Web Typography in Ubuntu: Part 1

One of the first things a care­ful observ­er will like­ly notice about a fresh Ubun­tu install is the dis­tinct­ly odd appear­ance of their favorite web­sites. The cause for this is that, although Ubun­tu ships with a fair selec­tion of fonts, they aren’t prop­er­ly assigned as alias­es to the pro­pri­etary fonts that most web­sites call for; Hel­veti­ca and Ari­al have a per­fect cousin in FreeSans, yet are sub­sti­tut­ed with Lib­er­a­tion Sans by default, the lat­ter of whose stemmed “1” and barred “J” (among oth­er things) is a dead give­away. Like­wise, Ver­dana is also sub­sti­tut­ed with Lib­er­a­tion Sans, when DejaVu Sans is a much clos­er fit. Then there’s Times New Roman, Luci­da Grande, Baskerville — none of which is ade­quate­ly mim­ic­ked.

Sev­er­al of these fonts are bet­ter served by some Ubun­tu defaults, and still oth­ers — Gill Sans, Opti­ma, Caslon, Tahoma, and more — have decent sub­sti­tutes just wait­ing in the repos­i­to­ries. Typog­ra­phy plays a greater role in user expe­ri­ence than I think most peo­ple work­ing on Ubun­tu real­ize, and it should be a goal of 10.10 to ele­vate this part of the OS as much as pos­si­ble. This requires just a few extra kilo­bytes in pack­ages and some changes/additions to the files in /etc/fonts/conf.d/. In a sub­se­quent post I’ll be cat­a­loging what those changes should be.

But it’s impor­tant to rec­og­nize first of all that this is a sig­nif­i­cant part of the rea­son that many find Ubun­tu (and Lin­ux in gen­er­al) to have a “cheap” look. In many cas­es I even see ser­ifs stand­ing in place of sans-ser­ifs, whose small sizes make the ser­ifs near­ly illeg­i­ble where a sans would read just fine. And the poor sub­sti­tu­tions and mea­ger range of repro­ducible fonts makes for a very flat expe­ri­ence — when everything’s in either Lib­er­a­tion Sans or DejaVu Serif, it’s hard not to feel that you’re get­ting a crip­pled ver­sion of the web. These prob­lems are the result of a sheer lack of con­cern for how words are pre­sent­ed on-screen. Now more than ever they need to be addressed, as much (if not the major­i­ty) of com­put­ing now takes places in a brows­er.

I also want to stress that this is not a mat­ter of per­son­al pref­er­ence; unlike my insis­tence upon no hint­ing — which I admit was sub­jec­tive, but which I played up for effect — these sub­sti­tu­tions are plain­ly incor­rect. Sure, you may pre­fer that Google’s pages show up in, say, Bit­stream Char­ter, and you’re free to make that the case. But when the inten­tions of web design­ers are so poor­ly adhered to by Ubuntu’s defaults, it results in a major com­mu­ni­ca­tions gap.

This is also not a bur­den to place on the web design­ers. For one thing, they can’t be blamed for design­ing for Win­dows and Mac, when those OSes account for over 95% of their users. Vir­tu­al­ly every­body has Ver­dana, and they can’t rea­son­ably be expect­ed to look up the Lin­ux equiv­a­lent for every near­ly uni­ver­sal font they want to invoke — if such a ref­er­ence were to exist in the first place. Sec­ond, when it is per­fect­ly with­in our pow­er to rec­ti­fy the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of type between web­sites and a default user, then we owe it to our­selves to do so as the con­trib­u­tors to a Lin­ux dis­tri­b­u­tion whose explic­it goal is to gain trac­tion with the layper­son. While Lin­ux in gen­er­al and Ubun­tu in par­tic­u­lar offer sev­er­al prac­ti­cal advan­tages over Mac and Win­dows, you can’t win hearts and minds with­out the pol­ished exte­ri­or of a care­ful­ly con­sid­ered and metic­u­lous­ly refined visu­al expe­ri­ence. And type is of para­mount urgency for that expe­ri­ence.