The Future of Web Fonts Is Sooner Than It Used To Be

"LettError" magazine feature spread about a class of fonts in which each character appears differently every time it's displayed or printed, by Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, 1989.

In his opening keynote, Roger Black couldn’t have been more succinct: The future of typography is “all about screen fonts.”

So naturally, for  TypeCon 2010′s “The Future is Now” panels, the topic was “Web Fonts.” And for the second half, the stage was packed with 14 typography-related business people. Okay, businessmen. The full session ran 2 1/2 hours, and the audience still wanted to ask more questions when the time was up. And this was the last of a long day of heavy-duty presentations. And, the group’s next destination was to be the hotel bar.

Doyald Young accepts his award from SOTA Board Director James Grieshaber. Photo by M. Dooley.

TypeCon is put together every year by The Society of Typographic Aficionados. Around 400 letter lovers from around the globe gathered earlier this month at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles to participate in workshops and special events, to view the films and the poster exhibit, to network, and mostly, to hear the talks. There were more than 100 speakers, running the – alphabetical – gamut from Sean Adams, Marian Bantjes, Denise Gonzales Crisp, Johanna Drucker, through Sumner Stone and Deborah Sussman, to Doyald Young, this year’s SOTA typography award winner. The topics themselves were wide ranging, stimulating, and full of surprises. Type designer Nadine Chahine’s discourse on the links between Arabic calligraphy and belly dancing, complete with video, was among the more provocative; she even inspired Ed Fella to later quip that the next time he presents his typography, he’s going to do the Twist.

"Should you be out of my sight, never to my heart" – Abu-l-'Atahiya (Modern style), calligraphy by Wissam Shawkat. From "Arabic Calligraphy and Dance," Nadine Chahine's TypeCon presentation.

By most measures, the entire event was a rousing success. It ran for five solid days, from 9 in the morning on Wednesday, August 18th through Sunday night around 11. The official kickoff was on the 17th, with an evening mixer at Otis College of Art and Design, titled “WTF is WOFF?” (The answer, in four words, is “Web Open Font Format.”) This was also the day when W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, an international organization that develops technical standards and guidelines for the web, announced the launch of WOFF 1.0.

WOFF is a packaging format to provide a platform for delivering font data. It’s intended to dramatically expand and enhance the use of high quality web typography for all browsers. It is still in its early stages and is trying to get a consensus of agreement between a variety of interests: browser vendors, type foundries, and font service providers.

WOFF’s viability as “the format of the future” was the main focus of “Web Fonts.” In addition to Roger Black (Font Bureau), who I’d interviewed about TypeCon a few days before the event, panelists included Simon Daniels (Microsoft), Bill Davis (Ascender), John Hudson (Tiro Typeworks), Shu-Yun Lai (Pereira & O’Dell), Tal Leming (Type Supply), Vladimir Levantovsky (Monotype Imaging), Raph Levien (Google), Chris Lilley (W3C), Tom Phinney (Extensis), Christopher Slye (Adobe), Adam Twardoch (FontLab/MyFonts), and Erik van Blokland (LettError), with Bryan Mason (Typekit) moderating.

Louise Sandhaus photographs work in TypeCon's poster exhibit. Photo by M. Dooley.

Although most in attendance were upbeat at the notion of a universal solution for advancing typography on the web, I did hear some post-panel discontent. One type designer was terrified at the prospect of granting decision-making powers to search engine companies, saying that it looks like Google is now replacing Microsoft as the devil. Self-described “smartass” Jeffery Keedy is also somewhat less than optimistic. I’ve gathered reflections from him and several other audience members, which I’ve included below. And, I have additional feedback from two of the panelists: Lilley, W3C’s fonts activity lead, and Van Blokland, one of the WOFF authors. And even though Matthew Carter, who was conducting type critiques at TypeCon, missed the panel, I’m including him in the dialogue as well.

And you should also be heard, so submit your own perspectives in the “comments” section.

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Matthew Carter
Type Designer

I didn’t attend the Web Fonts discussions, so I can’t comment directly on that. But a couple of more general points…

My company, Carter & Cone Type, has a very close working relationship with the Font Bureau. We share the rights to several typefaces. As far as our plans are concerned we will take part in the Font Bureau/Ascender Webtype strategy.

I have been urging the swift introduction of a wide range of excellent web fonts. As the designer of Verdana and Georgia, two out of a limited number of screen fonts that have been available until now, I have incurred the hatred of web designers who are tired of having so few choices. I hope a supply of more web fonts will get them off my back.

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Raph Levien, Chris Lilley, Bill Davis, Tom Phinney, Vladimir Levantovsky, Christopher Slye, John Hudson. Photos by M. Dooley.

Chris Lilley
Technical Director, Interaction Domain, W3C

I have been trying to get a workable solution for fonts on the web for over a decade. Some of our early work on describing font characteristics for stylesheets formed part of CSS2 and is now in CSS3. Some of it, such as work on “intelligent font matching,” ran into internationalization issues and was never completed; it has now been set to one side. And some, such as downloadable fonts, was under-implemented at the time because we were unable then to agree on a single, standard format for font downloads. This was a blocking issue back then.

It’s exciting, therefore – and I have a sense of “finally! about time!” – to see a broad consensus formed around WOFF. Especially after the battles of the last few years when other proposals, such as Embedded OpenType and its derivatives, were under discussion.

I saw a tweet at TypeCon that commented on the very different atmosphere this year compared to last. A productive feeling. Everyone moving in the same direction. Last year, people were worrying about potential problems. This year, they are announcing new fonts, new services, new license schemes, new business models. In summary, WOFF has happened, it has been accepted both by the type foundries and by the browser implementers, and it is in use today.

This means that we can start to see the advantages of downloadable fonts, for web designers and for readers. Better typographic control, for design and branding. Less need for “images of text,” which means that the text is searchable, can be translated, and is accessible: for example, it can be converted to spoken text for blind users.

It’s finally happening.
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Annie Olsen at ATypI in Mexico City. Photo © 2009 Henrique Nardi.

Annie Olsen
Type Designer, Non-Roman Script Initiative at SIL International

I was very encouraged to hear such an obvious attitude of cooperation and unity among the panelists, who represented very different facets of the issue. A similar panel at TypeCon 2007 – or maybe it was 2008 – was not at all unified, and discussion was, at best, stiff and formal. Add in some of the audience questions and it got downright contentious. Font designers wanting to protect their intellectual property were at odds with web designers who wanted to use those fonts, and arrayed against both were the browser developers who weren’t sure how to serve both groups well. At least, that was my impression of it all.

What made the difference this year was that a standard has been agreed upon: WOFF. And because of that agreement, everyone can now move forward creatively within that standard.

It’s an exciting time, really!

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Richard Rutter
Web Designer, Director at Clearleft and Cofounder of Fontdeck

As a web designer I’m incredibly excited about the prospect of web fonts. I’ve been designing websites for nearly 15 years, but the whole time I’ve been stuck with the same few typefaces. It is difficult to create a unique presence online for a client if the only faces you have at your disposal are Verdana and Georgia, as well designed as those may be. So like every other web designer, I’ve resorted to text as images, Flash or JavaScript hacks, which goes against much of what the web can offer as a medium.

When you have real text on a web site, it’s quick and easy to style, it’s Google-friendly, it can be translated, it can be resized by the reader, and it can be read out loud by accessibility devices. Web fonts give all the advantages of real text, and all the design flexibility of graphics.

Surely, it’s really important that type designers recognize this huge new medium and market. Now that us web designers have gotten a taste for font choice, we want more. This is one of the reasons I set up Fontdeck: not only to give web designers like me a wide choice of fonts with which to design, but also to ensure type designers’ work is protected and rewarded.

There are other reasons I’m excited about the future of type on the web. With CSS 3 being supported in the latest versions of all browsers – fortunately, Internet Explorer 9 is joining the party, too – web designers will start to have the kind of font control that has been enjoyed in the print world for decades. I’m talking about ligatures, kerning, tabular and old style figures, proper small caps, alternate glyphs, and more weights than just regular and bold.

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Leslie Cabarga
Graphic Designer, Type Designer, Author

Along with many other designers, I’m currently scratching my head about web fonts. I’m waiting for the issue to sort of shake out, and for a set of standards to be developed with guidelines I can simply follow.

I’ve never been a stickler about text type. When it comes to the web, I don’t really think it matters whether I use Garamond or Verdana. I think it’s mainly about legibility. And that’s because, although resolutions are increasing and improving on all the sorts of new devices for which content is being developed, I ultimately think reading digitally is annoying to the eyes and that it’s okay if we make concessions to the inadequacies of such mediums.

If I’ve got a really sensational, well-written story with great graphics on my site, will you really go instead to a more boring site because it has Garamond with really well-rendered serifs?

It seems that web fonts are really about kids getting to use wacky styles on their sites, which we can already do with Flash. On the other hand, the ability of designers and foundries to get compensated for usage and reap additional sales from such web usages is important. Like the rest of us designers, I’m a type nut, but perhaps I don’t take the whole topic quite so seriously.

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Ian Lynam
Principal, Ian Lynam Creative Direction & Design

What we are seeing is the beginning of a tide-shift in typography for the web. It is a nascent change that is long overdue, and one that will continue in development for years. Current predictions would, and will, quickly fall into the murky terrain that is now inhabited by the iPad and was formerly dominated by the advent of the CD-ROM, et al. More sophisticated web typography will become standard. However, the gestation period is highly dependent upon browser developers.

We are merely seeing the initial toes being dipped in the proverbial waters for the first time. How @font-face related services, products, and implementation moves along is highly dependent on a number of variables, although one is overwhelming: Microsoft’s adoption of this technology to their older browsers.

With a “simple” upgrade to older browsers, the world – meaning the large portion of the human populace with PC access who know no better than to use Internet Explorer for web browsing – would have access to different typefaces other than system fonts. That would potentially spark the “revolution” in typography for the web that many are clamoring for.

In the meantime, while we are wishing our hearts out for a more sophisticated set of typographic standards for the web, it’d sure be great to get granular control over hyphenation, as that would increase readability for the web a hundredfold.

It’s all coming. Just a matter of when.

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Shu-Yun Lai, Adam Twardoch, Roger Black, Tal Leming, Erik van Blokland, Simon Daniels, Bryan Mason. Photos by M. Dooley.

Erik van Blokland
LettError Type & Typography

Tal Leming and I got involved on the W3C fonts mailing list and more or less treated it as a design exercise: listen to the different parties and define something that would address most of their needs. The ideas behind WOFF managed to get the support of a fair number of type foundries, which in turn led to the interest and support of browser developers. Eventually W3C chartered a working group to take WOFF and deliver a specification for an interoperable font format.

Then it went fast: now all major browsers have support for WOFF in the pipeline. Firefox has WOFF support in their released products. Several foundries and web services are licensing fonts in WOFF format. Microsoft’s IE9 has WOFF support and is working hard on improving the rasterization of CFF based OTF fonts. The W3C process really works.

I think it was time type folks got involved in this dialogue. Type is a very important factor in communication, style, structure, language, script. Foundries have a lot of experience to contribute. Some of the reluctance to get fonts on the web comes from the long development times for typefaces and the small margins associated with that. Type foundries have no venture capital to throw around, so they have to maneuver carefully.

It is interesting to see different models being tried out at the moment, fonts as a service, renting fonts and so on. But WOFF itself is not limited to a specific licensing and business model. And as a member of the working group I have no preference, but as a type designer I do have some ideas.

It is certainly a topic that will be discussed in upcoming times.
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Frank Wildenberg
Managing Director of Linotype

The session’s discussion about anti-piracy protection of WOFF was needless, in my mind. The current fonts used for print have no protection against piracy either, beside serialization of the fonts which allow an identification of the original legal customer. And even the music industry, which was so sworn to Digital Rights Management, has learned in the meantime that user friendliness suffers to an unacceptable degree with DRM.

Since the start of DTP in the eighties, the font business has been based on trust. There is no technical barrier against installing fonts on more than the licensed number of computers. It’s all about educating the customers regarding the licensed rights. WOFF includes the “garden fence” protection: it avoids the accidental misuse by customers or by visitors to the customers’ site.

I am convinced that our customers, who want to have their own creative work to be respected and properly compensated, will also respect and properly compensate the creative work of the type designers and foundries.

We, as the people who are driving the font business, should educate our customers accordingly. And we should convince them with the added value we provide, rather than bother them with DRM. Then we all will see a web full of typographic variety that we have been used to for years with printed material.

Being able to use the same fonts on the web as all other marketing communication has been a dream for many web designers and those responsible for marketing. It not only provides a consistent corporate identity over all channels without the need to convert text into pictures – which cannot be search engine optimized or provide possibilities for text to speech for web users with visual impairments – it also gives web designers the creative freedom which graphic designers have had for decades.

It has been a dream for years, and the first steps had been done several years ago. But only the last two years has brought an substantial movement towards a solution, when type designers, foundries, and browser manufacturers started an open discussion about the topic.

The involvement of W3C with establishing a WebFonts Working Group under Monotype’s Vladimir Levantovsky, as well as the development of WOFF by Tal Leming, Erik van Blokland, and Mozilla’s Jonathan Kew and the quick acceptance of WOFF within the major foundries, have changed the situation significantly.

When Microsoft’s Simon Daniels announced at last year’s ATypI in Mexico City that future versions of Internet Explorer will also support WOFF, the next big step forward had been made.

There is no foundry that is not offering, or at least working on, a solution of offering fonts for the web.

Web fonts will soon be a reality, although we will still see some challenges with different rendering, in different browsers, and on different platforms. The short term solution for this are display-optimized fonts. With the next browser generations and future display resolutions, this issue will be minor. But it will take time until all web users will have updated their systems.

The updating cycle makes it also necessary to provide web fonts in different formats, as many of the existing browsers still require different font formats such as EOT (light), Raw OpenType, SVG, or WOFF. This complexity is currently solved by web font services, such as provided by Monotype, Typekit or others, that host the fonts for the customer and provide the right font for each visitor to the customer’s web site. The format depends each time on the browser the visitor uses.

The alternative would be not serving the new richness of the web to those visitors with outdated browsers.

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The Groop tapes a TypeCon interview with attendee Mr. Keedy. Photo by M. Dooley.

Mr. Keedy
Educator, Graphic Designer, Type Designer

Listening to the Web Fonts panel discussion seemed like I could have been at a conference for musicians and composers in which a panel from Napster was telling us how exciting it was now that they could make all of our music available for free! Every time they said web fonts, I kept hearing “free font.”

Given the history of font protection and digital technology, a certain amount of paranoia and suspicion is unavoidable. Whatever happens is going to happen not because of what technology makes possible or what typographers want, but what the major corporate players can profit the most from.

If type designers can make the case that protecting the intellectual property of font developers – or at least acknowledging it – is in their long term interest, then that is probably the most we can hope for.

The tail doesn’t wag the dog.

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End title artwork for "Saint Joan" by Harold Adler, 1957. From "Title Man," Jill Bell's TypeCon presentation.

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15 COMMENTS

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  7. Disagree with the notion by si that “WOFF effectively separates the web fonts market from the traditional graphic designer fonts market”. How so? WOFF is a zip format for fonts, that’s all. Easily unpacked and installed – even if the underlying OTF or TTF has hidden hacks designed to make them less easy to install. But installed they will be – especially if font producers don’t “sensibly” provide OTF/TTF files so that accurate comps can be provided to clients.
    And what *shall* we do with those pesky Internet Explorer users for the next ten years as we await IE8s final passing from the scene? Any strategy must include EOT in the near term.
    And WOFF does nothing to assist with alternative techniques for font rendering within browsers, such as SVG and Canvas.
    WOFF was and is the product of a negotiation over legal concerns and claims of copyright privilege, nothing else. If all browsers supported OTF CFF and TrueType, we’d be in essentially the same place. I *do* like WOFF being a compressed format, however. There’s a value in that, at least.

  8. I’d disagree on the Napterization of fonts concern. What those hardworking “major corporate players” Erik, Tal and Jonathan have achieved with WOFF is to effectively separate the web fonts market from the traditional graphic designer fonts market – although some players will sensibly bundle WOFF and OTF desktop fonts together. As far as the new web fonts market there will Napster style offerings, along with Zune Pass, and iTunes models as well.

  9. Good panel. Long past time this issue was fixed. Still think that the current approach will mean the Napsterization of fonts – but think that’s inevitable. My first visit for more than a year to a Borders bookstore yesterday was a rude awakening – the music section, which used to occupy a whole department of the store, was now ONE set of 10′ shelving. I don’t think online revenue has replaced a fraction of previous music industry revenue.

  10. I think it’s interesting how you book end your article with “artifacts” from 1989 – opening with Leterrors journal page and closing with Jeffrey Keedy. Sweet!

  11. Michael – I really liked your coverage of TypeCon and the web fonts presentations/discussions, and how you brought in a range of comments from those at TypeCon. For those of us in the font community these are exciting times indeed! Web fonts represents an entirely new opportunity for us to create and provide new typographic tools for web designers & developers. It feels like 1985 all over again when desktop publishing emerged. The impact of web fonts will be best measured in five or ten years.

    One point I’d like to clarify. Web fonts work TODAY. Right now! Yes there is some confusion around this because of the variety of companies that are rolling out web font services (we have two different sites, http://www.FontsLive.com and http://www.Webtype.com – is this adding to the confusion?).

    My point is that there are numerous solutions available, and I would encourage designers to start now to learn more about web fonts and how they will impact font selection and typography on the web. The time is now for web designers and developers to start exploring and experimenting with enhancing their websites with real fonts.

  12. What a wonderfully expansive article on a very rewarding experience, Mr. Dooley. Thank you.
    I met and discussed such great things with such interesting people that it was truly a priceless experience. Not all people would enjoy such a conference but I certainly did. I’ll be going again and again.

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