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Web typography

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Title: Web typography  
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Subject: Embedded OpenType, Web Open Font Format, Computer font, Content Security Policy, Font substitution
Collection: Digital Typography, Web Design, World Wide Web
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Web typography

Web fonts allow Web designers to use fonts that are not installed on the viewer's computer.

Web typography refers to the use of fonts on the World Wide Web. When HTML was first created, font faces and styles were controlled exclusively by the settings of each Web browser. There was no mechanism for individual Web pages to control font display until Netscape introduced the tag in 1995, which was then standardized in the HTML 3.2 specification. However, the font specified by the tag had to be installed on the user's computer or a fallback font, such as a browser's default sans-serif or monospace font, would be used. The first Cascading Style Sheets specification was published in 1996 and provided the same capabilities.

The CSS2 specification was released in 1998 and attempted to improve the font selection process by adding font matching, synthesis and download. These techniques did not gain much use, and were removed in the CSS2.1 specification. However, Internet Explorer added support for the font downloading feature in version 4.0, released in 1997.[1] Font downloading was later included in the CSS3 fonts module, and has since been implemented in Safari 3.1, Opera 10 and Mozilla Firefox 3.5. This has subsequently increased interest in Web typography, as well as the usage of font downloading.


  • CSS1 1
    • Web-safe fonts 1.1
    • Microsoft's Core fonts for the Web 1.2
    • Fallback fonts 1.3
    • Generic font families 1.4
  • Web fonts 2
    • History 2.1
    • File formats 2.2
      • TrueDoc 2.2.1
      • Embedded OpenType 2.2.2
      • Scalable Vector Graphics 2.2.3
      • Scalable Vector Graphics Fonts 2.2.4
      • TrueType/OpenType 2.2.5
      • Web Open Font Format 2.2.6
  • Unicode fonts 3
  • Alternatives 4
  • Practical considerations 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


In the first CSS specification,[2] authors specified font characteristics via a series of properties:

  • font-family
  • font-style
  • font-variant
  • font-weight
  • font-size

All fonts were identified solely by name. Beyond the properties mentioned above, designers had no way to style fonts, and no mechanism existed to select fonts not present on the client system.

Web-safe fonts

Web-safe fonts are fonts likely to be present on a wide range of computer systems, and used by Web content authors to increase the likelihood that content displays in their chosen font. If a visitor to a Web site does not have the specified font, their browser tries to select a similar alternative, based on the author-specified fallback fonts and generic families or it uses font substitution defined in the visitor's operating system.

Microsoft's Core fonts for the Web

Since being released under Microsoft's Core fonts for the Web program, Arial, Georgia, and Verdana have become three de facto fonts of the Web.

To ensure that all Web users had a basic set of fonts, Trebuchet, Webdings and Verdana—under an EULA that made them freely distributable but also limited some usage rights. Their high penetration rate has made them a staple for Web designers. However, most linux distributions don't include these fonts by default.

CSS2 attempted to increase the tools available to Web developers by adding font synthesis, improved font matching and the ability to download remote fonts.[3]

Some CSS2 font properties were removed from CSS2.1 and later included in CSS3.[4][5]

Fallback fonts

The CSS specification allows for multiple fonts to be listed as fallback fonts.[6] In CSS, the font-family property accepts a list of comma-separated font faces to use, like so:

font-family: Helvetica, "Nimbus Sans L", "Liberation Sans", Arial, sans-serif;

The first font specified is the preferred font. If this font is not available, the Web browser attempts to use the next font in the list. If none of the fonts specified are found, the browser displays its default font. This same process also happens on a per-character basis if the browser tries to display a character not present in the specified font.

Generic font families

To give Web designers some control over the appearance of fonts on their Web pages, even when the specified fonts are not available, the CSS specification allows the use of several generic font families. These families are designed to split fonts into several categories based on their general appearance. They are commonly specified as the last in a series of fallback fonts, as a last resort in the event that none of the fonts specified by the author are available. There are five generic families:[6]


Fonts that do not have decorative markings, or serifs, on their letters. These fonts are often considered easier to read on screens.[7]


Fonts that have decorative markings, or serifs, present on their characters.


Fonts in which all characters are equally wide.


Fonts that resemble cursive writing. These fonts may have a decorative appearance, but they can be difficult to read at small sizes, so they are generally used sparingly.


Fonts that may contain symbols or other decorative properties, but still represent the specified character.

Web fonts


A technique to download remote fonts was first specified in the CSS2 specification, which introduced the @font-face rule.

It was (and remains[8]) controversial because using a remote font as part of a Web page allows the font to be freely downloaded. This could result in fonts being used against the terms of their license or illegally spread through the Web. TrueDoc (PFR), Embedded OpenType (EOT) and Web Open Font Format (WOFF) are formats designed to address these issues.

Since the introduction of Internet Explorer 4, font embedding employing EOT has been used mainly for displaying characters in writing systems that are not supported by default fonts. Use on English-language Web sites was virtually non-existent. With the releases of Firefox 3.5, Opera 10 and Safari 3.1, usage employing other formats is expected to increase.

File formats

By using a specific CSS @font-face embedding technique[9] it is possible to embed fonts such that they work with IE4+, Firefox 3.5+, Safari 3.1+, Opera 10+ and Chrome 4.0+. This allows the vast majority of Web users to access this functionality. Some commercial foundries object to the redistribution of their fonts. For example, Hoefler & Frere-Jones says that, while they "...enthusiastically [support] the emergence of a more expressive Web in which designers can safely and reliably use high-quality fonts online," the current delivery of fonts using @font-face is considered "illegal distribution" by the foundry and is not permitted.[10] Instead, Hoefler & Co. offer a proprietary font delivery system rooted in the cloud. Many other commercial type foundries address the redistribution of their fonts by offering a specific license, known as a web font license, which permits the use of the font software to display content on the web, a usage normally prohibited by basic desktop licenses. Naturally this does not interfere with fonts and foundries under free licences.[m 1]


Bitstream developed TrueDoc, the first standard for embedding fonts. TrueDoc was natively supported in Netscape Navigator 4, but was discontinued in Netscape Navigator 6 and Mozilla, because Netscape could not release Bitstream's source code. A WebFont Player plugin was available for Internet Explorer, but the technology had to compete against Microsoft's Embedded OpenType fonts, natively supported since version 4.0.

Embedded OpenType

Internet Explorer has supported font embedding through the proprietary Embedded OpenType standard since version 4.0. It uses digital rights management techniques to help prevent fonts from being copied and used without a license. A simplified subset of EOT has been formalized under the name of CWT (Compatibility Web Type, formerly EOT-Lite)[11]

Scalable Vector Graphics

Web typography applies to SVG in two ways:

  1. All versions of the SVG 1.1 specification, including the SVGT subset, define a font module allowing the creation of fonts within an SVG document. Safari introduced support for many of these properties in version 3. Opera added preliminary support in version 8.0, with support for more properties in 9.0.
  2. The SVG specification lets CSS apply to SVG documents in a similar manner to HTML documents, and the @font-face rule can be applied to text in SVG documents. Opera added support for this in version 10,[12] and WebKit since version 325 also supports this method using SVG fonts only.

Scalable Vector Graphics Fonts

SVG fonts is a W3C standard of fonts using SVG graphic that is now a subset of OpenType fonts.[13] This allows multicolor[14] or animated fonts.[15] It was first a subset of SVG 1.1 specifications[16] The SVG fonts as independent format is supported by most browsers apart from IE and Firefox, and is deprecated in Chrome (and Chromium).[17] That's now generally deprecated; the standard that most browser vendor agreed with is SVG font subset included in OpenType (and then WOFF superset, see below), called SVGOpenTypeFonts.[18] Firefox has supported SVG OpenType since Firefox 26. All major browsers should comply soon.[19]


Linking to industry-standard TrueType (TTF) and OpenType (TTF/OTF) fonts is supported by Mozilla Firefox 3.5+, Opera 10+,[20] Safari 3.1+,[21] and Google Chrome 4.0+.[22] Internet Explorer 9+ supports only those fonts with embedding permissions set to installable.[23]

Web Open Font Format

WOFF has been supported by Mozilla Firefox 3.6+,[24] Google Chrome 5+,[25][26] Opera Presto,[27] and is supported by Internet Explorer 9 (since March 14, 2011).[28] Support is available on Mac OS X Lion's Safari from release 5.1.

Unicode fonts

Only two fonts available by default on the Windows platform, Microsoft Sans Serif and Lucida Sans Unicode, provide a wide Unicode character repertoire. A bug in Verdana (and the different handling of it by various user agents) hinders its usability where combining characters are desired.


A common hurdle in Web design is the design of mockups that include fonts that are not Web-safe. There are a number of solutions for situations like this. One common solution is to replace the text with a similar Web-safe font or use a series of similar-looking fallback fonts.

Another technique is image replacement. This practice involves overlaying text with an image containing the same text written in the desired font. This is good for aesthetic purposes, but prevents text selection, increases bandwidth use, and is bad for search engine optimization.

Also common is the use of Flash-based solutions such as sIFR. This is similar to image replacement techniques, though the text is selectable and rendered as a vector. However, this method requires the presence of a proprietary plugin on a client's system.

Another solution is using Javascript to replace the text with VML (for Internet Explorer) or SVG (for all other browsers).[29]

Font hosting services allow users to pay a subscription to host non-Web-safe fonts online. Most services host the font for the user and provide the necessary @font-face CSS declaration.

An example of a CSS @font-face setup:

 @charset "utf-8";
 @font-face {
        font-family: 'Journal';
                src: url('') format('woff'),
                url('') format('svg'),
                url('') format('truetype'),
                url('') format('embedded-opentype');
        font-weight: normal;
        font-style: normal;

Practical considerations

In practice, it matters not only what web browser the audience is using but also how their operating system is configured. In 2010, type designer and consultant Thomas Phinney (Vice President of FontLab and formerly with Adobe[30]) wrote a step-by-step process for finding the best rendering solution, which—more or less jokingly—uses a large number of goto statements.[31] A more visually oriented flow chart was posted in the same year on the Typophile forum by Miha Zajec.[32]

See also

  • Scalable Inman Flash Replacement
  • List of RFC as mentioned in WOFF (draft of 2009-10-23):
    • RFC 1950 ZLIB Compressed Data Format Specification
    • RFC 2119 Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels
    • RFC 4647 Matching of Language Tags


  1. ^ See Open-source typefaces and Free software Unicode typefaces listings for such fonts.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^
  8. ^
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  13. ^
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  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^ About Cufon
  30. ^
  31. ^ Thomas Phinney (October 13, 2010) Font rendering in web browsers: a find-your-font adventure
  32. ^ as cited by Phinney

External links

  • CSS @ Ten: The Next Big Thing (By Håkon Wium Lie) (In A List Apart)
  • W3C Working Draft for CSS Fonts
  • Font Descriptions and @font-face
  • Font embedding for the Web
  • M+ Web Fonts (How to use M+ Fonts in web) (in English)
  • Using custom fonts in your web pages
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