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Stephen Charles Weiss
Stephen Charles Weiss

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Web-Safe Fonts and Font Fallbacks

Today, I had a colleague mention that the font we are using is “web-safe” in response to why it was so weird that it wasn’t showing up correctly on my screen.

I didn’t actually know what “web-safe” meant, so I looked it up. Turns out it’s shorthand and simply refers to the group of fonts that are likely to be installed on the client machine and so will be rendered appropriately.

CoffeCup Software has a nice graphic in their article explaining what web-fonts are:1Web safe font venn-diagram

So, how does this relate to fallbacks? Because if a font isn’t available (imagine we like the serf Didot on our site, and our user is on a Windows machine), then we want to control what they see.

In our index.css file we have some basic styling set up, including fallbacks for fonts:

body {
  margin: 0;
  font-family: Tahoma, Verdana, sans-serif;
  -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased;
  -moz-osx-font-smoothing: grayscale;

Notice, however, that all of those are san serif fonts and we want this component to have serifs!

Easy enough, we can use a styled-component:

import styled from 'styled-components';

export const StyledDiv = styled.div`
    font-family: Didot;

What’s the problem with the above code? If the client doesn’t have Didot then there’s no telling which font will be used.

You might think (as I did) that it would fall back to the font-family setting we applied in the index.css but the styled component is actually overwriting that attribute in this case, so falling-back isn’t possible — there’s simply nothing to fall back to.

Okay, what about inherit? Inherit is one of my favorite attributes because it allows you to say that you’d like to inherit the initial value.2 We can’t just use inherit, however, since we want it to start as Didot.

You may be tempted to do the following (as I was):

import styled from 'styled-components';

export const StyledDiv = styled.div`
    font-family: Didot, inherit;

Unfortunately, that’s not valid CSS, and so, while you’ll end up getting the inherited values, it’s because we never even try to apply Didot .

So what’s the solution? Create your own fallback thread and focus on web-safe fonts as the base. Here’s what I came up with:

import styled from 'styled-components';

export const StyledDial = styled.div`
    font-family: Didot, Georgia, serif;


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