On fonts for the Web

The availability of fonts for use on the Web, or more specifically the lack thereof, has been getting some welcome attention recently. First up, Andrei Herasimchuk has made an impassioned plea to John Warnock, CEO of Adobe, to release eight to twelve core fonts into the public domain. This is a fabulous idea and would be a most welcome move from a company that is owning an increasing amount of the Web design workflow.

Andrei goes on with an additional request; that is for Warnock to get Microsoft and Apple to include these core fonts in their respective operating systems. This request is by far the most important. The very purpose of having a lovely free set of fonts to specify is completely negated if these fonts are not distributed to a significant majority of personal computers across the world.

As Jeff Croft points out, Microsoft has a new set of typefaces waiting in the wings. Currently it seems these are tabled to appear only in Vista, whenever that eventually comes out. The new Vista fonts (the C-fonts as I like to call them) are pretty good, especially on-screen, and as such Jeff rightly pleads with Microsoft to distribute them to XP users (maybe with the IE7 update), and with Apple to license them from Microsoft. Perhaps including them with the next upgrade to Office on both operating systems would go some way to achieving distribution.

The holy grail

This is good stuff and, should it come to fruition, having another fifteen (or even just five) typefaces for body copy on the Web would be of great benefit to us all (as designers and end users). But it’s not exactly the holy grail. Earlier this year, that was brought back into discussion by Bert Bos, and is of course downloadable fonts.

Since the advent of CSS2, the syntax has been available:

@font-face {
  font-family: "Swiss 721";
  src: url("swiss721.pfr");

And there were partial implementations with Microsoft’s WEFT which only worked in IE, and Bitstream which only worked in Netscape 4; these systems failed to take off. The only font embedding system for HTML pages that has had any traction at all is sIFR, a clever hack using JavaScript and Flash: Javascript to manipulate the webpage and Flash to provide the embedded font.

So Flash can happily embed fonts, as can PDF, and both are practically ubiquitous Web technologies. This implies that the technical and digital rights issues that are often mentioned as stumbling blocks have already been solved. What is left to do is work out a way of getting that technology into ordinary webpages, and given that we’re talking about Flash and PDF, it probably means we’re once again looking to Adobe for this.

What’s required is a tool to create the downloadable font (possibly derived from Acrobat or Flash) and a way of getting the font rendering into all browsers, so that browsers can use the @font-family construct. Now I realise perfectly well that the last point is non-trivial, but seems to me that Flash could be a useful vehicle for this, perhaps along the lines of building something akin to sIFR directly into Flash Player. What do you think? Is this utterly naive technically or politically? Or with some will is it actually feasible? I’d like to hear some sensible arguments as to why not – just imagine how good the outcome good be.

On the subject of typefaces, Cameron Moll recently published a list of typefaces no one gets fired for using, along with a call for your own suggestions. On a similar note, Dan Mall has listed “=fonts that you should get fired for using, or at least overused fonts that should be retired.

And finally, we must remember that typography is not all about fonts. A lot of good can be done with what we have to hand – I’d much rather see designers use Georgia well than use Warnock badly. And on that note, my long suffering Web Typography project progresses at a glacial pace, but progresses none-the-less. The latest instalment to Vertical Motion covers an oft-ignored typographical detail.