Best viewed in Safari

Remember when websites came with disclaimers listing their minimum viewing requirements, and shooed away anyone who didn’t make the grade? “This website is best viewed in Netscape Navigator” visitors would be advised, or “View this site in Internet Explorer at 800×600 resolution”. Those were the bad old days, and I would like to believe that as a community we have learned our lesson and moved on, embracing graceful degradation and progressive enhancement as alternatives to the “my way or the highway” mentality.

This morning I visited a website that caused me to wonder if we’ve come so far after all. I was looking forward to experiencing the site’s typography, which I’d been informed was exemplary, and was surprised when my browser served up fallback system fonts rather than the embedded web fonts I was expecting. A warning message in the masthead informed me that if the fonts looked “kind of weird” I should switch to Chrome or Safari.

My guess is that the site’s designer had chosen a typeface that wasn’t properly optimised for on-screen display, and as a consequence the site’s typography didn’t fare well on certain browser and operating system combinations. Rather than adapt their design to suit a wider audience the designer decided to try and change their user’s behavior by instructing them to switch to a different web browser. As a web professional I was surprised to be admonished for choosing to use Firefox 4 – the latest version of a modern web browser – and I can only imagine what a less technically inclined visitor would make of the warning message.

Thankfully browser sniffing is still a rarity, but all too often I see evidence of designers who are ignorant of, or choose to ignore the fact that many embedded web fonts render in a sub optimal fashion on the Windows platform. For these designers the fact that the website looks nice on their own (presumably Apple branded) computer seems to be enough. Never mind the fact that 85% of the average website’s audience use the Windows platform, and will experience the site’s typography in a very different fashion.

Jeffrey Zeldman called the disparity between various browser and OS font rendering engines the “elephant in the room” – everyone knows the problem is there, but none of us wants to mention it for fear of spoiling the web font party. Sadly his warning seems to have gone unheeded by some. Too many web designers continue to make poor font selections, ignore the majority of their users, and jeopardize their website’s usability in the process.

Thankfully typeface designers are beginning to acknowledge the problem, and hinting their fonts for improved performance on the Windows platform. Recently the Skolar typeface, which used to look very shabby in Windows, was skillfully re-hinted by Ross Mills and now renders superbly. But the responsibility doesn’t rest solely with type designers – web designers and font vendors need to do their share too. Mills wrote an article for Typographica called The State of Webfont Quality from a Type Designer’s View in which he urges all parties involved in the production and distribution of web fonts to carefully consider the quality of the fonts being released. From my perspective that means web designers too: if we don’t choose our web fonts appropriately then can we really claim to be doing our jobs properly?

The case can be made that Apple’s approach to font rendering is superior to Microsoft’s, but that doesn’t give web designers an excuse for subjecting Windows users to a substandard typographic experience. Web design has always been about compromise and working within technical limitations. Trying to modify user’s behaviour by convincing them to switch operating system or browser won’t work, and designing for a single platform is simply irresponsible.

Instead, why not restrict our typeface choices to those fonts that have been optimised to render well on both the Macintosh and Windows platforms? There are plenty of well hinted fonts out there, and as the web font marketplace matures the number of choices will continue to grow. Yes, it requires patience and restraint, but restraint should be something we’re all used to by now – for years we’ve had to make do with the handful of fonts that come pre-installed on both Windows and Mac OS. Surely it won’t kill us to continue using a little of that self-control and limit ourselves to web fonts that render well for all our users, instead of designing for a minority.