Exploding the myths of web design: Only use web fonts

April 29, 2009

This is a reproduction of a boxout written for the ‘Exploding the myths of web design’ feature in .Net magazine, issue 189.

Have you ever been handed a design for a website and wondered what font the designer has used for the body copy? Because I can honestly say I never have, and this certainly isn't down to web designers having a love for Georgia and Arial. Instead, it's down to a common misconception that the only fonts that can be rendered in a browser are the old 'favourites'. The thing is, a modern web browser is perfectly capable of rendering any font that a user has installed, and because of the popularity of particular software packages, the list of relatively commonplace fonts includes some beauties.

On 24 Ways, Richard Rutter showed that if you take into account fonts installed by Windows and Mac OS X along with those from Microsoft Office and Adobe's Creative Suite, the resulting list includes some rather lovely serif and san-serif fonts that a designer can use to bolster their designs. With some carefully selected fall-backs, there's no reason why a good developer can't provide users with Caslon or Jenson in place of Georgia, or Helvetica Neue in place of Arial. By using the CSS font-weight property, you can even use differing weights to further enhance your work.

Most websites are launched to a specific audience or demographic, and if they aren't then your marketing team is missing a trick. If you have a good idea who will be looking at your site, it's then easy to treat them to some nicer typography. For example, Panic achieves this on the company's website for FTP client Coda by using Helvetica Neue Light, after surmising that the majority of visitors will be Mac OS X users, who have the font installed on their system by default. Even if you don't have such a targeted audience, you can still play the percentage game, and in doing so, you can at least treat a portion of your visitors to a more refined, unique look. Call it typographic progressive enhancement!