A List Apart

Real Fonts on the Web: An Interview with The Font Bureau's David Berlow

Real Fonts on the Web: An Interview with The Font Bureau’s David Berlow

To understand issues surrounding web fonts from the type designer’s perspective, we interviewed David Berlow, co-founder of The Font Bureau, Inc., and the first TrueType type designer.

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The Font Bureau has developed more than 300 new and revised type designs for The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Hewlett Packard and others, with OEM work for Apple and Microsoft. The Font Bureau Retail Library consists largely of original designs and now includes over 500 typefaces. –Ed.

When did you realize you wanted to be a type designer?

I had several youthful moments where I became fascinated with the possibilities of making patterns, or printing sequences of images to build a story. When I got into my early 20s, I studied fine arts until I opened a drawer of metal type and realized that this was at least half of what told most stories.

Originally, though, I only wanted to learn to use type. Most people using type in the 1970s were art directors. So, I thought I’d work on learning about type with a job in the “commercial art” business leading to art direction. Then I saw how art directors lived, and decided on a longer, fuller life.

How did you get started?

I took a job in 1978 called “Junior Letter-Drawing Trainee” at Merganthaler Linotype and started out with paper, pencils, X-Acto knives, ink, film, and cameras, making letter drawings for Linotype typesetters. By 1982, I had risen to “Junior Letter-Drawer,” we had a computer, and I had learned the difference between hardware and software.

For how long did you still draw letters by hand?

After the computer? Zero. I mean, if someone asks me to design a font that looks drawn by a pen or brush, I’m bound to fiddle around with an analog tool while designing a font. But most fonts today are supposed to look like metal or digital faces, so a digital outline cutting the white and black precisely is what I design with from the start.

What were the steps along the way from Junior Letter-Drawer to World-Famous Type Designer?

My steps were this piece of luck, that piece of luck, and then the next piece of luck.

By 1981, Linotype had geared 10 of us up to make 100 faces per quarter, but then did not want to make fonts for non-Linotype equipment as fast as we did, so Bitstream was formed as the first all-digital font foundry, and I was promoted to senior designer.

Then, high resolution fonts were great, but DTP demanded low resolution fonts. I was the type person delegated to resolve the problem and was promoted to Manager of New Technology Development. PostScript exploded on the scene, Bitstream did not want to make PostScript fonts as much as Roger [Black] and I did, and The Font Bureau was founded.

I was, by default,  promoted to president, from which position I was blessed with hundreds of wise and fine clients. Because of my knowledge of high and low resolution typography and type design, many of those clients were technology companies like Apple, and I became the first TrueType type designer. Under such lucky circumstances, it seems likely anyone could become a World-Famous [Latin] Type Designer.

With whom did you study?

In school I mostly grated against instruction, but Phil Hamilton, now a retired professor at the University of Wisconsin, was a supporter throughout. As the most experienced graphic designer and art director at the school, he was the most knowledgeable about the world outside. Once I got outside, I had plenty of practical instruction from Linotype’s design staff, but starting then, and continuing to this day, I mostly study type specimens. It’s much like the line from Almost Famous: if you’re a groupie and missing your friends, they are all down at the record store. In our business, we go to type specimens and study what our friends, the old dead guys, did.

What were your first big creative breakthroughs?

In my experience, type design is not a “creative breakthrough” kind of discipline, though judging by the number of people who ask, it must be perceived as such.  Fundamentally, if I am working on a single word, then all kinds of creative things are possible, but not if I’m working on a tool for making all possible words, which is what a font should be. Then, I’m trying to disappear from the scene, leaving as perfect a tool as possible.

We have process breakthroughs and client breakthroughs mostly. The processes of designing types, making fonts, composing typography, producing typographic output, marketing fonts, transacting over it all, delivering and supporting type and typography gives us ample opportunity for breakthroughs in process, practically daily.

Client breakthroughs are also common and rewarding as you make exactly the thing they want that they couldn’t quite describe, or you have some understanding breakthrough with a client, for example on an issue like rotated RGB anti-aliasing.

So, as a “lucky” or masterful type designer, how do you feel about real type on the web?

In 1993, I signed up along with Matthew Carter to develop fonts for a now extinct OS developer. On my first visit to their sparkling Silicon Valley H.Q., their UI designer showed me a cool new app, a Graphical Web Browser, that he said was going to take over the world. I, being me, asked “Cool, what does it use for fonts?” “None,” he said rather smugly, “just the defaults.” I groaned (silently as they’d not yet paid in full).

Many typophiles had spent the 70s and 80s, in what now seems like an ongoing marketing effort to convince the general type-using public (and whatever technology czars are involved) that design cannot blossom on default fonts alone. In fact, the very existence of my custom font-making company points to the fact that certain kinds of design cannot blossom on the combination of default fonts and the publicly offered billion or so Latinfonts.

Forgetting for the moment to question the meaning of “real type,” I would love to see real typography on the web, in a wide breadth of selection, a great depth of functionality, and an economically broad spectrum of quality to suit the needs of all consumers. And, if “real type” just means whatever the web designer feels like, then I’m all for that too.

We have a standard that is now supported in Firefox and Safari…

Ah, the Zen Garden. One thing about the type in the Zen Garden—it’s not treated beyond a fourth-grader’s crayoning abilities; no shadows, in-lines, outlines, fill variety, twisting, perspective, set on a bouncing line, or opaque over another object, much less in motion. If the web’s imaging language is going to call the mighty capabilities of digital outlines for display type all the way to the user’s PC, when will it be a worthwhile shift of rendering power? Can we aim a little higher, like for the initial capabilities of Adobe Illustrator 1.0?

Let me put it another way. I want to use your ITC Franklin in a site I’m designing, but I’m not willing to violate my end user licensing agreement. How do we resolve this impasse, from your perspective?

The next step is for those who control the font format(s) to define and document a permissions table to be added with all due haste to the OpenType, CoolType, TrueType, and FreeType formats, so that font tool makers can make tools to create, modify and produce this table in fonts. With such a table in place, existing and new fonts can be permitted for the wide variety of today’s requirements, and leave a place for future requirements. In conjunction with this table and treating all current fonts as unlinkable, the modern user agreement, and a robust market should take care of some of the rest.

A permissions table and an updated licensing agreement. Sounds easy.

The rest of the rest, is that we type designers have this standard font format (OFF) moving into place at ISO that is a pre-web compromise among Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple, on top of which Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple don’t follow the same path or yield the same results from this standard format to the rendered text.

We have a world of display devices that have standardized to report their exact resolution, the space it occupies, and thus the pixels per inch, a key to moving text typography forward.

We have Unicode, which is a somewhat bright spot, and we also have OpenType for advanced text composition, as part of the OFF standard.

But we also have an HTML “standard” way of scaling text type that’s abysmal, with only two of five sizes being generally useful and headlines scaling along as if in some typographic horror movie. And, we have CSS using a 1989 understanding of the font family, and you’re only listening to my Dr. Jekyll side so far.

With the additional table (and keeping Mr. Hyde at bay for a few more lines [I can’t tell you exactly how many lines, as this is being web published]), the IP space opens up for legal licensing from founders and type distributors to web developers and users who wish to link to fonts via the web. That table will then make it worthwhile to begin the push on “the rest” towards lots and lots of better and better fonts for all (as long as it’s open, snarls Hyde).

Last question, if I may: How can type designers and web designers work together to persuade the engineers who control the formats to modify the code to include a permissions table?

Well, that’s a great wrap-up question but first I should give some due compliments for what engineering and web design have so far accomplished. The web started out sans-a-clue about form, (content, content, content), and we’ve seen great strides in form development from many dedicated engineers. And web designers flat-out refused to part with real type, which has filled the web with type as graphic files, scaring the bejesus out of a lot of engineering people.

How important dynamically rendered type is to design and use on the web must now be clear. In addition, the only other option, that the type industry cede its intellectual property to the public without permission, is not going to happen. With no upgrade penalty to any applications, or change in usage by the public, the permissions table is the only invisible (type-like) solution.

Once the table is adopted, all the work to be done is within the font industry, upgrading to include this table and policing proper use. So in a way, what type designers can do is agree on this new standard, and what web designers can do is keep disagreeing with the default font standards.

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