As I’m sure many of you do, I read a fair amount on the subject of web typography, performance, and design for the digital world in general. In doing so a bit more regularly since I starting this newsletter, I keep having some phrases jump out at me—and I’m increasingly saddened by their consistency. Over the years it has become pretty standard advice to minimize the number of different fonts you load for a given website design, and it’s advice that I’ve given as well.
But what I hear more often now is this advice couched in terms of ‘what is good typography’, rather than its truer origin: basic web performance. The advice goes something like this: ‘don’t use more than 2 or 3 weights of a given typeface in your design because that’s better typography.’
Except that is patently untrue.
Now, it is generally good advice to not use more than 2 or 3 typefaces in your design (such as Georgia, Helvetica, or Proxima Nova), as this does tend to give you a bit more harmony. But even that’s not an absolute. Let’s be clear: the motivating factor behind the previous phrasing is all about font download performance. It has nothing to do with what is or is not ‘good typography.’
I’ve also heard this line of reasoning applied from the inverse direction—implying that there’s no point in considering more than 3 or 4 fonts when discussing web platform technology evolution ‘since no-one ever uses more than that in their design.’ This simply completes the circular logic and perpetuates the falsehood. The greater danger here is if that statement is accepted as fact, then forward progress in web font performance could be seriously misdirected.
A history of misrepresentation
Since every weight or variant of a typeface is a separate file, it follows that if you wanted to use one for your body copy you would tend to want a regular weight, a bold, an italic, and perhaps bold italic. And possibly a fifth font for a contrasting header. That would mean you’re loading 5 different font files in order to represent the content on your site. Not everyone will opt to use web fonts for everything; for example, some will use system fonts for body copy. This tends to be the most people will include, because loading the font data takes time. And the more fonts, the longer it will take for the web site to render.
So it may be good advice in order to preserve better user experience, but it’s still not related to the quality of the typography itself.
In truth, all you have to do is look to magazine covers to see what is more typical in a well-designed layout: often times you can see numerous weights and variants in a single layout—each one being used to match perfectly with the size, placement, and desired visual hierarchy.