JustType.de’s Kernest.com Interview With Garrick

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.