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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.
Before we get too deep into exploring web fonts, it's helpful to take a look back and understand how we got here. In the mid-90s the browser manufacturers were in the early stages of deciding how websites should be displayed. One of the biggest issues in the initial development of the web was how should you resolve conflicts between what the user wants to see versus the intent of the author. It's helpful to remember at that time websites were focused for the most part on information and content. Not design.
Design choices were limited and a large segment of the browser development community felt that more control should be given to the viewer over how information is presented. It was in this environment that CSS emerged as a way to control the visual presentation of web pages. The CSS Level 1 specification was approved in 1996 and although it was never really adopted as a standard by browser manufacturers, it set the stage for defining a separate language for presentation. While working on the CSS Level 1 spec a great deal of thought went into how browsers should deal with fonts.
One of the biggest problems was how to resolve any conflict between the font that the author wished to use and the font that the viewer prefers. There were a number of proposed solutions, but in the end it was decided to allow the author to specify a font, while allowing the viewer to override the choice at the browser level. It's worth noting that solution still stands today in all major browsers. Of course, implementing this caused a ton of problems. How would the browser resolve displaying this specified font? In 1996 Internet connections were woefully slow and resources the size of fonts didn't make sense to download at the time.
Font formats weren't standardized either. So, the idea of serving up a font as a resource just wasn't feasible. There was no getting around it. The specified font had to be installed on the client system. Working within this limitation, the W3C managed to give the author some options. Font declarations were allowed to specify multiple font families. Allowing designers to provide fallback fonts if the desired font wasn't installed locally. Finally, as a failsafe, five generic font names such as sans-serif, serif, monospace, and my personal favorite, fantasy, would allow the author to ensure that if none of our choices were available the page would at least display in the system's default font of the specified type.
While not a perfect solution, it is one that worked well. So well in fact that 14 years later it's still the most frequently used method to specify fonts for websites. It should explain why you see so much Verdana. Now back to 1996 for a moment. As soon as CSS1 was released, the newly formed Fonts Working Group started to tackle the problem of font selection for designers. The CSS 2 Specification approved in 1998 included the new @font-face capability.
@font-face would allow an author to point the browser to a font resource, which would then download and display it to the user. That's right. @font-face was first proposed in 1998. It was an idea that was well ahead of its time. But connection speeds, lack of adoption by browsers, and font licensing issues eventually cause the W3C to pull @font-face from the follow-up CSS 2.1 Specification. However, the seed had been sown. Microsoft proved with its EOT font format that the process was feasible.
This led to the Fonts Working Group to reintroduce @font-face in the CSS Fonts Level 3 Specification, and it's brought us to where we are now in regards to web font capabilities. So that's how we got here. Later on, we'll explore @font-face, the various font formats involved, and the licensing issues in more detail. If you want a blow-by-blow account of the development of fonts on the web, I recommend Bert Bos' account of the history of fonts for the web from this 2010 South by Southwest Session. You can find it online at the W3C's Talks section.
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