A fan of irony, an odd news item grabbed my attention, “The University of Wisconsin at Green Bay is swapping Arial for Century Gothic for their email system. It is believed that students will save ink when they print their emails.
Readers politely posted that this is yet another reason to switch to “Garamond” and debate ensued, and then this guy sketched popular fonts on a wall and measured the ink left in the pen!
Web fonts, cheeky controversy, and constant innovation abound online and offline! Candidly speaking, web fonts, became a hell of a lot more interesting over the past year with Typekit’s release. In fact, Typekit has proven itself a web design game-changer both in business and in rendered page.
Typekit, a product and business eco-system that blew by the bureaucracy of type vendors agreeing on universal licensing and browsers deciding on what fonts to support, and rapidly and forever changed web design in both beautiful and controversial ways.
We’re well beyond the hype of Typekit’s rollout, the web is full of love letters, lessons, and licensing debates, so I caught up with Jeff Veen (Co-founder of Small Batch Inc, the company behind Typekit) to take inventory of some Typekit’s greatest effects:
- Web standards
- Web font design
- Individual challenge of web designers to learn more about type
- The Typekit ecosystem & API
Licensing? Subscribing to a Constant Soundtrack
A day before I was scheduled to speak with Jeff, Jeffery Zeldman published a great post about Typekit, “My Love Hate Relationship With Typekit” (Dammit.) Of licensing, he writes:
“I have mixed feelings about their product because I’d rather buy a web-licensed font than rent it …. But a one-time font purchase as a line item in a design budget is easier to explain and sell to a client than an ongoing rental charge.”
@Zeldman does a great job exploring issues of licensing v. owning, and I’d rather encourage you to read his words than attempt to resummarize his succinct poetry in my prose. I did, however, bring @Zeldman’s timely post up with Jeff, who explained that he believes Typekit’s model isn’t about a “rent v. buy” proposition.
Typekit, like Spotify, and many other service businesses living in the cloud, is a professional hosted service. Instead of a constant soundtrack of music and lyrics, users have a constant stream of licensed fonts.
As for the issues around explaining an ongoing licensing fee, Jeff admits that he and the Typekit team are continuing to work on ways to help designers do a better job of explaining this proposition.
Skirting Web Standards or Towing the Line?
Standards are ingrained in design and design philosophy, it’s understandable then to question how a product that requires a paid subscription might not fully compliment a designer who seeks to practice standards compliant design. Jeff explains:
“Typekit uses 100% standards compliant markup, style, and script. We’ve built a service that sits along side web standards, helping designers and developers focus on creative solutions rather than workarounds and hacks, no matter how bullet-proof they are.”
“It’s a similar solution to how many people use jQuery hosted on Google’s servers now. Everyone who includes the link in their page automatically has the latest stable version, properly minified and gzipped, served from data centers around the world.”
What Has Changed in Web Font Design?
If we really look at what Typekit has done, released fonts and challenged web design and web designers to go beyond the defaults I wondered what’s been the most surprising effect Jeff had seen in web font design (e.g. more designers, new fonts, new businesses, developer/engineers?)
“We’ve been most surprised by the overwhelming hunger there is for good web typography. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise — web designers have been waiting for a more diverse range of fonts for over a decade.
But the rate at which both @font-face and services like ours have taken off has been fantastic. And the new design work people are doing is so beautiful. It really feels like this is the year when webfonts tip into the mainstream.”
Web Designers Learning More About Type
A great challenge for getting more web designers to use Typekit, is the learning curve, not the learning curve for using the tool itself, but to go beyond the default and create awesome design that utilizes creative web fonts. Additionally, there is the added task of explaining to clients and companies fees associated with embedded fonts and Typekit.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the former point, is to simply let a new Typekit user speak for herself:
“I read about Typekit last November, but not being very CSS-skilled I (wrongly) supposed that the implementation was somehow quirky . . . . in just ten minutes I completely replaced the bland Arial I used in my blog with Museo Sans by Jos Buivenga!”
Other designs provide some beautiful examples of how emerging web fonts can create awesome experiences:
- Ben Boiden with FF Enzo
- Lift UX with FF Dagny
- Dan Cederholm’s Simplebits with FF Meta Serif and a Baskerville ampersand
(Personally, I’m excited about the possibility of using Typekit to conduct ongoing A/B testing with web fonts.)
Things the Typekit Team are Tackling
- Size – Building out the library by adding new fonts every week to a selection of over 800 families now.
- Teaching – designers how to best convey the cost of an ongoing licensing fee and making type designers more comfortable with the model and the technology. Imagine all the new fonts this will generate?
- Affiliate Incentives – Creating a model where designers can possibly make money by using, create a situation where designers usingTypekit with their clients are rewarded for that Typekit with their clients. Design assets, stock photography
- API – Developing awesome APIs for the developer community to both get engineers more excited about web fonts and build beautiful apps that will expand, surprise, and delight the community.
- CMS – Integrating with all kinds of CMSs from personal blogs (read Leah Culver’s Typekit with Typepad) to custom enterprise builds.
Q&A With Jeffrey Veen
Q: Designers have been able to embed fonts since CSS2, so what were some of the things that made 2009 the right climate to found this model and business?
Definitely cloud computing. These days we’re putting a lot of things in the cloud. We carefully watched how companies were using Cloud services, and it occurred to us – couldn’t this happen with web fonts as well? Connecting the dots was pretty easy!
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the user research that went into Typekit?
Typekit would be an entirely different product if user research hadn’t been at its core during initial and ongoing development. In fact, we spent weeks talking to both type designers and web designers before we wrote a line of code.
We’ve always felt user research is necessary to make great products. So we listened to the hopes, needs, and fears from the foundaries just as closely as we listened to the hopes, needs, and fears of web designers.
For example, type designers were rightly concerned about their fonts simply becoming freely available on the web. But web designers also had questions about things like how to explain recurring fees to their clients?
Q: What has surprised you about the development of Typekit?
It has to be the overwhelming excitement that users share on Twitter and in their blogs, and the speed at which our user-base on both sides has grown. I start my days by spending an hour reading feedback shared by users on Twitter, via email, and on blogs, answering as many questions as possible. It’s an amazing way to stay connected with our users.
Q: Tell me a little about the audience you were building for, and how that’s helped with your product development and uptake?
The team building Typekit has been designing and developing for the web since it started — personally, I got started in 1994. So we’ve been connected to the community of designers and developers for years.
So not only is Typekit designed for an audience we know very well, it’s also a tool we want to see exist in the world. We’re as fanatic about using Typekit as we are about building it. I think it really shows in the user experience we’ve created.
Q: How has transparency in your product development process helped? (both for font producers and consumers)
Web fonts are a relatively new technology, and there really aren’t best practices for designing with a wide variety of type yet. Not only that, but the technology itself is shifting every day — browser support increases and gets more mature, operating systems render fonts in a variety of ways, and the font formats themselves are changing. So we are constantly iterating Typekit to keep up with all this change and help designers figure out how to be successful.
We didn’t think taking a wait-and-see approach would be beneficial, considering how fast things move. Instead, we’ve been learning in public and upgrading things as quickly as we possibly can.
Q: Can you share any insight into what your planning for an API and developer ecosystem?
We’re working on an API right now that will allow full typographical control regardless of how developers wish to integrate webfonts into their workflow. Many users build websites via content management systems or via existing themes and frameworks.
And while the Typekit web app is really intuitive and powerful, there are times when you don’t want to switch to a browser-based app to update your web design. With an API, you’ll be able to control which fonts you use, how they’re applied to your markup, and more, all from within your development environment.
Huge thanks to Jeff! If you’re interest is peaked and you’re ready to learn more, read Keir’s article Getting Started With Typekit!
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