Fontdeck co-founder Jon Tan on web fonts

The co-founder of Fontdeck and Analog answers your questions on the future of typefaces, fonts on mobile devices and working with friends

@edson_bsx: Do you think the days of comprehensive web fonts are nearly here, or is there more to do?
@jontangerine: The days of web fonts are definitely here. There’s always more to do, but I think web fonts will only go from strength to strength from here.

@Tom_Walters: Does the future of web fonts lie with companies such as Typekit, or in manual embedding?
@jontangerine: Both I think. Self-hosted web fonts will always be preferable in some circumstances. Self-hosting is a bit like managing a dedicated server: It can work fine, but puts the onus on the designer or developer to maintain the fonts and the formats required as browsers develop. However, services like Fontdeck are more like managed hosting, and have a few distinct advantages that are worth mentioning.

Web font services enable designers to preview a whole host of typeface and test web fonts like they never could before. I think they’ve changed our workflow for the better. Being able to test fonts for free opens up a world of typographic exploration to designers. Traditionally, fonts were not available to test in full. Now, we can test and try as many as we like, and when we’ve found the perfect face, the small annual licence fee makes using great web fonts affordable for all clients, no matter what their budget may be.

Scalability for high traffic sites is another key feature of font services. Web font services should be able to scale efficiently. Fontdeck’s infrastructure was built with exactly that in mind by some of the world’s most respected scalability and performance experts at OmniTI. Typefaces can also be added to, adjusted and made automatically available to the websites using them in the right formats for all devices as @font-face and general CSS typesetting support evolves.

The last advantage is one of sustainability: foundries can manage their web fonts in one place and set the licence price themselves. This allows the smallest foundry to complete with the largest ones, and reap the rewards. That’s especially true of Fontdeck where the vast majority of the licence fee goes straight to the type designers.

So although it may seem like a binary choice, I think self-hosted fonts and font services both have their place, in much the same way that dedicated servers and managed hosting do.

@drbparsons: Any recommendations for learning about basic type rules for print that would be applicable to the web?
@jontangerine: You can't go far wrong with from Richard Rutter. It takes the principles of Robert Bringhurst’s seminal book, The Elements of Typographic Style, and ways to implement them on the web with HTML and CSS.

@nocturnalmonkey: What's the most inspiring use of typography on the web you’ve seen in the last year?
@jontangerine: That’s such a difficult question to answer. I don’t tend to categorise by year, and web fonts are still relatively new, but the web still has fantastic typography everywhere. The work of many fellow designers continues to be inspiring. Folks like Aegir Hallmundur who blogs at the Ministry of Type, Brian Hennings at Hoefler Frere-Jones (, Chris Hamamoto at FontShop, John Boardley at, Jason Santa Maria. The site for the upcoming book Explorations in Typography is a wonderful exploration of setting running text for the web (I wish the controls also worked without JS). For short form text on more brochure / advertising sites I’ve liked Nike Better World and the Lost World’s Fairs sites. Although not web typography, Reid Miles will always inspire me for the exceptional typography on the Blue Note covers he designed from the mid-50s to the late 60s.

@aaronbassett: The mere mention of several fonts (Comic Sans, Papyrus, Times New Roman) is enough to drive some designers into a frothed mouth frenzy. Is their reaction justified, or do they just need to get out more?
@jontangerine: Neither and both. (This is an ‘it depends’ answer.) We all have personal tastes, but it often feels like bandwagons emerge, get momentum, then crawl to a halt with the weight of transient popularity. Taste and fashion aside, provenance matters and context is critical. For example Comic Sans was designed by Vincent Connare specifically for the speech bubbles of Microsoft Bob, a comic software program for kids. Love it or hate it, it was much better than using Times New Roman in that context. There are many typefaces with a quality that exceeds the ability of many people to perceive it at first glance, especially on the screen with the array of adverse conditions fonts have to work in. I could happily argue that in font development terms Comic Sans was a technical marvel. For example, when testing Win XP’s Standard Smoothing using whole font sizes, the outlines of Comic Sans started being smoothed at 16px, lower than any other of the Core Fonts for the Web. Whatever side of a debate folks come down on, vociferous ignorance is equally as distasteful as vitriolic snobbery. I think the answer, as always, lies in the nuance, not the soundbite (or the trending topic and hashtag).

@cole007: If your font library was drowning in an ocean of typographic whitespace and you only had one life jacket, which font family would you save?
@jontangerine: The impossible question! I confess the answer may not be as creative as the question. It’s Georgia (with the new variants if possible!). Most of my work is on the web, so I could live with only being able to use Georgia. As life jackets go, it’s an old, trusted friend who would never let me down.

@jackosborne: What was your first type book, what’s your type bible and what’s your most recommended type book?
@jontangerine: My first type book is still my bible: The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. Not only is the content exceptional, it’s written in beautiful prose, and its typesetting is a wonder to behold. The hardback is inspirational. Also recommended is Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger as a great introduction to much that makes type interesting. One of my favourite books is Detail in Typography by Jost Hochuli as an exploration of some of the finest typographic details. Last but not least is Anatomy of a Typeface by Alexander Lawson which is a wonderful history of type. All are worth adding to a designer’s library.

@andrewduck: How is font support being addressed on mobile? Is there anyone in this space worth watching?
@jontangerine: Luckily, Rich Rutter and I have just completed a piece of research for the BBC where Rich looked intensively at mobile devices. The mobile device arena is very complex compared to desktop devices. However, many of the newer smartphones support @font-face linking with the notable exception being those running Windows Phone 7 which has a browser somewhere between IE7 and IE8. Luckily Windows Phone 7 is in a minority in the smartphone market, but with the recent Nokia deal that may not last long. However, apparently a new IE9 based browser is coming soon which will support web fonts. So, to cut a long story short, Rich found that of the top 500 devices being used to access BBC sites at the end of last year, around 85% support @font-face. The rest should catch-up fast. Additionally, most newer devices have high resolutions, and many use excellent rendering engines like FreeType, so the future for small screen type looks good. For fall back fonts, the situation is pretty good, too. Many have custom, optimised default fonts that work well, even if @font-face is not available.

@MiCCAS: Has being in a team with your friends ever caused issues? If so, how did you overcome them?
@jontangerine: There have been times when we’ve had our disagreements, like any group of people will, but being friends has always helped, not hindered. We have lots of stuff going on, but somehow we find a way to remain friends!

For example, we're working furiously on Mapalong, a new annotated mapping app for saving places that matter to us, and telling our story through where we’ve been, what we did, and who was there. The feedback from our generous beta testers is really positive and encouraging, but we’re solving some hard problems, and working as fast as we can to get it to a point where we can open it up for everyone.

Also in progress at the moment are preparations for the second Brooklyn Beta conference with Fictive Kin. Like last year it will be at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn which is usually a gallery and art space, so a unique venue for a web conference. It will run from the 12th–14th October — the perfect time for the best New York weather — and it’s going to be a treat. A good many veteran conference goers and speakers said last year was the friendliest and best web conference they’ve ever been to, and this year we’re going to try and make it even better. Maybe we’ll see you there!

At the same time as all that we also run a co-working studio in Bristol called Mild Bunch HQ. It’s an extension of Analog in some ways. The studio has become a group of friends working in the same place, all doing web stuff. Thinking as well of our non-studio based Mild Bunch’ers and I feel lucky to know such a good bunch of people who all get on so well.

So we at Analog are pretty busy with lots of things, but no matter what happens, I know my Analog colleagues’ intentions are always good, and vice-versa. Even when we do disagree, we’re scrupulously honest, but try to always temper our honesty with a deep, abiding respect that manifests itself as tactful discretion, patience, and consideration.

@oooarrr: Why are five grown men pulling a giant cock on your website?!
@jontangerine: Haha! Good question. We tried pulling a giant killer rabbit (ni, ni!), but it was far too hard and it had big. Sharp. Pointy. Teeth.

On a serious note, I was searching for an illustration for the Analog holding page that could represent how we see ourselves: a bona fide co-operative of friends; equals; working and collaborating together at the coal face. I found the illustration of the five guys pulling together on Veer. I adapted and simplified it, then tested it in the design. We thought it would be great fun to create a little Easter egg with the five guys actually pulling something that wouldn't be immediately visible. The Cockerel was by the same artists. As soon as I saw it, I loved its grumpy belligerence. It’s a fitting metaphor for wrangling ideas into actual work. A little tweaking, and voila.

In the spirit of enjoying ourselves, we also added a bit of GeoIP fun, and some daft mugshot effects. The one-field contact form was an attempt at simplicity, and the natural-language Twitter integration an attempt at telling a story from disparate tweets. Our grid tool, Hashgrid, was built for our own use, but then we thought it would be good to share that, too.

We did hope some folks would notice, but in the main we did it because we were laughing and having a good time. Nothing could have prepared us for the reaction we got from our bit of fun. From the kind words of folks on Twitter, we reached over a quarter of a million people in three days, and had so many mentions since they're hard to count. It's very pleasing yet humbling, and hopefully we can keep injecting fun like that into Mapalong in the future.

For more on Jon Tan check out his site at and his agency site at