New Web fonts promise cross-platform support

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Roger Black and David Berlow are hoping to bring some order to the untamed worlds of Web and mobile typography with a new set of fonts that are designed to scale across different screen sizes and browser types.

The Font Bureau plans to release during the second week of August seven families of new Web fonts, which are designed from the ground up to work on smaller screen sizes. The new fonts will move across devices independently, recompiling content from one container to the next. 

“They will withstand what the user does, what the Web designer does, and what the OS/browser does to scale and rendering,” said Berlow, co-founder of the Font Bureau.

The new Web fonts are related to existing print libraries so that publishers can maintain their print branding across platforms, Berlow added.

The fonts will be distributed through a new company, Webtype, which Berlow said will provide a model for how the different fonts work for different screen sizes. The "coming soon" home page for the Webtype website promises “consistent typographic fidelity” that will enable designers “to customize the typography of their sites quickly, reliably, and economically without sacrificing quality and readability.”

Finding suitable Web fonts for mobile devices and different Web browsers has been an ongoing challenge for Web designers. Most fonts used in digital design are print fonts that have been adapted (with varying levels of success) to the Web.

Berlow compares the process of developing Web fonts to a Russian nesting doll.

“Every time you make progress and open up one doll, there’s another doll inside posing a new challenge,” he said. In other words, there are a lot of complex layers to Web typography, encompassing browsers and operating systems and, as mobile takes off, a broad range of screen sizes. All of which pose unique challenges to publication designers and font developers.

The transition from print to Web fonts has been further challenged by the slow pace of Web standardization, Berlow added. “The consortium guiding the Web believes in moving in baby steps,” he said. “Typography is complex to begin with. If you try to implement slowly, it’s kind of awkward.”

Small screens put a strain on type

The primary challenge with web typography – particularly in mobile devices – is the low resolution of many displays, which put a strain on small type. Another hurdle is the scalability required on devices that include zoom functions or can switch from portrait to landscape mode – all at the user’s discretion. 

“Most of the offerings on [mobile platforms] are great for display, but they don’t work too well for text,” said Black, a longtime media designer who heads up Roger Black Studio and is a partner in both the Font Bureau and Web design firm Danilo Black. “We still have Verdana, Georgia and Arial as the default for all Web design.”

In addition to the new fonts, Black is working with two other initiatives to help publishers extend their publications across multiple platforms. His Treesaver technology, to be formally introduced in August, will automatically adjust the layout and navigational features of digital editions based on the browser/operating system in which it is running.

“We’re trying to make a good reading environment that works across all screen sizes,” Black explained. “We expect it will catch on very well.”
Black is also a partner in Ready Media, which close to launching a set of publishing templates for newspapers, magazines and their websites.

Will Apple take the lead?

Web typography issues are rising in importance as smartphones and tablet devices become popular distribution vehicles for magazine and newspaper publishers.

Despite the praise Apple has received for the high-resolution screens in its iPad and new iPhone, it has also been criticized for some of its typography decisions. Black, for one, said Apple’s decision to use SVG fonts instead of TrueType webfonts is a step in the wrong direction, Black said.

“The main thing they can do is take the lead and allow TrueType webfonts as @font-face embedded fonts,” he said. “They owe it to the design community to allow us to have webfonts on the iPhone platform. 

“SVG doesn’t have the hints you can have in TrueType,” Black added. “They do a good job of their own hinting in the iPad and the new iPhone, but how much nicer it would be to be blown away by Bembo on the iPhone?”

Stephen Coles, type director at the Font Shop, has also taken Apple to task for the subpar typography support in its mobile devices. In a recent blog post, Coles said Apple’s approach to typography on the iPad “flops.”

In an interview, Coles said the fonts selected for the iBooks format, while suitable for print, don’t adapt well to long-form reading on screen. He also was critical of features such as forced justification without native hyphenation support, which can cause unsightly spacing issues in body text.

Coles acknowledged that Apple is making some progress in this area. He also agrees that the iPad is a may be a game-changer in terms of typography on mobile devices.

“There are not any readers that will give you as much flexibility for embedding fonts and supporting photographs,” he said. “It is essentially the platform for a mobile release of a magazine. Despite the complaints, it probably is the future.” 

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