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Introduction to Variable Fonts

One font file  infinite possibilities.

DevelopmentLast updated: 12 Jun 20244 min read

By Zeljko Prsa

What Are Variable Fonts?

Variable fonts—or, more specifically, OpenType Font Variations—are a relatively new font format introduced in 2016 that allow one font file to contain multiple stylistic variations.

Variable fonts demo

Unlike static fonts, variable fonts come in a single font file that incorporates multiple variations of a typeface. Instead of having separate files for different weights, widths, or styles, a variable font houses all these variations within one file.

This innovation transforms traditional static fonts by allowing designers to adjust weight, width, style, optical size, and more. The adjustments can be made manually or based on contextual rules, as seen in Google Fonts.

Historical Context: The Evolution of Fonts

To fully appreciate the innovation of variable fonts, you need to understand the historical development of typography. The journey from traditional typography to variable fonts is a story of technological and creative evolution.

Phototypesetting (1950s-1980s):

Transition: The mid-20th century brought phototypesetting, replacing metal type with photographic film.

This method offered more flexibility and precision, allowing for greater typographical variety and easier reproduction. Despite improvements, it still lacked the dynamic capabilities that modern designers desire.

The Digital Revolution (1980s-Present):

  • Digitization: The late 20th century saw the adoption of digital technology, leading to the creation of TrueType and OpenType formats.
  • TrueType (1980s): Developed by Apple and Microsoft, TrueType offered scalability and more precise control over how fonts were displayed on screens.
  • OpenType (1990s): Adobe and Microsoft enhanced typographic control and versatility with OpenType, which included advanced features like ligatures, alternate glyphs, and extensive character sets.

Despite tech advancements, digital fonts remained largely static.

Each variation of a typeface—such as regular, bold, and italic—needed its own distinct file, resulting in numerous font files for a complete typeface family.

The Birth of Variable Fonts (2016):

The introduction of OpenType Font Variations (variable fonts) at the ATypI conference in 2016 marked a revolutionary leap. For the first time, a single font file could encapsulate an entire typeface family's variations!

And also for he first time, Microsoft, google and Apple were together on the same stage at same time — "The font wars are over."

"ATypI was particularly proud to host the landmark Special OpenType Session, at which representatives from Adobe, Apple, Google and Microsoft announced OpenType Variations — otherwise known as variable fonts — and committed to produce and support the new fonts."

Besides this rare historical occurrence, variable fonts brought "Axes of Variation" and significant efficiency to digital typography:

Axes of Variation: Variable fonts use different axes like weight (wght), width (wdth), optical size (opsz), and slant (slnt) to allow seamless transitions between styles within the same file.

Efficiency and Flexibility: This innovation provided web designers with unparalleled flexibility and addressed performance concerns by reducing the number of required font files.

Variable fonts represent the culmination of centuries of typographic evolution. They blend the artistic heritage of traditional type with the technological flexibility demanded by modern web and graphic design.

With the historical context in mind, let's go further into the technical implications and influence of variable fonts on modern web design.

Importance in Modern Web Design

Efficiency and Performance: Variable fonts significantly reduce file sizes and loading times by consolidating multiple styles into one file. This efficiency translates to faster page loads and improved performance, which are crucial factors for user satisfaction and SEO ranking.

Design Flexibility: With variable fonts, designers can unlock a spectrum of typographic variations from a single font file. This flexibility allows for more nuanced and dynamic designs compared to traditional static fonts.

Additional Benefits of Using Variable Fonts

Enhanced Responsive Design: Greater consistency can be achieved across different devices and screen sizes with variable fonts.

Advanced Typography Control: Variable fonts offer sophisticated typographic features that static fonts cannot, such as smooth transitions between weights and widths. This capability allows for more refined designs, dynamic animations, and adaptive layouts that respond to user interactions and device capabilities.

Mitigating Potential Drawbacks

While variable fonts provide numerous benefits, they also come with certain challenges. Here’s how to mitigate these:

Larger Initial File Size:

  • Font Subsetting: By including only the specific characters and glyphs needed for your website, you can significantly reduce the file size of a variable font. Web font services like Google Fonts often offer subsetting options automatically.
  • Axis Subsetting: This technique allows you to specify and include only the ranges within the axes that are used on your site, eliminating unnecessary data.

Browser Support:
Although browser support for variable fonts is increasing, you may still need fallback fonts for some users. Regular testing across different browsers ensures a consistent experience for all users.

Variable Fonts Browser support. Source:

Implementation Complexity:
Using variable fonts may involve more complex CSS code and loads more testing. On the other hand, there are extensive guides available to help simplify the process.

Closing Thoughts

These fonts offer unmatched aesthetic flexibility and performance efficiency compared to static fonts. By using variable fonts, you can create visually stunning and high-performing websites that adapt seamlessly to various devices and screen sizes.

If you haven't already, start integrating variable fonts into your designs. By combining multiple font variations into a single file, you’ll streamline your design assets and boost your website’s speed and adaptability. As it evolves, it’s well on its way to become a standard practice — enriching the web’s typography.

Ready to take your typography to the next level? Go with the (variable) flow and watch your designs transform!

Key Resources and References

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