“Web safe fonts.” We have all heard the term, but what does it mean exactly? The short answer is that “Web safe fonts” are a small group of fonts common to most popular operating systems. Historically, pages needed to use one of these common fonts to display correctly across the online universe.
The answer gets a bit more confusing as we frame the term within a specific time period. In the earlier years of the Web — with less sophisticated browsers and operating systems—there were just a few “Web safe” fonts such as Times/Times New Roman, Courier/Courier New, and Helvetica or Arial. These were the core fonts available on all major computer operating systems from Windows 95 to Mac System 7 to Solaris.
More recent operating systems from Microsoft and Apple included an expanded set of pre-installed font choices including Georgia, Verdana, Trebuchet MS, Impact, Arial Black, Century Gothic and Comic Sans MS. This expanded set of fonts meant Web designers had ten — count ’em — ten type fonts to choose from.
Designers have been trying to sidestep the Web safe font limitation for years by using a few tricks such as replacing HTML text with graphics, replacing entire Web pages with Flash and using CSS font family selectors to inform the browser of a series of font choices. But none of these workarounds solved the problem of safely rendering live HTML text in a font other than the expanded Web safe set of ten.
Web typography is finally hitting its stride with a relatively new technology: server-based fonts. Currently offered by companies such as TypeKit, Google and traditional font foundries such as Monotype, server-based fonts load to the browser in milliseconds from remote font servers that are licensed to serve thousands of fonts.
As the concept matures and browsers advance, we will continue to see an explosion in server-based font usage in Web design. Also, the concept is being propelled by industry heavy hitters like Google and Adobe (who recently acquired Typekit).
Server-based fonts are here to stay and for many reasons. First, there are thousands of fonts to choose from. Even classics such as Futura, Univers and Frutiger are available. Second, sites that are rich in graphics and font usage will actually become more lightweight as non-standard fonts will no longer be rendered in-graphic. And lastly, server-based fonts are SEO friendly. As designers are able produce pages in live text rather than in-graphic.
We are experimenting with server-based fonts on several of our current projects here at Geonetric. We are impressed and encouraged by what we see thus far.