Web Typography panel at SxSW

The panel line-up (courtsey of Keith Muth)

I was proud to be a part of the Web Typography: Quit Bitchin’ & Get Your Glyph On! panel at SxSW 2009, along with Jon Tan, Ian Coyle, Elliot Jay Stocks and our super moderator Samantha Warren (photo above by Keith Muth). Thanks very much to all those attendees who tweeted and contributed to the discussion with some great questions (including Håkon Wium Lie, the inventor of CSS no less).

Apologies to the many folk who couldn’t get in. Typography panels are always really popular at SxSW, so it’s a shame we ended up in a relatively small room which had filled to capacity about 10 minutes before the start. Still, at least there was a choice of 18 other panels to attend at the time [ahem].

Anyway I thought I’d jot down some of the topics we discussed, and some we talked about beforehand but didn’t have time for. Samantha has put up a rather splendid page containing all the sites we mentioned, and I’ll link to the podcast entry as soon as it is up.

Squared Eye illustration of our panel
Illustration by Squared Eye

Why do designers bitch about web typography?

The transition from print (in particular, but also Flash and other mediums) to the web is hard because of the sense of giving up control. With the web, and HTML & CSS especially, designers no longer have any control of the medium. Will the reader be using paper? a laptop? their mobile device? There is no control or even knowledge of the size and shape of canvas, the typeface and size of the text. As a designer, if you can get your head around that you’re well on the way. You have to accept this limitation as a liberation, because it is the very nature of the Web.

It’s important to realise that readers control their own reading environment to a lesser or greater degree. But reliquishing control is not the same as giving up. You can still make assumptions about the medium, and make suggestions for how the material could be displayed. Stylesheets are nothing more than suggestions; suggestions which are often adhered to but sometimes ignored.

For example, an assumption you can make is that Times (New Roman) will be installed, about which Bringhurst had this to say:

When the only font available is Times New Roman, the typographer must make the most of its virtues. The typography should be richly and superbly ordinary, so that attention is drawn to the quality of the composition, not the individual letterforms.

This is the point. You work with what you’ve got, or what you’re likely to have. And you make that work hard. The classic example is Coudal’s design for the Seed Conference website, set entirely in Times.

Sketchnote of the panel
Sketchnote by Mike Rohde

Discuss current techniques for pushing typography online

What is holding us back? Is it the lack of typefaces? Right now there are six faces you can almost definitely rely on for body copy: the core webfonts of Times New Roman, Arial, Georgia, Verdana, Trebuchet and Comic Sans.

And there are a further five excellent faces with good distribution. These are the Cleartype fonts of Calibri, Cambria, Candara, Constantia and Corbel. The Cleartype fonts are distributed with Windows Vista, which has a penetration of about 40%, as well as the latest updates to the two most recent versions of Microsoft Office on Windows and Mac.

That’s eleven typefaces, which should be enough for any designer. And it’s important to remember that, from a technical perspective at the very least, these are quality fonts. They are well hinted for the screen, and have a complete – and in some cases extensive – character set. The Cleartype fonts also come equipped with a handful of ligatures (the older fonts don’t need them).

Plus there’s a load more fonts installed with Windows and Mac operating systems, as well as those installed with Microsoft Office. These include such worthwhile considerations as Gill Sans, Rockwell, Lucida Bright, Bell, Garamond and Cooper Black(!).

So availability of fonts is probably no excuse, but quality typesetting means attention to detail, and that takes time. So perhaps time is the sticking point?

Font linking and the future

Will @font-face font linking be the death nell or renaissance for typographers? It has to be viewed as a renaissance for typographers. The possibilities are huge. From a browser perspective it’s not the future, it’s here and it’s now, with various implementations in Internet Explorer 4 upwards, Safari, Firefox 3.1 and Opera 10.

Only two things are really limiting the uptake of font linking. One is Microsoft’s insistence on EOT (embedded OpenType). But this is little more than a moral or ethical argument. However much EOT smells of DRM-lite, it doesn’t really matter. Converting files to EOT and serving them to IE is just a technicality. A big pain-in-the-arse technicality, but one that we can already deal with.

The most important hurdle is font licensing. Without appropriate licensing, we’re all criminals. Foundries need to catch up and view this as an opportunity not a threat. Licenses need to be easy to find, easier to understand, and more accommodating to sensible and ethical uses of font linking.

For example it’s possible to use .htaccess to protect a file from direct linking or downloading. I’m already doing this on one site and I believe I’m honouring the font license – more to follow on how and why. But we can’t expect every Tom, Dick and Helen to be able to protect the font in this way, so perhaps a better solution is delegate the hosting to a trusted third party, or for font publishers and foundries to host the files themselves. Whatever the result, font foundries and type designers have to view font linking, not as a threat, but as an opportunity to make money and for their fonts to be used on a wider stage.

Sketchnote of the panel
Sketchnote by Mike Rohde