The changing fonts of web typography

Web typography has long been hampered by a limited choice of fonts and poor display results, but this could be about to change. Scott Billings looks at what embedded fonts and next-generation browsers can offer designers

Selecting the right typography for any piece of design, communication or branding can be vexing at the best of times. There are a lot of great typefaces to choose from, each with particular characteristics and dynamics that colour the way a design communicates. So it’s a shame that the most powerful, far-reaching communications platform in history – the Internet – is hampered by the availability of little more than a handful of genuinely suitable typefaces.

At this year’s Typo Berlin design conference, typographic consultant Adam Twardoch intends to address the issue. Initially lamenting the lack of creative freedom in Web design when it comes to type, Twardoch now points to a change for the better. Improved screen displays, better character rendering and a rise in ’embedding’ fonts in Web pages could all breathe new life into typography on-line.

‘The point is that fonts such as Verdana and Georgia have been more or less the defaults for Web use for over ten years,’ says Twardoch. ‘They are excellent fonts that have been well hinted [adjusted for better display at different sizes] for the screen. It used to be a requirement to have these manually “super-hinted” fonts to get a decent result, but that’s much less the case now.’

So what’s changed? Rasterizers – the software that converts the original letterform for display on a screen – have improved significantly. Microsoft’s ClearType technology, for example, reduces the need for manually hinted typefaces, says Twardoch. Also, screen resolutions have got higher. If typeface information is set up to scale properly, these higher resolutions can deliver a much finer level of detail. Finally, Web browsers have become more sophisticated, with zoom functions that allow users to set their own level of magnification, scaling type accurately. ‘But there’s still not much choice. We have Arial, Verdana, Georgia, Times and maybe Trebuchet,’ notes Twardoch.

For designers and businesses using type in corporate branding, this is limiting. One way around the problem is to build websites using Flash technology rather than html. Flash gives much greater creative flexibility with type, essentially by embedding the font information in the Flash file itself. But compared with html, Flash compromises a page’s text ‘searchability’, one of the Web’s primary strengths.

The poor choice of typefaces for html-based Web design is partly to do with the way fonts are licenced/ computers use system fonts that are bundled in – and paid for – with the operating system. Licences for additional fonts must be purchased from the type foundries. Perhaps understandably, these foundries don’t necessarily want their typefaces to be embedded in a Web page and downloaded, for free and automatically, by a Web browser visiting that page.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has supported some embedded fonts for several years, but it places restrictions on which sites can display them. The next generation of browsers may open this up completely. It would be the first time designers can use an ‘arbitrary’ font, knowing it will look how they intended rendered on a latest-version browser.

‘Embedded fonts have been talked about for a couple of years and will offer far greater diversity and visual appeal, enabling designers to translate more of the off-line brand experience to on-line,’ explains Neil Campbell, director of digital consultancy Camber Group. ‘But it does throw up some issues. We need clarification on whether embedding a font that is subsequently downloaded to a user’s machine constitutes a breach of the copyright licensing from the font foundry. Does embedding a font classify as distribution?’ he asks.

According to Twardoch, many font vendors feel that letting browsers download verbatim font sets is a step too far and it’s not covered by standard end-user licence agreements. Some foundries have special licences for this, at a price, and some do not allow it at all, according to Julie Strawson, European director of marketing for Monotype Imaging, which offers a ‘competitive’ licence for such ‘third-party distribution’.

There’s a lot of legal and technical wrangling here, but greater typographic freedom on the Web would be a boon. And if the licensing structures are conducive to uptake – not cripplingly expensive – we may see what Twardoch describes as an ‘avalanche’ of new approaches, brushing away the ‘glossy, trendy, standardised style of Web 2.0’.

But Campbell warns that the medium will be hampered for a while yet by legacy technologies and licencing confusion. ‘It seems that designing for the Web is a quiet battle of working within a world of opportunity and interactivity, but also serious constraints. Embedded fonts in html will undoubtedly offer greater choice to those of us with a love of typography, but it’s hardly the promised land,’ he says.

Typo Berlin 2008, from 29-31 May at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin

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