Dealing With the Dreaded ‘Flash of Unstyled Text’

By | September 14, 2015
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The use of custom fonts on the web is finally a viable option for designers.

Browser support for CSS’s @font-face rule is pretty solid — even IE 5 can be wrangled into displaying custom fonts loaded from your server. Services like Typekit, which licenses fonts from well-known font foundries, and free services like Font Squirrel are helping to smooth the licensing issues surrounding custom fonts on the web.

However, while browser support and licensing is getting sorted quickly, there’s still one big problem with web fonts — the dreaded “Flash of Unstyled Text,” or FOUT.

The problem (despite the name, it has nothing to do with Adobe Flash) stems from how browsers render a page: progressively, prioritizing the raw content, then grabbing the stylesheet and then grabbing any external font files. The actual FOUT effect can be seen in the wild, but it varies by browser.

Internet Explorer will load the font file as soon as it encounters the @font-face in your CSS, which minimizes FOUT. However, make sure to put your @font-face declaration above any script tags, otherwise IE will hold the entire page until the font loads.

Safari and Chrome (and other WebKit browsers) hide any text styled with @font-face until the font is fully loaded. This means your styled text content is invisible at first, and then pops onto the screen later, after the font file loads.

Firefox loads all your text normally and displays it using a fallback font. Then, a half-second or so later, that text is “upgraded” when the custom font data is loaded. The result is a jarring font change, much like older, Flash-based font solutions. Mozilla is currently treating this behavior as a bug in Firefox. Mozilla plans to adopt the WebKit-style rendering in the future.

Obviously none of these cases is ideal, and the little loading hiccup, no matter what form it manifests itself in, is noticeable even to the most oblivious of web users.

FOUT sucks. So, what do you do? There are a variety of techniques that can be used to minimize — and even eliminate — the FOUT.

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