problem isn’t just that foundries have yet to agree on a standard font format that protects their intellectual property. And that, even when they do, it will be a while before all browsers support that standard—leaving aside the inevitable politics that impede all standardization efforts. Those are problems, but they’re not the elephant. Call them the coyotes in the room, and they’re slowly being tamed.

Nor is the problem that workable, scalable business models (of which Typekit‘s is the most visible and, so far, the most successful) are still being shaken out and tested. The quality and ease of use of such services, their stability on heavily visited sites (via massively backed-up server clusters), and the fairness and sustainability of their pricing will determine how licensing and serving “real fonts” works in the short and long term for the majority of designer/developers.

Nor is our primary problem that developers with no design background may serve ugly or illegible fonts that take forever to load, or fonts that take a long time to download and then display as ordinary system fonts (as happens on, say, about.validator.nu). Ugliness and poor optimization on the web are nothing new. That support for @font-face in Webkit and Mozilla browsers (and for TrueType fonts converted to Embedded OpenType in Internet Explorer) adds deadly weapons to the non-designer’s toolkit is not the technology’s fault. JavaScript and other essential web technologies are equally susceptible to abuse.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Rendering Engine

No, the real elephant in the room—the thing few web developers and no “web font” enthusiasts are talking about—has to do with legibility (or lack thereof) and aesthetics (or lack thereof) across browsers and platforms. Put simply, even fonts optimized for web use (which is a whole thing: ask a type designer) will not look good in every browser and OS. That’s because every browser treats hinting differently, as does every OS, and every OS version.

Firefox does its own thing in both Windows and Mac OS, and Microsoft is all over the place because of its need to support multiple generations of Windows and Cleartype and all kinds of hardware simultaneously. Thus “real type” on a single web page can look markedly different, and sometimes very bad, on different computers at the same company. If that web page is your company’s, your opinion of “web fonts” may suffer, and rightfully. (The advantage of Apple’s closed model, which not everyone likes, is that it allows the company to guarantee the quality and consistency of user experience.)

As near as my font designer friends and I can make out, Apple’s Webkit in Safari and iPhone ignores hinting and creates its own, which Apple thinks is better, and which many web designers think of as “what real type looks like.” The forked version of Webkit in Chrome, Android, and Palm Pre also creates its own hinting, which is close to iPhone’s—close enough that Apple, Palm, and Google could propose it as a standard for use in all browsers and platforms. Whether Firefox would embrace a theoretical Apple and Google standard is open to conjecture, and I somehow have difficulty imagining Microsoft buying in—even though they know the web is more and more mobile, and that means more and more of their customers are viewing web content in some version of Webkit.

The End of Simple

There are ways around this ugly type ugliness, but they involve complicated scripting and sniffing—the very nightmares from which web standards and the simplicity of @font-face were supposed to save us. I don’t know that even mighty Typekit has figured out every needed variation yet (although, working with foundries, they probably will).

For type foundries, the complexity and expense of rethinking classic typefaces to survive in these hostile environments may further delay widespread adoption of web fonts and the resolution of licensing and formatting issues. The complexity may also force designers (even those who prefer to own) to rely on a hosted rental model simply to outsource and stay current with the detection and programming required.

Forgive my tears. I stand in a potter’s field of ideas like “Keep it simple,” by a grave whose headstone reads “Write once, publish everywhere.”

About the author

Jeffrey Zeldman is the founder and executive creative director of Happy Cog™, an agency of web design specialists, and the co-founder (with Eric Meyer) of An Event Apart.

In 1995, the former art director and copywriter launched one of the first personal sites (Jeffrey Zeldman Presents) and began publishing web design tutorials. In 1998 he co-founded (and for several years led) The Web Standards Project, a grassroots coalition that brought standards to our browsers. That same year, he launched A List Apart “for people who make websites.”

Jeffrey has written many articles and two books, notably the foundational web standards text Designing With Web Standards, now in its third edition.

Photo: John Morrison

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