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?

4 thoughts on “Web Fonts – Identifying a New Species

  1. Type design is actually almost always a completely solitary venture. Individual type designers are the ones that produce. Your Open Baskerville example hasn’t shipped anything.

    “Open-source fonts,” like “open-source literature,” is a concept that makes little or no sense.

  2. Although Joe and I disagree on a large number of things, I have to concur that type design is almost always a solitary pursuit, as far as the actual design. As has been discussed to death on Typophile, it is not actually well suited to the scale of collaboration involved in most software development.

    Almost all the open source typefaces I’ve seen that were good (and there are a number of them) were the product of a single lead designer, though they may have had help.

    That’s not to say you can’t have a group of people involved in the design and production, when there is still a single person with primary design responsibility. But in traditional typeface design, in cases where a team is involved, there’s usually one designer “in charge” of the glyph outlines (e.g. the typical Adobe approach).

    I’m not actually arguing it’s impossible to do good, highly collaborative type design as a group project (although I was initially skeptical of this idea). But the statement that “like all software development – font design is a collaborative, iterative effort” is simply not true of most “font design” out there. Not even very much of it at all.

    I’m just commenting on the “collaborative” part. Now, “iterative,” that couldn’t be more true. 🙂



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