Why make new fonts?

This blog post is a re-publication of an original article by Dave Crossland, submitted to Libre Graphics Magazine for Issue #0.

“Why make new fonts?” is the most common question I am asked since I set off to become a typeface designer. When I mention I did a Masters degree in the subject, at the University of Reading, England, I sometimes meet genuine surprise that this subject is studied seriously. Often people haven’t ever thought about where fonts come from, since the fonts on their computer are just there, you know?

We see different fonts out in the world constantly, so we all know there sure are a lot of them and why we need more isn’t obvious. Perhaps the surprise also stems from the way fonts are subliminal. We focus on the meaning of what we read, and that directs our perception away from the underlying mechanics of reading. Common everyday things can be quite mysterious when you come to examine them for the first time, and reading seems to be one of them.

New fonts are made for many reasons, and often several are involved at the same time. Here’s three:

Identity

Organisations need visual identities, and fonts can strongly identify who published what. Having a distinctive visual identity is to be fashionable. Fashion makes life more interesting, and is as much as part of typography as any other aspect of culture. While you can achieve a very distinctive visual identity with a very common font – the popularity of “Helvetica” is testament to that – I suggest that this is the prime motivation graphic designers desire new fonts today; its why typographers license new retail fonts, and corporate branding projects commission bespoke fonts. Such commissions can fail to be enough justification for more than a single font, not a whole family – just extending a logotype into a full alphabet. Sometimes it can result in big families though, and this year Canonical has commissioned a very big family of fonts from the Dalton-Maag foundry in London.

Art

While type designers cater to the desire of their customers, they also have a mind of their own and that mind usually has an artistic bent. There’s that basic urge to self expression, expressing emotions through letter forms, and that whole George Mallory thing: “Because its there.”

The power of “I made this!” shouldn’t be underestimated. It underpins why I became a type designer. Victor Gaultney, the designer of the libre font family Gentium, is also a trained musician and he said simply, “Why make new fonts? Why make new music?”

There’s a business side to type design as artistic practice, too. I’ve heard seasoned professionals like Matthew Carter and Gerard Unger mention that during their career they were constantly working on fonts for themselves, privately. When a graphic designer incubates a little ‘secret stash’ like this, when a commission comes along and these private designs are relevant, they can be refined to meet the brief – boosting turnaround time and the bottom line.

Whatever kind of design your are doing, if you try to design without any constraints and only from self expression, you’re not really engaged in design, you’re engaged in Art. The initial motivation might well be indistinguishable from the needs of users of the final design artifact, but I think it is a qualitatively different kind of process. What really anchors type design as a design process, is this:

Design

Fonts can help or hinder the legibility of text. Raph Levien made Inconsolata for typesetting program code, a real niche. Typefaces for code are typically designed for reading on screens rather than in print since that’s really where code lives. This typographic context directs the design in several ways, such as to make the brackets unconventionally big because they have a key role in code. Those brackets are not appropriate for, say, a telephone directory.

When Matthew Carter designed Bell Centennial for AT&T in the 1970s, he made a new typeface for telephone directories that would be used at very small sizes, that would get more text per line, and yet that would remain just as legible as the old one. The typographic context is different, and the brackets’ designs are different. This is subtle stuff, subliminal even to many graphic designers, but this is the stuff that really pays for type design – because it is what makes excellent typography, and it pays for itself many times over. When you’re printing 50,000 copies, getting 10% more text into 50 fewer pages than the last edition saves a lot of money.

Freedom

And this illustrates why libre fonts are so valuable. If you’re using a font and it doesn’t quite work as you wish – if it takes up too much space, or if it doesn’t feel right, or it could be made a bit more cool and contemporary – can you change it? If you’re using a proprietary font, you can’t. Well, you can always make a new typeface that has similar qualities, from scratch. But with a libre font, you can take it in new directions that the original developers never would have thought of straight away.

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One Comment

  1. cf
    Posted 10 September, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    In 2007, director Gary Hustwit released a documentary, Helvetica, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the typeface. In the film, graphic designer Wim Crouwel said, “Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface… We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface.”

    Focus on the last sentence.

One Trackback

  1. By Why make new #fonts on 26 July, 2011 at 7:22 am

    […] that is in the type design training business. One of the questions they obviously ask is "Why make new fonts ?". Obvious because when there is no reason for more fonts, there is no reason for their business. […]

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