Old and resistant to change? Why embeddable fonts make me nervous...

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 7 June 2010

At the end of last week I gave a presentation to The Guardian's tech.dev team reducing the Future of Web Design conference down to about 20 minutes. I've already blogged extensively about it here and on guardian.co.uk.

One of the issues I talked about was the rise of the embeddable font service. Fontdeck (which Richard Rutter talked about at a London IA gathering), Typekit, and 'the service who had such a dreadful advertorial session at #fowd that I can't bear to name them' all revolve around a similar premise. You pay them for access to a font that is unlikely to come as a browser default, and they make your website appear on the client-side using that font.

It finally makes decent typography possible in the world wide web browser environment, and for some reason, it gives me the heebie-jeebies. But I've struggled to put my finger on exactly what disquiets me about the idea, and for the presentation at Kings Place I boiled it down to three key issues.

I've seen MySpace and Geocities

The trouble with unleashing a wave of typography options across the net is that you allow the possibility of custom dreadful typography. We've all seen the results of user-generated design on MySpace and Geocities. Imagine them powered with the choice of literally thousands of novelty fonts, and the ability to stretch, compress and adjust their properties. It just doesn't bear thinking about.

The resurrection of print design principles

I've spent over a decade in the production of digital content, and have had more than enough conversations about why web pages don't look the same from browser to browser, computer to computer or even monitor to monitor. Indeed, I still bitterly remember having a very difficult afternoon in the early 2000s with one client who simply could not understand why their precise shade of corporate blue looked different on my laptop from the shade appearing on their monitor.

I think I'm worried that unleashing a wider choice of precise typography onto the web will produce a whole new generation of marketing, management and non-technical people who think that they can now control exactly how their digital presence will look on every screen, bit of software, or device, because they've paid some money to have the correct font delivered. Which, almost certainly in the early years, will be a font optimised for the print experience (or the current media darling iPad), not for reading on a screen. Or a netbook screen. Or a television screen. Or a mobile phone screen.

Dumb terminal syndrome

When I worked at Reckless Records in the nineties, I had to run a UNIX network across three branches, using terminals for the tills. These poor little beasts barely had enough in-built processing power to set their own configuration options. I think I recoil from the idea that somehow my computer doesn't even know how to render the letters on a website unless it connects to some remote server to get the right font to do so.

"You are old and you hate change"

Having said all that at The Guardian, Dan Catt chipped in to suggest that my aversion was due to the fact that "You are old and you hate change".

He's probably right.

I'm sure there were people complaining that the introduction of <font color="blue"> in HTML 3.2 would unleash anarchy...


People are already screwing up TV/mobile/iPad/netbook/whatever design by assuming that one size fits all and that what they design on their 21" monitor will do regardless - be it font sizes, colours, amount of content. Yahoo's TV widgets for me were a prime example of someone applying web design to a TV set. Fonts too small, too much content etc etc. Anyway off the high horse for me!

Personally, I confess I got momentarily rather excited when I saw Google's font directory. "Yes!" I thought. "I can banish Verdana and Arial forever!"

Then I actually tried using the fonts on a test page, found for general body text all the fonts were awful. They'd look great as headings, but not for standard body text.

And perhaps that's the lesson people will need to learn from print design - most newspapers and magazines do have relatively simple, rather dull perhaps(?), fonts for articles.

But you're right - it'll take a while to get there :)

Choosing your own font face just gives people another option to screw it up big style :)

Restricting the range of fonts available to people to screen based ones won't stop people from making horrible, unreadable, make your eyes sad designs.

And although it might make for a few awkward discussion as clients press hard for fonts that won't work on a screen, as a designer it's part of my job to guide them to good decisions the same as with every other element that makes up a design. This shouldn't be any different I hope. They increasingly will be able to make bad decisions regarding fonts as this stuff gets more wide spread I guess but that will be the same for every advance in how we are able to display web pages.

I go to myspace pages everyday to listen to bands from the Guardian new band page, I've seen the horror. But sometimes in what is a very conservative online design world unusable myspace pages can be a real breath of fresh air and creativity.

It feels kind of wrong to say we don't want people to have access to a large number of fonts to protect them from themselves (or us from them). There is a place for well thought out, beautiful and useful design, and a place for the kind of wonderfully horrible mess that happens whenever people try and express themselves with more enthusiasm than skill.

Personally, I'm happy to accept a lot of weird and badly designed sites in order to get a greater variety of visual vocabulary into the well designed and usable sites. In fact I kind of like the anarchy of myspace, or how personal sites by tech heads and designers in the 90's were all different and very expressive (if a nightmare to use). As long I don't need to grind my way through them myself if I need to go shopping, banking, studying etc ....

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