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Understanding Fonts and the Web

Ross Beyeler

For those of us who aren’t Typophiles (typography-philes) who spend their days playing Cheese or Font, understanding the role of fonts in designing, building, and maintaining a website is probably an afterthought.

Luckily, however, there are already enough people out there who obsess over typography as an art form.  Here we will explain all you need to know about managing your web fonts without getting into the nitty-gritty of serifs and kerning.  It’s important to know know more about implementing custom fonts to you’re not stuck with Arial and Helvetica as your only options.

Although fonts seem to come in abundant quantities on our desktop programs such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, Fonts are considered intellectual property, much like images or any other piece of art.  When using a font on the web, you have to pay for the rights to use it- buying the license for its use.

As a small caveat, there is a small collection of fonts that come inherent within a browser (Chrome, Safari, IE).  These are standard, generic fonts and if choosing this option, your website fonts will show up differently between browsers since it relies on the default font.  By paying to have the font hosted online, you can ensure that ‘helvetica’ will show up in every browser instead of using the free version, which would change to Arial in IE.  Custom fonts are any font that is not a standard, generic font, such as the ones in the link and we will be referencing those in this article.

Paying for fonts can come in several different forms...

  • Free!  Some fonts are free to use on the web.  Google Fonts is a common place to find these gems, but naturally you’ll find a larger and higher quality selection when you pay for them.

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  • One time purchase- you can pay a one-time fee to purchase the rights to use a font.  Typically each rendition of the font can start around $20 and go up from there.  A rendition of a font is one particular weight and/italicization.  For instance, you can buy a font in a normal weight and then purchase the font again in a bold weight.  Fonts can come in many different renditions and packages for all renditions of a font can be purchased for around $300-$400.  A common website to purchase fonts this way is My Fonts.  Buying fonts this way typically has a higher upfront cost, but you will have the rights to use this font on the web forever.

  • Pay-as-you-go: It’s becoming increasingly common to buy a subscription to fonts on the web.  You normally pay for access to a library of fonts and the number of fonts you can license at a time.  There are typically restrictions on how many page views though.  The benefit to this model is that it costs less money up front.  Packages can be free (though you will have to display a badge on your site) and can range up to $100/month.  Don’t be fooled though, most people can pay as little as $2/month.  Another benefit to this model is that the fonts are hosted and cared for by another company, so if there is trouble relating to slow load time or blurriness- you can rely on the company to take care of it.  Popular site for this model are Typekit and

Altogether we’ve seen two very different models to pay for the use of web fonts.  Free is always the best option, but it lacks the variety and quality that you get when paying for a font.  Both free and one-time purchased fonts are both hosted on your server, so you are responsible for fast load time and quality of the font- as opposed to the fonts being hosted online by a 3rd party company in the subscription model.  If you plan on using just one font forever and you don’t mind the upfront cost, it can be cheaper to pay the one time fee in order to use the font.  Subscription models offer more flexibility, but you may end up paying more in the infinitum.

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