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For this installment of the First Look series, James Williamson reviews the current implementation and future direction of web fonts: downloadable font resources that can be retrieved with the CSS @font-face declaration. The course begins with the evolution of online typography and current CSS font capabilities, and then dives into the W3C CSS Fonts Module specification, showing how to utilize web fonts, ensure cross-browser consistency, and how to use CSS3 to enhance the styling of web fonts. Font hosting services and tools such as TypeKit and the Google Fonts API are demonstrated. Exercise files accompany the course.
Once you've decided to use web fonts on your site, you will need to make a decision about how those fonts are going to be hosted. There are a lot of hosting options available to you but they all boil down to one simple question. Do you want to tackle hosting the fonts for yourself, or do you want use a service to host them for you? There are pros and cons to both approaches, so let's take a quick look at some of the things that you should consider when deciding where to host your fonts. If you're the kind of designer who likes to handle things on your own and don't mind spending time dealing with the minutia of getting fonts to work consistently across browsers, then self-hosting is probably for you.
Self-hosting is also attracted to people who are in charge of larger enterprise- level sites that have restrictions on the use of outside services or resources. The general approach to self hosting is pretty simple. You'll upload the fonts you want to use in your site to your web server, create an @font-face rule in your CSS that references the font, and you're done. Now this sounds simple but this approach isn't for everyone. There are some very important things to consider when deciding whether to host your fonts yourself. First, do you possess the proper end user license agreement to host the Fonts? Many people assume that if they already own a copy of the font or if they found it offered for free somewhere online, they are home free.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Many foundries have rewritten license agreements to provide for using the fonts as web fonts but you need to be absolutely sure of this before serving them in your pages. If you're not sure, get in touch with the foundry or the site you downloaded the fonts from. If you're purchasing fonts, make sure you purchase the plan that includes a web font license. If you're not sure, it's best to avoid using that font until you are. Another thing to consider is the amount of time required to keep track of all the cross-browser implementations, rendering issues, and font formats associated with web fonts.
Making sure that your CSS works consistently across multiple browsers and platforms, ensuring fallback content for unsupported browsers, and monitoring rendering issues on multiple platforms and browsers can require a significant ongoing time commitment. As support for web fonts grow and implementations change, you'll need to update your code to reflect those changes. We'll discuss most of the issues that you'll need to keep track of in this course but changes to browsers and web font implementations are inevitable. So, you're going to have to keep up with them.
Let's contrast that with the using of font hosting service. Most font hosting services allow you to sign up for a plan that's based on your needs, such as the number of sites we'll be using or the number of fonts required. When you sign up for a plan, you'll choose the fonts from their library and add them to your site. The hosting service will then provide you with the code that you'll need to add to your pages. From there when your page loads, the browser will request the fonts from the hosting service, which will then serve them to the page. Now, the good news is that the font hosting service only serves fonts with license agreements tailored specifically for the web and usage restrictions are clearly explained in their service plans.
Most hosting services also continually upgrade their plans to ensure consistent delivery of fonts across browsers, even providing fallback methods such Cufon for non-supported devices. The goal is to make it so that you don't have to worry about the execution. Just sign up for a plan, choose your fonts, and have one less thing to worry about. Unfortunately, it's not always that easy. Just as with self hosting there are issues that you need to consider before signing up with the service. Often, adding a font hosting service adds additional overhead to your site.
You need to be aware of how many additional server requests the service is adding to your pages and whether it's worth it. Also, many services use a type of obfuscation to keep end users from downloading and installing the fonts. You want to make sure that those methods are adding additional overhead or harming the integrity of the font. Another thing to consider is the level of granular control that you'll have over the code. By taking much of the process out of your hands, a large portion of the code is inaccessible, making it much harder to tweak the end result if you need to.
I would also highly recommend that you read the fine print carefully. Understand the restrictions that these services place on font usage and how they track it. If you are doing client work, you don't want to leave your clients with a site that has unreported tracking and monitoring that could be a potential privacy concern. Simply put, understand the contract that you've signed and what your limitations are. Now obviously, deciding on which hosting option is right for you, that's a big decision. In a moment I'll discuss a few of the more popular font hosting options and give you some advice on choosing a hosting service that's right for you.
However, I want you to understand that self hosting might be right for you as well and it's a viable option for any designer. Just keep in mind the responsibilities you have if you choose to host the font yourself and be diligent to ensure that you're serving those fonts properly.
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