Experience design studio Foolproof's principal designer Elaine McVicar thinks web fonts can be great from a design perspective — but also challenging.

“Typography is a big part of brand recognition, and can give a site a unique style," she says. "But web fonts can be frustrating for users if content takes too long to load, and can render differently across browsers.”

Usage is therefore about getting the balance right between aesthetics and performance, ensuring your choices have a defined purpose, and making decisions whether to offload the technical side of things to a third-party service or to host on your own server (or for larger sites like Digital Arts, on a CDN).

Monotype director Johnathan Zsittnik (left) perhaps surprisingly notes self-hosting can be beneficial: “It’s good for those who want a greater sense of control by keeping fonts within their own environment.” Some organisations restrict dependencies on third-party services, he explains, essentially forcing the issue.

Foolproof senior designer Adrian Osmond also advocates self-hosting, and says third parties can demand extra code to be inserted to authenticate you’ve paid for a licence, adding “unnecessary overhead to accessing the font”. And while third-party servers are typically robust, Adrian notes Typekit’s 99.9 per cent uptime promise still allows for nine hours of downtime per year — “Quite a lot if your business relies on your website being up.”

Designer Laura Kalbag echoes these sentiments, adding that she likes paying a one-off fee where possible, even if it’s initially pricier: “It’s a predictable cost, rather than taking out a web-font subscription for the foreseeable future.”

Fontdeck’s tagging system enables designers to drill down to suitable typefaces.

Third-party services

For the most part, though, third-party services are recommended. “It’s far better to let someone else host the fonts — they can keep up with all the browser and web standards changes by offering frequent updates,” argues Webtype partner Roger Black. “That generally means better quality on various platforms and operating systems,” expands Fresh Tilled Soil's lead UX strategist Jason Pamental. Furthermore, as Laura says, “most font services handle the trickier technical stuff, so you can easily pick out the weights and subset you want, and you’re good to go.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Johnathan explains web font services offer typically *faster* download speeds than if you serve fonts from your own server, through delivering them through a CDN (unless you're using one too). Your subscription will also cover bandwidth costs — and fonts can be a big chunk of that overhead on popular modern text-oriented websites.

Fontdeck CEO Richard Rutter (left) adds that web font services also provide peace of mind, in you “knowing it’s a legal way of doing things” — important if you care about font designers getting paid but don’t want to wade through labyrinthine terms for fonts you might try and host yourself. Mostly, though, he sees the advantages in using a web font service in making your job easier and your designs better: “On Fontdeck, for example, many fonts are heavily tagged, aiding you if you’ve a direction in mind to search within. With paid services, there’s also a certain amount of quality, with fonts prepared well for screen. It can be a good way to hone in on what’s popular, too — the cream tends to bubble to the surface.”

Johnathan warns, though, that you must think about the future as well as the present: “Do you need access to specific fonts or want to invest in a library? If you’re evaluating a service that offers a range, ensure it includes the specific designs you need up front, along with the quantity and variety you might need later.” The web also lacks guaranteed permanence. Web font services don’t often vanish, but WebINK by Extensis is closing, forcing anyone using it [which includes Digital Arts] to head elsewhere, and services can be acquired by other companies, potentially leading to a period of uncertainty. Have an escape route at the back of your mind, then.

Web font services don’t always last forever. WebINK by Extensis will close in June. Some affected foundries are moving to Typekit

What's the best web fonts service?

If you decide to use a web font service, the next step is choosing one. Laura recommends picking based on typefaces you want to use: “When designing a site’s typography, I’ll hunt down typefaces to choose from, and shop around to see which service gives me the most freedom and control at the most reasonable price.”

The only web font service she avoids as a matter of course is Google’s free web fonts, in part due to that company’s data-tracking shenanigans. Roger adds you “get what you pay for — one style, and a style you see everywhere”.

Choice is a consideration, too, although designer Dan Eden warns “big catalogues more often overwhelm than anything else,” and suggests not discounting services with smaller yet still impressive ranges. Of late, he says all services he knows about have constantly improved, “which is a great problem to have” when it comes to selecting one; he still mostly favours Typekit, “because of their performance considerations”, but adds Hoefler & Co.’s Cloud.typography “wins me over on configuration and OpenType options”.

Jason echoes Dan, enthusing about Typekit’s simple-to-use search interface, and Cloud.typography’s “enormous flexibility and control over subsetting, OpenType features and more”; he also suggest checking out Fonts.com, which has “the largest selection and is improving its interface all the time”. However, some services have potential drawbacks: “Typekit only allows for embedding via JavaScript, and Cloud.typography requires you host the fonts yourself, making it more of an ‘expert level’ option.” These are all things you need to weigh up alongside whatever typefaces you want to use.

Fonts.com attempts to help you identify fonts through a short multiple-choice quiz.

The future of web fonts

So what’s next for web fonts? First, we should see improvements to online typography through increasing support for OpenType features and kerning, which Johnathan says “will make it more feasible for web designers to add subtle typographic touches to their designs”. Jason thinks subsetting and WOFF 2.0 will lead to big changes: “WOFF 2.0 offers considerably higher compression, reducing download times, and subsetting is important in allowing you to determine how much of a character set is served. If you only need capital letters and numerals, for example, the file-size savings can be considerable.”

Richard, though, is mostly hoping to see more interesting use of type: “More attention is being paid to the quality of type in general, but I want bolder use of typography to differentiate sites.” Although there’s now more choice than ever regarding usable typefaces for the web, Richard says “it all seems a bit copycat right now”, which he considers dispiriting.

More positively, he suggests you might wonder whether innovation can still exist within typography at all, given the sheer variety and quality of existing typefaces on the market, yet this is very much happening: “Designers keep creating new, fresh typefaces, and much of that is fuelled by web fonts — the ‘new’ market for type designers. Keeping your finger on the pulse is very exciting.”

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Now owned by Adobe, Typekit is arguably the dominant web font player. The website has a handy tool for filtering fonts by property.