Jeff Veen on Typekit and web fonts

This article first appeared in issue 220 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

This article first appeared in issue 220 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

It’s no exaggeration to say that we’ve seen a revolution in the way we use fonts on the web. For most of the net’s history, there were just two choices: use a tiny selection of “web safe fonts” or create static graphic images of typography. Then, in 2010, everything changed, with widespread support of @font-face in browsers, a new web open font format, WOFF, and the rise of web font foundries such as Fontdeck, WebINK and Today, web designers can access an astonishing array of professional typefaces, putting them almost on a par with print designers.

Typekit was one of the first on the scene, launching in 2009 with an innovative subscription model, and is now arguably the dominant force in the space. It’s yet another success for founder Jeffrey Veen, whose pedigree includes helping design Wired’s website, founding UX consulting group Adaptive Path and redesigning Google Analytics. “Typekit is now on over a million websites and we served 2.6billion fonts last month,” he says with pride. “That’s not people experimenting, that’s mainstream. We’re on the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, the Gawker network. Publishers, travel sites, financial sites – everyone’s using web fonts now.”

We served 2.6billion fonts last month. That's not people experimenting, that's mainstream

And it’s changing the face of the web in the process. “We’re seeing some amazing examples of beautiful typography springing up,” enthuses Veen. “It reminds me of 10 years ago, when there were suddenly all these really stunning examples of standards-based design. I remember Doug Bowman’s redesign of Wired News was like: ‘Oh my gosh, you can totally do this’. And the same thing is happening with web fonts now.

“Parallel to that are some really interesting technical implementations. People are doing things with CSS3, especially some of the most experimental stuff that requires vendor prefixes, that are just fantastic, like multiple drop shadows with alpha channels, rotation and transformations. There’s incredible stuff going on.”

Technical issues

But what about all the technical issues with implementing web fonts? Veen concedes we’re still in the era of teething troubles. “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface on a common web format, and if we think that all the browsers are just going to support web typography in a consistent way any time soon I think we’re fooling ourselves,” he admits. “The progress has been fantastic in the last two years: amazing stuff has happened in the browsers and the standards bodies. But look where we are with CSS3 and how long that specification has been out. Look where we are with JavaScript, and yet we still use jQuery to have a consistency across all the browsers. So this stuff takes a long time to move forward.”

Beating the bugs

Veen is confident that technical problems will be overcome, though: “One of the things I really like is that most of the underlying platforms of rendering engines are run as open source projects. We have WebKit, that powers both Chrome and Safari, and we’ve got Firefox. Between these guys and our developers at Typekit, we see fonts in every possible environment, used in every possible way, so we uncover lots of bugs in the implementations in the browsers. And we can follow them through, get resolution on them and report that back to our customers. Imagine that 10 years ago: then we would just hope the browsers would get better. Now we can participate.”

Typekit also puts a lot of time and effort into helping designers to get web fonts working atground level, Veen says. “That was actually one of the pitches that we made to the foundries,” he adds. “They knew they were going to be migrating over to web fonts but that we’d be particularly positioned to help their customers with technical problems. A lot of it comes down to, you know, working with CSS3 or HTML5, like ‘How does this interact with the jQuery plug-ins that I’m using on the page?’ We just want to make it as easy as possible for people.”

Achieving that means going the extra mile – even, on occasion, helping out Typekit’s direct competitors. “At the moment the space is more like a big ecosystem than an arena for cut-throat competition, because we all help each other,” Veen reveals. “For example, when Google launched its web font API we took some of our JavaScript that provided browser negotiation and so on, open-sourced it and distributed it with Google. The guys at FontDeck have also provided code you can use with their service, and has provided a model as well.”

But with web fonts exploding in popularity, is he worried about scaling? “Not in terms of the scale of the technical system,” Veen replies with confidence. “Most of our engineers come from Google and Yahoo and so know about scale, so I’m not worried about it. But one thing that’s really important as a startup is remaining focused. Focused on the goals we have, and setting appropriate milestones to get to those goals so that we don’t try to do too many things.”

Startup culture

And Veen believes a startup culture is still very important at Typekit. “We still totally feel like a startup. We have a team meeting every day, the whole team comes to it. It’s only been two years.” So is that a big change from working at Google? He shakes his head. “Actually, no. My goal is always to work with a team whose decisions are based on and very close to the problems that our customers are having, and there are plenty of places at Google where that was possible.” When he worked on the redesign of Google Analytics, he says, “we had direct connection with our customers, we could iterate very quickly. There are other parts of Google where that’s harder, of course.”

Building for the future

Despite its success, Typekit is not resting on its laurels. “There are three areas that we’re investing in a lot right now,” says Veen. “One is getting Typekit everywhere. Probably a minority of our customers that would use our fonts on their websites will come through It’ll be things like WordPress it’ll be integrated in, and we’re doing a lot more of that.”

A second priority is the quality of fonts and how they render: “The combination of every browser, device, and rendering engine is staggering,” he says. “So we’re working closely with our partners to make sure their fonts look stunning in every situation.”

Type design is going to change a lot as we do less for print and more specifically for the screen

And a final area for future improvement is workflow. “Right now, for example, you don’t get the font from us when you’re doing the work,” explains Veen. “You need to be able to do mockups and things like that. So we’re doing a lot of research right now into ‘How do designers
create websites?’ and ‘How can we fit Typekit into that more effectively and more fluidly?’ And we’ve got a bunch of new features planned for that.”

Meanwhile, Veen has nothing but admiration for the type designers who make all this possible, and hopes more web designers will be inspired to try their hand at creating beautiful typography. But he adds a note of caution: “Creating beautiful typefaces is a craft that takes many, many years to get good at. It’s something that requires training and even apprenticeship. And there aren’t a lot of type designers in the world because I think it’s such a refined skill.

“Most of the really well-done fonts take over a year of daily effort to draw and design and do all the hints, the kerning and everything: it’s an amazing amount of work. But I’d still encourage more web designers to turn their hand to it, because I think that type design is going to change a lot as we do less for print and more specifically for the screen. And I’m excited to see another generation embrace that.”

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