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.

6 Responses to “Web Typography in Ubuntu: Part 1”

  1. Amen. Bring on part two.

  2. You seem to know a great deal about this. Perhaps you could consider filing a bug report ? Or maybe you’ve done that before and have been ignored ? If so, can you share any links to previous bug reports ?

  3. Jay says:

    Thanks Fabian. Against what would I file a bug? This doesn’t apply to any single package.

  4. Reading this puts my mind at ease. I thought it was only me who actually hated this problem. Trying to design websites in Ubuntu is a hellish experience. Websites just look so darn ugly. Hardly surprising; after all, web design is 95% typography. I can’t use it as a serious replacement on my workstation until its typography improves, I’m afraid. I have a question, though. 

    If I grabbed all my Mac fonts, and copied them onto my Ubuntu (yes, I know that’s heresy in the open source world), is there *any* chance I could attain typographical similarity? I tried doing it, and changing font rendering configs, but it still looked horrible (especially in apps that didn’t respect Gnome’s font configs like Firefox).

    Just curious. Thanks for the article, by the way. :)

  5. “The Liberation(tm) Fonts is a font family originally created by Ascender which aims at metric compatibility with Arial, Times New Roman, and Courier New. ”

    If that fails, I guess you can report it to:

  6. Jay says:

    Thanks Gianluca. I actually discovered the metric compatibility issue shortly after writing this post. I had started a follow-up, but never got around to finishing it.

    That makes it a tricky issue. At least it’s reassuring that some thought went into these decisions.

    Nevertheless, the Liberation substitutions are not the only ones at fault here for glyph incongruity. I would like to see more thorough and robust substitution rules. But then again, maybe there’s some other issue I haven’t considered. Would love to have a long conversation about this with someone who knows the whole story.

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