Typefaces: The easiest way to self-host open-source fonts

Posted January 31, 2017

Once upon a time, I thought self-hosting web fonts was intimidating. It seemed nice but the complexities were too much. I needed to create a bunch of weird files (eot?), write weird css syntax (bullet proof what?), etc. Much easier to drop a little Google Fonts <link> in my html’s <head> and call it a day.

But as time went on, I found some really nice advantages to hosting your fonts.

  • Self-hosting is significantly faster. Loading a typeface from Google

Fonts or other hosted font service adds an extra (blocking) network request. In my testing, I’ve found replacing Google Fonts with a self-hosted font can improve a site’s speedindex by ~300 miliseconds on desktop and 1+ seconds on 3g. This is a big deal. YMMV on exact numbers but directionally, self-hosting is faster and importantly opens the door for further optimizations.

  • Your fonts load offline. It’s annoying to start working on a web

project on the train or airplane and see your interface screwed up because you can’t access Google fonts. I remember once being in this situation and doing everything possible to avoid reloading a project as I knew I’d lose the fonts and be forced to stop working.

  • Go beyond Google Fonts. Some of my favorite typefaces aren’t on

Google Fonts like Clear Sans, Cooper Hewitt, and Aleo.

Cool typefaces not on Google Fonts

Clear Sans typeface

Cooper Hewitt typeface

Aleo typeface

The awakening

Last fall, a client asked me to use some commercial typefaces for a Gatsby site I was building. After reading up on the process, I realized that webpack actually did most of the work. You simply present it a css file pointing at the various font files and the css and files will all get included in your final site build. No problemo.

It then occurred to me how nice it’d be if you could install typefaces through NPM. The last 4-5 years of my life have seen the steady accumulation of more and more package.json files with longer and longer lists of NPM package dependencies for my various node and web projects. Which I absolutely love. Compared to the bad ol’ days of checking in dependencies of dubious origin (or worse, having to follow a generally out-of-date, managing everything with NPM is beautiful.

With typefaces as NPM packages, you could do something like npm install --save typeface-open-sans which would install a package containing both the font-face css and font files and then in your project’s entry file add require('typeface-open-sans) and… you’re done.

Perhaps if self-hosting fonts wasn’t so annoying I’d do it more…

So I wrote a quick and dirty script to create packages for the typefaces used on this blog (Alegreya and Alegreya Sans) and… it worked! I added a few more typefaces for some other projects and things were looking really good.

Then I put the project aside for several months as I was focusing on making some major feature additions to Gatsby (blog post coming soon) but last week, jumped back to this for several days and upgraded my Google Fonts package creator script and added a Font Squirrel package creator script as well and this morning published ~825 new typeface packages to NPM.

I’m super excited about this. I really enjoy finding high-leverage ways to dramatically improve our various web-dev workflows. When something becomes 10x faster or easier, this frees us to build new and better things.

Building for the web involves navigating dozens of interconnected workflows. The last few years have seen workflow after workflow get automated. And the exciting thing is that each new automation enables workflows up and down-stream from it to be automated as well. So just as Typefaces builds on previous automations such as Webpack and NPM, now that we have automated this part of our workflow (self-hosting), it opens the door for automating futher font-loading optimizations.

Let me know what you think and please come over to Github to check out the project (and help out if you’d like).

And if you’re using Google Fonts & webpack, save your users some time (or stop driving them away) by swapping in Typefaces.

Tagged with open source

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Kyle's profile picKyle Mathews lives and works in Seattle building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter. Currently exploring what's next and open to consulting.