system fonts

Shipping system fonts to GitHub.com

System font stacks got hot about a year ago, no doubt influenced by Mark Otto's work putting them live on GitHub.

The why, to me, feels like (1) yay performance and (2) the site looks like the rest of the operating system. But to Mark:

Helvetica was created in 1957 when the personal computer was a pipe dream. Arial was created in 1982 and is available on 95% of computers across the web. Millions, if not billions, of web pages currently use this severely dated font stack to serve much younger content to much younger browsers and devices.

As display quality improves, so too must our use of those displays. System fonts like Apple’s San Francisco and Microsoft’s Segoe aim to do just that, taking advantage of retina screens, dynamic kerning, additional font-weights, and improved readability. If operating systems can take advantage of these changes, so too can our CSS.

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Implementing system fonts on Booking.com — A lesson learned

Stuart Frisby documents that you shouldn't use the font shorthand when using a System Font Stack:

...don't use -apple-system at the head of a shorthand font declaration, and test thoroughly, especially when playing around with proprietary stuff like system font declarations. If it looks like a vendor prefix and smells like a vendor prefix, chances are at least one browser is going to treat it like a vendor prefix.

Use font-family instead.

System Font Stack

Defaulting to the system font of a particular operating system can boost performance because the browser doesn't have to download any font files, it's using one it already had. That's true of any "web safe" font, though. The beauty of "system" fonts is that it matches what the current OS uses, so it can be a comfortable look.

What are those system fonts? At the time of this writing, it breaks down as follows:

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System Fonts in SVG

There was a time when the smart move in picking fonts for a website was to a font-family that was supported across as many platforms as possible. font-family: Tahoma; and whatnot. Or even better, a font stack that would fall back to as-similar-as possible stuff, like font-family: Tahoma, Verdana, Segoe, sans-serif;.

These days, an astonishing number of sites are using custom fonts. 60%!

No surprise, there is also a decent amount of pushback on custom fonts. They need to be downloaded, thus there are performance/bandwidth hits. There is loads of nuance on how you load them.

Also no surprise, there is some advocacy for the return to local fonts. Fast! Good enough! Let's look at that for a sec, then also look at using them within SVG.

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