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Consequences of this "font stack" on Linux systems

Entlinkt (talkcontribs)

Most Linux distributions use the DejaVu fonts by default. Browsers tend to take the default font-family from the desktop environment and thereby achieve a consistent result between web pages in a browser and documents in other applications. I as a Linux user have been reading Wikipedia pages in DejaVu for years and am very, very happy with it.

It can be assumed that Linux distributors spend reasonable efforts to make the default fonts look good. The same cannot be assumed about "unusual" settings.

I have just tested the consequences of the proposed font stacks using the following test case:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<title>Fontstack consequences</title>
<p style='font-family: serif;'>Generic serif</p>
<p style='font-family: "Georgia", serif;'>Georgia</p>
<p style='font-family: sans-serif;'>Generic sans-serif</p>
<p style='font-family: "Helvetica Neue", "Helvetica", "Nimbus Sans L", "Arial", "Liberation Sans", sans-serif;'>Helvetica Neue and friends</p>


  • The first paragraph is rendered in DejaVu Serif, as expected.
  • The second paragraph is rendered in DejaVu Serif because Georgia is not and will not be installed on this system and Firefox doesn't find any substitute better than the default DejaVu Serif.
  • The third paragraph is rendered in DejaVu Sans, as expected.
  • The forth paragraph is rendered in the totally obscure font "TeXGyreHeros-Regular", which is neither in the stack nor my preferred desktop default font. Firefox chooses this presumably because it thinks it's in some way similar to Helvetica. It looks really, really bad, blurry, too dark and I consider this absolutely unacceptable. Note that this is what the main parts of the text will look like. I will revert this in my user.css. Others may not be able to do so.

What problem is meant to be solved by these font stacks? What has been done to verify that the desired effects and only these are achieved? What alternatives have been investigated?

Also I would like to question the explicit use of Arial in this font stack. Arial's popularity stems from it having been the default font in Microsoft products in the 1990s, but more recent Microsoft products use Calibri instead of Arial, presumably for a reason. Arial is still preferred by some because of its wide availability on old platforms like Windows XP (Calibri was first shipped with Vista), but this problem can be easily avoided by simply using font-family:sans-serif and letting the browser do the rest.

Quiddity (talkcontribs)

Well said, and explained.

In regards to "What has been done to verify [...]", I'd like to know that too. My usual method of cross-platform testing is (free and OSS), but I think I read somewhere that the WMF has an account with - either of those would be useful.

(Design Team: See also Steven's comments below at "Documenting reasons for current proposed typography", and my comments below that at "Notes for any potential font stack deployment")

SPage (WMF) (talkcontribs)

Entlinkt, thanks for posting your results. For what it's worth, there are many Linux users at WMF, some have investigated their font usage, and to my knowledge none have this problem.

What version of which operating system are you using? What does fc-match print for each font? I.e. fc-match "Helvetica Neue"; fc-match "Helvetica"; etc.

Some possible explanations:

  • your system is using something like Panose numbers to find closest-matching fonts
  • your Firefox is modified to pick TeXGyreHeros-Regular for one of the font names; this might be browser CSS or a plug-in
  • TeXGyreHeros-Regular claims to be Helvetica; can you please run fc-query /path/to/TexGyreHeros.pfb
  • some installer manipulated your O.S. font substitution machinery.

This font stack delivers improved appearance of MediaWiki pages. As your case shows, it is impossible to verify the desired affects are achieved in every case, due to the presence of fontconfig and other O.S.-level font substitutions, browser options, people following random "Improve your fonts!" tutorials on the web, etc. But the font stack does expresses the designers' intent: these fonts, in this ranked order, make the design appear best. A particular system's decision to substitute some other font for a well-known name in the list is often going to be a win, but sometimes not. A lot of Linux distributors spend reasonable efforts to make the many web sites specifying "Helvetica" look good.

This post was posted by SPage (WMF), but signed as S Page (WMF).

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