Sebastian Brink from JustType.de interviewed me about Kernest.com. I took the opportunity to spell out some of the principles guiding Kernest’s ongoing development.
I’m taking the liberty of re-posting this here for archival purposes.
What is Kernest? What do you do?
Kernest is an font directory and web font serving engine. The web font serving portion is powered by the open-source Fontue web font server.
When did you begin to work on it?
I wrote Kernest’s founding document: ‘A Proposal to Create the YouTube of Typefaces’ in March of 2008. Then, after a summer of conversations with type designers and web designers, I mapped out how I wanted it to work and started building toward a mid-July 2009 launch.
How many sites are using Kernest right now?
Kernest serves thousands of fonts each day. Designers can also download fonts from Kernest to host themselves. The @font-your-face Drupal module also provides easy access to the fonts within the Kernest via Kernest’s API.
How many font families are currently available?
As of July 2010, Kernest offers more than 1200 individual fonts across more than 230 families.
What part of Kernest’s development have you found to be the most problematical?
One of the biggest opportunities I see is making it easier to find the right font. This problem isn’t unique to fonts on the web. It’s not even unique to fonts. Finding the right photo, color, layout in a world where there are thousands of good options is a challenge.
Are you working together with type foundries or font designers to provide their fonts via Kernest?
Absolutely. Chank Diesel has been a huge supporter Kernest.
I’m always open to working with designers and foundries to make their web fonts available, whether through Kernest or working with them to set up their own web font server. Earlier this year, I open sourced Fontue, the font serving engine powering Kernest.com, under the X11/MIT license in an effort to make it easier for companies, foundries, and designers to set up their own web font servers.
How do you protect them from piracy of their fonts?
Traditionally, foundries and font designers wrote up their own, distinct license on how their work could and could not be used. More often than not, those licenses explicitly excluded web use and redistribution. Kernest currently recognizes 63 font licenses ( http://kernest.com/licenses ), of those, 5 (OFL, GPL, X11, Creative Commons Attribution, Apache) are preferred. These 5 licenses — and a few others — allow designers and developers to maintain freedoms — redistribution, modification, unrestricted use — that may be considered ‘piracy’ in other licenses.
My conversations with font designers have confirmed that obscurity is more of a concern for their work than ‘piracy’. For some more writings on the obscurity vs. piracy issue, I highly recommend:
Lastly, from a technical stand point, Kernest and Fontue are architected to conserve bandwidth by only serving fonts to web browsers supporting @font-face.
Do you think “free” fonts often lack in quality compared to retail fonts?
Every font has a range of appropriate use. For some fonts – like a humanist sans serif — this range is wider. For other fonts — like Chank’s recently released CoCo Flowerfont — that range is narrower.
The benefit of openly licensed fonts (vs. simply free fonts) is that designers have the freedom to modify a font to make it more appropriate to their project. These modifications could be tweaking existing glyphs to better match a design, creating new glyphs, or adding a new weight or style to the family.
For more on this, I highly recommend listening to my podcasts with David Crossland and Ben Weiner:
Not every font works that well on the screen. How do you decide which fonts to include into the library?
It’s very simple.
I read the font’s license to confirm that it supports web use and redistribution (and hopefully commercial use). Ideally, the license is one of the 5 preferred licenses I mentioned earlier.
After that — I imagine if a web page set in that font would make me smile. If so, I run it through Kernest’s font optimization engine and add it to Kernest.com
Many of these fonts, I’ve characterized as ‘web native’ — meaning they have letter forms with large x-heights and open counters and are openly licensed. More on Web Native fonts in Kernest — ‘Web Fonts – Identifying a New Species’ and Kernest’s ‘Web Native’ style tag
Some webfonts have a much smaller x-height compared to usually used fonts like Arial. If you define the font-size based on the webfont this will result in a much larger font rendering if the fallback font from the stack is used. In this example the x-height of the Rabiohead font is much smaller compared to Arial and it’s barely readable. I noticed that this is not the case with the fonts I tried from Kern?est?.com, Titillium in the example. Are you doing anything to equal the x-height of the fonts?
Currently, Kernest doesn’t modify the letterforms of the fonts. Though, fonts with thin serifs, small x-heights, or high stroke contrasts may not be consistently readable onscreen, it may be the appropriate choice for the overall design. If the fallback is used — that most likely means the browser don’t support a number of web technologies that will impact how a website is presented — not just the @font-face declaration.
I encourage designers to design the most appropriate experience for all of a site’s visitors. Sometimes that means designing very different experiences for different browsers and devices; increasing button sizes for touch inputs, different layouts, and specifying different fonts.
What else are you doing to improve the font rendering? Specifically about the font rendering issues in different browsers?
The bulk of the rendering issues across browsers are at the operating system level. The browser can only render fonts as well as the underlying OS can. Some browsers still don’t support @font-face (Android, Kindle — just to name 2). Devices with web browsers are getting increasingly diverse, from my perspective — good web design provides the most appropriate presentation for a given devices capabilities. Some devices support more appropriate fonts, other don’t.
Some developers are concerned about the reliability of font services. What will happen if your service goes down? What’s your response to this?
As I mentioned earlier, designers and developers can download fonts from Kernest to host on their own servers.
What about the future of Kernest? If an embeddable font format like WOFF will become a standard on all browsers do we still benefit from using Kernest?
Kernest has served WOFF files to Firefox for quite some time now (since October 2009) and cross-browser font format compatibility is just one of the conveniences Kernest provides. There are a number of ongoing projects related to Kernest in the works. There’s still lots of work to do in web fonts.
Now that designers can use custom fonts on websites, what will be the next step to sophisticated typography?
I foresee the development of web-native typographic styles.