I last wrote about the progress of webfonts for A List Apart six years ago. Very few sites used webfonts then, but there was a lot of pent-up frustration among designers to get moving after 15 years of confinement to so-called “web-safe” system fonts.
And move they did. With the learn-as-you-go self-reliance that web creators have always been so good at—a slick change in syntax to grease this thing here, a polyfill to patch that thing there—we’ve come a long, long way with very little preparation.A success by anyone’s measure (mostly)
As of May 2016, a majority of sites—60% of the Alexa Top 1 Million Sites—were using webfonts, up from only 2% in 2011.Image: HTTP Archive.
In “Efficient Web Type, Circa 1556”, designer Kenneth Ormandy notes that “we are building sites that request more fonts, from an 8kb average transfer size at the beginning of 2012 to a 59kb average two years later.”Image: HTTP Archive.
Data also shows that soon after a site adopts webfonts, it will likely add more: the number of requests go up and, so too, do the sizes of the files requested. An exodus away from system fonts is clearly underway. Webfonts have reached critical mass and will soon be the new normal in web typography.
Now, whether webfonts, cloud computing, or animation, the adoption of new technologies means potential users have come to terms with their fears about them. These fears can be very irrational, and they can persist long after the conditions that gave rise to them are gone. For example, in 2009, web performance expert Steve Souders—then at Yahoo—warned web designers that they should, if at all possible, stay away from webfonts: “My first piece of advice is to avoid using @font-face unless it’s critical to the page.”
Whoa. Okay, but that was back then. This is 2016. With usage at 60 percent, surely nobody would seriously argue for a return to system fonts, right?
What?Just say no
Morse writes:There are a lot of arguments around why you should use webfonts. In none of those arguments, have I heard about a single problem being solved for users.
He goes on:Over the last three years I have participated in a number of testing sessions. In that time I never heard a user complain about:
- the use of system fonts in a design.
- a website having the same typeface as another site.
- a page using system fonts that loaded too quickly.
- a site NOT using web fonts.
On the flip side I:
- observed users abandon a website because the page was loading slowly.
- heard people complain about the dreaded flash of unstyled text.
In sum, Morse’s attitude is that web fonts aren’t worth the trouble they cause some users—especially in low-bandwidth conditions—and that sticking with tried-and-true system fonts is best for all concerned.
Well. In less time than it takes to say “Holy holdout, Batman!” web designer Robin Rendle posted a rebuttal. A few days later came Frederic Marx’s “Webfonts Last”. And in between those volleys, both Jeffrey Zeldman and Jeremy Keith took note of the disturbance in the force and I, sucked into the vortex, offered to write this article. C’est le web.
Morse’s criticisms obviously hit a sore spot with Robin Rendle and Frederic Marx and, frankly, me too. But why so touchy after all this time? Webfonts are a runaway train and anyone standing astride the tracks shouting stop is just asking to get plowed over. Didn’t everybody get the tweet about this? Well, maybe not—maybe some people genuinely aren’t aware that webfonts have become so popular.
As Rob Larsen observes in his book The Uncertain Web:Most of the time, front-line developers don’t get to spend time looking at the big picture…Even folks who are tasked with keeping track of the big trends can get sidetracked…It seems like people don’t really think about how fundamentally the Web has changed.
But then, also, maybe there’s some truth to what Morse is saying.
Morse is right to rail against webfonts’ drawbacks. A poor user experience for some of us diminishes all of us. Leave no user behind—who would argue with that? Plus, the browser makers and the W3C have taken too long and have done too little to give web designers the fundamental tools, within CSS alone, to ensure consistent behavior from browser to browser. A standards-based fix is long overdue.
The CSS font-display property proposed by Tab Atkins, Jr. of Google is an attempt at just such a fix.
Atkins lists some of the persistent problems his proposal addresses:
- Chrome and Firefox have a 3 second timeout after which the text is shown with the fallback font. Eventually, a swap occurs: the text is re-rendered with the intended font once it becomes available.
- Internet Explorer has a 0 second timeout which results in immediate text rendering: if the requested font is not yet available, fallback is used, and text is rerendered later once the requested font becomes available.
- Safari has no timeout behavior (or at least nothing beyond a baseline network timeout)
He continues:While these default behaviors are reasonable, they’re unfortunately inconsistent across browsers. Worse, no single approach is sufficient to cover the range of use cases required by modern user-experience–and performance–conscious applications.
Now, amazingly, jaw-droppingly, these defects are consistent with the very same defects described in Souders’ analysis from 2009—seven years ago!—in which he advised, from a webperf analyst’s point of view and with a webperf analyst’s priorities, that webfonts not be used at all.
Yet the pain of still more Arial, still more Helvetica, proved too much to bear when, at long last, webfonts started looking like a practical option in early 2011. Web design featuring a wide variety of typefaces that were searchable, scalable, zoomable, selectable, and high-DPI friendly was too great a temptation to resist. Scary talk be damned, designers inched forward on their own, saw for themselves, and, in the collective view of the two percent of early adopters, despite a few kinks and blinks—c’mon, is it really a “flash” of unstyled content?—webfonts by and large worked well enough to begin leaving the homogeneity of system fonts behind.
But infatuation will only take you so far. Those early adopters were able to keep moving steadily forward and draw others into the fold only because conditions became increasingly amenable to webfonts. The timing was right.Like manna from heaven
It’s 2011, and for webfonts to start taking hold, backward compatibility with Internet Explorer is essential. It’s hard to imagine any site giving webfonts a try if it means excluding the huge number of IE 6, 7, and 8 users that existed then. The catch was, with any version of IE prior to version 9, the webfont had to be converted from a TrueType font (TTF) to the Embedded OpenType (EOT) format. Then, the HTML had to include CSS that accommodated both the rudimentary implementation of @font-face that went all the way back to the release of IE 4 in 1997 and also, at the same time, work with the newer syntax demanded in CSS3. Several workarounds emerged, but in the end there was a clear winner: the New Bulletproof Syntax was a clever, yet simple, CSS-only solution to the problem. It’s still in wide use today.
And so, greatly favorable to the adoption of webfonts—perhaps above all else—and yet easily overlooked because it came gradually and in small doses—was more bandwidth, more bandwidth, and then more bandwidth. The average internet speed in the United States today is three times as fast as it was in 2011.Progressive enhancers need not apply
Webfonts are sometimes presented as “progressive enhancements” of system fonts. That’s incorrect. System fonts are a parallel solution to the same problem. A webfont is not an “enhanced” version of a system font, nor is a system font a gracefully degraded webfont. It might feel that way because, if a webfont is not available, the browser falls back to a system font. But fallback fonts are system fonts that vary according to which platform the browser is installed on; there is no way to know precisely which font—or version of the font—the browser will fall back to. As any web server administrator will tell you, the only content you can be absolutely sure of is what’s on your server. Everything else is guesswork. In fact, to get webfonts working well, the exact opposite of progressive enhancement is required.
Morse is right that, without extra effort, CSS by itself doesn’t give us the tools to smooth out the user experience as webfonts load (or don’t). But we can achieve that level of control with just a little bit of extra work—well-tested remedies and refinements exist for all of the problems Morse implicitly treats as insurmountable. Typekit’s Bram Stein, Filament Group’s Zach Leatherman, and Google’s Ilya Grigorik have all prominently posted solutions to these problems online. The truth is out there, Scully.
Amen. Which leaves us with the final reason why Morse’s criticisms are beside the point. He puts an unquestioning, almost religious, faith in system fonts.
In his rebuttal to Morse, Rendle notes:It appears that he argues we should use a “web-safe” or a system font because they’re more predictable. However, I would argue that there’s no such thing as a “web-safe” font.
It’s a fact. Ask yourself this: if network bandwidth had been able to support the requisite file sizes when the web began, wouldn’t fonts sent from the server have been greatly preferred over system fonts? If you can only be certain of what’s under your control on your server, which would you rather have—the certainty of webfonts that are precisely what you and your users want and need, or the crapshoot of fonts preinstalled by makers of operating systems that present you with moving targets that vary from platform to platform? So-called “web-safe” system fonts were a temporary ad hoc solution that web designers had no choice but to accept because network bandwidth was not yet capable of delivering what would, sooner or later, be necesary for the web to take its place as a truly global tool. Webfonts—the ones designers choose—are the true “web-safe” fonts. They always were. If ever there was a time when, by chance, system fonts offered a safe and simple haven for web designers, those days are long gone.The challenge of multi-script fonts
Most of the fonts Google commissioned in 2015 were Indic—Devanagari, Bengali, Gujarati, Gurmukhi, Kannada, Myanmar, Sinhala, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam—along with Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic, Armenian, Cyrillic, Cherokee, Lao, Khmer, and Thai. On Google Fonts’ redesigned site, you’ll see new menu items with those choices. The World Wide Web may be a creation of the West, but now, at long last, it needs to get ready for the rest. There’s a great hunger for the web to accommodate the world’s 6,000+ languages; a way to fulfill that need has finally taken shape through a convergence of three key developments:
- the rise of Unicode.org as a standards body and central authority in deciding which characters are referenced by which code points
- the implementation of the CSS3 @font-face rule in web browsers
- support for the OpenType font standard in web browsers
(Full disclosure: as a consultant for Google, I worked on quality control for many of these new fonts. But the views expressed here are strictly my own.)
The need for wider language support alone is enough to drive webfonts unstoppably forward. Sure, if you’re a native speaker of English working blissfully on a Macbook in a London pub and the year is 1886 and the sun never sets on your empire, by all means, stick with system fonts. But the truth is this: you can’t and won’t be able to count on the local operating system of every device to support all of the languages demanded by a truly worldwide web.
But enough. You don’t need a weatherman to know that a protest by one contrarian web designer won’t change the way the wind blows. Besides, websites are team efforts built and improved by collections of people. There are built-in institutional barriers that can delay and sometimes defeat the adoption of a new technology. It’s a thing.
So, let’s take a look at where the adoption of webfonts across the industry stands today, and call it a wrap.Patterns of adoption
Using webfonts means accepting that the typographic look-and-feel of a site is no longer in the hands of the makers of operating systems—it’s in the hands of those creating the site. Perhaps those hands are yours. Now, some may take on these new responsibilities eagerly; others may not. Those with a background in graphic design who miss the freedom to choose from a variety of typefaces will probably push hard for the change, while those who lack that background, or who champion performance over style, may urge caution.
Typography is a big deal. It’s branding. It’s identity. The desire to stand out visually is as powerful on the web as it is in any other medium—if not more powerful. And so far, along with a reflexive impulse simply to escape the sameness imposed by web-safe fonts, such motivations have proven strong enough to overcome the inertia and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude infusing many organizations.
But no matter how great the desire to change, internal politics, cost analysis, budgeting, and scheduling all take time.
Technical innovations don’t diffuse randomly. There’s a pattern to adoption, like ripples in a pond after a stone is thrown in. Below is a graph of a diffusion curve—the pattern of the ripples—with a red dot placed on the yellow line showing the point where webfonts have progressed with usage at 60 percent of the potential market:Image based on Everett Rogers, “Diffusion of Innovation”(Wikimedia)
As you can see, the adoption rate is about a third of the way into the group of users labeled “late majority.” We’re not quite at the point where everybody assumes that everybody is using webfonts everywhere, but we are at the point where those who aren’t are wondering: Why aren’t we?
There’s no going back, and there’s no staying behind.
Are you ready to roll?
Those of us working in content strategy know that it is a rich and complicated discipline. We understand, of course, that there are different types of content strategists. But we need to remember that outside of our content strategy bubble, the discipline is still pretty new to colleagues and clients. As the discipline matures and more companies are looking to hire for content strategy, how can companies educate themselves on how to use our specific skills?
I’ve recently been on the job market. And so I’ve spent a lot of time wading through content strategy job listings and meeting with hiring managers. My experience suggests that people beginning to actively hire content specialists frequently have little understanding of what their companies need beyond a title. I would even estimate that about half of my interviews over the past few months have consisted of talking through and refining job descriptions with those sitting across the table from me.
Hiring managers at agencies, brands, and startups would do well to hire based on the type of work they want to focus on—not on a price tag or a title. Like experience design (which content strategy is sometimes folded into), content strategy has subspecialties. Some strategists veer more toward the UX side: user research, content maps, content modeling. Others specialize in PR and native advertising (social media, influencer outreach, and content discovery); still others focus more on content management systems and governance.
Some content strategists even overlap with digital strategists (considering the audience, conversion, and the larger digital ecosystem), but then also do some of the more tactical, executional work to bring these digital ecosystems to life. Others may specialize in search and organic growth. Increasingly, former journalists have started to position themselves as content strategists, using their expertise with long-form and mid-length content to cash in on the boom in native advertising work and branded content creation.
And let’s not forget how industry and categories figure into the equation. For example, if you are an ecommerce brand hiring a content strategist for a website relaunch, you may want a content strategist with past experience in ecommerce working on your site, given your specific conversion challenges. Similarly, for highly regulated spaces like financial services, healthcare, or alcohol, a content strategist with past experience navigating these categories makes sense.If you don’t practice content strategy, talk to someone who does
For any company trying to make their first content-strategy hire, the most logical place to start is talking with a real live content strategist. I don’t mean that you should reach out to a content strategist on the pretense that this is a position for them and then use an interview to pick their brain (and waste their time). For starters, that’s not very nice; furthermore, you don’t want anyone spreading the word that your company doesn’t know what it’s doing and may not be the best place to work.
No, I mean that you should formally engage a content strategist as a consultant. Have them talk to your team, take a look at your business, help write up an accurate job description, and even start recruiting through their network for the specific position you seek to fill. Chances are they know a lot of good people in their community who would be a perfect fit for the role.
Too often, I’ve seen job descriptions written by someone who is obviously not a content strategist and interviews conducted by people who don’t really understand the discipline. This is likely because, depending on the organization and the kind of content strategy work you do, your role could easily sit in Strategy, Creative, UX, Product, Communications, or PR. And if you’re a content strategist more focused on measurement and SEO, a case could even be made for Analytics. While I understand why this occurs, it ultimately means that the candidates won’t be as strong as they could be.
For companies that already have a content strategist or two on staff, it makes sense to engage them as well, even if they’re in a different location or less senior than the role for which you are currently hiring. I guarantee that the kind of feedback they give you will be invaluable.Don’t look for “unicorns”
Banish the word “unicorn” from your vocabulary—along with, for that matter, “rock star,” “ninja,” and any other ridiculous buzzword of the moment. I’ve worked in the content sphere long enough to know my own strengths and weaknesses. For example, while I’ve certainly worked on content strategy projects that required information architecture, metadata, and taxonomy expertise, I know that my sweet spot lies more in editorial strategy. I’ve learned to position myself accordingly.
Unfortunately, today’s job market sometimes views such candor as a weakness. Ours is a culture that rewards confidence. Indeed, a survey of over 400,000 hiring professionals revealed that confidence is one of the top three traits that employers say they are looking for in new hires. This is particularly true in the tech space, where much has recently been made of the confidence gap and how it negatively impacts women. As a result, during the hiring process, people can feel pressured to claim that they can “do it all” just to nail down the job. And when a hiring manager doesn’t fully understand what they are hiring for, compulsory confidence can be especially problematic.
The thing is, as a hiring manager, you should be skeptical of anyone who claims to do it all. Someone with over five years of experience who says they can do both structural content strategy and editorial content strategy equally well is likely inflating the truth. And while there may be a tiny constellation of people out there who really can do everything, it probably won’t be for the $60 per hour you are offering. Be realistic when you hire. Remember, you aren’t hiring for sales or new business; you’re hiring to get a job done. Don’t fall for the slickest kid in the room—you may find yourself with a mess on your hands.Ask to see deliverables
As you decide to move forward in the process with a candidate you’ve vetted, rather than giving them a test or a lengthy spec-work presentation, a great way to see if they’re up to the task is to request a package of some of their past deliverables. Here are some deliverables to look for based on the type of content strategist you are hiring for:
- Website relaunch: content audit, comparative audit, content matrix, editorial guidelines
- CMS redesign: taxonomy and metadata recommendations, content models, site maps, workflow recommendations
- Content strategist for an online magazine: editorial calendars, voice and tone outputs, content briefs
- Content strategist with social-media focus: social editorial calendars, examples of social content, measurement reports
- Content strategist with SEO and analytics expertise: SEO recommendations, analytics audit
Knowing that you “need” content strategy at your company is one thing; hiring the right kind of content strategist to suit your needs and goals is another. Stop wasting your and your prospective hires’ time. Ask an expert for help, stay realistic about your hires, and request the appropriate deliverables. Making an informed decision about whom you bring on board will set you and your team up for success.