Although CSS3 @font-face is supported by most major browsers (IE, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari), but not all. When it doesn’t, your custom fonts might break the layout or come out with undesired results. In this article, I will explain the common issues with using custom fonts, picking the matching fallback web safe fonts, and how to create a perfect fallback font style with Modernizr.

Common Mistake

One common mistake that most people make when implementing custom fonts is not specifying the fallback fonts or picking the wrong fallback fonts.

common mistake

Web Safe Fallback Fonts

When using custom fonts, it is important to include the web safe fonts as fallback. The fallback font helps to keep your design looking consistent when @font-face is not supported or available. The key point for selecting fallback fonts is to pick the web safe fonts that best match the custom font. For example, if the custom font is Clarendon, then the best web safe fallback font is Georgia because they both are in serif classification and they have similar font width.

websafe fallback fonts

Layout Issues

Because every font face has its own width, height, weight, kerning (letter-spacing), etc., some fonts are not substitutable with the web safe fonts. Take a look at the example below. It is a comparison between Wire One (custom font) and Arial (web safe font) at 36pt uppercase. As you can see, the Arial text takes more than double the space compare to Wire One text because Arial has a wider width and kerning.

wire one + arial

This might causes layout issues as shown in the image below where the fallback font extends off the boundary.

layout issues


Fortunately, there is a Javascript called Modernizr that can help to fix the issue as mentioned above. Modernizr is a Javascript that detects what CSS3 features are supported by the browser. It will then add a CSS class in the <html> element to indicate whether the features are supported. For example, if @font-face is not supported, it will add no-fontface class in the <html> element (eg. <html class="no-fontface">). These CSS classes are added with Javascript and they are not visible in the source code. In order to see them, you need to inspect the page element or view the generated source.


Fallback Font Styles With Modernizr (demo)

So we can use Modernizr to detect if @font-face is supported and then provide matching fallback font styles. For instance, you can adjust the styles for the fallback font (size, letter-space, weight, text-transform, etc.) to best match the custom font.

no-fontface style

Including Modernizr

To implement Modernizr, you need to download a copy of Modernizr and include it in the html document.

<script src="js/modernizr.js"></script>

.no-fontface CSS

Then you will need an additional rule for specifying the .no-fontface. Check out this demo to see the final result.

/* wire one font */
h1 {
	font-family: 'Wire One', arial, serif;
	font-weight: bold;
	font-size: 48px;
	letter-spacing: 1px;
	text-transform: uppercase;

/* no-faceface fallback */
.no-fontface h1 {
	font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;
	font-weight: normal;
	font-size: 30px;
	letter-spacing: 0;
	text-transform: none;


Evan Skuthorpe
Jul 14, 2011 at 9:39 am

this article is very timely for me, just implementing @font-face on a project now ;)

Jul 14, 2011 at 9:45 am

Nice Guide, but the demo’s are not working getting a 404 keep up the good work

Nick La
Jul 14, 2011 at 10:10 am

The demo url is fixed now.

Jul 14, 2011 at 9:53 am

Handy for me! I was actually searching for some information on webfonts and @font-face & this guide just perfect for it :) TY

Jinson Abraham
Jul 14, 2011 at 9:55 am

Nicely put article, and it will help me. I did not know about Modernizer up until now.

Jul 14, 2011 at 10:03 am

Yeah, a very helpful text, thanks! I’ve been thinking about using @font-face and this article gave me clues (and solutions) about possible problems.

crowd SPRING
Jul 14, 2011 at 10:22 am

This post explains very nicely about custom fonts, picking the matching fallback web safe fonts, and how to create a perfect fallback font style with Modernizer….REALLY A GOOD WORK!keep it up! and keep updating us!

Jul 14, 2011 at 10:44 am

Nice job. Very well put together article and full of useful info.

It’s starting to get crazy with all of the scripts we need to include these days. jQuery, Modernizr, etc. I can’t wait until we can get some more uniform browser support. But, it seems like this type of request hasn’t really changed since the dawn of the browser wars. [sigh]

Jul 14, 2011 at 10:56 am

I must say, thank you for the article, I’m a big fan of @font-face and this is a big help for me, for my future projects :D thanks

Jul 14, 2011 at 10:57 am

What’s the benefit to using Modernizr for matching font styles rather than just adding them in the CSS for the class you are targeting? In your example:

h1 {
font-family: “Times New Roman”, Palatino, Georgia, serif;

I am not really getting why Modernizr does this better, especially when it’s adding more load time to your page and does (as far as I can tell from this tutorial) exactly the same thing as backup fonts in CSS.

Can anyone clarify if I’m missing something?

Kenny Landes
Jul 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm

If you observe the examples, using the no-fontface class, you are not only changing the font, but also changing other characteristics such as size, weight, etc. Example shows Wire One 48pt upper case, with a no-fontface fallback of Arial 26 normal. Simply adding Arial to the font stack would result in Arial 48 upper case. So, basically, you can style your no-fontface font to fit the space provided in your layout. It’s a complete alternate style fallback that results in a similar-enough experience for all users.

Jul 15, 2011 at 11:59 am

I see now. Sorry I’m a bit new to advanced CSS/etc and didn’t pick up on that. Thanks for the clarification!

Jul 14, 2011 at 10:57 am

Great article. I’m planning on using modernizr on my next project!

Ted Goas
Jul 14, 2011 at 11:44 am

Thanks for pointing out the importance of fallback fonts, Nick. I’m with ya!

In addition to @font-face, this idea can also be applied to various font-embedding services. In my experience with Typekit, the default font stack I copy from the kit looks something like this:
font: 'tk-sans-1', 'tk-sans-2', serif
Obviously not ready for production. Typekit also provides some control that looks like it does some of what Modernizr is doing above.

Jul 14, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Nice article.

But what happens if the browser supports @font-face but the font is not found (‘Wire One’ in your example)? Will we still see the fallback font out of boundary?

Back to the example, if the browser supports @font-face but the font ‘Wire One’ is not found we will see Arial 48px instead of Arial 30px, correct?

Jul 14, 2011 at 8:03 pm

The browser downloads the font from the server and loads it. If the font not found on the server due to error, or the browser can’t load the font then you are right, the original 48px arial will be displayed.

There is another css3 property – I hope will be implemented in browsers – is the font-size-adjust, which basicly sets the font size by the x-height, not the capital letter height. This is also useful for font fallbacks. Unfortunately it is only implemented by Mozilla right now (who proposed the property and in Firefox since 1.0).

Mark Wong
Jul 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Thanks for the article and info on Modernizr. I’ll be giving it a shot :D

Jul 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Thanks much for clarifying some things. I have been “playing” around with @font face a bit and have run into snags.
Always a pleasure reading your posts.

Jul 14, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Very nice of course, but I would suggest a slight tweak that would handle rare, edge cases: what if JavaScript isn’t enabled on the browser AND the browser is not compatible with @font-face? Solution is quite simple: instead of using the no-fontface class generated by Modernizr, it would be best to first write the fallback CSS rule for fonts, that will be processed by every browser, no matter if there are JavaScript or not, and then write a CSS rule applying only to the “fontface” class generated by Modernizr. Since Modernizr generates both possibilities (“with or without the feature”), that allows the feature to degrade even more gracefully for non-Javascript enabled browsers. Only downside: if a browser has JavaScript disabled BUT @font-face… it will only display the fallback layout. Then we have to decide what is worst: for someone that has @font-face enabled but no JavaScript to see a perfectly suitable, though not-as-cool-as-it-could-be fallback layout, or for users without JavaScript AND without @font-face to see a bizarre layout, due to the rules based on a no-fontface class that won’t apply because there is no JavaScript… Hard choice, all depends on the targeted users, but that “inverse” option is pretty neat too, I think!

Jul 19, 2011 at 7:26 am

I had the same remark…

I guess it’s ok to give people who turned JavaScript off a less visual experience ans just use a web safe font for them.

Gaurav Mishra
Jul 15, 2011 at 12:54 am

Hello, WebdesignerWall

May you cover a tutorial on modernizer and how to use this library effectively?

thank you!

Elliott the web design guy
Jul 15, 2011 at 2:46 am

Nice resource I have many website that could use this fallback thanks!

Christoph Zillgens
Jul 15, 2011 at 2:58 am

Nice article on web fonts!

There’s one thing I miss. In my opinion the biggest problem with web fonts are not the browsers that don’t support @font-face, but those that do support it but don’t render most of web fonts correctly. I’m looking at IE on Windows XP. Even with clear type activated, the masses of web fonts look bad. I don’t see any other solution than UA sniffing here, but maybe there’s something else?

Jul 18, 2011 at 10:06 am

Yes, I missed that too in the article, the problem is with the lack of proper font smoothing in Windows XP, I found a script that can solve that issue detecting if the OS is having some kind of font-smoothing via the canvas element, check it out:

The script adds a conditional statement that you can use to add a custom class and switch between different fonts. In my testing I’ve discovered that some fonts do look OK in XP.

Ethan Hackett
Jul 15, 2011 at 8:16 am

Great post. I’ve heard of modernizer but never really looked into it. In my mind it was the same as PIE for ie CSS3 support. Thanks for the clarification and clear presentation of graceful degradation.

Jul 15, 2011 at 10:43 am

I learn a new thing, it save my time to edit those styling text. Previously I am so painful to create such text in images format. The best is, you covered web safe fonts part for unsupported web browser.

M Francis
Jul 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Helpful tips if you really want to use custom fonts. I still have no problems using old fashioned fonts, or creating images with descriptive alt tags behind them.

Jul 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm

beautiful. Good idea.

Luan Ramos
Jul 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Very Good…….

Jul 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Hey Nick, another wonderful tutorial! Thanks!
I’m working with @font-face and I’ve found that your tutorial is so useful.
Yesterday I tried to find the best way to specify the fallback fonts and your tutorial has simplify this! Thank you

Jul 16, 2011 at 1:06 am

another good trend!
thank you

Web Design Stuff
Jul 17, 2011 at 5:36 am

This is very nice post. thank you.

Jul 17, 2011 at 11:00 am

For a post highlighting @font-face, it has an extreme dearth of @font-face content. None, to be precise. And especially nothing particularly CSS3. You mention fallbacks, which any designer worth their weight in artistic poseurishness knows. Then you shoehorn the modernizr JS lib which ‘automagically’ does stuff for you as far ask checking for capabilities. Which would be a perfect time to talk about the actual @font-family issue. The differences between using .EOT .OTF/.TTF .SVG fonts, their requisite support in major browsers, maybe the previous commentator’s recognition of IE’s decidedly lackluster support for any sort of decent hinting/smoothing for webfonts and how that basically breaks the spirit of webfonts….. I don’t know. Couldn’t help feeling letdown by this article, or at least it’s misleading title.

Bud Kraus
Jul 17, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Nice article. I know some will not like this but I’m not sure that @ffont-face is such a good idea. Could that lead us to a lot of pages which are illegible? We already have too many of those and giving designers a broader array of fonts may not be in the best interest of users. This we shall only see with time. I hope I am wrong! Will tweet this article.

Jul 18, 2011 at 2:42 am

Great article. Thanks

Jul 18, 2011 at 9:00 am

This Javascript save much time. Great to know it!

Jul 18, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Comment from Pam! I love this site!

Jul 19, 2011 at 9:10 am

Very nice and simple explanations.

Jul 19, 2011 at 1:19 pm

I was still reluctant to start adding custom fonts, because of the mentioned bugs. It never occured me to run modernizr!

This article is so useful. Thx.

Jul 19, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Very useful tips and time savings tips. I really don’t know that using custom fonts in my blog is that easy! Thanks to Modernizr!

Jul 20, 2011 at 11:05 am

Awesome post as always! Thanks

Jul 20, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Great short article very useful and direct to the point.

Jul 21, 2011 at 5:38 am

Nice article.
Thanks for this!

Samy Saeed
Jul 21, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Thank you! that is very helpful!

Mr T
Jul 21, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Thank for the article

Jul 21, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Nice to know about the Modernizr script, thanks for sharing this.

Aquecedor Solar para Piscinas
Jul 22, 2011 at 11:33 am

Great tip. I didn`t know that was possible to use non default fonts.

Bambi Corro III
Jul 22, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Thanks for the great tip! And thanks to Modernizer’s author/s! So i guess we dont need to write fallback fonts to WireOne since theres a specific fallback script?

Jul 24, 2011 at 6:17 am

Useful tips. Thanks

Pixeno Web Host
Jul 25, 2011 at 3:30 am

Ah I always make that mistake of not including a web safe fallback font, or any fallback font at all!

Jul 26, 2011 at 7:03 am

Interesting tip. I still feel @ font-face would still take sometime for the developers to start using it, as it has its own fall outs.

Mark Blethen
Jul 26, 2011 at 10:21 am

If the script is looking for browsers that don’t support @font-face/CSS3, do we really need to list fall back fonts for those browsers if we’ve set up .no-fontface rules for those browsers? I’d love to hear the reasoning behind that need. (I’ve always forgotten to set them up, but I’d like to think that styling with the modernizr script in mind makes that unnecessary.)

Shawn Scammahorn
Aug 24, 2011 at 4:34 pm

There’s always the few out there who have javascript turned off AND running older browsers that don’t support @font-face.

The .no-fontface is only used by Modernizr, so if no javascript is enabled in the browser, the .no-fontface styles will not be used either.

It’s good practice not to rely 100% on javascript being turned on. However, if there’s no available fallback fonts defined, the browser will still display it (in it’s default font-face). It just won’t be pretty.

Jul 26, 2011 at 4:05 pm

that’s cool, never used it before.

Jul 28, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Thanks for the great explanation!

Jul 28, 2011 at 11:46 pm

Thanks this one goes in the tool kit

Aug 2, 2011 at 8:00 am

Thanks for sharing the popular mistakes as i am also one of the those who commit mistakes as the same way as explained above.

Aug 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Useful tips. Thanks

Luca Cavallotto
Aug 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Nice tutorial! But since there could be someone with javascript disabled, maybe it’s simpler to use the google fonts API. I would like to have some opinions :D

Aug 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I agree. I think this is a lot cleaner than a javascript solution, and Google has really built a nice collection of fonts.

Jay Rajput
Aug 6, 2011 at 4:21 am

Nice tutorial

checkout new elegant photo slider psd

john web designer
Aug 8, 2011 at 9:37 am

Looks really cool but needs javascript !!

Natalie Dewhirst
Aug 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Love the idea of using modernizer to protect the layout when fallback fonts need to be used. I have also noticed that custom fonts don’t display correctly on mobile devices (even when using Droid font from Google API on an Android phone). Any solution for that?

accurate jewelry appraisals
Aug 12, 2011 at 12:00 am

A unilateral mistake is where only one party to a contract is mistaken as to the terms or subject-matter contained in a contract. This kind of mistake is more common!

Aug 15, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Perfect guideline to develop a front page using css3. Any one
can be do it simply follow the instructions.

iphone 4 case
Aug 22, 2011 at 1:25 am

I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment! thank you!

Devon Wedding Photohrapher
Aug 23, 2011 at 9:35 am

Thanks for clarifying “how to do it” … easy when you know how! Great post!!

Free Sick Wallpapers
Aug 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Check this out everyone Featured Wallpapers
Especially to suit your Mobile Phone!!

Web Design - Jared
Aug 25, 2011 at 8:24 pm

You bring up some good points out about styling breaking if correct fonts aren’t used.

Sep 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm

There is a Modernizr plugin for WordPress (
Do you know it? What is your opinion about it?

Web Design Hull
Sep 6, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Thanks, this was really useful checklist of some of the common font problems, I’ll definitely have a go with Modernizr, it sounds pretty useful

Sep 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Ty, i was searching for font importing in css for a long time)

Sep 10, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Thanks this is very helpful.I am facing the same probelm but now it solved.

JB Web Design
Sep 12, 2011 at 10:59 am

Thanks for this. I will look into using Modernizr. Great post

Sep 16, 2011 at 9:26 am

Good stuff.. I must experiment with some nicer looking fonts for my sites.

Sep 20, 2011 at 3:45 am

Very nice tutorial, thanks :)

Seattle Real Estate Guy
Sep 20, 2011 at 5:23 am

I’m currently working on a website and this is very helpful. Thank you!

Sep 30, 2011 at 4:32 am

wanted to use this in an older project, problem was that I couldn’t check if it worked! Couldn’t find a browser that didn’t support fontface (older ie versions worked perfect, ipad didn’t had any troubles with fontface, even with the free atomic browser..). if someone could tell me a browser that doesn’t support this pls tell me :)

Oct 3, 2011 at 2:26 am

i use this in my site its nice

Oct 13, 2011 at 5:14 am

Great use of modernizr for this., but wouldn’t the last css-example still give layout issues, i.e: a browser supporting @font-face but lacking font ‘Wire One’ would fallback to arial font-size:48px NOT arial font-size: 30px.

Nov 15, 2011 at 5:36 am

Great useful article.Thank you for sharing.

Nov 26, 2011 at 9:20 am

great usefull post thanks for sharing it…

Nov 29, 2011 at 10:10 am

maybe… /* no-faceface fallback */ is should be /* no-fontface fallback */ ?
nice tutorial, thank you.

Nov 30, 2011 at 4:59 am

I love your blog and i love your ideas.i was having trouble with font selection and spending too much time to select the right one. Now i think this article may help me. Thanks a lot. I will surely use these tips in my blog Blogger Tricks.

24 the movie
Dec 19, 2011 at 10:16 am

Just used this tutorial to add the bank gothic font to my site. Useful post, thanks a lot

Jan 24, 2012 at 3:27 am

Amazing tuts thanks for sharing it at one place..

Jan 24, 2012 at 6:50 am

So nice information, I really wanted to know about it’s solution… Great help
many thanks. :)

Feb 9, 2012 at 11:29 am

In your demo example the Google font “wire one” is used. Is it possible to use a font like for ex. Helvetica. You don’t have to include the Modernizr js when using the Google fonts I think?

Feb 12, 2012 at 10:46 am

Great post. Thanks for sharing it.

Jun 1, 2012 at 6:42 am

yes … Great post. Thanks a lot

Mar 3, 2012 at 7:33 am

Nice tutorial!

Mar 30, 2012 at 5:57 pm

great examples i would not of thought of testing a fallback font to make sure it stays within boundaries etc. good suggestion and post.

May 11, 2012 at 6:17 am

same here…not taken care about fallback, text size etc., thanks for this great tip.

mike brick
May 31, 2012 at 10:50 am

What is point of having a fallback font for your fontface style if it’s going to just fall back to your non-fontface solution?

Jun 5, 2012 at 4:29 am

Such a great tutorial!
Is there a website or a way that we can test to see if the script works?
If I remove the custom font from my remote server whilst using the modernizr fallback as explained above, it doesn’t seem to pick up the modernizr fallback font. Am I testing it the wrong way?

Karl Kelman
Jun 19, 2012 at 3:26 pm


If I understand how Modernizr works correctly, it’s testing your browser to see if the browser supports @font-face. Whether or not your page actually uses @font-face isn’t tested. The fallback class is only activated if you are viewing the page with a browser that doesn’t support @font-face.

Craig Smith
Jul 12, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I think Google Fonts you shouldn’t have any problems with fonts not rendering, and you don’t have to worry about backup fonts. Since fonts load via Google. I never had a problem with it.

Ibiza yates
Jul 29, 2012 at 3:11 pm

If I remove the custom font from my remote server whilst using the modernizr fallback as explained above, it doesn’t seem to pick up the modernizr fallback font. Am I testing it the wrong way?

Aug 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm

It does not work with Firefox when web fonts are disabled (about:config > gfx.downloadable_fonts.enabled > false) and all the content is displayed with fallback fonts (e.g. Arial). So how can I test it?

Purple Lime Design
Sep 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm

I was thinking of finally going wild on my site redesign and finally breaking away from websafe fonts but wasn’t sure if it was a good idea – think i’ll give it a try with this fallback! Thanks!

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