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More web fonts = more awesome web typography, right? No.

Posted on July 30th, 2010 by Jeff

Periodic table of Typefaces.

There’s a long standing, unwritten rule* that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD do that something–i.e., just because I have a voice and sing to myself, doesn’t mean I should do so in public. Just because great sites like Typekit.com & Google Web Fonts make a whole slew of new typefaces available to the web, doesn’t mean that everyone should go and start using new ones because they are just that–new and shiny.

What it was like before

For a long time, web designers were a bit hand-cuffed with their designs simply because web fonts were sooo limiting. Basically designers would choose serif or sans serif and briefly expand from there → Georgia, Palatino or Times for a serif family, and Verdana, Arial or Helvetica for a sans serif family. To a designer well versed in typography (define), this would seem appalling, but that was the harsh truth. And we dealt with it. Some better than others of course. Another example of not doing something just because is how people use the internet as a whole. It’s great in theory: with a little bit of gumshoe, any Tom, Dick or Harry can create a website. And thus we got some amazing sites, and some bad, bad, and badder sites.

For us designers who know a thing or two about typography, we did the best with what we could, and a lot of designers made a lot of amazing websites with amazing typography.

However, for all those people who just think they are designers, they have even less actual working experience with typography (as opposed to design in general). So limiting their options for web typography was, for all intense purposes, a good thing, albeit not the real reason this issue existed. When all you have to think about is 10 to 20 typefaces, combining both serif and sans serif, then the poor experiences that could be created were quasi-limited, emphasis on quasi. However, now with around 500+ options (based on Typekit.com library available as of today + Google Web Fonts), the limitations have been drastically reduced, and thus the chance for even more awful typography has increased exponentially.

But let’s not lose all hope; the world is full of great resources for all to use and learn (on the interwebs & in school). It’s just educating people about why they should learn a bit more, and then getting them to learn the basics. Typography is a very intense and scientific study, so I am not suggesting that everyone need a degree in this field—I am more just suggesting that before delving into ANY kind of design, be it web or print, they take the time to understand the basics of whatever they were doing.

So what now?

Thus, is there an onus these new sites providing more fonts to stress the basics of learning typography before going off the deep end? Of course not, but making more of a push to drive newbies to learn when to use certain typefaces and when not to might not be a bad idea. That sounds like an idea for a new site, methinks.

Perhaps I am being too premature in my worry, and most likely, people will still do whatever they think is best for their ‘designs,’ so this is more of just a rant than anything else. Hopefully, though, these new advances will spark more interest in the ideals of typography than just ‘Ooh look, I can use the same fonts that I can in Powerpoint, yippie!’

Only time will tell though.

* Okay, maybe it’s written somewhere, but for arguments sake let’s say it’s just an unwritten rule. Also, an update: I just came across this horrific addition to web- & email-safe fonts, this is EXACTLY what I was afraid of.

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