The developers of cufón, an early web tool that generates custom fonts as images, announced on their website that they will discontinue support in early 2017. Included in the announcement was the footnote “seriously though, you should be using standard web fonts by now”. For designers who remember the internet before web fonts were widely used, the death of cufón brings up mixed feelings (mostly good).
When we first started designing websites, typography was incredibly rigid. You could use a handful of vanilla web-safe fonts dictated by the most popular Windows operating system in a couple of font weights otherwise your text needed to be included as an image.
A benefit of this limitation was that it forced designers to be more creative with web typography, using letter spacing, text cases and colours to convey messages better. Another unintentional side affect of sticking to web-safe only fonts was that usability was at the front of your mind, whether you liked it or not. The only fonts you could use were optimised for readability so you couldn’t play with decorative or experimental fonts.
I remember another designer showing me cufón when I was a junior working for an agency in 2010. He had just used it on another project and hailed it as the answer to all of his web design issues. He was right, it opened up a lot of possibilities with design. Cufón allowed you to apply CSS styling to any text and have it render in any font you ran through the cufón generator. With some screwing around in the code, you could even have custom fonts with hover states! It felt like an exciting time to be designing websites.
By late 2010, Google had launched their open source web font library Google Fonts. There were a few commercial font libraries like Typekit and the introduction of the CSS3 @font-face rule already gaining traction online but Google’s entry into the web font arena changed the game. Their mission to bring more variety into web typography pushed the medium into a whole new world. Suddenly tools like cufón were no longer needed as fonts could be hosted like any other online asset.
Although the world has sadly moved on from cufón, early font tools helped create the need for an easy way to include custom typography on the web and without them, the internet wouldn’t be as visually inspiring.