Another four-letter F word

A Font Primer for the Non-Designer

As a non-designer, I never gave much thought to Font selection before I joined the ICS team. I had something of a Ron Swanson approach to it:

“Can you read it?”


“Then it’s fine.”

Yet, on my first day, I watched designers meticulously scour through font libraries for their projects, searching for something that conveyed just the right nuance of “innovative”…. or a soupçon of “disruptive.” They gave fonts as much consideration as the colors, images and layout. Our designers had all individually studied typography; even some of our apprentices boast of having taken 4+ typography classes (there are really that many? Yes.). Typography, it seemed, had a lot more consequence than I knew.

I learned that the curve of a letter or the thickness of a line can subconsciously trigger symbolism in the mind. Filmmaker Errol Morris studied which fonts convey expertise, which has led me to type up all important documents in Baskerville going forward. For its historical implications, almost everyone cringes at seeing the Fraktur font. Font choices can drive a designer crazy, as Saturday Night Live perfectly mocked with their recent Papyrus skit… and their title card at 2:53 was the ultimate punchline.

As we build websites, our studio deals mostly with typography in the digital format. We source from Adobe Typekit, Google Fonts, and other digital font libraries. As this was new to me as well, I wanted to share the 4 things that surprised me the most:

 1. Fonts are expensive.

I’ll allow the protagonist from Robin Sloan’s terrific novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore to elaborate:

“…Nowhere else is the bucks-to-bytes ratio so severe. Here’s what I mean: An e-book costs about ten dollars, right?… With an e-book, you can see what you paid for: the words, the paragraphs, the possibly boring expositions of digital marketplaces. Well, it turns out a digital font is also about a megabyte, but a digital font costs not tens of dollars but hundreds, sometimes thousands, and it’s abstract, basically invisible – a thin envelope of math describing tiny letterforms. The whole arrangement offends most people’s consumer instincts.”

2. Despite the cost, you don’t own your fonts.

To have a specific font appear on your website, you need to license it. The licenses have specific terms and conditions for usage (personal vs. commercial, etc.), similar to if you licensed a photograph that someone else took. You can’t just use the font for whatever or wherever you want.

The font library subscriptions handle the font licenses for a variety of fonts. These subscriptions are (surprise!) also expensive. If you work with ICS, we use our own library subscriptions to power the fonts on most of our clients’ websites – no extra charge!

3. You can have a font limit.

This blew my mind when I first heard about it – sometimes fonts have a monthly limit on how many people can come to your website and see it. If too many people visit your site, the special font disappears and defaults to a more generic font. Visitors can still read your content, but they’ll be seeing Helvetica or something for the rest of the month. Then, with the next billing month, it resets itself and your special font returns. Seriously?

To avoid exceeding the font amount, it’s good to know how many site visitors you expect each month and choose an appropriate font license.

4. Even if you do everything right, sometimes the fonts can still look wrong.

Things never look 100% consistent on the internet. Especially if your website viewer has an older browser or unusual system, their device may not be able to show your special font. In this case, the font will default to something similar, but it will look different.

While there’s certainly a lot more to learn about fonts, I hope this has been a helpful look at some of the complexities of typography. I also hope you found it informative, despite it not appearing in Baskerville.