Optimizing Web Fonts

I audited this site with Google Lighthouse. The utility flagged web font load times (specifically the “Flash of Invisible Text” or “FOIT”). There are many ways to improve web font performance. Zach Leatherman’s “A Comprehensive Guide to Font Loading Strategies” is an excellent resource. I’ll describe the options I considered below.

I could display a fallback font while my web font downloads using font-display. Unfortunately, serif (my fallback font) does not have the same x-height and width as 'Crimson Pro S' (my web font). Monica Dinculescu created a “Font Style Matcher” tool that overlaps two fonts so appropriate CSS adjustments (e.g. letter-spacing) can be identified. But CSS adjustments would affect both my fallback font and my web font.

I could use the JavaScript Font Loading API to load a web font and then append a .font-loaded class to the html or body element2. This approach would facilitate separate CSS rules for fallback and web fonts. But browser support is limited, and I feared using the Font Loading API alongside @font-face declarations would cause duplicate downloads.

So I took a different approach. Web fonts with smaller file sizes download and display more quickly. Rather than adjusting my fallback font, I used the Python library pyftsubset to remove OpenType features and unused characters from my web font1. Andrew Brampton describes this in “Google Font Features”.

First, I installed pyftsubset and related packages:

$ pip install fonttools
$ pip install zopfli
$ pip install brotli

Next, I installed Filament Group’s glyphhanger utility and crawled my website to obtain a list of the Unicode characters I use:

$ npm install -g glyphhanger
$ glyphhanger https://www.smockle.com --spider-limit=10

Finally, I optimized my fonts with pyftsubset:

$ pyftsubset crimsonpros-regular.otf --layout-features='liga,locl,sups,ordn,tnum,frac,kern' --unicodes="U+0000-00FF, U+0152, U+0153, U+0178, U+02C6, U+02DC, U+2000-206F, U+20AC, U+2122, U+25FC, U+FB01, U+FB02" --flavor=woff2 --output-file=crimsonpros-regular.woff2

The result was a 40% smaller font. I verified the included characters and OpenType features using Font Drop and I did a quick visual check before deploying.

  1. Font Squirrel’s Webfont Generator is popular and arguably easier to use. Unfortunately, no matter which options I selected, liga and all ligatures were always stripped out. According to a 2010 tweet, the Font Squirrel OpenType “Keep All Features” option “works for most fonts, but not all.” Crimson Pro S is one of the unlucky few.

  2. Update: I’m now using gatsby-plugin-web-font-loader to add a CSS class to html when my web fonts load. See this commit. Fonts are not downloaded twice. This was easy after all!