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Understanding Fonts

Steve McKinney
Steve is CandidSky's lead front-end developer. He makes things look great, and believes in building responsive websites with the core principles of usability and simplicity.

April 23, 2013

4 minute read

During the process of building and designing a website, the use of fonts is often misunderstood. This post isn’t about how to choose fonts for a website, it’s to do with understanding the sometimes difficult process behind using your desired fonts and making them web accessible.

Fonts on your computer

A lot of the fonts you will be used to seeing are the ones that came with your computer. You may think that because these came with your computer you can just use them on the web. This is partially true; if you tell your website to use a certain font then provided that person already has it on their computer, it will render properly.

You may be wondering what a few of the following questions now:

What happens if a user doesn’t have the font on their computer?

The font will, by itself, default to either a specified font in a stack of other fonts or it will default to what ever the browser uses as standard, normally Times New Roman. Compare this to using a font in a Word document then opening that document on another computer and it’s not using the font you used, it’s closely related.

Why doesn’t it show on their computer?

The simple reason is they don’t have it on their computer and if they don’t have it on their computer where is it going to get it from? That leads to the final question.

How do I get that font to show on their computer?

If there is no where for a computer to access a font then you need to make it accessible somehow. There are ways of doing it:

  • Getting that person to download that font and install it (no one expects you to do this)
  • Put the font on your server
  • Use a service that provides the fonts


Licensing can be difficult to understand, but all fonts somewhere have a license attached to them, whether its the ones on your computer now or you purchase a new font for a design. Even free fonts come with some form of license. There are generally 2 licenses a desktop and web license. A font that sits on your computer currently you can use that as you wish on your computer, in documents and so on. That is likely only for use on the desktop. A font you purchase as new will generally only be use for desktop too. Though depending where you buy that font from you may see the option to buy for just web or both web and desktop.

Desktop license

This will be how you use a font normally, just install and away you go. Though the conditions of this license might include how many computers you use it on and it tends to get more and more expensive the more computers you need it on. So when you think “I’ll just send the font across to another person”, you could be breaking the agreement in the license. This can be an issue when we are sent fonts by clients – legally we can’t use them unless the license permits it. In addition to this, we can’t just take that font and use it on the web, without a specific web license.

Web license

If you purchase fonts for web and not desktop, then you’re only allowed to use them on the web in reality. The main difference is you will likely be provided with a few different formats. This is because some browsers only accept a certain format (which is a completely different topic, just one to be aware of). A key thing to remember here is if you have a font but can’t find the license or know where to find a license. Don’t use it on the web.

What do we recommend?

We recommend using a font service. they remove the various complications such as licensing, filetypes and browser support, so you only have to think about the cost and terms of the license (which is usually down to page views). You’re also likely to not get access to the fonts on your desktop. This isn’t a deal breaker for us because of the way fonts render across the variety of devices out there.

Font services

There are many out there, our preference personally is Typekit due to it’s reliability, quality and cost.

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