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Designing For The Switch

For a long time on the web, we’ve been typographically spoilt. Yes, you heard me correctly. Think about it: our computers come with web fonts already installed; fonts that have been designed specifically to work well online and at small size; and fonts that we can be sure other people have too.

Yes, we’ve been spoilt. We don’t need to think about using Verdana, Arial, Georgia or Cambria.

Yet, for a long time now, designers have felt we needed more. We want to choose whatever typeface we feel necessary for our designs. We did bad things along the way in pursuit of this goal such as images for text. Smart people dreamt up tools to help us such as sIFR, or Cufón. Only fairly recently, @font-face is supported in most browsers. The floodgates are opening. It really is the dawn of a new typographic era on the web. And we must tread carefully.

The New Typesetters

Many years ago, before the advent of desktop publishing, if you wanted words set in a particular typeface, you had to go to a Typesetter. A Typesetter, or Compositor, as they were sometimes called, was a person whose job it was to take the written word (in the form of a document or manuscript) and ‘set’ the type in the desired typeface. The designer would chose what typeface they wanted – and all the ligatures, underlines, italics and whatnot – and then scribble all over the manuscript so the typesetter could set the correct type.

Then along came Desktop Publishing and every Tom, Dick and Harry could choose type on their computer and an entire link in the typographic chain was removed within just a few years. Well, that’s progress I guess. That was until six months ago when Typesetting was reborn on the web in the guise of a font service: Typekit.

Typekit – and services like Typekit such as Typotheque, Kernest and the upcoming Fontdeck – are typesetting services for the web. You supply them with your content, in the form of a webpage, and they provide you with some JavaScript to render that webpage in the typeface you’ve specified simply by adding the font name in your CSS file.

Thanks to services like these, font foundries are now talking to create licensing structures to allow us to embed fonts into our web pages legally – which has always been a sticking point in the past. So, finally, us designers can get what we want: whatever typeface we want on the web.

Yes, but… there are hurdles. One of which is the subject of this article.

The differences between Web Fonts and other fonts

Web fonts are different to normal fonts. They differ in a whole bunch of ways, from loose letter spacing to larger x-heights. But perhaps the most notable practical difference is file size. Let’s take a look at one of Typekit’s latest additions from the FontFont library, Meta.

Meta Roman weighs in at 42 KB. This is a fairly typical file size for a single weight of a good font. Now, let’s have a look at Verdana. Verdana is 186 KB. For one weight. The four weight family for Verdana weighs in at 686 KB. Four weights for half a megabyte!? Why so huge?

Well, Verdana has a lot of information packed into its 186 KB. It has the largest hinting data table of any typeface (the information carried by a font that tells it how to align itself to the pixels on your screen). As it has been shipped with Microsoft products since 1996, it has had time to grow to support many, many languages. Along with its cousin, Georgia (283 KB), Verdana was a new breed of typeface. And it’s grown fat.

If really serious web typography takes off – and by that I mean typefaces specifically designed for the screen – then we’re going to see more fonts increase in file size as the font files include more data. So, if you’re embedding a font weighing in at 100 KB, what happens?

The Flash of Unstyled Text

We all remember the Flash of Unstyled Content bug on Internet Explorer, right? That annoying bug that caused a momentary flash of unstyled HTML page. Well, the same thing can happen with embedding fonts using @font-face. An effect called The Flash of Unstyled Text (FOUT), first coined by Paul Irish. Personally, I prefer to call it the Flash of UnTypeset Text (still FOUT), as the text is styled, just not with what you want.

If you embed a typeface in your CSS, then the browser will download that typeface. Typically, browsers differ in the way they handle this procedure.

Firefox and Opera will render the text using the next font in your font stack until the first (embedded) font is loaded. It will then switch to the embedded font.

Webkit takes the approach that you asked for that font so it will wait until it’s completely loaded before showing it you.

In Opera and Firefox, you get a FOUT. In Webkit, you don’t. You wait.

Hang on there. Didn’t I say that good web fonts weigh in considerably more than ‘normal’ fonts? And whilst the browser is downloading the font, the user gets what to look at? Some pictures, background colours and whatever else isn’t HTML? I believe Webkit’s handling of font embedding – as deliberate as it is – is damaging to the practice of font embedding. Why? Well, we can design to a switch in typeface (as jarring as that is for the user), but we can’t design to blank space.

Let’s have a closer look at how we can design to FOUT.

More considered font stacks

We all know that font stacks in CSS are there for when a user doesn’t have a font; the browser will jump to the next one in the stack. Adding embedded fonts into the font stack means that because of FOUT (in gecko and Opera), the user can see a switch, and depending on their connection that switch could happen well into any reading that the user may be doing.

The practicalities of this are that a user could be reading and be towards the end of a line when the paragraph they are reading changes shape. The word they were digesting suddenly changes to three lines down. It’s the online equivalent of someone turning the page for you when you least expect it. So, how can we think about our font stacks slightly differently so we can minimise the switch?

Two years ago, Richard Rutter wrote on this very site about increasing our font stacks. By increasing the font stacks (by using his handy matrix) we can begin to experiment with different typefaces. However, when we embed a typeface, we must look very carefully at the typefaces in the font stack and the relationship between them. Because, previously, the user would not see a switch from one typeface to another, they’d just get either one or the other. Not both. With FOUT, the user sees two typefaces.

By carefully looking at the characteristics of the typefaces you choose, you can minimise the typographic ‘distance’ between the type down the stack. In doing so, you minimise the jarring effect of the switch.

Let’s take a look at an example of how to go about this.

Micro Typography to build better font stacks

Let’s say I want to use a recent edition to Typekit – Meta Serif Book – as my embedded font. My font stack would start like this:

font-family: 'Meta Serif Bold'; 

Where do you go from here? Well, first, familiarise yourself with Richard’s Font Matrix so you get an idea of what fonts are available for different people. Then start by looking closely at the characters of the embedded font and then compare them to different fonts from the matrix.

When I do this, I’m looking to match type characteristics such as x-height, contrast (the thickness and thinness of strokes), the stress (the angle of contrast) and the shape of the serifs (if the typeface has any).


Using just these simple comparative metrics means you can get to a ‘best fit’ reasonably quickly. And remember, you’re not after an ideal match. You’re after a match that means the switch is less painful for the reader, but also a typeface that carries similar characteristics so your design doesn’t change too much.

Building upon my choice of embedded font, I can quickly build up a stack by comparing letters.


This then creates my ‘best fit’ stack.


This translates to the CSS as:

font-family: 'Meta Serif Bold', 'Lucida Bright', Cambria, Georgia, serif 

Following this process, and ending up with considered font stacks, means that we can design to the Flash of UnTypeset Content and ensure that our readers don’t get a diminished experience.

About the author

Mark Boulton is a graphic designer from near Cardiff in the UK. He used to work as a Senior Designer for the BBC, before he took leave of his senses and formed his own design consultancy, Mark Boulton Design. He studied typography, enjoys watching a good boxing match, and is partial to a really good cuppa.

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