I am writing this from the ATypI conference 2013 in Amsterdam. I hosted a panel on free fonts on the first opening day (Wednesday) of the pre-conference two-tracked discussion, and Victor Gaultney of SIL International did the same on Friday. The panels and discussions around them brought up a bunch of issues, and I wanted to share my thoughts. Note that this is something of a live post, and subject to clarifications and additions, though I think my main positions are pretty set.
Threat, or Menace?
I don’t think free fonts are evil. If anybody has that misperception about my thinking, it’s my own darn fault for entitling my panel “Free fonts: threat or menace?” I intended it as a joke, a bit of a deliberate incitement to get people talking/thinking, and perhaps poking gentle fun at the not-unusual anti-free attitudes in the type design community. I got the “threat or menace” part from old comic books, in which crusading newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson is writing crazy anti-Spider-Man newspaper headlines, but apparently it goes back even further.
Of course free fonts are at least mostly a good thing for people who use fonts. Who doesn’t like free? For hobbyists and casual font users, they are certainly a good thing. For professional users who are passionate about quality, it is less clear, as if free fonts have a negative impact on average quality or continued availability of new, quality fonts, then it may not be all good for them.
Gratis vs Libre
There are two overlapping but distinct kinds of free fonts; it is worth distinguishing them.
“Libre” fonts are those which post few if any restrictions on what the user or acquirer can do with them. They are generally “open source” and can be bundled with either commercial or open source software. Although it is allowed to charge for them, it is also allowed to redistribute them for free, so it is hard to sell them effectively. Most of the really high-end free fonts made by professional type designers are released under libre licenses.
“Free as in beer” or “gratis” fonts are those for which there is no charge. Many of them still have licensing restrictions on what one can do with them, such as only allowing non-commercial use, or restricting modifications.
Most of the “free fonts” in the world are gratis rather than libre, but the biggest growth lately has been in libre fonts. Sites such as “dafont” feature many gratis fonts that are not libre, but also some libre fonts.
Sometimes a type designer or foundry will make some members of a larger family available gratis. Often they will be less useful styles, but whether it’s the regular and the bold or just the black italic, giving away some styles as a teaser for the rest of the family seems like a special case. This has worked well for some designers (e.g. Jos Buivenga / exljbris with his Museo families). Some have seen less result.
Quality vs Free Fonts
I am pretty harsh about font quality. Most of the fonts I have made have never shipped, because my conceptions of quality early on outstripped my ability to execute at that quality level. So I will be the first to say that there are plenty of commercial fonts that suck. Easily 30–40% of commercial fonts leave me thoroughly unimpressed. If you look at libre fonts, and use the Google Fonts collection as your baseline, maybe 65% of those fonts suck. If you just look at all free fonts on dafont, maybe 95% of those fonts stink.
Why is that?
Well, most of the people who are capable of making high quality fonts have some serious training, and/or a fair bit of experience. The people who are at a stage of their career where they are interested in making stuff and willing and able to give it away are mostly younger people just starting out, or people just beginning to get really into type design. On average they have a lot less experience and skill.
Also, polishing a font until it is really good is a whole lot of extra work and a lot less fun than the earlier stages of the design process. Frankly, it’s the 80/20 rule, only with type it is more like 90/10 or 95/5. Most of the quality improvement won’t be immediately/consciously noticed by most potential users, especially in the new growth area of the web where would-be end users are generally less typographically savvy.
I should be clear that when I say “quality” I am not talking about matters of mere taste. There are objective aspects of font quality. For example, in spacing a typical sans serif, if the cap H and N have straight sides, and the white space (sidebearings) allocated to the left and right sides of the cap H are significantly different values, and those in turn differ from the sidebearings of the cap N, then the font is simply badly made.
One of my perennial arguments with the folks at Google is about the fact that they didn’t have a very high quality bar at all, and let in an awful lot of fonts that I would say are simply crap or at least substandard, at an objective level. Some of the folks on the Google side of the fence say that they are simply giving their users free choice and that if one of the fonts I consider to be junk becomes popular, then that’s evidence that it was actually “good.” I don’t have much patience for this line of argument. I think that Google is abandoning what it ought to see as a responsibility to be a gatekeeper not of taste, but of quality. It is not hard to find the expertise to deal with these things.
Interestingly, Adobe, having an increasing interest in there being decent quality libre fonts out there, is actually dedicating some in-house resources (read: people’s time) to helping fix and improve some of those fonts. Kudos to them.
Money for Free Fonts?
Most of the solid quality libre fonts were actually commissioned works, or done in-house by a big company. In either case, somebody with deep pockets had a need or desire for a new open source font, They expected to make money in some other way, and were willing to pay usual professional wages for the development of fonts that met their needs. But these well-paid professional fonts are a minority of all libre fonts.
Google has offered a bounty on libre fonts, but according to Bruno Maag in the discussion here at ATypI, it amounts to some $2000 per font. He suggests a basic three-member family takes about 400 hours to create, and that hence Google is paying $15 an hour for type design, and that isn’t a livable wage. Bruno’s angry outburst about this garnered applause from a significant chunk of the audience.
Of course, the audience here at ATypI in Amsterdam is an audience of middle-class and better westerners, to whom $15/hr is not a real living wage. But in much of the world that is a pretty decent wage, especially for a student or somebody in the earlier stages of their career.
But I expect there is no reason to think that Google or any other specific company will continue to pay for new libre font development at the same rate that new commercial fonts have been being made in the past. If the money to be made in creating libre (and other free fonts) is less than what we had before, it’s possible that the total amount of money will go down, and the impact of libre and gratis fonts on the demand for retail fonts matters.
Eben Sorkin has suggested that for popular libre fonts he has designed, people are starting to ask about paying for customizations, additions and modifications. He thinks he can make sufficient money off of this to make it worthwhile, and that this may be a viable model for everyone.
I am not entirely convinced this will be the reality for the “average” type designer from a wealthy country. Maybe. If not, the development of the bulk of libre fonts will tend to be more of an activity for people from less wealthy countries, and/or done by less experienced type designers.
Some libre or gratis fonts can raise development money on Kickstarter or some similar crowdfunding source. This is challenging, and doesn’t work for all projects. It also requires a different skill set in terms of social connections and marketing to be successful. Unfortunately, many type designers don’t want to have to sell themselves, their story and their projects in that way. (Though arguably it is an important skill for traditional retail proprietary fonts as well!)
David Kuettel of Google responded to Bruno Maag’s outburst with a lengthy and partly evasive response, which basically amounted to “we want to see type designers get paid, and we haven’t worked out the model by which this happens. First we need to finish sorting out various technical and practical issues, and once we iron those out, we will be able to come up with a better model to pay for the fonts.”
I am not excited by this response that wants the type designers to do all their work up front and just trust that sooner or later a model will spontaneously break out that allows them to make money. In the future. With different fonts, as I don’t believe that for the existing libre fonts (that were made before that magical future), Google or anybody else is likely to start paying additional revenue that they don’t have to.
Although interest in using type is growing, growing even faster is the supply of people trying to design it. There are more and more serious college and university programs teaching type design. The loose anarcho-syndicalist Crafting Type collective (which I am a member of) teaches three-day type design workshops to beginners, which while not turning out master type designers certainly gets them past the level of the average gratis typeface, perhaps to the level of the average libre typeface. But (in my estimation) having so many people interested in trying to design type means that supply of type designers is outpacing demand, which is creating another source of downward pressure on prices/wages.
Impact of Gratis & Libre on Commercial Fonts?
There are a number of different theories about the impact of more and more free fonts on the income made from retail font licensing.
(1) One theory is that free fonts will have little or no impact. For the most part they are of poor quality. The people who want to distinguish their work have always been willing to pay and always will be, because being different and distinctive and using quality fonts is of value to them. The people who would use the free fonts would never have bought retail font licenses anyway.
(2) Another theory is that free fonts increase the awareness of fonts in general and help stoke demand, and that as this new audience gets more sophisticated some of them will gradually get more and more interested in commercial alternatives to free fonts.
(3) Some folks believe that just like fonts bundled with apps, free fonts will decrease the total demand for retail fonts. Any demand they create will be outstripped by the demand they satisfy. Some users will not become sophisticated enough to prefer better typefaces, while others will simply choose from the higher-quality free fonts they can find, which appear to only be a growing category.
Personally, I actually buy all three of these theories to some degree. I think there is a core demand (1) that will never go away. But I think the portion of that demand that is truly immutable is a small part of the total market for fonts. I do think that making free fonts available will increase awareness of fonts (2), but I am politely skeptical that any resulting increase in paid font licensing will surpass the decrease due to free fonts substituting for paid fonts (3).
Of course, even if I am right about that mix, that doesn’t say what happens to the total money being spent on fonts. Some people will commission libre fonts, or Google may continue to pay a bounty on the ones they want to see made. My guess is that the total amount of money going into the pockets of type designers is more likely to decrease than increase, but I can’t swear that’s what will happen. But even if the total amount of money going to type designers goes up, I am pretty sure that more people will be doing it and the average $/hr compensation will go down. Mind you, even if so, these economic shifts will not happen overnight.
I actually hope that some of my projections and guesses are wrong, because of course I would like to see more money ending up in the pockets of type designers. But even if my predictions and guesses are all correct, I don’t see free fonts as bad, exactly. Having more fonts available for free to the average user is still a good thing for the end user. The percentage of new fonts that are of what I think of as high quality may go down (compared to the old proprietary world), but the total numbers of all kinds will only increase. Existing quality fonts won’t go away, even if the average quality of new fonts is lower.
While the changes may be “bad” for many first-world type designers, including people I know personally, I don’t see anything horribly wrong with there being more work for people who have less money, and to whom $15/hr is a good wage. Although I like the idea of everybody in the developing world having the same level of affluence that professionals do in the west, realistically this doesn’t happen overnight. Wages in developing countries increase over time. The changes I foresee in type design economics are part of that shift, even at wages that we would consider potentially exploitive here in the USA. I don’t like the idea of type designers making only $15/hr, and I fear that it won’t get the level of quality and care that I would like to see, but at least that’s not a sweatshop wage. If we were talking $5/hr it would be different.
For those of us (mostly first-world type designers) for whom the coming shift is not a Good Thing, it may be a saddening change. But I think change is inevitable, and all the players involved are going to do what makes sense for them at the time. A company like Adobe making a couple of open source typefaces is not due to some huge change in their corporate ideology or thinking: it just became beneficial to them to create a few open source fonts due to their other business interests. Similarly other type designers are going to do what is right for them (as well as they can judge). If that makes for more free fonts and lower income levels for the average pre-existing type designer, that’s not some evil conspiracy, just change and life.
[Revised twice on 13 October 2013, first to add more on font quality, second to discuss free fonts as a promo for bigger families. Revised 14 October 2013 to clarify wording on free and libre some more, and clarify sweatshop wage position. Later revisions for grammar. Revised again 16 August 2015 to clarify a couple of sentences about economics and wages.]
Through my day job I am doing a 3-part webcast series on web typgraphy best practices. It is free, and registering once covers all three webcasts (with no obligation to attend).
- Part 1: Selecting Fonts. Wed Sep 7, 11 am PST
- Part 2: Setting Text, Wed Sep 21, 11 am PST
- Part 3: The New Frontier—OpenType typography on the Web, Wed Oct 5, 11 am PST
This post by Jeffrey Zeldman on font rendering in web browsers is a good introduction to the subject in a number of respects, but unfortunately repeats a pernicious myth: that web browsers on Windows all render text differently, and that this interacts with the OS rendering. There are a couple of caveats (see below), but for the most part, this a this is a system level setting. On any given Windows computer running XP or Vista or Windows 7, you will generally get >pixel-for-pixel identical glyph rendering in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. (As also shown in Si Daniels’ presentation at ATypI 2009 in Mexico City).
Why is this? All of today’s major web browsers on Windows (IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari) simply use the OS’s user-adjustable GDI text rendering settings, whatever those may be. Similarly, all today’s major web browsers on Mac OS simply use the system text rendering.
(Yes, there are a couple of caveats. Internet Explorer 7 actually ignores the OS setting in favor of its own prefs setting, which is to use the OSes ClearType rendering regardless. Safari for Windows has an optional setting to use Apple’s “Quartz” text rendering, even on Windows—this was the one-and-only rendering option in Safari 3 for Windows, but Windows users “freaked,” so Apple changed it for Safari 4 for Windows. Also, Firefox can use the kerning built into fonts, which affects spacing, though it doesn’t actually impact rendering of individual glyphs. Every major browser uses the same rendering as some version of OS rendering, however; none does something unrelated to Mac or Windows text rendering.)
So why does rendering vary so much? Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 can be set to one of three settings for “font smoothing” (a.k.a. anti-aliasing). These settings affect all applications using the old-school GDI APIs for text rendering, which as of late 2009 means all the major web browsers. The font smoothing settings are:
- off (uncheck the box that says “use the following method to smooth the edges of screen fonts)
- Standard (grayscale)
- ClearType (optimization for color LCD screens)
Note that the standard vs ClearType distinction only affects fonts with TrueType outlines. Fonts in PostScript Type 1 or OpenType CFF formats get a less sophisticated type rendering/smoothing which, well, seems less than stellar these days.
“Standard” (grayscale anti-aliasing) is the default on Windows XP, although installing Internet Explorer 8 will change that setting to “ClearType” (even if one then proceeds to use a different web browser). Windows Vista and Windows 7 default to ClearType. So, most folks on Windows are seeing ClearType rendering, one way or another. However,
Besides GDI (all of today’s browsers), there is a completely different rendering mode used by applications which are programmed to use the “DirectWrite” text APIs (similar rendering also available to the largely-ignored WPF APIs). This uses ClearType, but a ClearType which is improved over the GDI version. For TrueType outlines, It offers moderate but noticeable improvements, such as options for improved spacing, and anti-aliasing in the Y direction. OpenType CFF fonts see a truly dramatic improvement, going from really mediocre rendering under GDI to rendering roughly equally well with TrueType under DirectWrite (or under its predecessor, WPF)! Minion Pro and Myriad Pro in OpenType CFF render pretty well down to 9 pixels per em (ppem), and just fabulously at 12 or more.
[Post updated 8 Jan 2010 to correct IE 7 having a built in pref for which OS rendering it uses. Thanks to commenters! – T]
People keep on sending me links to this article “Boing Boing’s Redesign Uncovers Dark Side of Web Fonts,” about problems Boing Boing had with their new web font implementation. Only thing is, the article has a substantial dose of nonsense mixed in with the perfectly good analysis. I don’t blame the writer, though. This web font stuff is actually really complicated, and information has been hard to come by. Heck, I even briefly forgot a basic point in a first pass at this article. But nonetheless, I am fairly sure that Boing Boing could have fixed their problems easily, if they knew how. Here’s the story:
The background here is that there are new ways of using fonts with web sites, and Boing Boing tried the simplest approach of just hosting a free font on their own web server and pointing at it, but the on-screen results were not as good as expected.
“…the font it settled on — specifically BPreplay — ended up looking terrible for most users.”
“The result was hordes of angry Boing Boing fans complaining that the new headline font was “ugly,” “an abomination” and “plain nasty.” Of course, the culprit wasn’t really the font, but rather how different it looked depending on which browser and operating system the viewer was using.”
FINDING THE CULPRIT?
This is where things get tricky. I will update this post as I learn more. But, as best as I can tell, if that link to the font is right, and the font wasn’t modified by Boing Boing, the culprit really was in large part the font. But first let’s follow the trail of the previous article and make some corrections….
“The problem is that while modern browsers, like the latest versions of Safari, Firefox, Opera and Google Chrome, all support @font-face, the Windows XP operating system often doesn’t have anti-aliasing turned on by default.”
Not true. Anti-aliasing is on by default in XP. What isn’t usually on by default in XP is ClearType, Microsoft’s enhanced anti-aliasing for LCD screens. Sometimes a computer vendor will turn ClearType on for the computers they sell (particularly if they are laptops or come with an LCD monitor).
But what makes this even less meaningful is that (again assuming the linked font is the right one), the font in question is in OpenType CFF format. Such fonts are always anti-aliased in XP, even if you turn off anti-aliasing—the setting change only affects TrueType fonts. Even ClearType doesn’t affect how these fonts are rendered (rasterized) in web browsers, either. Same thing in Vista, and as far as I know in Windows 7 as well.
“The rule, which is still part of CSS3’s draft specification, is also not supported by any version of Internet Explorer. So, as cool as your font might look when properly anti-aliased, on Windows XP it looks, as Rob Beschizza, head of Boing Boing’s redesign puts it, ‘like ass.’”
I’m not sure how those two sentences are related. That’s a mystery to me. XP can get good anti-aliasing as well as Vista, and Internet Explorer is bundled with Vista and Windows 7 as much as with XP. But even taking those points separately….
The @font-face rule was actually in CSS 2 way back when, and removed in CSS 2.1. Internet Explorer has supported @font-face in every version from IE 4 to the current IE 8, but the catch is they support it only with Microsoft’s “.eot” font format (a wrapper around a TrueType font), not with regular desktop fonts. But there’s a good reason for not supporting regular desktop fonts directly: font vendors mostly won’t license their fonts to be stuck “naked” on web servers without any additional protections. Sure, there are free fonts, but, well, we’ll talk about those in a few minutes.
If Boing Boing simply put up the naked .otf font file, and didn’t do anything for Internet Explorer users (and people running older versions of other browsers), then what font actually got displayed to those users would depend on what Boing Boing specified as the fallback fonts and whether the people actually had those fonts (and thanks to Ben Kiel for reminding me of this in passing). Now, if the fallback stack relied on fonts that most XP users would not have, but Vista users would, then there might be a difference that was at least partly based on operating system. But of course it would simply be up to the folks constructing the CSS for the web site to pick reasonable fallback fonts, and not really the fault of the operating system. Perhaps as a first-level fallback from their desired font they specified one of the so-called “ClearType fonts” such as Calibri or Corbel, which are bundled with Windows Vista and Office 2007. Not quite right to blame XP for not having the font, but that would explain how somebody could mislabel it as an XP-specific problem.
Other than that, whether you are using Windows XP or not has little to do with whether or not the font looks “like ass.” Turning on ClearType can further improve rendering for fonts with TrueType outlines, but would have no effect on this particular font. Being on Vista instead of XP would make no difference at all for any web browser rendering OpenType CFF fonts such as this one.
Side note: The font wouldn’t even be seen in Internet Explorer, because Boing Boing didn’t use its .eot format as far as I know. Any further problems in IE would then be due to a poorly-specified font fallback stack in the CSS. However, if they had used .eot and TrueType outlines…. Although XP has ClearType off by default, newer versions of Internet Explorer turn it on just for the browser, so there isn’t much difference between IE rendering of TrueType fonts between XP and Vista.
In researching what went wrong, it doesn’t help that Boing Boing backed off from the font change part of their redesign, so we can’t look at it and test it. Looking at this screenshot, however, shows pretty clearly what was going on. This screen capture was definitely taken on Windows, and the font in question is still anti-aliased. However, it has some pretty crappy artifacts in how it’s rendered on screen, at least some of which are related to it being unhinted. When I see things like a single pixel sticking out of the bottom of a round shaped letter, that’s a dead give-away that the problem is likely hinting (or more accurately, lack thereof).
“Hinting” is essentially extra code in the font that improves its rendering at screen resolution. Apple’s rendering approach largely ignores hinting, but Microsoft’s rendering still uses it a fair bit. Passable hinting can be done automatically by font editing tools, so there’s no real excuse for leaving it out of a font (as with this one). In fact, pretty much every commercial font on the planet is hinted, as are most free fonts. But this isn’t even an average free font. Yes, the terrible spacing is pretty typical for free fonts, but being unhinted is uncommon. Maybe it was converted by somebody else.
Bottom line: the font sucks. This should not be a surprise. Most free fonts do. Don’t get me wrong. There are a few great free fonts out there. But 98% of free fonts suck badly, and maybe about 20% of typically-priced retail fonts suck badly, so set your expectations appropriately.
THE “DIRTY LITTLE SECRET”
But there’s another problem that might have led to complaints and concerns even if the font was made decently, but still in the same format. The “dirty little secret” of the font world is this: Windows GDI rendering of OpenType CFF and “PostScript” Type 1 fonts on screen just sucks, compared to its rendering of TrueType fonts.
Typophiles have long ignored this fact, because in the environments they’ve cared about, Type 1 and OpenType CFF fonts render perfectly well on screen:
- Just about any application on the Mac OS.
- Adobe Acrobat, InDesign and Illustrator, on any platform.
Unfortunately, Windows GDI rendering is what 90% of people see in web browsers and office applications today. (Yes, Safari for Windows also has the option to use its own rendering system, but that’s a tiny minority.) Internet Explorer sidesteps the problem simply by not supporting OpenType CFF fonts in .eot format, only TrueType (though one can convert). But it’s not like .eot ever caught on with web designers, anyway.
The future could improve. There is much better OpenType CFF rendering, even applying ClearType, available for applications using Windows Presentation Foundation and DirectWrite, but very few applications use these modes today, so it is sadly not very relevant… yet. My recollection is that the technical preview of Office 2010 for Windows has dramatically better rendering of OpenType CFF, so perhaps it is coming. Maybe Internet Explorer 9 will get there too, supporting both outline formats in .eot or some new web font format. Perhaps in five years decent support for OpenType CFF rasterization on screen will have reached the strong majority of web browsers….
So for me it’s a toss-up as to whether I blame Windows GDI rendering, or the fact that Boing Boing used a crappy free font (BPreplay) because they couldn’t legally use the retail font they wanted to (VAG Rounded). My first take is that I think Windows GDI just made worse something that would have been a problem anyway. Somebody who knows what they’re doing could spend ten minutes and either fix the font’s hinting in BPreplay or convert it to the TrueType flavor of OpenType—if the license permits it, I’d be happy to try either for them. But then again, maybe the complaint is more about the fallback font, a factor easily controlled by the web site author.
So yes there are some pitfalls. Obviously things would be better if one format worked across all browsers. But there’s also the question of whether one can use the fonts one wants, which tripped up the Boing Boing folks. What happens with that depends on what font vendors decide to do with the fonts they control the licensing for; many foundries are still trying to figure out how to approach the web fonts conundrum. Will they license fonts for use on web servers directly? Will they do so but specify security requirements that can’t be met by sticking regular desktop fonts on web servers, meaning that we’ll have to wait for new web font formats to be widely adopted, such as WOFF? Will they instead rely on a font serving process that involves something centralized, either run by themselves, or by a third party (such as TypeKit or Kernest)?
How exactly this will play out is still TBD today. What I do know for certain is that within a few years, web fonts will be a reality for the average viewer and the average web site. Many or even most web sites will pick specific fonts that aren’t necessarily already on the viewing computer, and those fonts will get used to display the desired text. Font selection will become part of branding for the web the way it has been in print. We’ll also get an explosion of awful font choices on web sites, particularly small personal ones, much like when the masses first got access to a wide variety of fonts they could print on their home computers. But overall, it will be a Good Thing, and I relish the thought of a more typographically rich web world in a year or three.
[Updated for minor clarifications 2009-10-12, reformatted 2009-10-13, added a bit on font fallback 2009-10-13]