Having been limited to using the ‘web safe’ font set (Arial, Verdana, Courier, Georgia and Times New Roman) since the dawn of time, it’s been refreshing to see the emergence of several font rendering techniques over the past few years. Here’s a summary of the three most popular solutions.
Typekit is a very simple method to implement alternative type as it is provided via a web service. Typekit has a library of fonts which you can license by purchasing an annual subscription to the service (there is a free plan but this is restricted for use on one website with Typekit badge visible on the site). There’s a wide range of typefaces available and the Typekit website allows you to completely configure fonts, font weights and styles using an intuitive interface. However it’s not all plain sailing…
The fonts available on the Typekit Library rarely match with fonts you might have locally for use in Photoshop or Illustrator. Quite often you have to settle for a close match, and this is not good practice with regards to brand guidelines etc. Often takes a fair amount of explaining to the client which is never ideal.
Another issue is that although the fonts render smoothly in modern browsers on Mac OSX, rendering on Windows falls way short with most fonts options. The fonts end up rendering badly and anti-aliased. Although Typekit does provide a good comparison tool to view the fonts using the various operating systems and browsers, this doesn’t help when you’ve designed with a font that Typekit renders badly for the majority of your site users.
The major benefit of Typekit is the freedom to use the font sets available without worrying about licensing. The major drawbacks are the lack of availability of certain ‘standard’ fonts and the render failures in Windows which really let it down. If it wasn’t for these issues it would almost certainly be the perfect choice for most web designers and developers.
The beauty of Cufon is it’s limitations, or lack thereof, when it comes to which fonts it can render. The system works by rendering any specified text configured on the Cufon site. When the page loads the text is transformed using ‘Canvas’, a cross-browser element that looks and acts exactly as you specify in the website’s stylesheet. So far it sounds great doesn’t it.
Unfortunately – like most systems – there is a major drawback. It’s not a technical issue, it’s greyer than that and raises serious concerns over the legitimacy of using Cufon. Although Cufon can render any font using the Cufon configuration tool, site owners need to be assured that they have the right to use the font for this purpose (font embedding without Adobe Flash). Certain fonts require an extended license for this purpose, however it’s important to identify whether you can legitimately use the font or whether you would have to seek an additional license first.
@font-face is a system which actually permits the render of any font from your webserver. Simply add the font files and reference them using ‘@font-face’ syntax and the font will render as expected. There are issues with regard to cross browser compliance, however all the major browsers appear to be addressing this with Safari, Firefox and Chrome having already adopted this method natively. There are other issues around licensing, but these appear to have become less prevalent with the birth of freely available @font-face kits. Such kits can be found at Font Squirrel.
All the libraries mentioned here have their merits and all have their issues. There is, however, one clear winner. As the browser software companies adopt it, the @font-face method is likely to become the norm. That’s why we use it now and will continue until we find a reason not to.