Why You Should Invest in the Future of Typography
“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.
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.
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.
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.
The FontFeed is a daily dispatch of recommended fonts, typography techniques, and inspirational examples of digital type at work in the real world. Eat up.
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