Pros and Cons of free fonts



  • As someone who has been involved in the fashion industry, I don’t think it’s top down or bottom up. Fashion is usually dictated by the streets, then filtered through a designer at the larger, more established, fashion houses, then, many steps later, released to the public (back to the streets). The styles are then copied by everybody and produced at every level until they are no longer desirable. I’d say fashion design is far more evenly paired with graphic design.

    I’d compare the type industry not to the fashion industry but to the bespoke tailors and couture dressmakers. Both are very small and are very much skill based. The output isn’t enormous (compared to the fashion industry), but it does have influence in that world.
  • James - they way you describe the fashion industry, is archetypal 'bottom up' :) Taste making comes initially (usually) from the streets, from non-designers, goes up to designers, and needs to go further up to reach corporate decision making, etc. That's exactly what is known as 'bottom up'. It's not a science tho, & there are exceptions :)
    I am not suggesting type is comparable to fashion, but i wonder if in these times of change, type designers and foundries can learn from the fashion industry and the way fashion designers react a little more to the 'bottom' than the 'top', but you are right type designers could also learn from the way high end tailors pursue their craft.
  • Sorry, I misread your original post and thought you were saying fashion was top down.

    I think type designers do react to the “bottom”. The difference is that, unlike most fashion, type designers cater to a specialized market.

    Having spent three years as a tailor’s apprentice, I do think both fields (which are extremely small and everyone knows everyone else), operate in a very similar way in that they try (at least the good ones), to produce the best possible product they can and try to support themselves through their craft.
  • Jan SchmoegerJan Schmoeger Posts: 280
    edited September 2012
    I would hazard a guess that type design nowadays is much more broadly based than ever before. Just look at the huge number of new typefaces being released by small foundries. How does that imply anything like "top down"?
  • I'm curious about the production process used at Adobe Type group in the time @Butterick mentioned (early 90s) - I believe it was done on SUN workstations running privately developed software, whereas everyone else was either using Fontographer on Macs, Ikarus (on some other workstation -- VMS?) or their own inhouse stuff.

    Dave, I expect David to answer in more detail (and maybe it should be another thread), but you are correct. When I started in 1997, it was still the old proprietary process, but luckily I just caught the tail end of it, after which we largely moved to Fontographer (and then FontLab).

    The old SunOS workflow still has some appeal, in the same way that UNIX and terminals are still good for some things. It was pretty brutal in other ways, though, and probably caused a lot of RSIs.
  • If only Apple had licensed Solaris and moved to SVR4!
  • @Christopher, its interesting to me that in the 90s (which I believe is as @Butterick described) other people tried to achieve the same quality of output as the Adobe Type group, but using quite different software. I wonder if in these days of emulation and computer archeology, if that old stuff might ever see the light of day? :-) I know Adam Twardoch posted some excellent screencasts of many old editors (maybe on Vimeo) and I would love to see them in action, if only in a screencast :-D

    @Butterick, I wonder if you could describe the software workflows of those who tried to reach Adobe Type's level quality at that time - what was yours was like? :-)
  • In reading up on the MakerBot shenanigans going on, I found quite interesting, and I think can be related to my earlier comments about making the FDK libre :-)
  • Matthew ButterickMatthew Butterick Posts: 143
    edited September 2012
    I wonder if you could describe the software workflows of those who tried to reach Adobe Type's level quality at that time - what was yours was like?
    I can't indulge your premise that the quality of the tools determine the quality of the results. They don't. They determine the efficiency with which certain results can be achieved.

    The big shift in the early ’90s was that Adobe opened the Type 1 spec, Type 1 was incorporated into Fontographer, and suddenly you didn't need a Sun workstation to make the Type 1 fonts that previously only Adobe and its licensees could make. The other great leap forward of the past 20 years has been the Pythonization of type tools.

    Type designers in the early '90s achieved quality the same way they did before, and have since — work hard, subject your work to the scrutiny of better designers, then try again. And complaints about the quality of the tools were viewed as they've always been — as the refuge of the poor workman.

    With regard to type quality, the licensing status of the Adobe FDK is the least of Google's problems.
  • Göran SöderströmGöran Söderström Posts: 117
    edited September 2012
    Erased. There’s no point having this discussion.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,144
    I used Fontographer from 1993 to 2004.
    As far as I was concerned, the only Adobe-ish quality that could not be achieved with it was Multiple Masters.
    I could make Multiple Master fonts with Fontographer, and they worked OK on my LaserWriter, but not at the service bureau.
    So I submitted Beaufort, which was conceived as a MM typeface, to Adobe, who declined to publish it; perhaps because they were about to drop the format.
    But it went on to become one of my most profitable designs.

    I switched from Fontographer to FontLab because of OpenType.
  • The videos I mentioned are at
  • @vadams

    I think the parallel between free fonts and free waffles is highly interesting

    I would think so too, if the waffles were tasting equally good.

    I don’t think anyone has anything against free fonts, that is not what this discussion is about. The discussion is about quality and why in the world a company like Adobe want collaborate with Google in this area, when they have (or at least had) such different standards.

    Btw, did your fonts go into the Adobe Edge librabry, or did they leave out some?
  • PabloImpallariPabloImpallari Posts: 777
    edited September 2012
    Week after week, new fonts are added to Google Web Fonts, while the existing fonts don't get any better
    Hi Matthew, many existing fonts are also improved (things like manual hinting, bugfixes, ikerning, language extensions, more weights added, smaller file-size, glyphs redesigned, etc...) They don't get much publicity (only via googlefonts's twitter) but they are improved.
  • […]many existing fonts are also improved (things like manual hinting, bugfixes, ikerning, language extensions, more weights added, smaller file-size, glyphs redesigned, etc...) They don't get much publicity (only via googlefonts's twitter) but they are improved.
    Hey Pablo,

    I think Matthew might be talking about the fact that Google doesn't encourage or engage type designers to improve existing typefaces—whether other people's or their own. They're not really building a community. Right now they're just dumping fonts over a wall and telling people they can use them for free.

    Perhaps that will change with typeface designers contributing to Source Sans Pro, and collaboration between Google and Adobe. Who knows, maybe Droid and Roboto will also become actual FOSS projects instead of just being FOSS zip files. ;)
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,391
    edited September 2012
    @nirbeek What would that encouragement/engagement ideally look like to you? :-)

    @Butterick, "that previously only Adobe and its licensees could make" - do you recall who the licensees were? :)

    @nickster Thanks for describing what it was like in the olden days :)
  • nirbheeknirbheek Posts: 2
    edited September 2012
    @davelab6, I wouldn't expect typeface designers to make a sizeable contribution (say, a language extension) without compensation. From what I know of how the type ecosystem works right now, I think that's a reasonable expectation.

    Unlike with programming, I don't know if it's even possible to have that kind of ecosystem in typeface design. For one, the added component of art direction in typeface design makes a large difference.

    So, right now, in my opinion, the best thing Google could do is to add the typeface equivalent of "bug bounties". $1000 to add old-style numerals to a specific font (selected either by Google or by users, or some other criteria). $5000 to add small caps for the same font, etc.

    I'm sure there are better ways, and I'd be very interested to hear about them. :-)
  • vernon adamsvernon adams Posts: 82
    edited September 2012
    I only had a brief look at the fonts they are using. A few are not included, which is good; style overlap, unpopularity, quality etc. Tbh I have no real curiosity in which companies work together like this, and i have no 'brand loyalty' to any large corporations. But i'd say that people working together, on any level, in general, is a good thing. Am i right?

    I hope that Adobe's trip into this area, does become a good thing for web users. Very clearly Adobe are in the best position to improve and raise 'quality' on top of what they see as a popular working foundation. I also hope that quality levels are improved across all aspects too; not just the quality of free fonts themselves, but also the quality of the users freedom to use fonts across the web, and better accessibility to help designers create better fonts too.

    As a designer whose works are right now being used in their Edge product, i feel that perhaps Adobe could have liased just a teeny bit with the designers of the works they are including. After all, my work remit from the GWF project has been very specific, which i'm sure is not the same remit that the Edge service has. Adobe could have ironed a few things out, for the sake of quality standards, pre-launch.
  • @nirbheek the type ecosystem right now is 'interesting' i would say :) as are other ecosystems. Actually other designers have extended several of my projects to include Cyrillic and Greek support. I didn't ask for the extra charsets, the designers provided their input wholly voluntarily, but i definitely appreciate their interest and input. However i agree with you, and e.g. if i was planning to specifically extend a project to support non-latin scripts i would certainly pay designers to do that work for me. Rather than offering bug bounties though it would probably simply be better to employ a designer whose work you know and can be given a specific brief for targeting improvements.
  • But i'd say that people working together, on any level, in general, is a good thing. Am i right?
    I dunno. It sounds good, anyhow. It's true that firms like H&FJ and Adobe demonstrate that teams of designers can produce high quality type families with cohesive, distinctive personalities. And for comprehensive multi-script systems that include both Latin/Cyrillic/Greek and CJKV, collaboration is pretty much a necessity.

    On the other hand, the reason the Times Roman family's so riddled with inconsistencies and lacking in soul is that it was drawn piecemeal by by an ever-changing army of draughtsmen over a period of years. Same thing with Helvetica before the Neue reformation. Good type has personality and spirit. To get that, the design really has to be driven by an individual, maybe two, who can infuse the work of many hands with his or her own personality, spirit, and sense of style. I wouldn't want to use a crowdsourced typeface any more than I'd want to read a crowdsourced novel.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,144
    I don’t expect that a multi-authored font would be like a single-studio font.
    (Multi-authoring isn’t the same as crowdsourcing).
    Ideally, a multi-authored, collaborative font would have emergent qualities resulting from a creative methodology applied to the new media design process.
    Some kind of live, automated, interactive interface is required.
    Perhaps the font would end up looking like Averia.
  • @ vadams
    'I can categorically say that in the presentation i gave i did not suggest anything like "that because open source fonts are useful, that justifies creating open source designs that are similar to popular faces whose owners don't want to open source them".'

    Then I guess I misunderstood. It seemed to me that you were using the "freeness" of designs that drew on characteristics of classics as a reason for making them. Perhaps if you'd focused more on what was innovative about those designs it would've been clearer. Personally, I'd like to see free fonts stay as clear as possible from what could considered derivative design. It seems more in keeping with the point of "libre" to offer something more seriously new. Of course doing "seriously new" and "great design" at the same time is really hard, and doesn't happen all that often regardless of the economic model.

    I still suspect that there's potential for making a good case for more widespread development of free fonts, and was disappointed that I felt your talk didn't do it. I was hoping to chat in person after seeing your talk, but I didn't find you later.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,391
    edited September 2012
    @nirbeek A libre type design marketplace is a neat idea, although how to do that within the OFL RFN model isn't so clear to me :)

    @typenerd, I'm excited to hear what you think that good widespread case looks like! Will you be at ATypI? :)

    BTW @vadams did post an essay version of that presentation on his blog,
  • vernon adamsvernon adams Posts: 82
    edited September 2012
    Misunderstanding accepted. It was my first ever presentation and so, not the greatest :) There was so much i could have talked about in this area, so it had to be a quick tour, but with points of interest to make it not just a fifteen minute blur. Also, to be honest, my interest was speaking to the diverse students etc attending (people who have grown up in the digital, everything is a copy, world) and not necessarilly directly to the smaller group from the type milieu. In fact i had some very interesting and fruitful understandings from students and young developers, so i was very happy with that aspect of the experience.

    I agree with what you say about derivative design, but i also find it an interesting area of design too. We can usually appreciate true originality, but often we simply need a functional tool, and style is also now a function. It's the world we live in. These are arguments that happened in music decades ago, and i would say that the freedom of musicians to use forms of what were considered 'copying' in their own work, is now, more or less, taken for granted. Type designers aren't alien to some of these concepts either, albeit under the flags of 'studying the classics', 'revivals', 'digitization', 'utilizing public domain designs' etc.
    "I still suspect that there's potential for making a good case for more widespread development of free fonts, and was disappointed that I felt your talk didn't do it."
    I'm not so interested in making a case for that. Individuals and 'free software folk' will carry on making free fonts irrespective of what cases are made, for, or against. 'The case for widespread development' that i think you are talking about is something more likely to happen / or not happen much higher up, in corporations. When social & market trends start to appear on corporate radars, they naturally move to respond if they see benefit on that radar too. Of course it all depends on who the decision makers are, and how decisions get carried out.

    Mozilla unveiled the latest design specs of their new OS earlier this week. Part of that OS is a new 'open source' font family, 'TelMoz' from Erik Speikermann's studio. Yet another major foundry is to release a major 'free font'. Who'd have thought it? Personally, as a lowly designer, i find 'TelMoz' highly inspiring, in a way that Source Sans, and certainly Ubuntu Font, didn't really do for me. I reckon that type designers should stop listening to the downers, and grim reapers, such as @Butterick ;) pull their socks up, and look at what Spiekermann has just done. 'TelMoz' is a real gauntlet that has been thrown at you. That is what you need to pay attention to, not people whining on the internet about 'aargh free fonts'!! And if you ever reach the standard of 'TelMoz', then you've earned the right to criticise other peoples standards.
  • Can someone please explain what's good about open source font development? The rationale for open source software in general is clear: it lets communities build alternatives to commercial apps and OSs free from commercial constraints. So if you don't like Windows or OSX, as many don't, you can pitch in and help make something you like better. And we know this model can work, because we can point to successful examples like Linux.

    But while the market doesn't provide much of a choice in, say, OSs, it provides a mind-numbingly broad and rich range of choices in typefaces, many of which are clearly not driven by commercial considerations. And the quality of the best of these typefaces has never been higher.

    So what problem does open source development solve? And does it even work particularly well? Well-made families like Source and Ubuntu may have libre licenses, but they were developed the old-fashioned way. Can anyone point to a successful example of genuinely open-source typeface design, where a group of designers with no single director produced, expanded, or upgraded a face or family and came up with something first-rate? vadams, can you provide a link for TelMoz, for instance? And was TelMoz an actual example of open-source design, or a traditional project with an open source license?

  • @maxphillips. It's complex. And really hard to pin down, because people work for different remits, for different reasons, for different motivations, etc. i tend to be a classicist (well i try to be) and veer towards Richard Stallman's definitions of what is 'free' and what is 'not free'. 'Open source' is a term for development that happens in particular ways, where the source of the software is 'free' (though not necessarilly 'free' in Stallman's view of 'free')
    You are correct to flag up the idea that maybe these 'open source' fonts are not really genuinely 'open source'. @Butterick has attempted that argument a few times, but to convince anyone serious is a pointless pursuit, because in the real world 'open source' can be done in many ways. Generally though it seems like the 'name' designers who have made 'open source' fonts, choose a route where they get their work in order first, before releasing the fonts and source files to the public. I can understand why they do that, they have professional reputations to consider and would choke at the idea of releasing 'work in progress'. Also they must be used to flowing design work in that way, and they likely have very good resources to carry on a project under those circumstances. Someone like me however, finds it better to work from the very first sketches or glyphs 'in the open', via github, blogs etc. I dont have the resources to employ other designers and myself to concentrate on sole projects for long periods, so i have to be much more pragmatic. Releasing early and often helps me compensate, by giving me constant early user feedback, real world testing, and collaborators. If any wants wants to throw a nice budget at me to develop for a whole, long term project, we can see what the difference is between developing in the open with few resources, to developing in the traditional way ;)

    Public 'telmoz' previews at
  • Thanks for the link to TelMoz, Vernon. But this is simply a commissioned variant of good old Meta. Mozilla says so explicitly on their blog. There's no sign that it was developed in any new or open way. How is this a gauntlet thrown down to the rest of us, as you say above? (And why, by the way, must our work be this good before we've "earned the right to criticise other peoples standards"?)

    Also, thanks—and I mean this sincerely—for not pretending to have a clear-cut answer to my questions. I do think, though, that you should be able to make a more clear-cut case before you wag your finger at those of us who aren't using Github to produce free stuff for the cloud, or who are uneasy at the idea of huge corporations releasing thousands of free webfonts into an already challenging market. We are, you tell us, downers, grim reapers, and whiners. We should pull up our socks. We should embrace the new paradigm, which is powerful and exciting and good, although no one seems able to say why. We should adopt a new business model, although nobody seems able to say what that might be, and although there's a strong possibility that it will turn out to be doing piecework for Google and Adobe at rates set by Google and Adobe.

    I don't think most people here object on principle to free fonts (Lord knows we all seem to admire Source), or to new ways of working. But type design is already a brutally difficult way to make a living, and it's hard to see how current trends will do anything but worsen that situation. What, specifically, do you think type designers should be doing to positively engage these new developments? How are we supposed to eat? You seem to be in the thick of this—how, if you don't mind my asking, are you yourself managing to eat?
  • Max, yes TelMoz is a derivation from Meta to a new UI face. Mozilla have being using Meta for a while now for their branding. Is that bad that it derives from Meta? I thought that was a smart job - using Meta to provide a good backbone for the new UI family. Maybe i'm off an that though ;)

    Not wagging my finger (or anything else!) at anyone, but i do think there seems to be a tendency (from a few) to be allways on the negative, and just out to diss other designers just a bit too much, and a little bit too personally. "Can't we all just get along?" ps I dont think anyone can have clearcut answers to much of this, to be honest.

    As for making a living, well it's never smooth sailing, all the time, in any creative profession, is it? I make a living (so far!) by creating fonts aimed at that whole new area of blogging and cms platforms and the theming services that provide them. It's interesting to understand that in a fairly short time, the way the web is put together every day, has mostly moved away from the old fashioned 'web designers' or d-i-y web pages, and into ready built (but customizeable) platforms, frameworks and themes. An integral part of those services of course is type, aka webfonts, which the service providers need to be free/Libre. Libre webfonts actually add major value to these services, which is why libre webfonts are a good investment for anyone who makes money from the web.
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