Design Notes · · 20 min read

How Fonts Change the World: Dave Crossland, Google Fonts

Exploring the impact of digital type on our lives, on software production, and on the future of design.

How Fonts Change the World: Dave Crossland, Google Fonts

Liam and Google Fonts Specialist Dave Crossland explore what digital type can teach us about digital production, emotional expression, and where we fit in the world as designers; and how – with a little imagination – we might unlock new possibilities.

Liam Spradlin: Hi, Dave. Welcome to Design Notes.

Dave Crossland: Hey. How are you?

Liam: Good. To start off as usual, why don't you introduce yourself and the work that you're doing?

Dave: Well, I'm working with the Google Fonts team as the sort of operations manager. Often, I get boiled down to the team font expert, and I've been on the team for over 10 years. I sort of know everything that's going on, a lot of context, and so, I'm often explaining what we do can be very nuanced. There's a lot of depth to typography, but at the same time, it's something which a lot of people don't think about too much. A lot of my work is explaining type designers to Google and Google to type designers as we commission fonts.

Liam: Tell me a little bit about how you got there. What is the journey like to become font expert?

Dave: Well, I think I've always, since I was early teenager, been interested in graphic design and publishing, the power of information and information design. That's what I went to study at college in the UK. I'm English and I went to Ravensbourne College of Design, initially in a graphic design program, and I graduated in interaction design.

Then, a couple of years after that, I attended the University of Reading, which has an old kind of red brick Ivy League style university and has a department of typography, and within that, a master's program in typeface design. And so, I attended that for a couple of years. As I was student, the web font revolution was happening and this ability to use any font on a webpage was re-arriving. It was something that had been in there in the '90s but had gone away and then came back some 12 years ago.

And so, I was very keen on the idea of what I call libre fonts, other people may call open source fonts. That was a bit of a radical idea back then. Recently, I was chatting with a recent graduate and I said, "Well, you know, before Google Fonts, da da da." They were like, "No. No, I was 12 when it came out." Don't remember.

Liam: There was no before.

Dave: They don't remember that. Yeah.

Liam: Why was that a radical idea?

Dave: I think if you go back about 10 years, there was just very, very few fonts which were available under such sort of permissive license terms where anyone can use it for any purpose and even modify the font itself. And a big question will be, wow, it's a huge effort to design the typeface, to draw everything. And it's difficult to do that on a hobbyist kind of part-time basis.

If you try and do type design as a hobby, you just may not be able to put enough concentrated time into it to get good at it. And so people who really get into it are really investing, I mean years of that life into it. And so to design a typeface for six months as a full-time effort, that's something that's got to be paid. And so always with libre licensing of things, then people can sometimes feel a bit mystified about why would anyone be paid to do something that's given away.

There are organizations that benefit from work being freely available. It's more valuable to that organization for the work to be unrestricted. And that's really the case here with Google Fonts, that having fonts which are not tied into Google's products that are totally open and can float around with their text, the document can be exported and imported in and out of any application, that's important for people. And especially as we keep advancing into the future with new mediums, there's kind of AR, VR stuff right now, seems to be a sort of new platform, new technology that people are exploring.

And so the ability to always be able to move forwards, even if a company from a previous era ends up going out of business, going out of the way, if they've been publishing free and open libre software or font or other things, those things can have a future life. So yeah, it was a new thing back then and was seen as a bit radical because people, I think, had some anxiety back then about how it was going to work.

Liam: You also mentioned aspects of type design that are really integral to the process, but that people maybe don't think about very much. Could you talk a little bit about some of those?

Dave: To me, something that's been driving me to work on this for over a decade is there's this sort of amazing tension between the ubiquity of type and its obscurity. You can't go anywhere in the world, in any urban environment without being surrounded by text. And yet the fact that someone has drawn those letters that you are seeing and that there's this system of shapes going on, is something that's totally below the level of consciousness.

I think one of the biggest trends in these years I've been working on this has been this continued globalization and internationalization of type. Hundreds of years ago there was a lot of ads in London, Paris, New York, but that wasn't the case in a lot of other nations capitals. And today, smartphones are becoming something that everyone has and digital typography, digital advertising is becoming a real big business.

I think today you go to India and you'll see commercial billboards on the side of the highway that are in English, but it's also the world's largest democracy. So a lot of the political billboards are in the local languages, local writing systems. So yeah, I think there have been these commercial drivers in the past, but I think that with digital typography, digital advertising, we're seeing that change.

Liam: I think it's interesting to point out how much type kind of constructs the world around us or how much it's surrounding us in urban areas, and the fact that someone made that. Something that I like to explore a lot on Design Notes is how we as designers are placing ourselves in the world. And it strikes me that this is kind of a special placement as it were because we are placing ourselves in the type that is then being placed by other people into other contexts. I guess I'm interested in your thoughts on what that relationship is and how we can be conscious of it as designers.

Dave: Well, I would say that really the real value of different type is the emotional note that it adds to the text. This is in a way kind of true subliminal advertising. There's not really secret messages in a single frame in a advert on TV or whatever that all kind of 1950s ideas, the kind of weird shapes in the ice cubes kind of stuff. As far as I know, that's not real. But the way that letter forms shapes make you feel, that is real. And there's a lot of fonts for the Latin writing system that we use in English, other European languages, but there's very few for many of the world's writing systems.

You go and you see a ice cream shop, I think Baskin-Robbins in the States it's like a big international chain. And when you travel around the world, you are going to see Baskin-Robbins shops and they're going to have Baskin-Robbins written in another writing system and it's not going to match. The way the two typefaces look is not going to match, not going to carry the same feeling.

So I think, yeah, there's a huge amount of potential for the future in developing much richer palette of type options for all the world's cultures.

Liam: Speaking a little bit about the impact that type can have on our emotions, our socialization, impact that it can have on the world. I'm curious if there are specific projects at Google Fonts that you think have had a particular role in that area that you would want to talk about.

Dave: Sure. I mean going back, the old days when Google Fonts launched, we had a breakout hit in the lobster font and these days, pretty much every city you'll see lobster around. That was important in the early days because when you saw lobster on the web, you knew that wasn't a system font, that was something that you hadn't seen before. Since those early days, the Google Fonts team has grown to invest in four areas. We're working on the Google's company branding type, we work on the operating system type for Android, and [inaudible 00:10:51], and other operating systems.

And then we have lobster and all this other expressive options for products. And then we also invest in the foundational technology, so things like font quality checking tools, or even the font formats itself. And yeah, I would say that the idea of the Unicode standard itself, the idea of bringing all the world's writing systems together into one standard, and making that completely interoperable and universal is, again, part of that real foundation that Google Fonts is building on. And so codifying languages as digital fonts is something I think which is really important. And literacy, accessibility, these are foundational human needs, and the type is a really key building block of that stuff.

Liam: Speaking of factors that people might not consider related to type design, it strikes me, especially as you're talking, that to be a type designer also involves a significant amount of technical skill as well. That type design becomes a different mode of creative practice or of production.

Dave: Yeah. I mean I think, again, for me to be obsessively working on this for 10 years has meant there's the visual culture aspect, the linguistic aspect, the technology, the business, and all of these things are interrelated.

Liam: In a lot of recent reading I've been doing about concepts surrounding digital production and how that influences social systems that inform our lives, I've read about how free software that we talked about earlier has sought to reconfigure or re-socialize the relationship that we have to practices like this to making digital products and the processes behind production. Having mentioned that being a type designer already involves a different mode of production from a lot of other design disciplines, I guess I would ask more broadly how Google Fonts fits into that, affecting the relationship that we have perhaps to digital products?

Dave: Yeah, I think there's an old idea about value having two sides. There's the direct usefulness of a thing, use value, and then its value and exchange. What can you sell it for? And when you produce things where they're having to be directly monetized and you're producing for exchange, then that can sometimes create incentives that warp the thing, and designers can end up maybe being told by the business to go and optimize that side of the value proposition to the detriment of the usefulness. And an example of this outside of type, and maybe outside of design, would be healthy food. Healthy food could be cheap, it doesn't have to be the top tier deluxe stuff, but it's more profitable to sell food which is addictive and unhealthy, and we end up with food deserts in the urban landscape. And so with fonts, to some extent, this can also be the case. A language support can be missing for certain nations which don't present a large buy-side of the marketplace.

And with Google Fonts, what we've heard is that there's an issue where some type designers that we've commissioned have seen the incentives such that they don't put their best effort into their project because it's a fixed fee, it's being paid upfront, and there's not the same speculative retail or revenue opportunity that they have with their own projects. And they will put their best effort into a project which they're making to retail, but what they'll earn with that over say 5 or 10 years is speculative. It could be close to zero, it could be millions of dollars, over the years. Personally, I think that's unwise because the Libre fonts become the most widely used ones, and that becomes what type designers' reputations get staked on, but other people see that differently. So I think when making free software or making Libre fonts, often people are making them for themselves, and maybe they're being commissioned and their time is being paid for, but that exchange value aspect is being taken out of the equation, and the focus can be on making it as useful as possible.

Liam: Do you see that as a model that could work for other things, especially in digital production?

Dave: Well, I think those other things came first. That was definitely my idea, that when I went to do a master's degree in type design, I was very focused on this idea of bringing some of these ideas from the Libre software movement, Wikipedia, Creative Commons. These things, there was much more of a buzz around them. Creative Commons was new when I was a student. We do see people making Libre fonts typically under the open font license outside of what Google Fonts is doing, so different governments, different individual designers, different companies have decided to go with making their fonts freely available. Nothing to do with Google.

Liam: Yeah, I was going to ask, do you think that the success of Google Fonts or the ubiquity of those fonts, because they're free, has had an effect on the industry? But it seems like maybe those things are happening in multiple places independently at once.

Dave: Yeah. I mean obviously Google Fonts, in certain respects, is big, in other respects is small. So I think there's probably more open Libre fonts today with Google Fonts existing than there would be without Google Fonts existing. But that's hard to say. It's a speculative fiction there. And in my studies, in being a student of type design, the history of all this is something that's synthesized, and I think when you go into the different eras of the type industry, in the past there's always been a $0 tier. Before digital, those physical typesetting machines would come bundled with a few choices that are free, and before Google Fonts, there was plenty of freeware fonts around on [inaudible 00:17:54] and other places.

And in the '90s, if you got CorelDRAW, it came with a CD with hundreds of fonts on it that if you had to get them individually, it'd be way more than CorelDRAW. So there's always been a cheaper option. I think if Google Fonts didn't exist, there would be less people enjoying using type to express themselves and identify their brands on the web, themselves on the web, and the type industry overall would be smaller. There'd just be less people using different type and thinking about type. I know some people see it differently and they could count every use of a Libre font as a lost sale, but that's like when people say that PirateBay costs the movie industry more than the GDP of Japan or whatever. In the real world, that simplistic economic ideology just doesn't work like that. And I think what really happens is often the opposite of what simple theories predict.

So I would say that it's good for everyone in the type business that more and more people around the world are choosing and using different fonts thanks to Google Fonts making it so easy. And I'm English. We have the BBC in England, in the UK, which sets a very high bar for the quality of TV. And then there is private cable-style TV, satellite TV that's even better because it has to compete with that public option. And people don't just watch the BBC or just watch private TV, they're going to see the good TV, the good TV programming that's entertaining or whatever. The highest traffic websites using Google Fonts do not purely use Google Fonts, they're using type from a mix of sources because it's ultimately about the typefaces and the typography, and the licensing terms, the cost is a factor, but it's something of a secondary factor. So I would say Libre software, Libre culture, Libre font is this global public service provision that's setting a baseline, which means no one's excluded below that baseline and sets the stage for more broad competition in the marketplace. And the fourth area of our investment in a tooling technology, that is something that is directly improving the overall business and industry. We have excellent QA tools and know-how about how to finalize and productionize typeface designs, which is available to everyone in the world he wants to enter the business. So there's a more level playing field.

Liam: When you talk about the perception that maybe a use of a free font is a lost sale or things about movie piracy, without going too deep into it, maybe some of those thoughts are coming from a friction between modes of understanding what a product is and how it's distributed between historical analog implementations versus digital ones. And I'm curious what you think about that because as I learned about type design, it seemed like type had had this kind of friction for a long time, of how is type distributed, how has it been distributed historically, how does that line up, how have we tried to replicate that in a digital space, and where has that gone right or wrong?

Dave: In the past these previous eras of type, when type was physical, especially at the end of the pre-digital period where we had this dry transfer lettering, like Letraset was one of the inventors, the leading brand of this, you literally rubbed out the letters one by one on the dry paper and you paid by the letter, and that kind of business model where you had to buy the type, buy the letter, it's not coming back. And even before that, when metal type would wear out it'd need to be recast and rebought. So I think that was the case, as I said, in London, New York, Paris. But in most of the rest of the world there wasn't that much typography going on. And today there's this huge growth in demand for type globally. So the distribution models and so on, the idea of buying a font on a floppy disk, well that was sort of working for English, I remember. And I was a student, that was just kind of on the way out, and OpenType, where you could have more than 250 glyphs in a font file, was coming in.

But I got a glimpse into those older days where even for English digital type was kind of tricky. So yeah, I think as the technology improves, it's just a better experience for people making publications in a broader sense, and that's going to lead to more people wanting to make good quality stuff and wanting to use good quality type, new type. There's a fashion aspect to it. I mean, type has such a long history. It predates capitalism, almost. So 500 years ago a typeface cost more than a small private army. This was a royal technology and it was extremely powerful. The printing press caused revolutions. And maybe Marshall McLuhan idea, but maybe the fact of printing existing as a technology itself caused a scientific revolution. That way of thinking about atomizing and breaking things down into their pieces and making them uniform and repeatable and reproducible. The type was the first mass produced product.

So that power has not gone away, but it's only got cheaper and cheaper over time, over hundreds of years. But we still have a good business, a good industry, healthy industry that lots of people around the world are making type today. So I don't know, I'm not sure if that really addresses your question, and it's something that personally I've been in a privileged position where I've been working with Google pretty much since I graduated and Google's been cutting the checks to develop almost all the type that's in Google Fonts.

Liam: Yeah, I think it does address the question, as digital type as a whole is such a surface for exploring how things move from analog to digital modes of production and distribution type continues to evolve into a place. Speaking as someone who works on a design system during the day, I'm very interested in the capacity for variable type to embody a system that can satisfy user intent without knowing about it and perhaps requires a designer intent that is more facilitating of a wider range of expression. I want to just jump into that little bit and talk about it.

Dave: Absolutely, yeah. So the way that I've been advocating for variable fonts, variable typography, a flexible typography is to say that there's three main benefits to variable fonts. To compress, to express, and to finesse. And what you touched on there was the third thing, where we can improve the user experience in a way where they're not even especially conscious of it. This is kind of automatic finessing that's individual and providing subtle accessibility improvements, which maybe on a mass scale could be measured, but that can be quite subtle. So to break down those three things, the to compressed benefit is that if you take a set of static fonts and you look at the total file size there, if you were going to use all of those styles within those families, and then you look at the file size of those families as variable fonts, then often you see a pretty big reduction in file size.

Now obviously if you're just using Lobster, it's a single style font, there's no reduction possible with variable fonts. If you're just using regular and bold, there's probably also not really a reduction. But even if you are just using regular and bold as a variable font, you now have all of the weights from regular to bold, and say maybe those semi bold medium weights can be useful for you. And as designers, we can do large type or even text type and choose type for its expressivity, for those feelings it evokes. And being able to dial in and fine tune those feelings, that expressiveness is exciting. But that automatic style selection I think is really the most powerful benefit here. So the big example of this is this idea of optical size designs, where in pre-digital, pre-phototype, every piece of metal type was being made at a physical size, so the marginal cost of customizing the typeface design to that size was very small.

And then when we had phototype, you took one design and you just scaled it up and down to the size you wanted and you lost that size specific design. So today with variable fonts, we can have a continuous range of designs from a very small design to a very large design, and then multiply that across weights and widths. So the heaviest weight, the lightest weight can be much more extreme at a large size. And then as the size comes down, the type kind of gets more resilient and the readability and legibility is reinforced or defended, and the actual proportions get less extreme, even though it's still the maximum possible at that size. So I think the designers, end users, font users have not really even begun to scratch the surface of what variable fonts can mean for typography.

And there's this old Marshall McLuhan idea that when a new technology or a new paradigm arrives, what he called a medium, as opposed to the message that it carries, when that medium arrives in society, then initially it's only used to mimic and emulate previous technology that was most similar to it. So for example, early radio hosts, they would dress up in a full on three piece suit to announce the news on the radio, as if they were doing a public speaking event in front of a large live audience, even though they were stuck in a studio. Early cinema, they would stick a camera in the middle of a theater auditorium and film a stage play, and only later did you get radio shows that were not mimicking giving a speech, and films like, say Orson Welles's Citizen Kane that pioneered new ideas about how to create cinema that was cinematographic.

So what we see with variable fonts is that they're being understood today with that kind of compressed benefit, we could say misunderstood, that it's all about the smaller file size version of static fonts. And especially for technology companies, engineering managers can really get that because that's a very measurable benefit. You had what you had before and the file size is smaller and there's no change to the design, there's no change to the typography. It's just a pure engineering benefit that can be very easily quantified.

But I think that kind of overlooks the real value and opportunity and what's going to happen is that the designers using variable fonts are going to become sort of pioneers and discover the deeper nature of the new medium of typography, of fluid or variable typography. And they're going to come up with new kinds of designs that weren't possible with static fonts. There's this sort of meeting place between the type designer and the type user, and variable fonts kind of start to break down that barrier that in the past with static fonts, the type designer issues, the final release of the project, like this is it, and then the type users work with what they have.

And with variable fonts, there's this sort of type design on rails kind of thing where you have so many options as the font user, you can fine tune so many key aspects of the typeface. You are not drawing the shapes, so you're still within predetermined ranges of what you can choose from. But you get this incredibly fine grain control and it becomes kind of like a musical instrument, obviously you have the possibility to make horrendous sounds, but also you can make something which really sings and that no one's ever heard before.

Liam: Yeah, I think it's fascinating the idea of bringing who we consider users closer to the process of design or production. But also I think this must have tremendous implications for design as a practice as well, because we're no longer focused on designing single points in a design space, but now we can do line segments, or planes, or entire three dimensional shapes as designers. What does that do to the mental model of a design practitioner for what they're creating?

Dave: Yeah, I think there's a lot of potential which is yet to be explored. And I think that this potential is in the total systems, and it can be difficult to get into it when you're dealing with kind of snapshots of static frames in a design app, where you are sort of ideating and mocking things up and how things work within the actual medium of the digital experience is where it's going to be.

Liam: I also remember being struck learning about the concept of design space in variable type, that it is in fact multi-dimensional to an extent that is hard to even visualize as humans living in the three dimensional perceptive space that we do.

Dave: Yeah, I mean, we are offering variable fonts like Roboto Flex, which have got over a dozen axes, and there is a real system behind that. It isn't a dozen completely different things. There's a dozen things that are interrelated and that work as a system and definitely visualizing more than three dimensions, even three dimensions, can get trippy.

Liam: What do you think lies in the future for that? How do you think that that process changes to become more apprehendable? Or does it?

Dave: I've always been in that sort of old chestnut, that should designers code? I've been very much coming into design from a technology culture. And so I think that in the same way there's been some work around how to better visualize programs because they also can end up as these very complex, multi-dimensional, abstract entities. And yeah, I think a lot of people, myself included, who go into design, they have such strong math skills. There's three kind of people in this world, those you can count and those you can't. And so that's definitely me. And so I think that there's some kind of more direct experience of this stuff, which can be hard to translate or visualize.

Liam: I think it's very important to call out the importance of approaching this from a technical aspect as well, because the things that we create as designers are also mediated by things that were designed themselves. So, perhaps you must create the thing that allows you to design in order to design the thing that you truly want to make.

Dave: Right. Yeah. And in my teaching practice, one of my primary principles of teaching is to walk students through an experience first of making and then give them some theory to deconstruct their experience and well, it sounds silly, but to structure it then. That when you have the direct kind of raw experience and you don't really know the theories behind what you're doing, then your senses are more open to the total thing. And in stage magic, the way that illusions work is the misdirection, right? That humans are very good at deleting out stuff that they perceive from their awareness.

And so having people go first in experiencing something means that they're not filtering their experience based on a kind of ideological prejudice. And so, I would say that that's pretty deep to design practice and that it's important to try and experience the medium directly and work with the medium through its own logic rather than trying to treat it like a version of the old medium, the old way of doing things. Like I said, I really credit Marshall McLuhan with a lot of this stuff. I know that's a kind of design school classic, but it definitely shaped my thinking about all this stuff.

Liam: That's great. I think that's a great note to reflect on as we close. Thank you again for joining me today, Dave.

Dave: All right. I think I've got to change someone's diaper.

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