The resurrection of downloadable Web fonts

Despite it being in the CSS 2 specification from 1998, downloadable fonts specified with the @font-face at-rule never caught on. The main reason was that Microsoft and Netscape chose to support different font formats, neither of which was in wide use. I remember reading about it at the time and quickly abandoning it due to the problems with cross-browser support. As did most others, it seems.

However, that may be about to change. As reported in Downloadable Fonts, recent nightly builds of Apple WebKit (not the normal nightly build but a feature branch) support @font-face rules with TrueType fonts. The browser will download the font file you specify and use the typeface it contains just like any other.

A thorough description of the @font-face feature, with plenty of examples, is available in HÃ¥kon Wium Lie's article CSS @ Ten: The Next Big Thing, published at A List Apart in August this year.

When I first read the article I thought "Nice. But I want to see it in a browser before I get too excited." Well, since WebKit now supports @font-face I decided to play around with it a little and it seems to work rather well.

The CSS that loads a custom font looks like this:

  1. @font-face {
  2. font-family:"MyCustomFont";
  3. src:url(MyCustomFont.ttf) format("truetype");
  4. }

You can then use the name you specify in the font-family property in other CSS rules, like this:

  1. h1 {
  2. font-family:MyCustomFont;
  3. }

The syntax is described in Font Descriptions and @font-face in the CSS 2 specification.

There's both good and bad to downloadable fonts of course. As with all features that can be misused, this will undoubtedly be misused. There will be designers who are too excited about being able to use just about any font to remember that text is useless if nobody can read it.

On the other hand, good designers will be able to use this to render headings in beautiful and highly legible typefaces without causing any accessibility problems. And once all mainstream browsers support downloadable fonts we will no longer need to use hacks and workarounds like bitmap based image replacement or sIFR.

To summarise my feelings about this, as someone with a background in typography I can see how useful this can be, though I do worry that many will not be able to use this tool responsibly. Then again, that applies to most tools.

Posted on October 9, 2007 in Typography, Browsers, CSS