Web Fonts – Identifying a New Species

“…the design of typefaces had existed for centuries as an exclusive discipline reserved for specialists, who had access to proprietary tools. Today the personal computer provides the opportunity to create custom type designs with an increased potential for personalization and expression…Our design of custom fonts for Emigre magazine grew out of our need for unique and more effective fonts…” – Zuzana Licko, Emigre Fonts, 2000.

Emigre Fonts was the first type foundry to embrace and exploit an inflection point in graphic design technology – Apple’s Macintosh and the laser printer.

Unlike Helvetica, Courier, Times New Roman, Emigre’s early fonts: Modula, Matrix, Citizen, and Triplex didn’t start as wood cut, hot-metal, or typewriter type. Emigre’s fonts are native to the digital world. And Emigres’ chunky, angular, low stroke contrast fonts defined the high-concept design aesthetic of the early 1990s.

Today, we’re at a similar inflection point of graphic design technology – @font-face adoption by all the major web browsers. Just as the introduction of the Macintosh brought with it Emigre’s digitally native fonts – the Web will bring forth a new species of fonts. Web native fonts.

At its core – the Web is about openness and speed of communication. Web Native fonts will have these 2 attributes visible in their letterforms and their licensing.

Web Native Letterforms
Openness in letterforms means larger x-heights with open counters and more visually comfortable at wider letter-spacings. Additionally, screen resolutions are still lower resolution than paper so, the thin and thick parts of the letterforms in web native fonts should be close.

These 4 factors increase the scannability of on-screen text decreasing the overall communication time.

Web Native Licensing
A web native font is licensed to support redistribution, reproduction, derivative works, and attribution within commercial or non-commercial use. The OpenFontLibrary recognizes 3 licenses with these characteristics; MIT, GPLv3 + Font-Exception, and Open Font License.

The MIT and GPL are well understood throughout the web, and many popular, successful (both commercially and non-commercially) projects are protected under those licenses. Three projects that come to mind immediately; Ruby on Rails (MIT), Drupal (GPL), WordPress (GPL), Linux (GPL).

The high profile nature of these projects and the eco-system of smaller, complementary projects similarly licensed means web designers and developers quickly know a font’s intended uses.

Additionally, like all software development – font design is a collaborative, iterative effort. Overtime, individual characters, weights, and styles may be added and revised by font designers with a specific need. Incorporating those modification into the original font or releasing them as a separate project – increases the value of the font in both the web and type communities. The Open Baskerville project is an example of this open, collaborative font design.

Who’s designing and releasing Web Native fonts today?
The League of Moveable Type comes to mind immediately. I’ve also started a Web Native font tag at Kernest, feel free to apply it as you find fonts fitting these criteria.

What characteristics of Web Native fonts have I overlooked?