The Web—A Typographic Wasteland No More?
Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans serif. Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans serif. Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans serif. Sound monotonous? We're currently doomed to visit site after site that employs a similar string of sans serif font definitions. Almost as monotonous is the serif equivalent: Times New Roman, Times, serif. Either way, the end result is millions of cookie-cutter typographic treatments on a global scale and an increasing banalization of the visitor experience. After all, if every magazine, every book, every poster, every ad, could only draw on a few tired faces, how effective would be the role of the print designer?
Veterans will recall the bleak days following the introduction of the Apple LaserWriter in 1985 when the core Times, Helvetica, Courier and Symbol fonts were all that were available. And here we are over 20 years later, with a similar situation on the Web. Site designers have long been waiting for that happy day when they would have the freedom to tap the rich typographic offerings now available to their print design brethren. In recent years the evolution of Cascading Style Sheet capabilities (and their support by mainstream browsers) has finally added much-needed control over aspects of the font employed, such as spacing and positioning, but a fundamental limitation in the CSS specification has hobbled the ability of designers to employ more than a handful of fonts: for the defined font to display, it must be present on the user's system. Thus with an estimated 40,000 plus fonts currently available, and a history that goes back thousands of years, print designers can infuse their creations with a vitality impossible on the Web, short of resorting to Macromedia Flash or a variety of kludges.
Just where do Web standards come from, you ask? Microsoft, of course (just kidding!). In fact, it's the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), founded and still headed up by Tim Berners-Lee. It employs a full-time staff, which works with member organizations and the public to work out the standards that make the Web what it is. The mission of the W3C is defined simply enough: "To lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth for the Web." (Note to Tim: hire a designer to create a decent logo.) However, the CSS Working Group of the W3C recently dropped a bomb on the somewhat sleepy world of type creators when it began mulling over the possibility of helping Web designers and users finally break free from the current typographic doldrums. It's always good to check out primary sources, so thankfully the archive of the start of the W3C topic last month remains available, as does subsequent discussion.
While I've spoken so far of users and designers, font foundries should also be added to the list of those who are frustrated by the current typographic limitations of the Web. After all, the Web is a huge and ever-growing communications medium from which they are currently excluded. The bells will ring and the banners will fly if a mechanism emerges for them to finally see their work used on an interactive, global scale, jumping from millions of printed pages to billions of screen-based ones.
So it's perhaps not surprising that the foundries have reacted with shock and horror to the news that the W3C is considering adding embeddable fonts to future CSS specs. The prospect of additional attacks on their intellectual property, already under threat from users extracting embedded fonts from within PDF files, making unauthorized copies of the designs and reselling them as originals, or simply exchanging fonts with other users, seems to have resulted in a circling of the typographic wagons, judging by this discussion on the Typophile site.
Top of the list, understandably, are concerns about the protection of their intellectual property. But scorn is also heaped on suggestions in the W3C discussion that one approach would be to make freeware TrueType fonts the only ones that could be used within Web page layout. Free fonts are, of course, anathema to the font industry, so the prospect of having them endorsed by the W3C is understandably galling: once the use of free fonts for Web page design becomes widespread, foundries would essentially be locked out of participating in the Web for the foreseeable future. TrueType itself is a much-loathed format that the foundries had hoped to finally bury by embracing OpenType. But here was their old nemesis, back to play a trump card!
One of the participants in the Typophile discussion is Ascender Corp., which has a close relationship with Microsoft. Ascender quickly commissioned a study of over 4,000 freeware fonts, which were downloaded from a single site. The study, not surprisingly, trumpeted the finding that 95.9% of the fonts failed at least one of the six tests. You can draw your own conclusions, but it seems a bit self-evident that almost 70% didn't have a copyright string—after all, they're freeware! The 95.9% number comes from fonts that were missing one or more characters from the Mac Roman character set, again not surprising since most freeware fonts are for headline use and are created for Windows users. About 30% of the fonts had embedding permissions set to not allow their use for Web pages. However, this setting is changed easily enough and I'd expect embeddable versions of the most popular freeware fonts to quickly become available, along with cross-platform character sets. Of course, it would have been interesting if Ascender had chosen at random the same number of commercial fonts, as a control.
I asked the P22 foundry for its reactions to the WC3 initiative. In response, Carima El-Behairy, P22 CFO and Director of Wholesale and Retail Operations, focused on the intellectual property aspects related to embedding: "While we do not allow embedding of our fonts, we understand that there can be times where it is unavoidable, such as PDFs for print and preview only. We have developed a strong stance against embedding over time, due to the fact that there is freeware software available that can extract the outlines of a font and convert them back into fonts, which would put our faces in more jeopardy than exchanging them as freeware. When fonts are exchanged our copyright notices in the software remain intact but we would not have any rights to a new derivative font and would have lost control over our intellectual property. And even the fact that [Ed. - some] free fonts do not allow embedding is a very interesting development."
I was also interested in knowing if the free fonts P22 provides might be candidates for embedding, but this isn't the case: "In regards to our free fonts, we feel they are quality fonts and exceed the expectations of what a free font should be, and hopefully entice those customers back to purchase one or two from our libraries."
This topic will clearly take a long time to resolve and in the end the W3C might simply back away from the idea of embedding fonts, free or otherwise, or fall back to an arcane outline format like SVG that never sees widespread adoption. I have to confess that I find myself stuck right in the middle on most of the issues this brings up. I'm all for greater typographic richness from the perspective of Web visitors and designers. But type creators and foundries need to retain control of their intellectual property. I have a fundamental weakness for supporting open initiatives and am in favor of the use of
quality free fonts. And yet their widespread adoption on the Web will inevitably hurt the commercial font foundries, unless they can invent a way of participating in this dramatic expansion of their market.
As a type nut (after all, I have a 19-year old cat called Aldus) I'm rooting for the same typographic freedom and richness on the Web that we enjoy on the printed page. My hope is that the commercial foundries will figure out a way to participate in what increasingly feels like an inevitable shift. But if they remain content simply to snipe at the W3C initiative from the sidelines, this may well become a dramatic turning point in the history of typography, one in which the traditional providers of type become increasingly marginalized.