Why You Should Invest in the Future of Typography

    Uncategorized | Matthew Butterick | December 21, 2011

    “Don’t we have enough fonts?” This might be the question type designers get asked the most. It also provokes the most annoyance because it implies that type design is superfluous or futile.

    This question was first put to me 20 years ago. At the time, I found it absurd. Typesetting had just entered the desktop-publishing age. Enough fonts? We barely had any.

    These days, I see the question differently. Don’t we have enough fonts? We certainly have more fonts—150,000 and rising. If every type designer on the planet suddenly evaporated, humanity could make do.

    But type designers have not evaporated. So the question is based on a false premise: whether we have “enough” fonts is irrelevant. If we want to sustain the craft and tradition of typography, we’ll always need type designers. And if we need type designers, we’ll always need new fonts.

    Why? Because fonts support type designers. A customer who buys a font encourages the type designer to make more. By making more fonts, the type designer gets better. The fonts get better. Customers buy more. It’s a virtuous circle, powered by the engine of commerce.

    For many years, this engine chugged along smoothly because fonts had a finite lifespan. Every few decades, they would go obsolete due to changes in technology, or would just wear out. This created openings for new fonts, and therefore also for type designers.

    This pattern of obsolescence is natural to all technology products. Software, hardware, websites, networks—they have a useful life, then they expire, then someone sells you a replacement.


    Pencil sketch by Sumner Stone of Cycles Eleven under development. At the right a small glimpse of the initial program for Cycles to imitate traditional sizes of metal type.

    But in the last 20 years, digital fonts have avoided this pattern, becoming more durable. As a test, I looked for the oldest fonts in my type-design archives. I found a sans serif family from 1994 that Matthew Carter and I made for a long-dead technology company. I hadn’t touched the fonts since. But ten seconds later, they were installed on my Mac. Ten seconds after that, I had a printed sample. Pretty cool, right?

    Yes, but also a little alarming. Digital fonts can maintain perfect fidelity forever. This has been convenient for type designers and their customers so far. But in the long term, it may be harmful. If fonts refuse to go away—as they always have in the past—the marketplace will have less room for new ones. The virtuous circle will break down as the old starves the new.

    Text faces are a good example. Consider Minion. Minion is as popular as ever, even though it’s over 20 years old. What’s to stop it from enjoying another 20, 30, or 50 years of popularity? As long as Adobe is still in business—nothing.

    Though we think of Minion as a workhorse text face of the digital era, it achieved that status largely because a) it arrived early, when competition was scant, and b) it’s been bundled with Adobe software for years. Because Minion will never age and never wear out, it can exploit those advantages indefinitely. Thus designers will use it indefinitely.

    But where will we get the workhorse text faces of tomorrow if we’re not giving them a platform today? If page designers keep choosing overexposed fonts like Minion over newer, equally deserving, and underexposed fonts—like Cycles, Freight, Kingfisher, Newzald, Paperback, or MVB Verdigris—two things will happen. First, type designers will have declining economic incentive to make more fonts. Second, the future of typography will become indistinguishable from its past, as overexposed faces become immovable.


    First prints of Newzald with notes by Kris Sowersby.

    To prevent that, a proposal.

    If you’re a page designer who cares about typography, don’t reinforce the natural inertia. Plenty of others will do that. Instead, take the contrarian path. Avoid bundled fonts. Avoid yesterday’s classics. Avoid today’s trends. Most importantly, vote with your wallet: buy more fonts made by living type designers. Put those fonts in your projects. Encourage others to do the same.

    It’s not charity. It’s a principled investment in the future of typography. Every font purchase encourages a type designer. It also improves your own work, because it challenges you to learn about a new font and use it well. Everyone wins.

    I design fonts and also use them, so I have a stake in both sides of this transaction. Last year, I wrote a book called Typography for Lawyers. For the text, I was planning to use one of my favorite fonts—Sabon. But I pushed myself to cast a wider net. I discovered Lyon, by Kai Bernau. I benefited because I found a terrific font that was better for the project. Kai benefited because many of my readers bought Lyon. (They, in turn, have used Lyon to displace Times New Roman.)

    Don’t worry about Sabon. It’s had a good run over the last 40 years. It’s in no danger of disappearing, because designers who aren’t curious about the alternatives will keep using it.

    I’m a designer who knows better. That pool of 150,000 fonts contains many underappreciated gems. So I have to find them, buy them, and use them. If I don’t, and tomorrow’s great fonts die of starvation today, and their designers lose interest in type, I’ll have no cause to complain. It was partly my fault.


    MVB Verdigris source material, interpretation by Mark van Bronkhorst, and the typeface in print.

    Header image: Spread from Jeremy Tankard’s sketchbook for the development of Kingfisher.

    Attorney at Law Matthew Butterick is a typographer, lawyer, and writer in Los Angeles. He started his career in Boston as a digital font designer and engineer, working for type designers David Berlow and Matthew Carter on projects for Apple Computer, Microsoft, Ziff-Davis, and others. British designer Neville Brody featured his work in FUSE, Brody’s journal of experimental typography. Butterick designed the popular font family Hermes FB, which he substantially upgraded in 2010. His most recent fonts are Alix FB and Equity.

    Besides his law practice, Butterick also runs the popular website Typography for Lawyers, which he has turned into a book (now available from Jones McClure Publishing and Amazon).

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    22 Comments:

    1. Amen!

      Posted by Erik Carter on Dec. 21, 2011
    2. For as much as the information age allows the permanency of fonts that was not possible in decades and centuries past, I’m not sure that this means certain fonts will endure to the detriment of future fonts and typographers. Font fashions may be measured in decades, but won’t things still come and go as they have in the past? There will always be a portion of rising generations of designers looking for something to distinguish their work which will lead them to new fonts and there will need to be typographers to create these fonts. By the way, I don’t know if this question has an answer, but was there ever a “golden age” of typography?

      P.S. I loooove using the Equity font. It makes writing a pleasure.

      Posted by Morris Bird on Dec. 21, 2011
    3. I don’t completely agree with your statement that fonts don’t become technologically obsolete anymore. Sure, you can use your files from 1994 to set type, just like you can set your metal type with the right equipment, but people these days require Open Type features and web-optimised fonts. The classics of the postscript and truetype era will probably be craftfully upgraded to Open Type and webfonts, but it surely won’t happen to all. So there’s still room for new ones to flourish, if they jump in the gap. Just like our digital classics jumped in the gap when only the best of the analog era (the Caslons and the Garamonds) was digitised and left some space for newer work.

      Asking whether we have enough typefaces already, it’s a bit like asking a music composer whether we don’t have enough songs already. Or asking a writer whether we don’t have enough books already. Each era has it’s own style and voice, that wants to be reflected in its arts and crafts.

      Posted by Sander on Dec. 22, 2011
    4. The classics of the PostScript and TrueType era will probably be craftfully upgraded to Open Type and webfonts, (…)

      I think herein lies the problem Matthew describes. Exactly because these digital classics will also be “craftfully upgraded to Open Type and webfonts” as you describe it so well, they will keep on dominating the bestseller lists, leaving little to no room for potential new classics to grow and blossom.

      Posted by Yves Peters on Dec. 22, 2011
    5. I think in a way the fact that there are sooooo many choices (150000 fonts) makes it an overwhelming task to break out of old favorites. As important to the creation of new fonts is the improvement of font search and font management tools. Many times I’ve looked at a project considering what better font I might pick but pulled from my know selection because I just didn’t have the time to mine the depths of all those font options.

      Posted by Steve on Dec. 22, 2011
    6. Not worried.
      Loved ‘Typographyforlawyers Mathew, spot on.
      My students need a bit of help to deal with 150 000 typefaces to select from.
      Wrote an essay ‘Framing Fonts’ describing how I teach font selection.
      If interested anyone, please let me know.

      Posted by Niko Spelbrink on Dec. 22, 2011
    7. I’m interested Niko.

      Posted by Morris Bird on Dec. 22, 2011
    8. I deeply respect Matthew as a type designer. But this piece seems overly pessimistic and completely missing the point that we stand on the threshold of the most exciting time for type and design since, well, Gutenberg.
      What’s about to happen is many, many orders of magnitude greater than desktop publishing, which created huge demand for fonts when it appeared in the 1980s.
      One example. You can now create a quality ePub, with good design, with just a computer, a simple text editor – and a few good fonts. I’ve been working on a project which uses Korinna (born 1904, revived 1973), in a set of styles nicely defined in CSS. But I could use any font.
      One more iteration of screen resolutions (widely predicted to happen this coming Spring with the iPad 3), and we’ll have the beginnings of a real, quality publishing platform for the 21st Century.
      Read an iBook using Iowan (iBooks Menu shorthand for John Downer’s excellent Iowan Old Style)
      If you’re a designer, of publications or fonts, your brain should be exploding with opportunities, possibilities and optimism right now. Mine’s getting close to The Big Bang.

      Posted by Bill Hill on Dec. 22, 2011
    9. FYI: Robert Slimbach is still alive.

      Posted by Paul D. Hunt on Dec. 22, 2011
    10. Yes of course, Paul. I don’t think we have to make a literal, direct connection between the concept of “living type designers” and this one example of an overused typeface that Matthew used to make his point. But indeed, maybe there are readers who don’t know that Robert Slimbach is alive and kicking. ; )

      Posted by Yves Peters on Dec. 22, 2011
    11. Worried.
      Given the amount of income it generates, I should stop designing new professional typefaces this very moment.

      Posted by Yanone on Dec. 23, 2011
    12. Niko, I’d love to read ‘Framing Fonts’ too!

      Posted by Steve on Dec. 26, 2011
    13. Sander, the OpenType format was designed to be backward-compatible with outline data from existing TT and PS fonts. That’s why very few OpenType conversions have revisited the core design of the face: there’s no technical need to do so (as there was in the conversion between past formats). 

      Paul, my prescription is to BUY more fonts by living designers, not merely USE more fonts by living designers. Yes, of course Robert Slimbach is a living designer, but have you bought his fonts? I haven’t. Nor have most designers who use them. Slimbach’s bundled fonts are ubiquitous; his other fonts are rarely seen. If you want to buy and use those, by all means do. 

      Bill, I’d like to share your optimism about ebook typography. I have two reservations. 

      First, what’s possible with ebooks in theoretical terms is quite different than what’s possible in practical terms. The current crop of ebook readers (Kindle, iPad, Nook) has very limited support for publisher-controlled typography and layout. You may say “hey man, I’m a self-publisher, who cares about those limitations?” Well, published authors and their publishers, for a start. Also their customers. Those constituencies can’t be ignored. Self-publishing will become a solution for more authors, but it will never be the solution for every author. 

      Second, web standards (HTML/CSS/etc) are severely inadequate for ebooks. Yes, we are better off with web standards than without. But after 15 years, it’s time to acknowledge that the process of approving web standards, and the implementation of those standards in browsers, have fallen prey to the systemic problems that everyone was hoping to avoid by promoting standards in the first place.

      Electronic publications deserve their own set of standards that are a) actually standard and b) optimized for publishing. (As opposed to web standards, which are a) never as standard as they claim and b) optimized for everything, which really means nothing.) PDF has its virtues, but it’s tied to the model of an invariant layout, which is overly restrictive in the digital domain. What if we took the layout and typography features of PDF but made it reflowable and resizable? What if we converted it into an XML stream? What if we made it backward-compatible with most PDF layouts? Would that be more interesting than HTML/CSS? Hell yes.

      To those skeptical that change like this could happen, analogous change is already happening in type design. A few motivated people (Erik & Petr Van Blokland, Tal Leming, Just Van Rossum, Frederik Berlaen, et al.) have put together a new source-file format for fonts (UFO) and an ecosystem of tools around it. Why? Because they saw that what was already available was an evolutionary dead end. They thought about the problem. They solved it. What they’ve done will transform type design.

      If authors and publishers allow web standards to become entrenched as the basis of electronic publications, it’s not because there wasn’t another option. It’s because they were lazy and shortsighted. Ask the music industry how that approach has been working out for them.

      Posted by Matthew Butterick on Dec. 26, 2011
    14. Matthew! Hi from a 40-year typesetter. I’m stunned to see that someone’s returning to separate “mats” for each point size. Can’t WAIT until the composition software exists to make that a production reality!

      Haha, when you said 10 years ago (1991) we’d just entered DTP, I thought crap, most typesetting machine vendors were DEAD by then. :) It’s all relative, I guess.

      That was disruptive innovation long before Clayton Christensen published the term… going around unresponsive vendors and putting power directly in the hands of the people with the original need, the print buyer / consumer. At first (I know you know this – bear with me)… at first they were clueless klutzes, but over time the dis-integrated industry has re-matured and some level of sophistication now resides downstream, with the previous stodgy dominators out of the picture.

      They said it couldn’t happen – either the end of the stodgy dominators or some amount of competence among the great unwashed.

      The same is beginning in healthcare (the source of my current moniker). As the high-priced vendors keep costing more and more, inevitably more of us drop out and go it alone. The new disruptive wave is technology that puts more ability directly in our hands. (See the Media Lab’s new health innovation thing http://newmed.media.mit.edu/health-and-wellness-innovation-2012 )

      And just as in fonts, today the dominant players tell us “You can’t handle the truth,” “Trust us, it’s really sophisticated,” etc. But we who can’t afford it anymore are saying “I’ll make do.”

      So (to return from the wild tangent), what’s FASCINATING is that 20 years into DTP, Cycles Eleven will start to correct one of the core sacrifices introduced FORTY years ago: a single master for all text sizes. Can’t wait.

      And similarly I love the idea that as we cut ourselves loose from the unaffordable medical system, and increasingly go DIY, we can anticipate that a generation from now, today’s top sophistication may be back in healthcare too, encapsulated in new tools for the common us.

      Posted by e-Patient Dave on Dec. 26, 2011
    15. I bought a book for my son’s 21st and was appalled by the lack of care in layout and typesetting. That was a print version.

      The real danger is not lack of time or not seeking out of new styles but the lack of care creeping into publishing in general (editing and design), and the buying public not caring to notice.

      Good design is at its best when it gets out of the way and lets the object be or do what it is supposed to. So it is hard to raise awareness of something (design, typography, type) that is at its best when not noticed.

      Is the power and increased ability of self publishing going to make it even worse – or is there hope? Will it mature as empowerment as e-Patient Dave says or a be a race to the bottom?

      Posted by Scotty on Dec. 26, 2011
    16. Niko, could I read “Framing Fonts” too please?

      Posted by Jayne Walsh on Dec. 28, 2011
    17. Not sure if purchasing font licenses really encourages the people you mention (type designers) as they only get a fraction per sale.

      Posted by Gerben on Dec. 31, 2011
    18. What?

      Posted by Yanone on Dec. 31, 2011
    19. Not sure if purchasing font licenses really encourages the people you mention (type designers) as they only get a fraction per sale.

      Gerben, this idea seems to run aground quickly on the shoals of common sense. Nevertheless, I invite you to find one professional type designer who will say that they are completely indifferent to their royalty reports. Since you don’t offer your own fonts for free, I assume that you are not one of them.

      Posted by Matthew Butterick on Jan. 3, 2012
    20. Niko, i’m also interested in reading “Framing Fonts” too please?

      Posted by Jarred on Jan. 12, 2012
    21. Hi Guys, I had a look around google, and you can find a copy of Niko’s essay, Framing Fonts at http://www.ography.com.au/j0_download.php?t=blog&m=big&n=3

      Posted by Pablo on Jan. 15, 2012
    22. Hooray for planned obsolescence!

      Posted by Dr. House on Jan. 20, 2013

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