Fonts and the Visual Design of Web Pages

HTML was not made for visual designers–certainly not in the beginning. It was built on markup languages that were intended to capture the organization and functionality of documents and document elements, not their appearance. It was intended to be flexible in its presentation, independent of visual layout and style. Database designers understood this. Visual designers hated it. They have been striving ever since to twist it to their purposes.

In many ways they have succeeded. Netscape’s introduction of the now-deprecated <font> tag in 1995 was the first crack in the facade. Tables were used early on to create layout, though HTML advocates objected: “Tables are for tabular data!” Invisible GIF “shims” provided indents and line spacing that markup balked at. It was a mess, though it provided a nice market for the the specialized knowledge that HTML tweakers and twisters acquired. Mercifully, the WWW Consortium introduced new markup standards and eventually CSS. Using tables and shims today is a not just anachronistic, it’s counter-productive. It will frustrate good design, because always was just a workaround.

Font display is the one element that is still not under the designer’s control. Designers tend to rely a handful of “web-safe” fonts that “most” computers will have installed. To circumvent the quirks of different browser in displaying these common fonts, markup libraries like YUI can level the ground with CSS that zaps the quirks and then lets you build up CSS specifications that will provide uniform font display on all browsers. Cascades (font-family: “Lucida Grande”, “Verdana”, sans-serif) provide a measure of fallback safety, but you still have no way of really assuring uniform appearance of fonts on web pages. PDFs or Flash are poor substitutes for standards. Creating font graphics is fine for a smattering of display type, but it won’t do for body text.

There have been a number of font embedding schemes. The W3C is working on a standard for Embedded Open Type, but there are quite few legal and technical problems to overcome. ¬†At the moment, embedded fonts (via the @font-face CSS declaration) are mostly supported through font servers that operate on a fee-for-service basis. Not all type foundries permit their fonts to be embedded. Meanwhile, the Google Font API provides some 16 open source fonts that are designed to work on all current browsers. It’s a step in the right direction, and supported by a company many of have come to rely on (with varying enthusiasm).

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