Let Them Eat Lexicon

Reaction to Ellen Lupton’s proposal, suggested as part of her keynote to ATypI’s annual conference, has been heated, to say the least. Stoking up the fires of an argument thought long resolved within the type design community, free fonts (of a sort) are back on the agenda.

Proposing Free Fonts to the ATypI is analogous to arguing for “Intelligent Design” to a society of evolutionary biologists. It’s simply not considered necessary to debate within the expert group, but it seems to get a lot of undue attention around the margins. Still, the mere suggestion raises the blood pressure while casual acceptance of license violations within the graphic design community, and the scars of unabashed piracy, set the context for such a suggestion.

It’s not that her idea is necessarily bad, it’s just ill-defined. Both the issue it’s trying to resolve and the solution proposed fall wide of the mark (sounds familiar).

As far as I can interpret, the suggested beneficiaries fall into three groups; students, users of under-represented character sets, and the rest of humanity (whoever they are?).

A student addiction

What if a few design students on earth licensed one good typeface (each, not between you!) as a gift to type foundries?

Apparently, students need more free fonts. But they already have some, right? Well, yes, but they’re unsatisfied with the fonts available on their operating systems, or bundled with their design applications, or even those available as part of the site licenses provided by their academic institutions. So, they’re seeking out unlicensed typefaces and criminalising themselves. Poor souls, it’s a tough life when you have to make a decision between having a night-out, or licensing a typeface.

They want more, damn it! Their insatiable appetite for a type high drives them to the dodgier parts of town where they can find the perfect letterage on which to binge. There’s nothing sadder than stepping over the prone body of an unconscious design student lying in a puddle of their own punctuation, with the stains of tightly spaced extra-black around their mouth from the previous night’s font debauchery.

They say they’re looking to expand their minds (man), but really they’re just bored with the current scene.

But the damage to society is too great to be left in the hands of criminals. We need to legalise this unlicensed addiction! By controlling the quality, and regulating the dose, we can strive towards teaching a better understanding of moderation.

Yet more free fonts will do nothing to prevent the real separation between students of design and the designers they should be learning to view as their peers. Rather than fostering further separation, I’d prefer to see students being encouraged to actually engage with type designers and foundries, carefully select a font purchase and view it as an investment. Something to become familiar with and understand. Payment is tangible recognition of another’s work and helps to encourage the investment in time it takes to use a typeface well. It also teaches against the assumption that typefaces are just “there”, as if by magic. An expectation that fonts are free is a bad habit to get into. Habits picked up as a student will be with you for life, good and bad.

What’s getting given away

What if a few type foundries gave away one font that wasn't selling well as a gift to rave-flyer designers?

I don’t see many foundries truly giving away their best assets. Many foundries already give away single, obscure members of a larger family or some display face that wasn’t selling anyway. I can’t see this changing anytime soon. A good typeface just represents too large an investment to turn over to the public domain. When it comes down to it, there are a lot of typefaces in the world, but few good ones.

A student building up a collection of these rag-bag, disparate fonts might actually be tempted to use them! Perhaps students don’t need access to more fonts, but less.

Meet specific needs, empower appropriate designers

What if many individuals funded the design of a few good typefaces as a gift to under-represented language groups?

Our second beneficiary are the groups who’s languages aren’t adequately represented by the currently available free fonts. Projects like Victor Gaultney’s Gentium best represent movement in this area.

These projects require a lot of research and a specialist knowledge that manifests as a proportionate investment of time and resources. It’s just not possible to produce this sort of work for free. The work is usually supported by a funding organisation, or private investment.

There’s certainly something to be said for further work in this area. Currently, under-represented language groups are either creating typefaces themselves, or extending existing efforts, with varying degrees of success.

Requesting this work to be given away by foundries might be asking the wrong group, though. My immediate thoughts were that a foundation to fund work like this would make the most sense. That way, the most appropriate designer/researchers could be funded by an organisation to represent and ensure the interests of the recipient groups. Perhaps a foundation like this could help finance scholarships (similar to the Linotype scholarship) for native users of the language in question to study at somewhere like Reading. Simply asking designers/foundries to submit work they happen to have around is not likely to fulfil the need for typefaces of this sort adequately.