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Nick Sherman and David Jonathan Ross: "We will remember these days as a period when we depended on Bézier a lot."

Last summer, right after the Typographics 2017 conference in New York Ilya Ruderman invited Nick Sherman and David Jonathan Ross to share their thoughts about the current stage of type design.

Ilya Ruderman: I’m looking for any observations about the current times, about technologies today, about what “today” means for you guys.

Nick Sherman: Right now, my day-to-day work is split about 50/50 between web design and custom-type design.

David Jonathan Ross: You don’t see it, but I think you, Nick, have more type families than I do. They’re just in various stages of completion.

NS: They’re not finished. I have a long list of typefaces that are complete enough that I can use them for my purposes and those of the people that are paying me to start them, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting most of them on the retail market with any expectation that they’re totally polished.

IR: Ok, but getting back to the subject: Where are we now? You’ve been observing the industry for a while; probably like me, for over 10 years, right? What do you think?

NS: If you’re talking about “type today” in a broader sense, it depends a lot on the context, because even with the technology, you could talk about variable fonts as being the most “today” thing out there in the type world.

IR: Or “tomorrow.”

NS: In some ways, it’s also tomorrow. There are some places where, yeah, that’s very much what’s going on.

IR: I remember one of your lectures about responsive web design several years ago. About Marko Dugonjić’s experiment of changing the font size the closer or further from the screen you are. When I saw the presentation about Variable Fonts, this was the first thing that came to mind. Like, “Okay, we’ve done that. We’ve already got some nice interfaces there. The idea of a reaction to the user has already been invented.”

NS: I started writing about this stuff a few years ago, publishing things on A List Apart. Originally, I thought there would be this in-between period of people making hacks to get stuff to work until there was actually a formal specification for it. Then the OpenType variable fonts announcement happened, and it’s like, “Oh, we can skip that awkward transitional phase.” I think that’s really cool. I’ve always been interested in the type of tomorrow.

IR: HTML and everything around that, right?

NS: Yeah, like when web fonts were just becoming a thing, I was really interested in that early on. And now variable fonts are a reality and the possibilities are becoming really interesting. But the “type today” of what’s possible today is different from the “type today” of what is popular or the most relevant in mainstream practice.

IR: Yeah, that’s true. Thinking about tomorrow in a technological way, it was kind of expected that web fonts would become popular, but nobody was sure. It was something for designers and developers to play with. The market always expected to have control over fonts. I remember quite a lot of problems with that as well. People, especially super conservative foundries, thinking they would lose their fonts online.

NS: Yeah, but most of the foundries realized that if someone is really determined to get the font data, they’ll probably get it one way or another anyway.

IR: I know several studios where you can download a whole collection right from the main page.

NS: In many cases you can probably go on a file sharing website and do the same thing.

IR: That’s not an issue anymore.

NS: The norms are definitely evolving. For a very long time – a decade or more – the technology and the licensing models for type stayed pretty much the same. People got used to how it was and how it worked. We haven’t had to talk about changing font formats since the ’90s, so people have gotten very comfortable with things. Their operating system might change every year or their mobile devices change all the time, but their fonts have always just worked the same way. Now, with web fonts, and especially with variable fonts, that’s changing. Things are changing with technology. There are new possibilities that didn’t exist before that will change how designers can use type.

Sketler-typeface Sketler Typeface by Nick Sherman

IR: Do you think there’s any need for a new font format? Not OTF, but something completely new with different possibilities, a different logic?

NS: My view on that is very skewed, because all of the type design and graphic design I do is based on the Latin script. OpenType isn’t perfect but it works fairly well for Latin type design. It’s much more limiting for things like Arabic. There could be better things that aren’t so reliant on glyphs that live in rectangles. This reliance on the rectangle is based on a history of physical technology that’s not really relevant anymore, and not ideal for everyone. There could definitely be a lot of interesting stuff happening with that, even in the context of Latin type. I think OpenType is great for the limited scope of what I do, but it’s definitely not the last type format that will ever exist. The other thing I think about a lot is: What’s beyond OpenType? We’ve been using Bézier curves to define the shapes in type for over 30 years. Is that ever going to change? Will we ever use a different concept for describing a curve or describing outlines?

IR: Of course, something like Ikarus’ way of describing the curve, right?

NS: Oh yeah, and those things have existed. Spiro, and others.

Visualization of the work with Spiro Splines

IR: Even Bézier curves can be different.

NS: When I think about “type today,” or anything about “today,” I try to think of it in the context of future history. When I go to a type museum and look at all the old stuff, I think “It’s great that this was preserved,” and then I think 200 years in the future. What is the type museum going to look like? I’ve talked to Fred Smeijers about this, because he’s been very involved in preserving old typefounding materials and techniques. But he’s also creating new digital type himself. Like a lot of the old type founders, he doesn’t find a lot of time to worry about preserving his own work for future historians. I try to think of the future of technology through that kind of lens. Like, back in the 1800s, they weren’t thinking about Bézier curves for type. So I try to think, “what will be the thing in 200 years that no one is even thinking about now, but could eventually become the standard thing?”

IR: It’s also possible that some historians will see our period as one when type really depended on Bézier. “How lucky we are that it’s over!”

NS: Yeah, the same way that if you look at type from 200 years ago, you’re like “Oh God, they had to make all these compromises just because they were restricted by the physical parameters of metal and wood.”

IR: Poor guys. They had to work with their hands and metal and wood and cut themselves.

NS: Yeah. It was a very industrial endeavour and there were very real dangers of getting physically injured while making type! We’ve come a long way since then, and things keep changing. With variable fonts, there are a lot of potential paradigm shifts going on. The way they’re presented to the public is kind of a dumbed down version of what’s possible, because it helps people understand the general ideas more easily. People relate it with interpolation a lot, because that’s something easy to understand and visualize. And that makes sense. But there is much more to it than that and it’s the first development I’ve seen in a long time where there’s potential for a much deeper change in how type might work and be used and created. But, as with other historical changes in the history of type, a lot of it is dependent on tools for making and using it, and that usually takes some time to for people to get comfortable with.

IR: David, you mentioned the licensing, and actually what you’re playing quite a lot with is different distribution schemes, right? Like Input typeface, or your current experiment with the Font of the Month Club. It’s also very interesting and quite an obvious idea, like subscription, which is so popular nowadays. Are you tired of our old distribution models?

DJR: I think it works for certain typefaces and certain audiences, but not for everything. A few years ago, I started to realize that, in many cases, the way a font is distributed has more to say about how and when and how often it’s used than the design, the designer, the character set, or the OpenType features. All the things that I want to think about don’t matter nearly as much as who gets the fonts, how, and for how much.

NS: It’s easy to get caught up in the weeds of details and miss the bigger picture about who actually has easy access to your typefaces.

DJR: I also think, in terms of the type world today, there’s a lot of opportunities. Not only to try to reach people who are already font buyers, but those who could be, and to try to grow our market that way, rather than just taking customers from other parts of the existing font market.

NS: Right.

IR: I completely agree with that. That’s interesting, how to get regular people involved in it.

NS: It can be tricky though, because – by definition – it involves marketing to people who aren’t professional graphic designers, and that doesn’t seem very exciting or glamorous to a lot of people in the type industry. In order to capture the attention of people who don’t fully understand or appreciate type, you often have to hyper-simplify things, and it can be hard to do that without feeling tacky.

DJR: Yeah, you have to speak a different language almost. There’s a language that people speak who have gone through design programs and who use typefaces regularly, and then there’s a language that everyone knows what a font is now, but they don’t know the intricacies. I think it’s easy to get people excited about fonts. I think that’s a very cool thing, but it’s not easy to get them to…

NS: Invest.

DJR: Invest in them. Exactly.

NS: Roger Black gave a talk at TypeCon once – 2010 in LA, I think – where he was basically trying to stir the pot and raise some eyebrows. At the end of the talk he said something about how the future of fonts is going to be 99-cent fonts that people download like music or something like that.

DJR: This was when the App Store was pretty fresh.

NS: That’s the kind of stuff that comes up a lot when people talk about targeting a wider audience. As was shown in Roger’s talk, a lot of people frown on it pretty heavily, saying it devalues type. It’s a different world that I don’t think a lot of type designers like to be in.

DJR: It’s provocative, but I think people within the industry understand when you’re talking to people outside the industry. We’ve seen successful examples of that, with Typography for Lawyers being a prominent one. With Font of the Month Club, I was worried that people were going to say things about devaluing type or making it seem too easy or too trivial. We want people to value our work and making type isn’t easy. I didn’t get as much pushback as I thought I would. Maybe people are just too nice.

NS: Or they didn’t tell you.

DJR: Yeah, or they just talked about it behind my back.

IR: Speaking a little bit about the companies like Monotype, aren’t we now in a very dangerous situation? By “we,” I mean independent studios? Meaning that so few companies control so many fonts, it could super easily turn into “99-cent fonts.”

NS: Yes, and they’re headed that way.

IR: Basically, they are doing that already.

NS: Well, in some ways. Monotype is in a unique position, because most of the type that they’re marketing they don’t have to pay royalties on. They just own the fonts, so they can do whatever they want with them. It’s basically pure income for them no matter what. Those fonts have paid for their development thousands of times over. I think they’re in the best position to do something like that, because they have that kind of a catalog to work with. It is a big catalog. But for a lot of their foundry partners that are selling through their distribution channels, it’s much harder. They have to deal with royalties and recuperating any investment from developing new type, all while competing with the super cheap options from a big legacy library.

IR: They will be presenting Apple Fonts Store at the next Apple Conference.

NS: That idea has been brought up several times. A lot of people think the business of retail fonts is too small for Apple to care about though.

IR: It doesn’t really matter. My question is not about that. I’m just afraid that such a big company can easily destroy us by doing something “interesting,” “brave”…

NS: “Revolutionary.”

IR: For fighting for new customers to buy the new iPhone, “we will provide you with a very interesting, huge market of cheap fonts.” Why not?

NS: In some ways, the relatively small size of the font market has protected itself. Apple probably isn’t that interested in doing something like that because they don’t see the type market as something that’s going to make them billions and billions of dollars. Companies like Adobe, on the other hand that are operating on a much smaller level — you can see this with their Marketplace

IR: I don’t know how it’s going actually. I don’t see any promotion of the Marketplace.

NS: I don’t know either. I think they’re also taking it kind of slow. I don’t know.

IR: We just joined a TypeKit Marketplace like three days ago, so we haven’t had the experience yet.

NS: I get the sense that part of the reason they did the Marketplace is because when they first started TypeKit, they were very much an outsider in the type industry. It was a tech startup. A lot of the type people were like, “Who are these guys? We don’t know them.”

DJR: Yeah, I remember that.

NS: That was even before they had a connection with Adobe.

IR: Yeah, they were independent.

NS: I think a lot of serious type foundries didn’t really give them much thought because they were outsiders and were marketing very heavily. This goes back to a lot of type designers not wanting to be involved with aggressive marketing techniques. It’s funny, because type designers are trying to make money off their type, but I think a lot of them are also a little reluctant to push their fonts too heavily, or seem too crass or overly commercial. With TypeKit I think this worked against them at first – at least as far as attracting some type foundries. There were a lot of foundries that said, “Yeah, they’re marketing too heavily. It’s way too commercial. I don’t necessarily want to be part of that system.” With Marketplace, it now seems like they’re saying, “Maybe we should step back a little bit and get the nuts and bolts of this system working before we start really promoting it too heavily.” But you probably know more about it than I do, because your fonts are on there.

DJR: I’ve had a pretty good experience getting them up. I don’t think I have any insider information on how it’s going or what their plans are. The other thing I was going to say, regarding the Apple Font Store thing, is that in the ’90s people were selling CDs with a thousand fonts on them. That was the era in which the independent foundry scene grew up. I think it’s possible for large, commercial things to exist. Yes, it can represent a danger, but I don’t think that they can’t coexist.

NS: Yeah. People worried about the big companies putting them out of business. Well, if you can’t survive on the merit of your own type…

DJR: That’s hard, because it’s hard to convince people the merit of your type in the face of…

NS: But if you have to try that hard to convince someone of the merit of your type, is it worth it?

DJR: I suppose. I feel the same way about open source fonts. Yeah, it’s tricky, right? There’s all this free stuff. The other thing that happened during this conference (Typographics 2017) was Production Type’s Spectral came out through Google Fonts. That’s an excellent typeface.  I didn’t look that closely, but its Production Type; gorgeous, of course. It’s like, “What does that mean for our market?” They can coexist, but it’s very tricky to navigate.

IR: As Jean-Baptiste Levée said: just because it’s free doesn’t mean nobody paid for it.

NS: I’m sure they got paid very well for that.

DJR: Yeah, but not only the development of the font, but about what it means for competitors of that font. Fonts that are in a similar style from other type foundries. I think there’s inherent value in exclusivity and in not being the thing that’s accessible to everything. If you have your fonts in a big thing, you don’t have that as much. I think there are really varying degrees between the two.

IR: Yes, imagine some other studio had invested three years in development of a typeface similar to Spectral and was about to release it. And then Spectral Free comes out.

DJR: I thought about the same thing when I did my Google Font.

NS: Even then, there are large companies… I’ve consulted for large companies on their type choices and they’re using typefaces that are available in Open Source form, but for some reason they’re paying a lot of money for them.

IR: But at the same time, there are quite a lot of companies looking for exclusivity, for a typeface which is not that common. Like Peter Biľak and Typotheque with very expensive fonts. Peter says, “I’m comfortable being in the premium sector. My fonts, yes, they are twice as expensive, but they are ten times more exclusive because of that.”

DJR: Yeah, and I think, like any market, there are different corners. When people oversimplify things and say, “This one corner of the market, because there are a lot of things going on there, it’s going to ruin this other corner of the market.” In many ways, I think it can be the opposite. If there are more good typefaces available to the general public and they can get a taste of the good stuff and understand it, it’s like a gateway drug to using good type.

IR: Alright. Anything else about licensing? I’ve been speaking with a lot of graphic designers, even about the old traditional way of licensing… It’s kind of a tricky thing, because each studio provided one thing in different ranges.  People are like “Hey guys, is it really necessary to all have a completely different license structure? Could you please, somehow, simplify that?”

NS: Yeah. That problem is what places like Fontspring or Typekit seem to be trying to address more actively, by simplifying things for users even if it requires more of a compromise for the foundries. A lot of users respond very well to that and you can also see this with trial fonts that are now becoming more and more popular. People realize that there’s a value in trial fonts and the risk of people using your font without a proper license is maybe worth the potential benefit of having your font easily accessible on people’s font menus.

Fonts_In_Use Fonts In Use — an archive of type in use in the real world, co-founded by Nick Sherman

IR: I completely agree with that. We are thinking of adding trial fonts in the future. Maybe changing a couple of characters.

NS: It’s also tricky because, working on the other side of the fence as a graphic designer, I’ve used some services like Fontstand, where certain things are intentionally limited with the trial fonts. Like one important glyph is changed to a big distracting logo, or you can only test a limited number of individual styles, or you feel rushed to decide on something in an hour or less. As someone who works in the type industry and relies on people paying for fonts, I completely understand why those things are that way. But as a user, it doesn’t really give a good feeling for how someone might use a type family as a complete system.

DJR: But then you can rent it for just a fraction of the price of an actual license.

NS: Yeah. And don’t get me wrong – I think Fontstand is an amazing service. It has addressed some licensing issues better than anyone else ever has. But I also know that the more limited trial fonts are, the more likely people are to look elsewhere. Especially hyperactive graphic designers who can barely be bothered to look beyond their font menu.

DJR: It’s a screen.

IR: Actually, when I heard about Fontstand, I was very optimistic about it. I was like, “Wow, this is finally a thing. I would like to use it as a graphic designer. It’s interesting how slowly people are getting to know Fontstand. Only a few people know about it in Russia, unfortunately.

NS: It’s the same here. I’ve taught web design and typography classes where most students’ number one question is, “Where do I go to find new fonts?” Fontstand is nice because it’s a very solid collection of type, where people don’t have to worry so much about the quality of what they’re getting even if they can only try 10 individual styles a day or something like that.

IR: Actually, almost everyone knows about MyFonts, but most are beginning to understand that some of those typefaces are trashy. Without expertise, graphic designers are really afraid to use them. “I need someone’s advice. I know how to find the font, but I need to ask if it’s a good typeface or not.”

NS: Sometimes I feel partially responsible for that because I redesigned MyFonts back in 2006. A lot of that design I did still lives on to this day, but I left MyFonts before I really finished my whole plan of how the site should ideally work.

MyFonts-family_page-comp One of pages sketched by Nick Sherman for Myfonts.com

IR: I didn’t know that. The current version or the previous one?

NS: It’s changed a lot since I left, but a lot of the DNA from my design is still there, especially on the font pages. I had been working on a concept that that was eventually going to grow into a bigger way of helping people narrow down good fonts when searching. But it required editorial maintenance and…

IR: It’s really missing the sort of expertise level.

NS: Yeah. That was the stuff I didn’t get to before I left.

IR: Like selection of the Board, at least some kind of selection that will help people.

NS: When we were working on it, the developer Chris Lewis (I still work with him a lot now outside of MyFonts) made me a filtered view of the site that was just the fonts that I had personally rated three stars or higher. That was kind of what I wanted. The “staff picks” version of MyFonts. The idea was to eventually get to something where the quality of the fonts had more of a role in the interface. I left before that ever really happened.

Licensing is interesting though, and I was thinking about this when we were talking about web fonts. For a very long time, people complained about how the licensing model for desktop fonts is guessing how the fonts are going to be used. It’s really hard to make sure people can only install it on five machines if you’re doing it the traditional way. There are some services like Fontstand and Typekit that help to manage that, but with web fonts it is very easy to charge, very specifically, for how a font is being used, and in a very fair way. Finally, for the first time in history, we can charge based on very, very accurate and specific metrics. That’s not really happening though, because a lot of people don’t like font companies to know exactly how the fonts are being used or how many page views they get.

And I get that. Speaking from my own experience as a web designer, when I’m choosing web fonts I generally prefer to host the fonts myself. I’m the kind of person who deals with the nuts and bolts and I like setting things up the way I want to do it. I don’t want to have to rely on someone else’s servers to have my fonts working.

IR: That period is already over, no? Quite a lot of services…

NS: Hosted services. That’s kind of what I mean. The original problem for desktop fonts was that metrics about actual usage weren’t accurate enough – you couldn’t know for sure how many devices a font had been installed on or what the exact distribution numbers were for a publication. It was partially a trust-based system. And then when licensing for web fonts allowed for extremely accurate metrics, it was too accurate.

IR: How many things did you invent? You invented Variable Fonts, right?

NS: Haha, no. Maybe I popularized the term when I wrote the “Variable Fonts for Responsive Design” article on A List Apart. It seems like a pretty straightforward term to describe an idea that has been around since before the web, so I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else had used it before me.

I don’t know if I’ve invented things. I’ve made a bunch of small tools and one off things, mostly with Chris Lewis. I wish he could be here.

DJR: Size Calculator.

NS: Yeah, I’ve created so many small tools with him.

IR: I remember the Size Calculator.

Size_Calculator Size Calculator helps calculate and visualize the concept of perceived size

NS: There’s also Font To Width, which is a JavaScript thing we made to simulate how variable fonts might work for text-fitting. Say you have one type family that has seven widths; it will evaluate how much space is available in the container box for text. Then it will pick the one that fits best and do some small spacing adjustments to make it fit.

IR: For justification?

NS: Yeah, if you want a headline that fits exactly to width. It was a pre-variable fonts way of doing that. Chris has also done a lot of other unpublished stuff with me. Stuff that I’ve used in my type specimen websites for presenting type. My favorite one in particular is this tool where I have a text file that’s just a list of words that I make up, and then, based on the container box of the text, it will show the word that fits. It’s kind of a similar concept to Font-To-Width, but it’s choosing different words instead of typefaces.

Font-To-Width Font To Width(FTW!) is a script by Nick Sherman and Chris Lewis that takes advantage of large type families to fit pieces of text snugly within their containers

IR: That’s nice.

NS: It’s good for type specimens, if you want to have a nicely justified, randomized block of text. With a lot of the stuff that I am most proud, I wasn’t necessarily writing all the code. A lot of it has been with Chris Lewis. He’s definitely my right-hand man for doing this kind of stuff. I come up with the ideas and I write the logic down for how I imagine they should work. He’s the one that has all the syntax memorized and can put it into proper code form.

There are also projects where I’ve done all the code and all the design, like the Typographics website, where I was the only coder and designer. I’m proud of that too, even if I know it could be improved with the help of other specialists. But it is nice to have full control.

IR: Alright. What are you working on right now besides secret, unfinished, custom fonts?

NS: They’re not super-secret. I have a single-page web specimen of all my unfinished fonts. If I’m working with a client who wants a custom font, I’ll be like, “Here’s my bottom drawer of unfinished fonts.” It’s not public, but not necessarily secret.

IR: Any Cyrillics there?

NS: No, unfortunately.

IR: Probably, for some of them, the exclusive is already over, right?

NS: There’s only been one that’s gone to full exclusive.

IR: You normally just offer temporary exclusivity?

NS: Yeah. But there’s at least one project where the temporary exclusivity has expired. I like doing this kind of custom type work.

IR: Everyone does. There’s more money there.

NS: It depends. I know at least one type designer that doesn’t like doing it at all. Even if someone goes to them saying, “I want this retail typeface of yours, but with a different lowercase ‘a,’,” they’ll say no.

IR: What are you working on now, though?

NS: Let me think. I’m in the middle of a consultation project right now that I’m not allowed to talk about. That’s basically helping a big company choose some fonts.

IR: Normally, when you have two upcoming projects, where one is a web project and one is a type project, which one are you looking forward to most? Just by genre …

NS: I will answer your question, so I won’t be avoiding the question, but I have a follow-up answer as well. More recently I’ve been enjoying doing type design, but it swings like a pendulum. Sometimes I get really involved in web design. Sometimes it’s more type design. Usually, it’s whichever one I’ve been doing the most for a couple of months then I drift towards the other one. That’s part of the reason why I decided not to become a full-time typeface designer, because I like mixing it up. The real answer, especially now with this stuff with variable fonts, is that the work I would like to do more of is projects where there’s an element of both web development and design, as well as type development and design. Usually, there’s a type designer, there’s a web designer, and often a separate web developer, too. But the disciplines are usually segregated, so when you’re designing a website it’s harder to get the typeface to do exactly what you want. I really like the idea of what I jokingly call “full stack typography” – working on the web design, but also develop type that will interact with that and work in that context. This has happened fairly often for print publications, but very rarely for web design. And, as you mentioned with variable fonts, it can very much be part of a seamless ecosystem.

IR: It’s actually interesting, because I know quite a lot of type designers with a background in graphic design. But you’re probably the only one with a web background.

DJR: I can think of a couple, but it is unusual.

NS: It tends to be someone who is definitively a web designer and they do some type design on the side, or the other way around.

IR: An interesting question now: You mentioned that while doing web pages, for instance, you need to adapt the type. Imagining circumstances where I’d need to do that, I can’t really see what might push you to change something on the web. You mean playing with the proportions or something?

NS: Yeah. Actually, the way DJR and I (and usually Chris Lewis too) have often worked together on websites and typefaces is a pretty good example, where each aspect of the process directly informs the other. I might pitch an idea for a typeface to DJR based on an upcoming web project, or he might send me a font he’s working on and I’ll test it out in a practical context.

Wood_Type_Evolved-catalog 17″ × 22¾″ broadsheet featuring 10 essays about contemporary wood type production and printing. Printed in a limited edition of 1,000 to accompany the Wood Type Evolved exhibition at Columbia College Chicago. Features the typefaces Manicotti, Trilby, and Turnip, all designed by David Jonathan Ross

A lot of the type design and graphic design I’ve enjoyed most has been the result of each aspect being developed in tandem with the other. I especially like that kind of work when there’s an element related to the web or responsive design. For instance: on the first Typographics website I was using Gimlet while it was still in development before it was even called Gimlet. There were a lot of changes or additions to the typeface based on my feedback and it definitely influenced the site, both technically and visually. Like, “Oh, it’d be nice if we had a slightly narrower version for a phone view.”

DJR: Yeah, that was an example of a lot of back and forth. You were the person who was like, “Yeah, something Trumpy or garish would be cool.”

IR: Just another way of proofing. Checking how a typeface works online instead of in print

NS: I move very quickly now in my type design process. Sometimes I even skip proofing in print software altogether and just test things with HTML and CSS.

DJR: I don’t own a printer at the moment.

NS: Nor do I.