A History of Web Typography

A History of Web Typography

Your site’s font is an important decision that can—and should—take serious deliberation. After all, font is an important aspect of design that can’t be overlooked. 

But not that long ago you didn’t have nearly as many options for fonts.

1990: HTML

Hyper text markup language (HTML) was invented in 1980 by Tim Berners-Lee, but it was 1990 when he wrote web browser software for his invention. HTML is still used today, but in 1990 it was up to the web browser’s preferences as to what font style showed.

1995: Inline tags

Five years later, Netscape Communications Corporation created the inline tag, which allowed font display and styling. Because inline tags only worked if the desired font were installed on the user’s computer, standard fonts earned the term “web safe.” Web safe fonts were as follows:

typeface examples

1998: Font downloading

Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) was first introduced in 1996, allowing web designers to set a specific font look and feel, but they had to either be installed on the computer or set as an image. The problem with setting the fonts as an image was that the load time negated its positive impact. But in 1998, CSS2 allowed fonts to be incorporated without having to be installed on the user’s computer in a program called font downloading. This concept was still bulky to load, so it did not get much use, and web designers were still sticking to web-safe fonts.

1999: CSS3

Even early drafts of CSS3 made font customization a priority. By dividing the document into several sections (called modules), loading specific fonts was easier and faster. 1999 marked the beginning of font customization on the web. This video from Forrest Media explains the difference in several different font types.

After 1999 it didn’t take long for hundreds of thousands of custom fonts to be created and made available online. But the problem with this availability was that there was no way to protect embedded commercial fonts from being downloaded and freely distributed. Because of this font licensing problem, many websites didn’t break away from standard, web safe fonts. 

2004: sIFR

In 2004 Mike Davidson and Mark Wubben created Scalable Inman Flash Replacement (sIFR), combining Flash and JavaScript to replace standard fonts with custom ones. This sIFR solution was a great idea for headlines and banners, but it didn’t quite meet the needs for custom fonts. Like CSS2, sIFR was too bulky to load, adding on too many layers for sites’ backends. 

2008: Subscription hosting

In 2008 a company called Typekit started hosting custom fonts for a subscription fee, and several other companies followed suit. These companies included in their service a platform that loaded the fonts quickly and smoothly.

Today: Browser embedding

One by one, with the rise of mobile devices, web browsers after 2008 started to allow font embedding. Today, custom fonts you choose for your site carry over to mobile and the rest of the web. 

Now that fonts are available to the entire web, there’s no reason not to incorporate some custom font onto your site. 

(And if you’re interested in learning more about fonts in general, this infographic from Mashable is fantastic.)

About the author

Autumn Nicholson.jpg

I'm Autumn Nicholson, Director of Internet Marketing. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in English and took the first editing job I could find, at a marketing company in South Carolina. I joined Farmore Marketing in 2014 to put my internet marketing experience to good use—and to spend more time on the beach. I invest much of my time volunteering for nonprofits, reading, and binge-watching TV shows on Netflix. You can connect with me here:


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