Adobe Web Fonts — Neither Likely Nor Desirable

Andrei Herasimchuk from Design by Fire (and ex-Adobe employee) has written an open letter to Adobe, asking them to release a set of core fonts for the web into the public domain. These fonts would then be available to the major OS manufacturers to bundle in future releases.

Andrei acknowledges that properly addressing font distribution for the web is a difficult issue, but seems to think getting Adobe to release a set of fonts from their collection will be a quick win in the mean time.

Although polite and well intentioned, addressing the problem of fonts for the web to Adobe is slightly wide of the mark. Apart from de-valuing the work of Adobe’s awesome type development team (as if fonts that have been decades in the making should be distributed like sweets), there are some major technical and licensing difficulties.

All the typefaces mentioned in Andrei’s dream list are PostScript-flavoured OpenType format (the majority of the fonts in Adobe’s collection are either PostScript or PS flavoured OpenType). This is significant because to render type on screen is a tricky business and requires additional, size specific, instructions called hinting. PostScript OT fonts have a basic hinting model that’s fine for previewing in InDesign, but doesn’t quite stand up to the pressures of extended reading for the web. This basically means they will look like smudgy thin trash at small sizes in a web page, not because they aren’t good typefaces, but because they weren’t designed specifically for the screen.

We take them for granted, and familiarity has certainly bred contempt, but Verdana, Georgia and the like are an astonishing achievement. They have defined the standard for screen rendering for many years. The reason for this is because they were primarily designed for the screen and, getting back to formats, they are TrueType. With TrueType (and TrueType flavoured OpenType) comes TrueType hinting. Unlike PS hints, TT hinting is a sophisticated programming language that can define very precisely the rasterizing of individual characters at small sizes. Hinting type to this quality is a long-winded manual process and usually requires quite a “special” personality (i.e. it’s boring).

The other problem with Andrei’s list is that half of these typefaces are licensed from Linotype. Although the “amount of revenue lost […] surely can’t have a significant impact on Adobe’s bottom line” (this may or may not be true), for Linotype it’s their core business. Frutiger, Futura, Helvetica Neue and Univers are all top sellers.

Perhaps Andrei is just looking toward the wrong company for a quick fix. Along with Microsoft’s release of Vista, they will be bundling a new set of fonts designed specifically for screen. These are modern typefaces designed by some of the world’s top typeface designers. As suggested by Jeff Croft, if Microsoft bundled these with the upcoming IE7, that would go some way to reinvigorating type on the web.

Top tip: Windows users can “beta test” the new Microsoft ClearType fonts as part of the Office2007 Beta. In fact, I’ve specified Corbel, Constantia and Consolas as the default typefaces in the CSS of this very site.