Just how am I supposed to browse for new fonts?

This is one part rant, one part genuine question and one part report on my singular perspective made in hope that it will be useful or insightful for someone, somewhere.

I am a type user with a relatively narrow specialization. However, I'm not necessarily a "type enthusiast", which for the purposes of this post means that I don't follow with any regularity the latest industry news, events, niche publications, forums, blogs or social media accounts. (An argument could be made that this is in fact a serious flaw on my part, since to be a good type user I should also become a type enthusiast in the provided sense, especially since it would alleviate some of my grievances described here. This might very well be the case, but I still believe I have some legitimate complaints to make simply in my role as a perpetually lost and confused customer.)

Occasionally, I'm in the market for new fonts that I could use in my work; or, sometimes I just wish to find out whether any potentially useful new fonts have appeared out there or have received substantial updates from their makers.

Whenever I look for fonts, I have very specific requirements in mind, including language support, character coverage, OpenType features, as well as a whole list of particular expectations resulting from my personal preferences and the character of my work. As far as I can tell, I know all the major websites that allow me to browse through the available fonts; these include both store platforms and various databases.

To sum up, I know fairly well what I'm looking for and I'm pretty sure I also know where to look for it. However, as it turns out, my every experience of browsing for fonts is always exceedingly, tortuously frustrating.

It's not that I'm not able to find any fonts that I need; actually, I think I have a pretty good idea of what is out there. What bugs me the most is that I'm never able to tell if I'm still missing something important - and there's no easy way for me to find out whether this is indeed the case.

Apart from this, the effort of compiling information from various disparate sources is just a giant miserable slog; some websites give me too little information, while others give me too much, because there's no way for me to filter out what I certainly don't need. Then there are some things I would love to know at a glance and from the outset, but I have to dig deep to find them out. I know that some things in life don't come easily, but the sheer amount of time and energy I have to spend on each of my font searches just seems way too much.

As I see it, this situation arises from a combination of the following circumstances:
  • There is nothing resembling a centralized, truly exhaustive font database out there. Existing solutions are able to provide me with some valuable information, but are always missing some crucial features that I have to interpolate from elsewhere. For instance, while Identifont is an admirable and impressive resource, it does not provide basic technical data about the fonts, and its "similar fonts" feature does not work in a reliable way (i.e. some fonts from the database are not included on the list, presumably because their makers opted out of it); also, since it relies on voluntary participation of the foundries, there are significant (and presumably permanent) lacunae in its database.
  • The catalogs of most major stores and renting services have severely limited interfaces, which actively prevent access to the information already contained in their own databases. I recall a point in time when I could reliably use MyFonts to actually browse for fonts; this is no longer the case because of the recent simplification of the "advanced search" filters. Adobe Fonts is just laughably bad; I spent many an afternoon numbly scrolling through dozens of pages there, looking at the specimens of every serif font one by one, because no more efficient method was provided (and don't get me started on the fact that I can't see any diacritics in the main search results, when diacritics are the very first thing I look at when evaluating a typeface). I could fill a whole thread with serious usability misgivings concerning just about every major font outlet out there.
  • Many independent or "boutique" foundries don't sell through any external vendors (which is more than understandable and perfectly OK in my book), but for whatever reasons they also don't seem interested in promoting their products through channels such as Identifont. I'm perfectly serious when I say that I simply don't know how people such as myself are even supposed to find out about their highly exclusive wares. I'm staggered by the number of great typefaces from such foundries that I discovered purely by accident, usually by stumbling on a casual remark in some old message board post found at the very bottom of some Google search results; if that is the case, how many typefaces of this kind am I still ignorant of? How could I even tell?
    Now, I know at least some of such foundries and visit their websites from time to time. However, their browsing interfaces sometimes leave a lot to be desired; very often I have to download PDF specimens to find out whether some basic OpenType feature is implemented in a given font or not. This is all very interesting, but also slow and completely disjointed from my other font searching methods. There is no way for me to compare at a glance the offerings of these small foundries with all the other fonts of interest that are available elsewhere.
  • While various forums and social media exist, I would strongly argue that they provide a highly inefficient, inconvenient and error-prone way of finding structured information of the sort I'm looking for. If I were to use them for my purposes, the whole endeavor would depend upon good will and actual expertise of the users, as well as sheer chance (for instance, my post might be overlooked by the one user in possession of the good answer). When it comes to internet communities, I'm also wary of starting threads that are simply requests made for my sole personal gain rather than opportunities to start actual discussions.
I can come up with explanations for most of these problems on my own. I realize that some solutions are costly or near-impossible to implement. An exhaustive, full-featured database I yearn for is probably unattainable because of such factors as clashing corporate interests and the volunteer effort needed. I'm also aware that customers with my approach and expectations are probably a small minority and there is little reward in catering to them.

Still, this state of things just strikes me as weirdly incongruous with my other experiences of "looking for retail products on the web". There are websites with powerful, granular search interfaces which enable me to find exhaustive listings of things such as camera lenses, music releases, board games etc. according to my very specific requirements and preferences. It is only with fonts that I'm expected to gather bits of partial data from many separate sources, each of them imperfect in its own way; all the way hoping that this time I didn't overlook something relevant, and often made to feel like I'm browsing through the store shelves while blindfolded and wearing oven mitts.

I think it's not controversial to observe that typography is already a field fraught with elitist tendencies and pretensions to esoteric knowledge; I can see why this is the case and I can live with that. What irritates me is that the knowledge about what is currently available for licensing on the open market also has to be so difficult to attain and apparently dependent on actively following various niche and specialist resources (or belonging to the actual niche and specialist communities). Frankly, I don't see why so much effort has to be spent on looking for something as basic as the more-or-less complete list of, say, garaldes with Cyrillic support, tabular figures (including italics!) and italic small caps.

Am I doing something wrong? Am I expecting way too much? Am I ignorant of some new exciting resources? And really, what is the expected process for someone in my situation to follow?


  • I've been thinking about a multifunctional font aggregator like e-Katalog for a long time, but I do not have sufficient knowledge and resources to create such a site. But fonts are a very niche market compared to electronics, if it was popular it would already exist. There are also no guarantees that large marketplaces will want to cooperate, at least from the beginning. 
    But it would also be a good resource for promoting typefaces from solo designers or just small foundrys.
    There may be some, but I have not heard of any such with a powerful search functionality.
  • I often dream about building a tool that crawls foundry sites and aggregates an open database that graphic designers can use to discover and search for fonts.

    A community would also be needed to make edits and corrections, but I think you could automate quite a lot of it. Marketplaces would almost definitely be interested in cooperating, since it would bring them referrals. MyFonts and Fontspring for example have referral programs and APIs that developers can use to query data about the fonts in their marketplaces. Fontsinuse also has an API that would be useful.

    I've also imagined a crawler that wanders the web, collecting any webfonts that it finds in order to extract more metadata for the database. This could lead to a feature where you could look up any font and see what websites are using it – I think many foundries would be interested in something like that, and designers would surely find it useful as well.

    But I'm just a type designer with some proficiency in Python and JS, so I don't think I could build this on my own. Would anyone be interested in collaborating on a project like this?
  • I suspect building (and maintaining!) such a catalog would be too much work. Nadine Chahine outlined this issue in her recent GRANSHAN talk about CEDARS+ (I am not sure if the video recordings are available already). Key points: such a categorization is a lot of manual labor, various scripts require a multitude of filtering approaches, and if the categorization is left to the type vendors, there is a massive insensitive to cheat and lie about the qualities of the offered font files.
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 730
    edited June 2022
    I think I head google has a good tool now for identifying the supported languages?  @Dave Crossland
  • Marc OxborrowMarc Oxborrow Posts: 215
    edited June 2022
    @Jan Pietkiewicz I don't know if this will help or just frustrate you further, but here's a curated, sortable list of more than 300 type foundries. The current filters won't help in your quest to ascertain language support, although the About section mentions that feature is coming. Note: There are both list and tile views, selectable in the lower left corner.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,239
    Rosetta Type's Hyperglot is good, but Simon Cozens' Shaperglot ought to supercede it in future with a more comprehensive approach to font data rather than only unicode character set analysis 
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,261
    @Jan Pietkiewicz I can't change what my distributors do but I can control my descriptions and, in some cases, keywords. Is there anything we can add to our descriptions that would make your font hunting go a little smoother? Should a full list of language coverage be added to the description? Maybe if we provided more complete descriptions, the search tools could produce better results.
  • This reminds me of the recent “Text face wish list” discussion, https://typedrawers.com/discussion/4024/my-text-face-wish-list
    As a developer of complex text fonts, I find this communication very useful.
    I doubt that an automated maximum comprehensive tool relating to every font in the world (or even to most of them) would be feasable. The matter is too complex, the work too much.
    A small share of all type users are high-profile users with very neat requirements. And a small share of all fonts qualify as candidates for catering high-profile requirements.
    How to bring those two together?
    • A small band of interested h-p users should volunteer to build a cataloque of aspects and requirements
    • they should establish an initative to publish a standardized ‘check list’ for fonts; this list should be workable easily by font producers by ticking boxes or similar, and thus providing the special informations wanted.
    • it then could develop into a sort of quality label “this fonts comes with XYZ high expert infos” or how ever you want to name it.
    • the resulting ‘info sheets’ could serve as a navigation through font products
    • the emerging info standard could inform and motivate more font designers to cater for advanced needs

  • Jan PietkiewiczJan Pietkiewicz Posts: 17
    edited June 2022
    Firstly, I would like to thank you all for your understanding and welcoming responses - when starting this thread I wasn't exactly sure if I was describing a problem of larger importance or just making a fool of myself for the whole world to see as a bumbling typographer who doesn't know the first thing about looking for fonts the proper way.

    Marc, that directory is positively anxiety-inducing for someone with my personality type, but also tremendously helpful in the long run. Thank you for pointing me there!

    Stephen, as an Identifont and Fonts in Use devotee (who also relied on your expertise provided elsewhere) I was secretly hoping you would chime in here. Your perspective on the matter is very valuable and enlightening, since I'm pretty sure you know more about the challenges of cataloging, organizing and presenting information about fonts than just about any other person on the planet. The pessimistic notes in your post are consistent with my own notions about the obstacles involved. However, I'm very glad to hear that someone out there is actively trying to find a solution to the problems I tried to describe (which surely cannot be only my own!). I'm also really excited by your hints about the things to come. For many years now I've been relying on Fonts in Use as a tool of discovery because of its taxonomy features (in abstraction from the actual "in use" parts of the website), and it's fantastic to learn about the planned developments in that area.

    Ray, since I was aware that I'm speaking primarily to the audience of type designers here, I sincerely tried to come up with some advice for the individual makers looking to reach their audience. After giving it some thought, however, I don't think that's the right approach: what I'm trying to point towards are major infrastructural problems, and even a best description provided by a well-intentioned designer would be at best an ill-fitting fig leaf.

    As a matter of fact, I really appreciate longer, informative typeface descriptions authored by their designers that don't devolve into vapid marketing-speak (and I'm pretty sure that they did inform my decisions in the past).  However, a description is something I would like to read after I made sure that the typeface in question satisfies all my strictly technical criteria. What is absolutely maddening to me is that it's often nearly impossible to access this sort of strictly technical information in a convenient manner (for example: MyFonts® by Monotype® currently allows me to filter for fonts with "Numerical alternates", but I don't care about just any numerical alternates if they don't specifically include tabular old style figures, roman and italic; at the same time, it would be absurd to expect from the designers to provide information of this sort in the font description).

    When it comes to designers' descriptions, the added problem is that distributors often hide them at the very bottom of font pages and make them non-searchable (out of curiosity, I just tried pasting bits of your own fonts' descriptions into search boxes in some of the stores that sell them - and got 0 results).

    I'm also confident that things like language coverage should go into their own field and be accessible through filters (fortunately, this is exactly how it works in most major stores). Designer descriptions should be left for "fuzzy" sort of information (historical background, intended emotional impact, metaphorical characterizations etc.) that cannot be easily represented as processable data.

    Andreas, what you describe is very similar to my utopian (and thus probably useless) vision of a universal standard for a structured "font description language". Parts of it would overlap with what is already included in the OpenType specification (and thus could be automatically extractable from the font files themselves), parts would supply additional information of the sort used by good font distributors to classify their wares. Arbitrary details like "one-story g" or "teardrop terminals" (or just about anything mentioned in the "text face wish list" thread) could also be specified. For any given font, various providers (either foundries, vendors or even enterprising volunteers) could publish XML or JSON files containing its description. These in turn could be scraped and processed by any number of external services, including an uber-powerful search engine for hopeless obsessives such as myself. This is similar to Justin's idea, but relies on an additional layer of standardized ontology.
  • I would 100% be willing to pay an affiliate fee for referrals, pending reasonable logistics and fees.  I wonder how many foundries would be willing. @Stephen Coles
  • As a complete outsider -- an anonymous font lover with no money or reputation at stake -- I've found the following strategy useful. One, check regularly the News section on Typecache. It's got an in-crowd, kewl-kidz vibe about it that makes me laugh, but whatever. A good place for news. Two, check the 'What's New' tab on MyFo, about every three weeks or so. Sadly, MyFo has turned into CreativeMarket for the Walmart set, so most of their new stuff or abhorrent garbage. Still, now and then you find something good looking or well made. Again, speaking as a total outsider. Caveat lector.  
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,946
    edited June 2022
    At the front end:

    Fontlab has had a number of standard character/glyph sets for a while, listed as “Default Encoding”. But I must admit, although I may start a typeface with one of these, I usually feel inspired, in the course of building the fonts, to add or subtract characters and features.

    Similarly, Unicode formats (code sheets) don’t correspond with languages, so they make poor standards too.

    My “Latin Extended” has only recently added Vietnamese; such terms do tend to be foundry-specific.

    I have made a couple of typefaces to the WGL4 standard, but it lacks alternate figures and small caps.

    Perhaps Fontlab, Glyphs etc. could get together and hash out a format system—x.x.x— for characters and features. (It would not include style, of course, which is a horse of a different colour.)
  • This is a great discussion topic, I have been thinking about this for long years now.
    But there are also many separate aspects to consider, maybe.

    I agree with @Stephen Coles that his Fonts In Use project is great and I am also a big follower of Identifont since its beginning.

    To start with a single aspect, I think one of the first problems which arise with the wide assortment of products available now, even before the difficulties to find a typeface according to functions/characteristics, is an objective (at least to the point it’s possible) evaluation of actual quality of the products.
    This was difficult before but at least MyFonts old engine allowed search parameters and functions that helped a lot. After they removed it in favor of the actual one (which I find useless, ad-cluttered and time-consuming) you fully realize how this aspect is important.
  • Your requirements are very interesting. They are expert level requirements. As the vast majority of distributors focus on beginner and intermediate levels, there is no tool for this type of search.
    It is a problem for which someone should create the solution, and possibly benefit from it, for example creating a reseller page just focused on the niche of expert buyers, not mainstream but serious sales. Time to create it... someone
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