The font world has transformed in the past decade. Libre fonts, web fonts, subscriptions and globalization have changed how people get fonts, how type designers make money from fonts and who those type designers are. We argue about whether the fontocalypse is in progress—or isn’t coming at all.
Wait, what? Past decade? Yes, people like me, who work in fonts, worry about slow-motion apocalypses. Everything is slower in fonts. There are trends, just like in fashion—but font trends are in years rather than months.
In the early 2000s, the main source of free fonts, some libre but mostly otherwise (see sidebar on “free” versus “libre”), was dafont.com. But in 2010, Google launched Google Web Fonts, now known as Google Fonts, a curated library of libre font families, with clear license terms and an API, so you can use them as web fonts without hosting them yourself. Although the quality of the fonts was not as consistently high as some foundries’ offerings, Google at least had standards on the technical and aesthetic side as well as for licensing —unlike DaFont. Google also claimed quality could be improved over time. Although some, including me, were politely skeptical, it has proven truer than I expected—many of Google’s more popular fonts have been retrofitted and upgraded in recent years.
Equally importantly, in some cases, Google pays for new libre fonts, whether from a foundry—such as Open Sans, from Ascender, now part of Monotype—or an individual type designer. Although early on, the “bounties” Google paid for new fonts were sometimes decried as being inadequate, former critic Bruno Maag of Dalton Maag has said that Google “changed its attitude over paying appropriate fees to designers.” Sometimes, previously made fonts are “liberated,” or made open source, such as Literata and Cousine. And many new fonts have been commissioned by Google. The emphasis of Google’s commissions has varied over time. Three to five years ago, Google added a bunch of fonts for Devanagari script languages, which include Hindi and Marathi, such as Hind and Pragati Narrow. The most recent batch of commissions emphasizes variable fonts, whether variable extensions to existing families, such as Roboto and Merriwether, or new typefaces, such as my own team’s Science Gothic, which is undergoing final kerning as I write this.
You might think there would be no money in libre fonts, aside from Google’s commissions. But sometimes a company finds it has a need for a libre font that is new—or a new font that is libre, depending on how you look at it—and is also willing to pay for the design work, whether from its own in-house designers or outside designers. Examples abound: Bold Monday created Plex for IBM; Adobe worked with Google to commission Chinese, Japanese and Korean open-source fonts, which then appeared as parts of both Google’s Noto and Adobe’s Source Sans projects; the Russian government commissioned ParaType to make PT Sans and PT Serif; and Canonical Ltd. commissioned Dalton Maag to create Ubuntu. If the typeface is well done and has an adequate character set, it is usually later made available through Google Fonts, as well as through GitHub and/or the organization that commissioned it.
Web fonts and subscription models
Some people on the management side of fonts, including me and David Lemon at Adobe, were throwing around the idea of a subscription model as far back as the late ’90s. Rather than selling licenses, we envisioned renting access to a library of fonts for a flat monthly or annual fee. But it took the rise of web fonts, in and after 2010, to really kick that into gear. Because web fonts benefit from being hosted by the central party rather than by the customer, the subscription model became common for web fonts, which has made subscriptions technically easier. This has gotten both customers and foundries used to the idea of “fonts as a service,” or what normal people would just call a subscription or rental model for fonts. Typekit, launched in 2009, now Adobe Fonts, rapidly became the dominant web font service. It cleverly pivoted from that position to also dominate font rental for desktop fonts, as an all-you-can-use service bundled with Adobe Creative Cloud.
Globalization has come to fonts. The simplest trend is that there tends to be more language support in even the average Latin font, English being just one of the languages written with the Latin writing system. Twenty years ago, the average free font had English and maybe enough accents for French and/or Spanish—if you were lucky. The average retail font had western European coverage, with about 200 to 230 glyphs, and it was mostly the system-font vendors who worried about offering more than that.
Within the following decade or so, some foundries, notably Adobe and Linotype, made it standard to support a basic set of Baltic, central and eastern European (CE) languages, such as Czech and Turkish, in their new fonts—another 80 glyphs per font. Today, that’s practically the minimum for professional Western fonts, whether they are new or retrofitted older designs. A quick look at Fontspring, for example, shows that around 80 to 90 percent of its Latin fonts have CE support. This character-set escalation seems to be continuing rather than reaching some obvious end point, with even-further-extended Latin—supporting languages such as Vietnamese, Malay and Yoruba—becoming the norm for many fonts, including Google’s more recent commissions.
What it all means
In addition to my own ideas and sources, for background research for this article, I conducted a quick survey of 73 type designers and other professionals working in the font industry. Has total spending on fonts been going up or down, or holding steady? What has been the impact of Google and Adobe in this? I combined the survey results with some interviews and my own observations and ultimately found that beliefs about the state of the business as a whole are surprisingly varied. There are not so much dominant views as averages—and, of course, perceptions may be mistaken.
Overall, there may be more total money being spent on fonts than a decade ago, but not necessarily more per type designer, and more likely less. There are many reasons for this. One is more overhead going to web font hosting services, something that didn’t even exist back in the ’00s. But the biggest reason is that many more people are making fonts today than ever before. Many of the type design degree programs started from 2000 to 2010 or so, and enrollment is booming. The Reading MA in typeface design is older, but it has more than doubled its class size over the years, according to program director Gerry Leonidas. Some programs, such as the one at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, started as certificate programs but became degree programs. And given the timelines involved, few of these graduates have retired yet.
And the people going into these programs are coming from all over the world. This is reflected in the bestseller lists too. Besides the usual large foundries, other purveyors currently in the MyFonts top 40 include designers and foundries from not only the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, but also Bulgaria—with the number one font, called Gilroy, created by Sofia-based Radomir Tinkov— Chile, Japan, Russia, Iceland, Spain, Poland, France and Italy. I also see rapid growth in countries such as India. Growth in type design, which I define to mean an increase in both the number and rate of new fonts being produced, seems to be led by people living in countries where a living wage equals less money. Growth in wealthier countries like the United States and Germany is a smaller percentage, maybe even shrinking a little.
The old, traditional retail font licensing might be growing, but not nearly so much as web fonts, and probably only if one includes desktop font rental in “retail.” Here, I concur with the most common belief that I hear from those in the type community: Google and libre fonts have overall likely decreased the revenue coming to designers and foundries—some fonts are commissioned, but the availability of tons of libre fonts also dampens sales. But I also think the libre impact has been relatively modest. I don’t pretend to know the impact of Adobe Fonts per se, but it too is a double-edged sword: a significant portion of industry revenue is flowing through Adobe, certainly a problem for many not under the Adobe Fonts umbrella, but not so bad for those beneath it. Dalton Maag’s Bruno Maag suggests to me that “custom fonts” in general, including proprietary ones, are a main driver of font revenue growth.
All these factors yield the varying perspectives mentioned earlier. Whether and how much growth you see may depend on whether you are making fonts for Google, selling fonts through Adobe Fonts or creating custom fonts on commission. If you are doing none of these things, you are more likely to perceive a down market.
For type designers, things are still changing rapidly. Five or ten years ago, the concern for many who make their living from fonts was that if there were enough libre fonts available, perhaps too many people would use those instead of paying for licenses. While some companies pay for the creation of libre fonts, might it be that once there are “enough” libre fonts, it will reduce their need as well? But despite about a thousand libre families in Google Fonts, the fontocalypse hasn’t happened yet, which makes me doubt it will in the near future.
Maybe the doomsayers are right, and at some point we’ll be passing “peak font” and starting a font-financial decline. I’m unconvinced, but it could have already started—if and when the fontocalypse hits, it will be another gradual trend. But for now, the total font selection keeps growing, the number and quality of libre fonts keeps increasing, and the availability of inexpensive rental systems puts thousands of commercial fonts at your fingertips—for a monthly fee not much more than buying a permanent license for a single font. Whatever the outlook for type designers, end users are living in a new golden age for fonts. ca
FREEDOM VS. BEER AND DAFONT
In the open-source community, they call them “libre,” or “open-source,” fonts instead of “free” fonts. What’s the difference, and why should you care?
Free—for software in general or fonts in particular—can mean different things. It can refer to the price charged for the fonts, or to what you can do with them. Open-source software/font proponents like the word libre because it emphasizes the most important thing to them: that people are largely free to do what they want with them. The fonts are “free as in freedom” rather than “free as in free beer,” being a matter of “liberty rather than price.” Not only can you copy and redistribute the fonts, but you can modify them, which has major implications for using them as web fonts, and just for working with them in general.
Of course, you might point out that libre software and libre fonts are generally also free-as-in-beer: you can download this stuff and it does not cost you anything. Also like free beer, being given away for free does not mean that nobody got paid to make them. Indeed, because type design is a complex craft, many of the best libre fonts are created by people with considerable experience or training—often both.
Some “free fonts” are not libre—instead, their license terms may be missing entirely, unclear or say they are for “personal use” only. This applies to a fair chunk of the fonts on DaFont, which is another reason, besides quality, why that site is a dubious source for fonts for professional use. The lack of any quality filter is not a license flaw, but is probably correlated.