For our first feature article, we have invited Patrick Griffin of Canada Type to let rip with his thoughts, observations and insights on all things webfont.
These are interesting times. I keep thinking this must be what it was like to be a type designer a few generations ago, watching the development of type on television or cinema screens. The major difference between what’s happening now and how it was back then, is the speed with which Internet technology has been moving and affecting computer technology in general and the aesthetics of type in particular. Mainstream broadband is just over 15 years old now and we've already overcome coarse screen resolutions, availed ourselves of highly efficient type design and management tools, and are now knee-deep into mobile devices. Naturally type use evolves with all these things. The web in general has been a jumble of amateurs and professionals over the past 15 years, but with the evolution of type applications, design awareness has been growing and gradually shifting in a positive direction. There are many options for the type user now, and the future has great promise in that regard.
Stylistically, history – especially typographic history – could end up playing as significant a role, if not more so, in the development of screen aesthetics as it always has done in print. Historical revivals were always popular with television and early computer type users, and although the definition of what a historical revival is has blurred in the lead-up to our current typographic environment, there are many inherent elements of revivalism in the majority of typefaces, even those billed as original. But as far as truth in advertising relates to typefaces, retooling historical forms for new technologies now happens in the absence of the limitations of old tech, which almost always results in a digital product that is reminiscent of the old forms but loaded with the higher functionality and versatility a type user should expect these days — if the designer cares about what he or she is doing, of course. A case in point would be how Verdana and Georgia, essentially revivals of older faces, keep being transformed with new tech. Also let's not forget that design doesn't just exist for design's sake. No matter what the medium is, content is the engine, and designers will always need something that relates to some kind of precedent. In type, just like in everything, the present is a continuation of the past.
As designers of typefaces and fonts, our working lives are constantly changing. It's the old Schrödinger entanglement thing. Everyone's perspective of type and typography altogether has been changing considerably, and continues to do so, mainly because the tools we have to develop type and the environments in which it is used are becoming so seamless and comprehensive. Looking at typography as a problem solving activity throughout history, it's very easy to see that the spectrum has now become so responsive that fast adaptation is not just an asset, but a necessity for both designer and user. Things change the way we work every day, from the addition of a new glyph form, to a rebalancing of the gears that make up the global distribution clockworks, or even sudden development in tech, like a brand new format or the expansion of an existing one.
For a long time there seemed to be much speculation and lukewarm curiosity surrounding webfonts, so I was quite surprised at the level of response to webfonts at MyFonts earlier this year. But evidently there must be a great need for them. The whole webfont licensing thing was a bit confusing for a while out there, so I'm quite glad to see it now settling into the MyFonts licensing model, because it seems to be the most convenient for both designer and user. Just in time, too. The recent Internet Explorer 9 supports the WOFF format, which brings the universal browser experience circle a bit closer to completion, and web designers don't have to bother with so many different testing environments.
Things are not only looking good so far, I actually anticipate a boom on many different levels. Recent years have brought entire continents of typography out into the open, and there's more of that to come. Academically, typography is making major headway with design students. Technologically, I expect the mobile world to explode with better typography as the devices keep improving.
These are good times to be a type designer, and even better times to be a type user.