The aesthetic of webby webfonts

Today I listened to the latest Presentable podcast about Typography with Jeff Veen and Jason Santa Maria. They both worked on Typekit, a subscription service for webfonts. Since they worked at, and even came up with the idea of Typekit I didn’t expect such a critical look at the webfont situation. Basically it is a mess of many different kinds of licenses, different file formats, font foundries that try to protect their fonts, and the nature of the web itself. It is possible to come up with hacks that deliver fonts smoothly, but they are still hacks. Not very future friendly, and pretty expensive as well: If you want performance, you will need to host the fonts yourself, and that is still pretty expensive for most foundries.

A while ago I read this book — The Triumph of Typography — with essays about the past and the future of typography. There were some excellent articles about the history of typography, and there were a few interesting articles about the future. But to be honest, I was quite disappointed in its overall vision. The web is mentioned maybe twice in the whole book, while quite a few essays talk about ebooks. That doesn’t sound like an exploration of the future of typography to me, it sounds like a simple continuation of what we already know. A very simple continuation. We know how to do books. And thus the future should be something similar. While other historic parallels between early books and the web — the fact that it enables the distribution of knowledge in a revolutionary way for instance — are mostly ignored.

The answers I hoped to find were not in this book. I was hoping to find typographers who acknowledge the issues with typography on the web and who try to find creative ways to deal with them. I was hoping to read about new, more accessible and more liberal license and pricing models. I was hoping to read more about experimental file formats. I was hoping to read about current and future typography enabling the distribution of knowledge with new media like the web. And I was hoping to read more about the implications that such a weird medium like the web — that depends on uncontrollable things like network connections and device capabilities — might have on the aesthetic of fonts. Unfortunately, no such articles, since the web is not considered to be part of the future of typography, according to this publication. A missed opportunity if you ask me.

I’m always amazed by the fact that we don’t really have such a thing as the web aesthetic. If you ask me, we’ve always tried to ignore the material of the web as much as possible, while in many other disciplines the constrains of the medium will result in new visual styles. Pixelated games were pixelated since that was all the early computers could render. But new pixelated games are still created today. It has turned into a new visual genre. I would expect something similar to happen with the web, and in particular with typography on the web.

A kind of new typography, based on the constraints of a new medium, did happen in the 80s. I read about a few examples in this other, very inspiring book — Emigre Fonts: Type Specimens 1986-2016. Back in 1986 Emigre released a few fonts that were created with the rather extreme constraints of that time. The first Mackintosh computers didn’t even have a hard drive. Their very first fonts were rendered by pixels. And later on, fonts like Matrix were designed to be an economical font and thus the points required to define it were limited to the essentials. This minimalism resulted in diagonal serifs, and the angle of 45 degrees was chosen since it was the smoothest-looking diagonal the printers of that time were capable of printing. At first these new fonts looked weird, but people got used to them and even started to like them. They are still in use today. Again, a completely new visual style, born out of technical constraints. The constraints of these early computers and printers are long gone, but the style remains.

Of course I’m happy with new things like multicoloured font formats. But I’d also love to see new font designs based on the constraints of the web. Fonts that have answers to questions like: What does a font look like if a tiny file size is the most important thing? Is it possible to design a font that looks good if we let the browser transform it to bold or oblique, instead of sending separate font files? It could be that these exercises have been done already and that I simply don’t know them yet. Or that the results are terribly disappointing. Or boring. Anyway, I’d love to hear about these experiments. And I’d love to play with them. I’m sure there’s some kind of aesthetic in them that we can get used to. And I think we need to get used to it: computers did get faster, so we don’t need to work with the constraints of the early Mackintosh. But network conditions might be something that we have to deal with for quite a while. Let’s turn it into a style.

Also published on Medium