the world needs more fonts, honestly

24 June 2017, 18:30

‘Can you name one problem which type design (not engineering) solved and which is not predominantly aesthetic?’ Now that caught my attention on twitter. It appeared in a thread that started off with some saucy quotes: ‘the problems have already been solved’ and ‘the function of new typefaces is largely aesthetic.’

It piqued my interest because I have worked on the interaction design of a couple of font design applications. Besides that I have spent a lot of time investigating the general nature of design.

making a splash

So I jumped in and joined the twitter discussion. After a false start (oh, the joys of social media) the heart of the matter came to light: ‘It is about problems that typefaces solve, not about the problems of typeface design practice, i.e. the categories of reasons why to draw.’ So I addressed it there, have been thinking about it quite a bit more since then, and now I am going to address it better.

Let’s start with a smooth aikido move to get this discussion positioned where it belongs. When a font is to be used by many (i.e. more than 100) people, then it is a product. The type designer is the product designer; the design process is the act of product realisation. The process starts with a product definition; methodical research and design follows. Eventually a set of design drawings is created, to be engineered into shippable fonts.

This insight rebases the discussion. It is a product issue, not a design issue. Asking what problems type design can solve today, is asking: are there any product definitions left that aim to bring useful, valuable font solutions to users?

Well, allow me to make some suggestions.

think big, really big

If you write using Latin script, then it seems that you have 100.000 fonts to choose from. If you write in another script, you are suddenly scraping the barrel; 100 usable fonts is then super luxurious. Does this impact just some tiny minorities? Well, here is a handy list: writing scripts sorted by usage. If I skip Latin and add up the populations that actively use the next ten scripts, then I end up with 3.41 billion people.

The ten scripts are: Chinese, Arabic, Devanagari, Bengali‐Assamese, Cyrillic, Kana, Javanese, Hangul, Telugu and Tamil. Right after these on the list there is a group of six modestly used scripts (Gujarati, Kannada, Burmese, Malayalam, Thai and Sundanese) that nonetheless serve another 205 million people.

Here is my suggestion: Want to do something useful? Pick a popular Latin font (family), say from the top‐1000 in use, and pick one of the big‑10/modest‑6 scripts listed above. Your product definition is to design a font in that script that goes together seamlessly with the Latin font. That does not mean that your new font has to play second fiddle to the Latin one; just that they get along famously.

I can tell you from experience that it is very rewarding to design something this relevant; with the knowledge that tens, if not hundreds, of million of people are waiting out there for the results. Of the 3.615 billion people mentioned above, a good chunk owns a smartphone or will own one soon—you cannot stop commodity Android. It’s their access to the internet. They inform and express themselves using text. They need fonts.

fit for purpose

Read a book on typography and one discovers that non‐philistine typesetting starts with using proper numbers (oldstyle vs. lining, &c.), small caps, and so on. Now check 10 random fonts on the device you use to read this post. Do they contain a full set of numbers and small caps? It is going to be hit and miss. Personally, I am still waiting for oldstyle numbers for my favourite Swiss sans.

While typesetting got more efficient (hot lead, to photo, to digital), typography support got thrown overboard. Today, typography is banned to the graveyard called OpenType features. Yes I know, OT features UI is a world of hurt, but someday someone is going to do something about it (if that is you, ping me). Meanwhile, it is 2017 and fonts that just support the skimpiest of Latin glyph set feel very ‘ms‑dos’ to me; primitive, with a touch of nostalgia, but surely past due date.

So my second suggestion is to start doubling down on OpenType features. Go through the top‐1000 list of fonts and start extending them to make them useful, and valuable, for typographers. I realise there are some barriers of entry, like intellectual property and access to source files (so that they can be extended). Maybe you can pitch the company that owns them and get the gig. A straightforward case is open source fonts, you can get started right now.

fit for authors

Bold and italic are not just a good idea, they are (by default) the way to express certain conventions in text, e.g. emphasis, or denote publication titles. The defaults of html & css are an example of how enshrined this is. A week ago I was trying to select some typefaces for a new website, and it was an uphill struggle, littered with missing italic and/or bold font variants.

My third suggestion: there are plenty of holes in the top‐1000 fonts where it comes to bold and italics. Your product definition is to fill some of these, where you think it matters most. Designing a bold for someone else’s regular can be a drag. But italics can be worthwhile design work, because they start with a clean sheet and a different skeleton than the regulars. I suspect the amount of true‐design work involved is the reason italics got skipped in the first place.

Speaking of, here is a bonus product definition: real italics to be used seamlessly with that famous Swiss sans—to replace them obliques. Again a clean‐sheet project which solves a typographer’s problem. And an ambitious, high‐profile one too. You can call it Helvetalics, if you like.

fit for a new medium

Last year I was involved in an internet‐of‐things project. After a methodical start, it became immediately clear that for our combination of display (size, resolution), use (viewing distance, information density) and goals (not end up being cheap junk slapped together by engineers) we needed a font to make it work. Yes work; life or death.

New media to display text, with new properties—and new contexts for old ones—pop up regularly. These events naturally trigger product definitions for fonts to make new media work.

aesthetics, schm’sthetics

In this blog post I have not gone into aesthetics, because I didn’t need to. All I have done is look beyond the glyph shapes and spot ocean‐sized holes in the font product landscape. Just following up on my first suggestion will keep the global type designing community busy for decades with work that is 100% non‐frivolous. Suddenly today’s ‘glut’ of type designers looks like it could use some serious reinforcement troops.

A business coach once told me: ‘this design work you do is political, isn’t it?’ She meant that my design clearly impacts society and that my design decision make the world better, or worse. That starts with the decision ‘what project do I work on?’

If you get to decide the product definitions at your font shack, then your work is political.
  • Your choice of scripts is political; how many of 3.615+ billion people are you gonna throw under the bus?
  • Your choice of OT features is political; a font for typographers, or only for simple business administration?
  • Your choice of including a bold and italic is political; is your font going to be a drop‐in solution for those who just want to communicate?
  • Your choice of targeting new display media is political; are you going to leave their new users out in the cold?

If you scour the font landscape, looking for pockets of user‐felt hurt (‘what, XYZ simply doesn’t exist?’) and then do something about it by creating, or updating, a font product, then your work is political, useful and valuable. And I salute you.

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5 comments · post a comment

at 24 June, 2017 19:45,Anonymous Boudewijn commented
Well, the Javanese script isn't in real use anymore -- but apart from that, one really big problem is that it is _really_ hard to design a font for a script you're not intimately familiar with. It's weird to me, because I learn scripts really easily, how hard it can be for people to understand that their attempts at scripts they cannot read fluently are fatally flawed. 
at 26 June, 2017 12:03,Anonymous Jens Kutilek commented
Will adding new Italics to Helvetica make it a better typeface? Will it make it more successful? Even if your answer to any of these questions is yes, where is the financial incentive for the rights holders to undertake such a project? I think there is none, so it won’t happen. 
at 28 June, 2017 19:43,Blogger Unknown commented
hey Boudewijn, thanks for commenting. I cannot argue with you about the Javanese, but it is ‘only’ 80 million people (vis the scale of this problem). I do not underestimate how tough it is to get started designing for an non-native script. but it is ‘only’ starting to design in a new sub-domain. there are patterns for dealing with that (knowing one knows nothing, a ton of research, studying with the masters). in general designers always have to know (after research) how things can be made to work, and have to learn something new on every job (else it is not design, it is Fröbelen). —ps 
at 28 June, 2017 19:51,Blogger Unknown commented
Hey Jens, thanks for commenting. better typeface? successful? why do it? well, there are people with a ‘nose’ for good products and those should take these decisions at the font shack. they know, it is their schtick. I think the Helvetica rights holders do not need to be involved. any font shack can launch this product (just check with a lawyer in how much the mentioning of the phrases ‘helvetica’, ‘helve’, etc. have to be avoided—word of mouth and the press will fill the blanks, no worries). 
at 01 July, 2017 12:26,Blogger n8 commented
Boudewijn, it is difficult to design for a new script, but I think "designing for a script you don't know" is framing it in the wrong terms. There is usable methodology; it is (bird's eye, obviously) "learn the script, then begin to deign." In contrast, the most egregious examples you see of terrible design tend to be limited to branding work, where someone Latinizes Arabic or so on, typically for a short contract job. It's far less common to see someone do work that shoddy for a real text typeface. So, learning new scripts and writing systems isn't something that can be done rapidly or frequently, if you want to understand the nuances of aesthetics and cultural expectations of readers and users. But it also isn't an impossibility. Most people tend to specialize in one or two at most — beyond that and there just isn't sufficient time for a normal human to devote. 

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