Do you need that web font?

October 9, 2014 in Opinion by

As you may have already ascer­tained using the stand­ard rule of “If the head­line is a ques­tion, the answer is no” the answer to the ques­tion in the head­line is “no”, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use one.

For a long, long time the web was a bar­ren land­scape when it came to typo­graphy, we had to stick to the stand­ard web safe font selec­tion (Arial, Hel­vetica, Times New Roman, Tahoma, etc). In some ways this made life easier, cer­tainly the answer to the ques­tion “can we use our brand font for the body copy” was gen­er­ally “Nope, sorry, not unless your brand font hap­pens to be Arial”. There were many attempts to get around this typo­graphic lim­it­a­tion: sIFR, dynam­ic­ally gen­er­ated images, vendor spe­cific exten­sions, just ren­der­ing your entire web­site as an image, flash, but all had heavy draw­backs and were at best a little bit clunky.

Then sud­denly (well over a bit of a while) web-fonts were upon us com­pletely chan­ging the (type)face of the web. We now have an almost unlim­ited num­ber of fonts we can make use of on our web­sites, through Google Fonts and other ser­vices such as we are over­whelmed with options. This is good, we can now achieve our typo­graphic dreams and bring the text based beauty to our web-pages that we’ve always wanted.

I love web fonts, we use them often and they add a glor­i­ous touch to a web­site. We must how­ever be cau­tious, and not just of over-excited design­ers plas­ter­ing 15 fonts into a single design there are other factors at play here. None of these are killer issues but they should be borne in mind when plan­ning a site.

Firstly there’s cost. Although there are plenty of free web-fonts out there many come with licens­ing costs (as well they should), if you’re put­ting together a site for a cli­ent, make sure they under­stand up front that they may be pay­ing an annual license fee for that pretty head­line you’ve added to the homepage. Fifty quid a year may not seem much to be pay­ing for typo­graphic per­fec­tion but when it’s not an expec­ted cost it may cause unwanted fric­tion. We recently had a cli­ent whose heart was set on a spe­cific font which was going to cost them  upwards of £100 a year in licensing.

Legib­il­ity is a con­cern. Stick­ing to the tra­di­tional web safe font selec­tion guar­an­tees legib­il­ity (aside from poor colour/size decisions), do make sure that the fonts you’ve selec­ted are going to be read­able. An obvi­ous point maybe but I have seen sites which have moved away from the safe path of legib­il­ity and into the brambles of incomprehensibility.

A large major­ity of web-fonts are sup­plied via a third party as a ser­vice (via a CDN), while this is gen­er­ally a good thing (you don’t have to host them your­self), you are at the mercy of the ser­vice, if it falls over your fonts stop work­ing. If it goes out of busi­ness or the ser­vice is retired (as happened to WebINK) you’ll need to update your sites to use a new pro­vider who may or may not have the fonts you were using.

Finally, the addi­tional load on a site. We some­times for­get sit­ting in our offices with super fast inter­net con­nec­tions that not every­one else is on the same. The band­width cost of a font is not that high, but com­bined with the addi­tional assets required by a mod­ern web­site (jQuery, Ana­lyt­ics, etc) it all adds up, espe­cially if you choose mul­tiple fonts with mul­tiple weights and styles. Think of the poor cus­tomer try­ing to access your web­site on a smart­phone up the top of a moun­tain (come on, we all have cus­tom­ers try­ing to read our web­sites from moun­tain tops).

So, do you really NEED that web font? Prob­ably not, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, just take care. They are a won­der­ful way to add a bit of style to a design but remem­ber, the web is about exchange of inform­a­tion above everything else, don’t let your fonts get in the way of this.

Have you got any good stor­ies good or bad on the use (or abuse) of web-fonts?

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