LIS 523/5 - Special Fonts

There are several ways of incorporating special fonts into Web pages:

Simple Font References

These work only if the font is installed on the client machine. Which fonts are installed, even for a single family of operating systems like Windows, is quite variable. Moreover, Netscape Navigator and Mozilla/Firefox do not support installed .fon fonts.

Styles allow you to specify understudy fonts if the preferred font is not found, but this does involve some more work.

Downloadable Fonts

The idea of downloadable fonts is that the client will be supplied with a temporary copy of a needed font in order to render the page as designed. There are currently two major formats for downloadable fonts for Web pages: PFR (Portable Font Resource), which seems to be on the way out and requires a special MIME type to be specified on the server, and EOT (Embedded OpenType), which is supported only by Internet Explorer.

To make a font definition file for a downloadable font, you need an installed font and a conversion tool. Bitstream formerly offered a product for PFR files called WebFont Maker; but this has now been discontinued. Microsoft offers WEFT for EOT files, which also provides assistance with inserting the right additional code in HTML files that use the font.


Images are probably the most common solution to the desire for special fonts on Web pages. If the text is important for all visitors to know, alt attributes should, of course, be used.

Other Methods

Java applets are occasionally used for special font effects, as is Flash. Both, of course, suffer from potentially requiring the user to install a plug-in.

VML works only in Internet Explorer, and, in any case, it would be laborious to use it to create fonts, which is not a purpose for which it was designed.

A Comparison of the Four Main Methods

Simple References Downloadable Fonts Single Image of Text Separate Image for Each Character
Ease of setup Easy, though substitutes may have to be selected if styles are used. EOT fonts must be converted with WEFT, which is somewhat complicated, and converted fonts are restricted to use on named Web sites. Many tools of varying complexity are available. More work initially in creating a file for each character; more HTML coding; question of whether to include as yet unused characters.
Economy - Bytes in files Only a few bytes are required for the font names. Best for longer texts (more than about 255 characters) Best for shorter texts About 5 times as many bytes as downloadable fonts
Economy - Number of file requests Good - no extra files. Fair - one file per font, but in Internet Explorer must also request the WebFont Player for PFR Good - one file per image Poor - one file for each character needed
Client compatibility No way of telling whether the font is available. PFR does not work on older browsers or Netscape 6 or above, or Internet Explorer for Macintosh; EOT works only for Internet Explorer. Good Good
Usability with dynamic text (such as hit counters) Yes Yes No - unless the image is created dynamically with a script Yes
Text formatting - Wrapping Normal Normal No wrapping to window size, though image width can be set to a percentage of window width. Lines may break oddly unless a table is used
Text formatting - Resizing Normal Normal None None
Special effects - Color Limited - single foreground and background colors Limited - single foreground and background colors Good Good
Special effects - Animation Virtually none Virtually none Yes, but individual characters cannot be addressed Yes

Getting Fonts

If you want to take the time, you can create your own TrueType font with a package like ScanFont. There are also many sites providing free downloadable fonts: try searching on "free fonts" on Yahoo! or some other popular search engine.

To install a new font in Windows, open Fonts in Control Panel and select "File|Install New Font...".

For More Information


Last updated April 23, 2007.
This page maintained by Prof. Tim Craven
E-mail (text/plain only):
Faculty of Information and Media Studies
University of Western Ontario,
London, Ontario
Canada, N6A 5B7