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Quite a number of things are happening now in the world of free fonts. I've been tossing around ideas in my head for a website to foster the development of fonts to be released under licenses compatible with free software distribution (as opposed to merely "freeware" fonts, which is much less interesting). In this post, I will set down my vision for what such a site might look like.
I'm posting this on typophile so I can get feedback from the typographic community, and am also inviting people from the free software world to weigh in, as well. As such, there will probably be some introductions to be made, and I won't be surprised if some controversy erupts as well.
What's been happening?
For those of you who have been following the free font scene closely, this will be old news, but there's been quite a lot of activity I want to briefly summarize.
All of these developments bode well for the future of free fonts.
What would a free font site do?
While there is a lot of activity, and much in the way of existing infrastructure (including typophile itself), there are several holes that I believe a new site could fill.
First and foremost, there is currently no site that presents free fonts well. There is nothing for free fonts like the trial setting features of online font shops. Doing something like the mudTyper at vllg.com would be very exciting, and, since the fonts are free, there needn't be any stipple background or other such encumbrances.
A person looking for good free fonts pretty much has to go digging, and that means sorting through a great deal of crap. The various "thousands of free fonts" sites don't do much to help with that.
Indeed, the major theme for my ideal site would be quality. Not just abundance (millions of fonts!) or freeness, but quality. When a person posts a really good font, it should be celebrated, which of course will also help motivate people to contribute.
I think an emphasis on quality would be a benefit to the entire font community. There are very, very few top-quality free fonts, and I'm sure this will continue to be the case for a long time. People who are looking for quality can always choose to pay for it. My ideal site would gently encourage people to buy fonts if they find no free font that meets their needs, with an emphasis on independent foundries. Note that this philosophy is fairly different that of many free software proponents, the most radical of whom encourage people to use no non-free software at all.
Many, if not most, developers of free fonts will be people who are not yet very skilled at the craft of font design, but are trying to learn. My ideal site would invite people to post their work, and provide critique, encouragement, and feedback. This role of the proposed site overlaps the critique forums on typophile considerably, and so should perhaps not be separate. I am continually impressed by the level of discussion on the typophile forums. The Cyrillic uc/lc discussion is an excellent recent example of the kind of feedback that would be incredibly useful to aspiring, as well as experienced, font developers.
One of the great strengths of the free approach is the way it enables collaboration. If I see something I want to improve, there are as few barriers as possible standing in my way. Similarly, I don't have to commit to a huge project to make an improvement. I can improve a Wiki page in as small a way as correcting a single spelling typo, something that might take ten seconds.
I believe this approach to fine-grained collaboration can also work well in the context of font development. We already see something much like it with people extending existing fonts to cover more scripts, sometimes (as in the freefont project) but not always above-board. Another tantalizing glimpse at how fine-grained collaboration might work is the new 'g' for Matrix from the Freestyle Remix Challenge thread.
Fine-grained collaboration can also be good for pedagogy. The craft of font design has intimidatingly many facets. Learners may well find it easier to start with just one aspect, such as diacritics or creation of small caps. Someone else might decide to tackle spacing (which, as we know, is one of the major stumbling blocks for beginners). Again, an improvement may be as minor as a single tweak to a kern pair or side bearing, but with a large and active user community, these improvements would add up.
There are concrete ways in which a font development website can foster such fine-grained collaboration. Primarily, it can treat a font as something like a Wiki or version-controlled repository. If there are multiple versions of the same glyph, it should present the variants to the user, and ask for a vote. To be really ambitious, the site could dynamically synthesize an .otf file based on choices entered on the Web form (on the backend, this would be relatively easy to achieve using the batch scripting capabilities of FontForge).
The Creative Commons philosophy includes tending to the body of public domain work in existence, and making it readily available. Fortunately, due to the relatively long lifetimes of fonts as creative works, we have a fantastic array of public domain materials available. I've put a small archive of scans from ATF specimen books online (and TUG is generously hosting the multigigabyte raw archive of 2400 dpi scans). If there is interest, there is plenty more where that came from. Among other things, my older son can be hired to do some scanning. My experience is that digitizing classics drawn by long-dead masters is a great learning experience.
The world of free fonts is intimately connected to the world of free software tools for publishing. Of these, TeX is the great granddaddy of them all, and is still actively used, primarily for mathematics work. One of the reasons why TeX rocks out for math is that it natively supports optical scaling, so subscripts and superscripts don't look spindly and anemic like they do in almost all other math systems. I'd love to see more optically scaled fonts available besides Computer Modern, a fairly poor face by typography standards.
There are also a number of free GUI page layout projects in the works, of which Scribus is probably the most polished. They're constantly improving their support for OpenType and typographic refinements. A number of good things could come from collaboration with this project, not the least of which is a set of kick-ass good default style sheets.
I have to remain a bit vague and secretive about this because I've been too busy to file the patent yet, but I expect some cool things to happen in the space of free tools for drawing fonts in the next few months. These tools, I think, will be especially useful to amateurs who have not climbed the arduous learning curve of drawing well with Beziers.
My ideal site would encourage development of fonts for distribution under free software licenses. It would emphasize quality, especially aspiring font designers who want to learn to do better work. It would foster fine-grained collaboration, so that fonts can be improved incrementally, both in quality and in script coverage.
Building such a site will require a nontrivial amount of resources. Much as it appeals to me, I'm nowhere near in a position to be able to launch it myself. However, there may well be enough tappable energy to make it happen. Certainly, there are lots of people and organizations with an interest in free fonts.
Is a site along the lines I've presented worthwhile? Would you participate as a developer? As a user? Which organizations, if any, are prepared to throw their weight behind such a project? Who might be willing to put their own time into its development?