Can Typekit Bring Fonts to the Web?

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By: Andrei Herasimchuk | September 23, 2009

When I first heard about Typekit, a new service that aims to bring typography to the web, I was skeptical. I’ve been around the high-tech sector long enough to know that most of these new products are a rehash of technologies past. And from what I had heard, Typekit just sounded like another way to hack fonts on the web. Methods like sIFR and Cúfon already exist, and though successful, they’re not the most elegant ways to address a very real problem: Designers have seven core fonts to use reliably on the web, and four of those are horrendous.

Then I read the blog post announcing Typekit—a post that garnered 328 comments in three days—and talked to a few other people about what the service actually was going to be. Quietly, I started to feel that kind of anticipation one gets when a really great movie is about to be released. Could it be real?

Jeffrey Veen, the founder of Silicon Valley start-up Small Batch and the brains behind Typekit, started out as HotWired’s lead interface designer in the early days of the web boom, then went on to become a founding member of Adaptive Path, a design and technology-services company in the Bay Area. From there, he helped design what became Google Analytics. Last Christmas, when he met up with John Allsopp, a prominent web designer and developer,the conversation turned to @font-face and how to make it work, given the current licensing models.

@font-face gives web designers the ability to use additional fonts beyond the usual seven available from OS manufacturers, including access to features in OpenType like ligatures and swashes. You can now de-

sign for the web the way you design print, motion, or any other media. The problem is that, although the World Wide Web Consortium has created a standard to render fonts in a web page via a CSS rule, @font-face still leaves the fonts acces­sible on a web server. Anyone who knows how to find the font can then download it easily without paying for it. Type foundries, in an act of self-preservation, have written licenses to exclude this behavior, fearing (with good reason) that if their fonts are opened up for download, people will just copy them endlessly from servers around the world. So while designers can use @font-face, oftentimes in doing so they are violating the license and breaking the law.

Veen proposes a different model. “I basically realized what was needed was to build fonts as a service,” he says. Rather than attempt to sell fonts for individual computer use, which is how most type foundries treat the licensing of their fonts, the service sells access to fonts for the explicit purpose of being used on the web, built in a similar way to Google AdWords or Amazon Web Services. Typekit is most innovative as a business model—the technology it’s based on has been around for a few years.

The Typekit plan, then, asks users to create an account and pay a fee to access licensed fonts that type foundries have approved to be served up on the web via @font-face. Once you have an account, you’ll gain access to the approved fonts and won’t need to purchase them for your own computer as long as you intend to use the fonts solely on the web. It works in much the same way that other web services do: You inject a little bit of JavaScript into your site that authenticates your account and domain, and then provides access to fonts made available by the Typekit server.

Small Batch is providing online tools to help you write the JavaScript and CSS needed to access the fonts from their servers, but you can also code this by hand if you choose. On the back end, the fonts are obscured before being served, and Small Batch has tried to make it difficult to steal them for use outside the intended purpose. Though someone could find a way to access the fonts, just as people have figured out how to get free copies of all types of design software, it’s much more difficult than with the @font-face version. What Typekit offers is an alternative for designers to access a wide variety of fonts for the web, legally and with a clear conscience. At the very least, it’s a step up from the current system.There are two important questions, however. First, how much will it cost? Veen is hesitant to answer directly. He hopes that designers will pay somewhere between $50 to $150 a year for an account; large corporate accounts will cost more. Veen’s primary concern, however, is to create a price point that will let nondesigners access fonts for their blogs or other emerging online presences. It’s here that Veen thinks Small Batch has a big opportunity to expand the typography market.

The second question is whether the foundries will sign on. Some remain skeptical, although Veen says that smaller foundries are enthusiastic, seeing the service as a way to access a whole new market. Meanwhile, the big foundries are trying to avoid the hard lessons of the music industry.

Will Typekit be the way to reinvent typography and, as a result, the design of the web itself? This designer is hopeful that the result matches the expectations.