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Expanding basic web font stacks

For years now, typography on the web has been pretty simple – unless you could use images for text, or something like sIFR, you were stuck with a very basic font stack: typically Arial, Georgia, Times and Verdana being the most prevalent. Countless great designs have been made with those basic tools, but designers have wanted to broaden their typographic resources for quite some time.

Currently, it’s an exciting time for type on the web. Tools like sIFR are still around, there’s also JS based techniques like Cufon, as well as commercial solutions like Typekit, and even @font-face embedding for modern browsers. Each of these has their positives and negatives, but a simple compromise solution comes in the form of simply expanding the basic font stack.

This has been written about before, but it never seems to have gained traction in the design community. That’s a shame, because there are some great options available.

Quite simply, this is the idea that instead of just choosing fonts that have 100% compatibility (which limits you to the common choices), specifying fonts that are very common (I’ve chosen ~80% or higher, though it’s up to your discretion), and then using traditional fonts as backups if a user doesn’t have the font in question. This is incredibly easy to code, degrades very gracefully, and doesn’t require a download or installation of anything for the user.

You have to be willing to accept that less than 100% of people will see your design with perfect accuracy to the original, but the payoff is that for 8 out of 10 it will be more interesting and offer a richer typographic experience, whereas 2 out of 10 will simply see standard fonts.

There are good lists of fonts available here (Windows) and here (Mac). Keep in mind you can use these together, specifying first a Windows-prevalent font, then a Mac version, then the more standard type after that. One of the most exciting choices is Arial Narrow (~89% on both platforms) which finally gives you an option for condensed type in HTML text. I’m also interested to see Franklin Gothic Medium (a classic in the design world, 97% on Windows), and Palatino/Palatino Linotype (gorgeous serif face, 97% Windows, 80% Mac).

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