Proxima Nova’s ubiquity

May 14th, 2013  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s an argument that Proxima Nova is to the 2010s as Helvetica was to the 1970s. I guess something had to take Myriad’s place after its fin-de-siècle dominance, but I would like to note that I was at least using Proxima Nova everywhere before it was everyone else’s default choice. (I think I licensed it in 2006 because I was looking for an alternative to Johnston Underground, which is too iconic, and Gill Sans, which I object to for moral reasons.)

Common-sense font licensing

March 28th, 2013  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

I recently licensed a very nice font that I may never use.

Most computer users don’t pay for font licenses; they simply use the fonts that came with their computer (or that were bundled with a software package like Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite). Type is sort of tricky from an intellectual-property perspective; typefaces themselves are not copyrightable under U.S. law (which is why you can have Myriad and Segoe coexisting peacefully with Frutiger), but digital font files are considered computer programs that, when executed with certain parameters, produce images of glyphs. As computer programs, font files are copyrightable (and also subject to potentially-onerous licensing restrictions).

So, if you want to use a font, you’ll pay a fee based on how many styles you’re interested in (weights, italic or upright, and optical sizes), how you’re going to use it (personally or commercially), and how many computers you’re going to use it on. You’ll also agree not to do certain things with the font software: most font licenses prohibit using font software to produce logos or other designs in which the typeface is the primary element (without special permission), using font software to make document generators accessible to the general public (because then they wouldn’t need to license the font themselves in order to use them in designs), embedding font software in editable electronic documents that are accessible to the general public (because these can be trivially extracted or modified substantially by third parties who haven’t licensed the fonts), and (of course) using the font software to produce a derivative font.

These typical restrictions are largely reasonable (although the embedding restriction poses more of an inconvenience to legitimate users than a roadblock to scofflaws, who are likely to pay dearly for unlicensed use of faces), and I am in general sympathetic to the intellectual-property tightrope that typeface designers must walk in order to retain control of the products of their art and craft. Some common restrictions, though, only make sense if we’re dealing exclusively with a print world: for example, some licenses forbid using a font in the production of generally-available electronic documents altogether; others forbid producing electronic documents unless you convert text (which is searchable and readable by assistive technologies) to images (which are not). Since I almost exclusively produce electronic documents (most of which I give away for free, like slide decks, technical papers, and handouts), I don’t bother licensing these fonts. Other restrictions exclude large classes of potentially interesting uses, by disallowing production of physical objects that are not printed on paper (coffee mugs, t-shirts, stickers, etc.), or drawing distinctions between still images and animations that were produced with a given font. I have been known to design a few t-shirts (e.g., this sweet Zoltan the Jackdaw shirt), so I need to be aware of these kinds of restrictions as well.

Some foundries offer what I would consider to be common sense licenses: they allow you to use licensed font software for just about anything (with some narrow and reasonable exceptions that require a specialized license) as long as you don’t give the font software to other people in the course of using it. Mark Simonson’s standard license is an excellent example of the genre. Other foundries are much more restrictive in their licensing; these licenses are typically biased toward print use cases (although they may allow production of physical objects that are not printed on paper) and do not allow the production of electronic documents. An example of a more restrictive license is the standard license from Hoefler & Frere-Jones.

Now, I believe both Simonson’s license agreement and H&FJ’s license agreement are perfectly fine to the extent I can look at either and determine fairly easily whether or not I’ll be able to use a face from that foundry for the kinds of projects I’m interested in doing. (I considered licensing some H&FJ faces for my dissertation — likely the only print book I’ll ever produce — and for my personal slide deck style, but didn’t because I wouldn’t be able to give away a PDF made using those faces.1) The problem comes when a license agreement

  1. is vague (for example, when the meaning of a long series of clauses depends on how conjunctions and disjunctions might be grouped, or whether a restrictive clause is meant to genuinely restrict or merely explain);
  2. contradicts itself (for example, when the same applications are listed as both acceptable and unacceptable uses!), or
  3. when the font seller (not the foundry) doesn’t make the agreement itself available for review until after you’ve purchased a license.

When all three of these show up in the same transaction, then we’re left with a very nice font that I may never use.

(See also “Sold, not licensed” for some related legal and practical questions.)

1 This is their prerogative, and I don’t begrudge it to them — furthermore, their faces are excellent and if I ever have to set something exclusively for print, they will be near the top of my list.

  • I absolutely love Analog, a new typeface from Scribble Tone (formerly TK Type, whose amazing Chartwell I’ve mentioned in the past); it reminds me of classic books on electronics projects and computers and recalls a time when all of these things were rather more exotic and exciting.


Typographical jokes

July 15th, 2010  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

One of these typefaces was designed as a joke

Consider the swash capitals pictured above: from Estupido Espezial and from Comic Sans. You might assume that both of these saw their genesis as elaborate inside jokes within type foundries. You would be half right.

Delightfully, the press release announcing a font package including a swash-enabled Comic Sans includes the following surely spontaneous and heartfelt quotation:

“The new versions of Comic Sans and Trebuchet have a lot of great OpenType features” said Vincent Connare, the original designer of the fonts. “My hat’s off to Ascender for creating swashes and other delightful flourishes that give these fonts a breath of fresh air.”

I have to assume that this statement isn’t something Connare merely “said” so much as something he snickered, wept, or spit out from behind bitterly-clenched teeth. But I suppose that press releases are typically imprecise about the delivery of quoted utterances.

(Ascender press release link via DF.)

Small caps

January 12th, 2010  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Like a lot of other fussy nerds, I typically use properly spaced small capital letters when typesetting acronyms. The reason for doing so is simple: large capital letters are designed to appear next to lowercase letters, and are not designed to appear in sequence. As a consequence, strings of large capitals, as might appear in an acronym, are jarring to the reader and can disrupt the color of a page. Small capital letters, on the other hand, are designed to appear next to other small capital letters.

I didn’t think that setting acronyms in this way was controversial, but yesterday John Gruber linked to Toronto author Joe Clark’s mildly-amusing but wrongheaded tirade against the use of small caps in typesetting acronyms. Roughly, Clark’s argument is that:

  1. Small caps fare poorly when applied in a host of pathological cases (like camel-case abbreviations, portmanteaus, or other similarly wretched feats of orthographic gymnastics), and
  2. Only (putatively) pedantic commentators like Robert Bringhurst insist upon using small caps for acronyms, anyway.

I believe that the first claim is the best part of his argument. Indeed, small caps can be applied in the service of careless typography just as well as ordinary Roman capital and lowercase letters. If someone were advocating the universal application of small caps as a panacea, then Clark would really have a point. However, I’ve not seen any well-regarded commentators recommend slavish devotion to small caps, even when amateurish settings result (Bringhurst certainly does not). The second claim strikes me as irrelevant, and I’m disinclined to address it further here.1 Judging by his writing elsewhere, Clark takes some delight in the “fusillade of defamatory comments on pipsqueak blogs” that appear in response to ad hominem attacks on Bringhurst; I like Bringhurst’s work a great deal, but decline to join the fusillade.

Of course, it’s far easier to point out the flaws of others than it is to identify something that actually works, and where Clark’s argument really falls apart is in his proposed solution, which we’ll get to after a bit of background. Recall that real small capitals must be designed separately from large capitals; thus, not every typeface has them. You’ve probably seen “fake small caps” before, which are simply regular large capitals that have been automatically compacted by a word processor.2 Fake small caps look terrible, and Clark himself points this out in his piece (as well as elsewhere on his site). It is thus at least a little ironic that Clark’s recommended solution to the problem of setting acronyms involves making your own fake small caps and then setting them properly spaced: “What works nicely, though? Knock the size down a point, add a few units of tracking, and equalize spacing.”

1 Since I started writing this post, Gruber has also linked to a piece that treats the ersatz anti-bourgeois sentiment of Clark’s second point more directly. (I describe this attitude as ersatz because, honestly, it is hilarious to consider the mere prospect of an anti-bourgeois opinion about typography.)
2 On this matter, Bringhurst says “Any good set of small caps is designed as such from the ground up. Thickening, shrinking, and squashing the full caps with digital modification routines will only produce a parody.”

The more you know: font licensing edition

October 12th, 2009  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

In what is surely an act of cosmic retribution for Jay Leno’s increased profile, The Font Bureau has filed suit against NBC for copyright infringement. I don’t know what’s more implausible: that NBC somehow doesn’t have a creative-department-wide license for Interstate, or that, as Chris Foresman implies, the incidence of copyright infringement (which is currently handled properly by the courts) somehow could be construed as a reason to break every application and operating system that can currently use OpenType fonts in order to enfeeble the format with DRM.

Cheap fonts are worse than Hitler

July 7th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

This video is pretty lowbrow, and some of the subtitles are in poor taste, but it did make me laugh until I cried. (Via Hoefler & Frere-Jones on Twitter.)

Anachrony in the U.S.A.

June 15th, 2009  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Never mind the bollocks and never mind the provenance. Imagine you’re an auction house selling off a flyer for a Sex Pistols show from 1978. Now imagine that said flyer has a huge chunk of Comic Sans (designed by V. Connare in 1994) in it. The thread on typophile that presents this sad case is the sort of thing that you’ll love if you’re the same kind of nerd I am.

Unlike the infamous forged Killian documents, which were clearly the product of a delusional and careless conspiracy theorist’s extended reverie, some effort clearly went into this Sex Pistols forgery. The creator of this fake flyer didn’t merely dump some text into Microsoft Word’s AutoAnarchy Wizard (see below); he or she was obviously concerned with aping at least the most basic characteristics of the form. The fact that the flyer included four consecutive characters in Comic Sans makes me wonder if the creator wanted to be caught, whether he or she intended such flagrant anachronism to be a John Lydon-style two-finger salute to the sorts of people wealthy enough to buy old punk rock flyers at auction.

RIYL: See my take on the Killian scandal and consensus genres, which is the source of the above image; see also my post on Nike and Minor Threat, in particular the humorless, outraged comments from (I assume) suburban kids who were born years after Minor Threat broke up.


December 6th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

I’m really growing to like Warnock for the text of my dissertation, but my longtime complaint with it — I find the capital “W” sort of distracting — hasn’t gone away. I guess people with other names are probably more likely to notice different letters….


(Click to see the whole page at lower magnification — I think the “W” is still obvious!)

  • Facebuster, a new slab-serif by Silas Dilworth, has caught a lot of buzz lately. It’s pretty nice, but the real delight for me was in idly browsing through the rest of the Type Trust site and remembering how much I like Dino Dos Santos’ Leitura Sans.



August 29th, 2008  |  Tags:  |  Leave a comment

iPhone 3.jpg

I’m wondering why the clocks in Unit 2 of the CS building at Wisconsin use the MICR font. Are there that many check-processing machines from the mid-1960s that need to be able to tell what time it is in the department? Is the clock face printed in magnetic ink? Was it too expensive to license a slightly less inappropriate face, like Comic Sans or Papyrus? Should they have gone with OCR-A, instead, to allow a readily-available fancy clock option?

When you consider that these clocks were probably approved by a committee — and that there are almost certainly laws and regulations governing the appearance of clocks in state buildings — their bizarre design is even more baffling.

Television notes (convention edition)

August 29th, 2008  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

What I saw on television last night was thrilling, well-produced, and inspirational — and it left me eager to see more. I truly have something to be excited about this fall!

Of course, I refer to televised football (real college players and soon-to-be-unemployed pro players), and to our introduction to the first season of AMC’s Mad Men on DVD. (Friends of this site know well that your humble scribe has far better things to do than see a tedious political infomercial full of the same whorish rhetoric we’ve heard for this entire interminable election season.)

Mad Men is great so far in almost every way that matters. I noticed, though, that the closing credits rubbed me the wrong way. I elected not to point out the details to Andrea (since I fear she is quite weary of this specific branch of my nerddom), but then I noticed this article in my RSS reader this morning. Yeah, what he said.

  • Graphic Design Goes to the Games: a very nice overview of Olympic branding from Khoi Vinh; scroll down to see some beautiful Swiss-influenced materials from the 1972 Munich Games.

  • Confidential to the readers who have found this site by searching for “free Obama fonts:” That font is not free; it is actually rather expensive. (As they say, though, you get what you pay for.)


Wal-Mart to Walmart

July 1st, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  2 Comments

Well, if you needed any further evidence for my claim about Myriad, I’m happy to oblige; Wal-Mart’s new branding eschews the hyphenation and is obviously based on a certain ubiquitous typeface:


Armin Vit is, I think, essentially right about the effect of removing the hyphen and all-caps:

[W]ith no reasoning or no explanation of what the new star burst stands for, or why the decision to change to a single word, all we have to go by is the logo that replaces the 16-year-old sans serif that was as thick and heavy as the beige boxes it adorned for so long…. The change to title case helps humanize Walmart with a name that reads more like John, Albert, Sarah or Wilbur….

It will be interesting to see how, or if, this new branding affects public perception of Walmart over time. I don’t have the sense that Walmart is a particularly image-conscious company — all of their current branding seems clumsily transparent and rhetorically amateurish to me. Will a new logo steer Walmart’s brand away from its current association with philistines who don’t mind melamine pet food?

In any case, removing the hyphen from “Wal-Mart” is far less jarring than it was when “Kmart” did the same thing. Honestly, “Kmart” seems like the name of a talking duck from a fake Icelandic children’s book: “Kmart was sad, because he had no more cookies and couldn’t play with his brothers and sisters. Suddenly, a friendly dog arrived!” “Walmart” at least looks like a string of letters that could be pronounced “wôl-märt” and might naturally occur so ordered in American English.

(via DF)

Putting the “sans” in

May 7th, 2007  |  Tags: , ,  |  6 Comments

I completely agree with the folks at, who claim to provide “the source for anti-comic sans propaganda.” Comic Sans is facile, ugly, and immediately casts a pallor over any work typeset with it: “this is the product of an unserious human.” Few fonts make me so angry.

[thanks to H., via M.]