Are you a user of fonts who needs to tell if a font is well made, or an aspiring novice type designer? The March–April 2014 issue of Communication Arts features my article on evaluating font quality, “How to Tell If a Font Sucks,” on p. 24—now online as well!
It looks like it is hard to see the subtleties in some of the graphics in the down-res web-ified version of the article, though the print mag looks great. I will see about posting a version with high-res images in PDF.
I’m really pleased with this article. My new editor Robin Doyle at CA did a great job helping me clarify some points and figure out where more graphics were needed.
That said, there are some corner cases and subtleties around this discussion that I didn’t have time or space to get into in the article, which was already long and involved. But that is what blogs are for. 🙂
Although I stand by everything in that article, typefaces that are deliberately naïve/unsophisticated are one place for legitimate exceptions to some of the guidance I give in the article. For example, I had a lovely discussion with some folks who made a typeface based on some classic road signs. The original signs did not use optical compensation at stroke joins (point 5 in the article), so they didn’t do it in the typeface either. Although I might rarely be interested in going that way myself, I have to agree that it was a perfectly legitimate design choice, given the origins of the typeface as a signage revival—even though in many another context I would be calling it crap!
Optical compensation at stroke joins is also specific to certain typographic traditions. Certainly for Latin-based fonts (English, French, German, Hungarian, etc.) it is nearly universal, as it is for Cyrillic (Russian, etc.) and Greek. But some writing systems do things differently, such as Devanagari (used for Hindi, Marathi, Sanskit).
Non-western writing systems can also change other assumptions. For example, the idea that straight-to-round transitions (point 6 in my article) should be very smooth is very much not the case for Thai.
Anyhow, check it out and let me know if I can clarify anything else!
What are some good resources for non-designers, who perhaps write, edit or publish professional documents? Somebody recently asked this in the comments to my blog. There are quite a lot of resources I could suggest, but given limited time, we should limit the complexity/depth/scope of the resources. So given that….
Before getting into the depths of font selection, teach typography. I think Matthew Butterick’s Practical Typography is a great place to start. Short, straightforward, no-nonsense, useful, and little I could disagree with.
After that, for an intro to selecting and combining fonts, this article from Smashing Magazine is good.
At the next level of complexity, there are plenty of good longer introductions, mostly aimed at designers. Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type is a good start here. Nothing wrong with reading Butterick first, before moving on to this, btw!
For more advanced thought, the closest thing to a typography bible remains Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. It is better as a reference book or to read a chapter at a time, rather than try to take it all in at once.
The original query from a business writing teacher at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs:
I teach business writing at a university and we have a document design unit. I try to get the students to understand fonts, but don’t have a good exercise, video, material, etc. about effectively using fonts. DO you have any tips, links, etc. that I might be able to use with the students to help them discover fonts beyond Times Roman and Arial and understand how to use them effectively? Thank!
Last week I wrote about posting five FontLab encoding files for Adobe Latin character sets.
Today I posted in the same Github repository three FontLab encoding files for Adobe Cyrillic character sets, and updated the five Latin files with a few added currency symbols and glyph name changes (as I expected I might).
The character set definitions underlying these files were built on a bunch of research I did at Adobe back in 2006–08, with additional work by Miguel Sousa. The headers include much detail on the differences between each set, and the languages covered. Both of these character sets reflect the latest data from Adobe on how they name glyphs and what they are including in current fonts (not including OpenType alternates and features, mind you). The headers of the files have some interesting details and history, especially on the Cyrillic side.
Thanks as always to my old friends at Adobe, including Miguel and David Lemon, for their willingness to share production information with the type design community.
I dedicate this post and my work on the Cyrillic encoding files to the memory of Emil Yakupov, CEO of the ParaType type foundry in Moscow, who passed away just a month ago at the age of 56. His advice and feedback on Cyrillic character sets—among many things—was invaluable to me. I remember one of our first meetings, when Emil gave me a pair of ParaType catalogs as I was first becoming involved with Cyrillic type design. I still consult them to this day when trying to internalize what forms different Cyrillic characters can take in different font styles.
Also, Emil remembered by Adam Twardoch.
I am really bummed that the idea trending hot online now, popularly represented as “the US government could save $400 million dollars a year by switching fonts,” is a bit off-base. It is not the change of design that saves toner; it is that their chosen font is smaller at the same nominal point size than the comparison fonts. Not to mention that the $400 million figure being bandied about is not actually the main number suggested by the kids, which was $234 million.
That said, it is great that middle school kids (the study has two authors, although one has gotten the media attention) are doing creative problem solving and applying scientific thinking! No sarcasm intended. It is not their fault that non-obvious aspects of the problem mess up the idea. (Readers of my blog may remember that point size and font size have a rather nominal relationship.) Garamond* lowercase is about 15% smaller than the average of the fonts they compare it to, while its caps are only about 7.5% smaller. So it is no surprise that it uses less ink at the same point size.
This is why most scientific studies comparing typefaces first compensate by resizing the fonts to eliminate differences in the lowercase height (called x-height by us font geeks). This study failed to do that. As a result, they actually get results that are the exact opposite of other studies. Century Gothic has a very large x-height, so printed at the same nominal point size uses more ink than Times. Printed at the same x-height (as in other studies), it would use less.
Setting any font 15% smaller would save 28% of its area coverage. Of course, there are some caps in the texts as well, which would make the savings a bit less. Interestingly, this is pretty exactly much what the study found. So, you could just as easily save ink by setting the same font at a smaller point size.
For a moment though, let us pretend that the study did in fact equalize the x-height, and found that a typeface change saved noticeable amounts ink. With a “normal” typeface such as Garamond, this would mean that the strokes making up the font were just thinner at the same size (“stroke” is a virtual thing here; modern digital fonts essentially trace the outlines of the letter). If that were good and useful, why not go further? Why not make the strokes even thinner? Maybe there is no font bundled with common operating systems and software that would meet these needs, but one could just commission one. Even a master type designer could do a basic four-member family for $100K or so, which is a lot less than the hundreds of millions at stake. Make it razor thin and save even more!
But any of those changes, swapping to a font that sets smaller at the same nominal point size, or actually reducing the point size, or picking a thinner typeface, will reduce the legibility of the text. That seems like a bad idea, as the % of Americans with poor eyesight is skyrocketing as our baby boomers (and even their children, like me) age.
Aside from that, the reduction in toner/ink usage probably would save less money than claimed in the study. The claim is based on the proportion of total cost of ownership of a laser printer that goes to toner. There are sadly two big problems with the idea that using less ink (or toner) will save that amount of cash, based on that proportion.
First, large offices that use printers and copiers do so under a maintenance agreement that includes the cost of toner. They pay per page printed, and actual toner consumption is generally ignored. In such cases, a font change will only save based on the page count, not the toner.
Second, the study makes the interesting claim in a footnote: “Ink and toner are used synonymously in this study. Even though traditional ink is more expensive than toner, a focus on determining the percent savings in cost rather than the magnitude of the cost obviates this difference.” Urm… how? They are assuming that the percentage of printing cost ink or toner accounts for is the same for all classes of output.
This is untrue. Many of the documents that account for a substantial percentage of the government’s overall printing costs are printed on a printing press, using offset lithography. For offset printing, the percentage of the cost of that is associated with ink is in fact much smaller than for laser or inkjet printing. But it isn’t a fixed percentage, either, due to the large proportion of the cost that is associated with setup. It will be a higher percentage for short runs, and lower for long runs. Additionally, because of the huge cost of owning printing presses, many or most offset litho jobs will be printed out of house, using third-party printers.
So, for in-house printing-press printing, the savings will be a much smaller proportion than the quoted 26%. For outside printers, they will not charge based on minor variations in ink usage; they just check things like whether it’s a page of text vs graphics. Either way the savings will be less.
There is a different way an effectively smaller font will definitely save money: by allowing multi-page documents, especially long ones, to take fewer pages! So maybe it all works out—if you don’t worry about legibility.
There is another practical issue with Garamond in particular. The version bundled by Microsoft (from Monotype Imaging) does not have a bold italic, which is an unfortunate lack if one wants to promote its use for all government documents. (Yes, you can turn on bold and italic in your word processor anyway. You will just get a faked font instead of the actual one, which is ugly and less legible.)
The question that should be asked is: what font and size combination could be used to maintain or increase legibility while saving money on printing, by reducing page count and/or ink/toner usage, with a font that is bundled with common apps (or free), and has all the required font styles?
But that is a far more complex question, and most folks covering the issue much prefer simple and appealing messages like “high school kids tell gov’t how to save $400 million!”
I like innovative ideas to save money. Really, I do. But I wish the media and public had consulted some experts on this area before going nuts promoting this idea, because it just doesn’t hold water—or save money—without losing legibility.
Thomas is currently senior technical product manager for fonts and typography at Extensis, in Portland, Oregon. He has been on the board of ATypI, the international typography society, since 2004, and treasurer since 2007. In other relevant background, he was a teaching assistant for a senior level stats course in his second and third years of undergrad, has an MBA from UC Berkeley, and an MS in printing, specializing in typography, from the Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology.
Updates & notes
This post has seen some editing for grammar, clarity, adding a few more details, and to be less of a jerk. Again, I am impressed as heck that a
high middle school student is attempting serious research. I would not be analyzing it critically ,like a serious adult study ,if not for the fact that the media initially largely embraced it uncritically as if it were.
* The student study does not specify which Garamond they used, but it was obvious (to me) in the samples that they were using the Monotype version that is bundled with Microsoft Windows. Because Garamond goes back to the 1500s, and there is no trademark on the name, there are literally dozens of typefaces by that name, with about four or five being fairly common.
Since I wrote this, there has been some interesting coverage. The Guardian UK was in with the initial pack, with some caveats, but then their Nadja Popovitch wrote about this blog post and interviewed Jackson Cavanaugh of Okay Type for his reaction and analysis.
Meanwhile, John Brownlee did a nice job of explaining the point-size part of my analysis in layman’s terms, for Fast Co Design.
I did more elaborate checking on the study’s original sources and found that their five government test documents each used different body text typefaces: New Century Schoolbook, Minion (with Myriad headlines), Melior with a little Helvetica, Times with Helvetica headlines, and Book Antiqua. The average of these was almost identical to my original estimate using two of them, but I updated my numbers appropriately.
Given that the five source documents all use different fonts, one could reasonably wonder if they are a representative sample. Generally, as a rough guideline, you need a sample of about 30 to get sufficient statistical reliability for something like this.
CNN quoted Suvir: “”Ink is two times more expensive than French perfume by volume,” Suvir says with a chuckle.” This may be true, but that stat is not original to him—it dates back ten years, and is specifically about inkjet printer ink. Such printers may still be common in schools (although even there I expect laser printers are taking over), but government agencies are definitely not using inkjet printers for much of their output.
I just posted some free FontLab “.enc” encoding/character set files for the five Adobe Latin character sets, in my Github repository.
To install, quit FontLab, find the “Encoding” folder in the shared “FontLab” folder, and drop the files in there. Restart FontLab and these will be available as encodings.
NOTE: These were later updated to reflect minor tweaks Adobe has made since I described the character sets and posted the data, almost six years ago. I added currency symbols such as the Indian rupee, Turkish lira, Russian ruble and Ukrainian hryvni, and changed a few glyph names to match current Adobe practice. Thanks as always to my old friends at Adobe, including Miguel and David Lemon, for their willingness to share production information with the type design community.
This follows a couple of possibly-useful FontLab scripts I posted a couple of weeks ago, in the same place.
I have started posting a few scripts in my own repository on GitHub. They are libre (free, open source) under an Apache 2.0 license.
- Generate-substitutions.py: Select some glyphs in the font window. Run the script. It will automatically generate useful OpenType feature code (in .fea/AFDKO syntax) in the Output window, which you can copy/paste right into the appropriate feature. The script works with both simple substitutions and ligatures as long as you follow standard Adobe glyph naming standards (appropriate use of period and underscore). It does not work with complex cases involving multiple-feature interaction, sorry.
- Make-numbers-from-dnom.py: First you need to create some numbers sized and positioned for use as denominators. The script will take all the glyphs in your font ending in “.dnom” and create numerator, superscript and subscript versions using the dnom glyphs as components. If the font is an italic font, it will use the italic angle of the font to calculate how much to shift the components horizontally while moving them vertically. NOTE: the vertical shifts are hardcoded in the script now, but easily edited. Future improvement ideas: pop up a dialog to enter the vertical shift numbers, and/or try to auto-calculate them.
Unfortunately, my “best” (or at least most complicated) script is very specific to my workflow on developing my Cristoforo family (it does the steps detailed at the bottom of this blog post). It is a heavily modified version of Ben Kiel’s “Better Generate Font” script. I chose not to post it as the workflow is just so very peculiar to my needs and does things like put my license URLs in the font, but if you want it for some reason, perhaps as a starting point, ping me.
I am very excited to be getting my visa for India today! I’m one of the instructors for a 3-day advanced type design workshop with FontLab. Registration is now open on the FontLab blog, and there is a detailed schedule of planned talks.
One problem with releasing lots of pre-release builds to my Kickstarter backers is that I don’t test every single one as much as I otherwise would. Generally any errors are minor, but earlier today I managed a moderately important one: I didn’t remove overlapping paths in my outlines during the build process. Well, actually, I did remove overlap, but as I did not first decompose my composite glyphs, it didn’t fix most of the problem cases.
Why would you want to have overlapping paths in your glyph outlines, and why/when would it be a problem?
Here are several glyphs (as shown by H. James Lucas) that had overlapping paths in this last build:
So, clearly it’s a problem if they render badly in some apps. Interestingly, this is dependent on not only what is doing the font rendering, but also what size the glyphs are rendered at. Adobe’s core rendering engine has three or four different rendering modes, and what it picks is size-dependent.
Overlapping paths are sort of okay in TrueType fonts—the rendering engines will deal with them better. But they will still produce bad results if a user does something like apply an outline or stroke to the text.
So why do I leave these things in while developing the font? Well, during development, it is useful to keep the basic elements separate, and only remove overlap later on. So for example, if I change the underlying swash H glyph, I want the Swash-H-with-bar to automatically pick that up. Similarly, the C shape seen in the colon currency symbol (used in Costa Rica and El Salvador) is shared between the Ghanaian cedi, the euro symbol, and a stylistic variant of the cap C. I used the same primitive elements in the ffj ligature in numerous other ligatures (including ffi). And so on.
Of course, as leaving overlaps in the final font causes problems, normally I take care of this as part of each build. My usual build sequence for creating OpenType OTF fonts from my FontLab file:
- Create a “next version” and make sure version string has been correctly incremented (in several places), including in the file name itself.
- With the current version of the file
- Remove all hinting (shift-F7 in FontLab Studio 5 for Mac)
- Select all glyphs in font (Cmd-A in FLS)
- Autohint all glyphs (F7 in FLS)
- Save file
- Then the following actions, done without saving the file again, to preserve original data in the FontLab file:
- Decompose all composite glyphs
- Remove overlap (Cmd-F10 in FLS)
- Export OTF font (Cmd-Opt-G in FLS) with correct version number in the file name
- Change license URL string to point at the personal license
- Export OTF font again with “-NC” (non-commercial) in the file name, in addition to the version number
- Close font without saving file
Anyhow, in this particular build I missed the “decompose” step, so all overlaps involving composite glyphs (most of them) still overlapping. Of course I have fixed this, and am sending revised fonts to my backers.
Adding kerning is one of the very most tedious tasks in developing a font, if it is done well. It is also the final major production task in type design.
As I am finishing this stage on the Regular style of my Kickstarter typeface Cristoforo, and about to send updated fonts to my backers, I find myself needing to explain what this kerning business is, anyway. So I thought I would post something here for general public consumption, and point to it from my latest Kickstarter update.
In fonts, each glyph is placed in a slot with a certain amount of space allocated to it, which generally includes white space on either side. The total horizontal space allocated to a glyph is its “advance width.” The distances between the furthest extent of each side of the glyph and the ends of the allocated space are the “sidebearings”—which can even be negative numbers, if part of a glyph sticks into a neighboring space.
In high-end type design, spacing is an especially complex art and craft. But many junk fonts don’t even get the basics right, and that is easily detected. Decent spacing is consistent, and follows certain general principles about shapes. Consistency means the “same” elements should get the same space across different glyphs, and similar elements spaced similarly. So the left sidebearings of OCGQ and the right sidebearing of D are all usually either the same or very close.
Designing even spacing is about keeping a relatively consistent amount of white space between letters. In a typical sans serif font, a letter like O only needs 50–60% as much in the way of sidebearings as an H. Something like a T or a V might have sidebearings at or close to zero. Lowercase letters are generally spaced slightly closer than their cap brethren.
ADDED: Here is a video tutorial I did on spacing.
The word “kerning” can refer to any of three things:
- noun: data in a font that adjusts spacing for particular letter combinations.
- verb: the act of creating such data
- verb: when setting text, the act of adjusting space between particular letters in text. This is an operation done by a typesetter in text setting software, and is not a font editing operation. Also, not to be confused with tracking, which is adjusting the overall spacing of a block or range of text all at once.
For purposes of this article, I’m concerned with the first two definitions: kerning data built into fonts, and how to create that data. We’ll get to the “how” later, first let’s talk about the “what.”
It’s critical that the basic spacing be done well in any font, but for particularly difficult combinations, the font should also contain built-in kerning (which can help avoid the need for the end user to do manual kerning). Kerning is a set of adjustments to the default spacing for specific troublesome letter combinations, so as to deal with fact that, without intervention, “AV” will be set too far apart, or that in some fonts “f)” will make the top terminal of the f collide with the parenthesis. Vast amounts of kerning are not always a necessity for a well-made font, but if there is no kerning, or if it does not deal with common situations like “LT” and “To”. . . then there is something wrong.
In the “old days” prior to about 10–15 years ago, kerning was done by defining pairs and adjusting the spacing. So combinations such as To and Te would be separate pairs, as would VA and WA. This was a pain, but still manageable as long as fonts still only have <256 glyphs per font, although some would end up with thousands of kerning pairs, and some apps would break (in different and interesting ways) when working with very large amounts of kerning data.
But it is not unusual for an OpenType font to have a thousand glyphs or more. Cristoforo Regular has 1324 glyphs now. Luckily, OpenType allows for “class kerning,” in which glyphs can be grouped into classes, and then the classes are kerned instead of individual glyphs.
So the first thing to do is to define those kerning classes! I spent days on and off just doing that for Cristoforo Regular. Some of them only apply when the class is on the left, some when the class is on the right, and a few apply to either side. I had 96 kerning classes before I started kerning. I made a few additions and deletions during the process, and am sitting with 101 right now, with 632 distinct adjustments between classes (the class equivalent of “kern pairs”). Probably a week or more of work, if it was full time.
Here’s the display of classes in FontLab Studio 5.1.4. Most of my classes for Cristoforo have anywhere from 4–30 glyphs, but some have just one or two, and the largest has 84.
Getting the class definitions right is critical. If a glyph is missed out, it doesn’t get kerned. If a glyph appears in two left-side or two right-side classes, it causes an error that means that a bunch of the kerning will never be applied when the font is used. (FontLab Studio warns appropriately, but debugging can take a while.)
Here is how the spacing can be viewed with arbitrary strings of text in the metrics window. At the moment the effect of kerning is not being shown.
Below you can see the same text only with kerning applied.
The next version, below, highlights the points where kerning is happening. Mostly kerning makes the combinations closer together, except the “e.” combination, where the period has to be moved a smidge further away.
Most graphics and publishing apps simply use the kerning data in the font by default. You have to do something special to avoid it or get different results. This is true of Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and QuarkXPress.
The Adobe apps refer to the kerning built into the font as “Metrics” kerning, as opposed to no kerning or Adobe’s automatic “Optical” kerning. In a well-made font Metrics kerning produces the best results, but even then Optical kerning can be handy for combinations the type designer missed, or situations that can’t be handled by kerning built into the font (such as kerning between different font sizes or two entirely distinct fonts).
Even WordPerfect, back around 1990, had kerning on by default, if I remember correctly. But not Microsoft Office.
Microsoft Word has allowed you to turn on kerning pretty much forever, it just defaults to being off. To turn it on, in recent versions, go to Format > Font or hit Ctrl-D (Cmd-D on Mac). You’ll get a big dialog. Select the “Advanced” tab.
Then in the top “Character Spacing” section, check the box that says “Kerning for Fonts.” The default is to set kerning on for 12 point and above, but you can reduce it—I generally set it to 1 point because I want kerning on all the time. Unless I am writing an article about kerning I never want it off.
PowerPoint has more recently started supporting kerning. In more recent versions, go to Format > Font or hit Ctrl-T (Cmd-T on Mac). In the resulting dialog select the “Character Spacing” tab. Then check the “Kerning for fonts” option.
So that’s all you need to know to use and appreciate kerning!
NOTE: About 1/4 of the text of this post is borrowed from my article “Know If a font Sucks,” currently in press for the March–April issue of Communication Arts.
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.]