Basics of Variable Fonts

Using Variable fonts is not too different from using a regular font, many of the properties we use are the same. This is because most of the work is actually done in the font itself, for this reason the font you choose must be a variable font in order to access it's features. You cannot make a regular font a variable font with code.

However there are some small differences, this page is intended as a brief introduction to get you started but for a more in-depth guide on Variable fonts i'd highly recommend reading the Variable Fonts Guide on MDN.

Setting up the Font with CSS

We set the fonts up the same way we usually do, using @font-face.

@font-face { font-family: 'Source Sans Variable'; src: url('source-sans-variable.woff') format('woff-variations'); font-weight: 200 900; }

The main change is to how we define the variations for descriptors like font-weight, font-stretch and font-style.

Previously we would have set font-weight: 200 and defined this as our light version. Then we'd set up another @font-face block for the bold version. With a variable font we can do this all as one block and set the range to whatever weight range we want to access.

In the above example, Source Sans Variable has a font weight range of 200 to 900 so we set a font weight range of 200 to 700. This gives us access to the full range of values from 200 to 700.


h1 { font-family: 'Source Sans Variable'; font-weight: 658; }

Once we have set up the @font-face block we can reference it the same way we normally would in our CSS - but because we’ve defined a range of weights we can set the value to whatever number we want between 200 and 700. So for example 658.

This is great for styles like weight, because we already have a CSS property that we can use.

This is known as a registered axis, all this means is that it's been standardised in the spec. There five registered axes at the moment, weight, width, slant, italic, and optical size and they are all mapped to pre-existing css properties - font-weight, font-stretch, font-style (italic and slant/oblique), font-optical-size, respectively.

However if we want to use a custom Axis that does not have a mapped property (this is very common especially if you are using a whacky variable font), we need a new CSS property called font-variation-settings.

h1 { font-family: 'My Variable Font'; font-variation-settings: 'jelo' 88, 'felo' 203; }

The font-variation-settings property enables us to define as many registered and custom axis as we need.

In the above example, we have two custom axes - each referencing by a four character string and an associated number value. To find out the codes for the custom axis you need to check the font documentatio as they are are determined by the font creator. If you don't have documentation the Wakamaifondue website is great for figuring out "What can My Font Do".

You can use a registered axis in the font-variation-settings property but it’s strongly recommended that you use their mapped CSS properties (like the font-weight property) instead. (This makes it easier to manage your typography in the codebase anyway).

Unsupported Browsers

Variable Fonts have excellent support across the modern browsers, you can see the most up to date stats on Can I Use. However, if you are worried about unsupported browsers we can use fallback fonts by making use of CSS feature detection.

We do that by checking for font-variation-settings support using the @supports feature and then adding our variable font styles inside the css block.

h1 { font-family: 'Source Sans', sans-serif; font-weight: 700; } @supports (font-variation-settings: normal) { h1 { font-family: 'Source Sans Variable'; font-weight: 675; } }

Using JavaScript (optional)

JavaScript is not necessary for the use of Variable Fonts, like standard fonts we only need CSS in order to implement them in our sites. However if you want to link your variable fonts to JavaScript events you will need JavaScript to do that.

JavaScript allows us to access different browser and web api's to manipulate the font axis. We can start to design our typography to adjust to things like the gyroscope, light sensors, scroll position, mouse position and more.

Using a straightforward example, let’s say we wanted to match our font weight to the size of our viewport - as the viewport gets smaller the font weight gets heavier. (Note: you can now do this with the CSS Clamp feature, but we'll stick with this example as its a good simple approach to using JavaScript with your Variable Fonts).

The problem with this is that we might have a font weight range of say 200 to 900 and a viewport size range of 320px to 1440px.

We need to align these two sets of values, which are not only different ranges, but also different measurements. As a result we need to re-adjust the scales into something more usable.

Let's get started using this example. First we need the current viewport width, which we can access with something like window.innerWidth

const windowWidth = window.innerWidth;

Then we create the new scale for the viewport, so rather than the pixels values we need to convert it to a range of 0 - 0.99.

We do this by taking the current windowWidth - minWindowSize and divide that by the maxWindowSize - minWindowSize.

This will output a value from 0 - 0.99 which we can use in our calculations.

const windowSize = (currentSize - minSize) / (maxSize - minSize); // Outputs a value from 0 - 0.99 including decimal places

We can then take that new viewport decimal value and use that to determine the font weight based on the window size.

const fontWeight = windowSize * (minWeight - maxWeight) + maxWeight; // Outputs a value from 200 - 900 including decimal places // For example: 0.66 * ( 200 - 900) + 900

Once we have that value we can make use of CSS Custom Properties to update the value of our weight axis in the font-weight property in the CSS. If you were using a custom axis, you would update the value in the font-variation-settings property.'--weight', fontWeight);

Putting it all together into a function we can check for the window resize event and update whenever needed.

In it’s simplest form, this will give us our fluid variation attached to viewport width.

function fluidAxisVariation() { // Current viewport width const windowWidth = window.innerWidth; // Get new scales for viewport and font weight const viewportScale = (windowWidth - 320) / (1440 - 320); const fontWeightScale = viewportScale * (200 - 900) + 900; // Set in CSS using CSS Custom Property'--weight', fontWeightScale); } window.addEventListener('resize', fluidAxisVariation);

This code can be used to change any axis, once you have it, you simply pass different event values to create all sorts of interactive effects. You can check out some of the JavaScript demos on this site for inspiration.