Since the World Wide Web’s earliest days, whether you were shopping on Amazon or researching on Google or catching up on news at latimes.com, chances are you were looking at just one of four typefaces — Arial, Verdana, Georgia or Times — each formulated for computer monitors and trusted by web designers to display properly on your screen.
In other words, a seventh-grader writing a book report on Microsoft Word had more font choices than the person designing Esquire Magazine's website or the IKEA online catalog. But now that is about to change.
Beginning Tuesday, Monotype Imaging, a Massachusetts company that owns one of the largest collections of typefaces in the world, is making 2,000 of its fonts available to web designers. The move follows the San Francisco-based FontShop, which put several hundred of its fonts online in February. In just a few weeks, Font Bureau, a Boston designer of fonts, will make some of its typefaces available online as well.
Web designers, understandably, cannot overstate how big of a deal this is.
“It's like the 'Wizard of Oz' moment when they go from black and white to color,” said Tal Leming, a typeface designer. “It's going to be huge. It's going to be absolutely huge.”
But how much change will this online font explosion bring for nondesigners, particularly a public that rarely thinks about fonts at all? According to many designers, the change will be subtle — just how it should be. Good graphic design is generally meant to be invisible, they said, enhancing a reader's experience of the text but not getting in the way of it.
“It's like walking into a room that has bad lighting,” said Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and author of “Thinking With Type.”
“Most people walk into the room and they know it is unpleasant. They know they don't feel good in the room, but they don't know why. An interior designer walks into the room and says, 'It's the lighting.' Typefaces work the same way.”
Shu Lai, vice president of the Society of Typographic Aficionados and interactive creative director at the Pereira & O'Dell ad agency in San Francisco, put it this way: “We don't necessarily want people to notice the change. We just want them to be happier.”
Traditionally, the fonts you see when you surf the Web are owned or licensed by Apple or Microsoft or whatever company is running the computer's operating system. If a designer wants you to see Caslon (one of the most popular typefaces for books, but unavailable online) when you go to her website, you must have Caslon installed on your computer; otherwise it will default to a font that you do have, such as Times. When it is really important to show certain lettering — for example, the Los Angeles Times' gothic-looking header — then a designer would essentially save the type as a photo or graphic. The correct font would display, but the words would not be selectable, searchable or resizable because according to the computer, they are an image, not text.
Now, if a designer wants you to see Caslon, she can purchase it from the font company that owns it or through services such as Typekit, which has a library of fonts available by subscription. That font will be delivered to the designer's website and to anyone viewing it, even if the font is not installed on the computer.
The designer is satisfied because you are seeing what she intended you to see, and the typeface designers are satisfied because they were paid.