Real Fonts on the Web: An Interview with The Font Bureau's David Berlow
Issue № 282

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.

David Berlow

David Berlow entered the type industry in 1978 as a letter designer for the respected Mergenthaler Linotype type foundry. He joined Bitstream, a newly formed all-digital foundry in 1982. Berlow left Bitstream in 1989, to found The Font Bureau, Inc. with Roger Black. Font Bureau has developed more than 2,000 new and revised type designs for publications, retail distribution and for software developers like Apple Computer Inc. and Microsoft Corporation.

27 Reader Comments

  1. When all popular browsers will be able to support @font-face, I expect a good number of good quality FREE fonts to be available.
    This will make happy 99% of web designers, and make unhappy 99% of font designers, doh!

  2. When I was young in the early seventies I could not afford Letraset dry transfer sheets but their huge catalogue was free – hours of fun tracing letter forms and hand drawing headlines kept me off the streets and out of trouble.

    I think we would all love to see real typography on the net but in a way we do if we render text as images. Finley crafted typefaces are not really required for accessibility reasons and so using a myriad of fonts on the web might cause more problems than the aesthetic ones we have now.

  3. He’s not talking DRM, or rather he’s not talking about DRM protection schemes, but simply defining the licence conditions in an electronically readable way. There have been similar proposals for other files, like images — for instance as a way of electronically saying “˜this photo is free for personal use, but not commercial use’.

    Sure, it’s not going to stop pirated usage, or people hacking the conditions file, or using a crack that tells the browser to ignore font permissions, but it does make it a lot easier for legitimate firms to manage their assets, if the licencing is machine readable, and the big firms will stay on the right side of the law. It would also be good to see “˜web magazines’ not needing to go with PDF or Flash.

    As for whether there will be lots of good quality free fonts, which “˜99% of web designers’ will use, that’s another question. I don’t think 99% of web designers are obsessed with “˜free’ in the same way that developers are – otherwise they would all use Linux & Gimp over Apple and Adobe software. Of rather, there is a difference between “˜web designers’ in the sense of app designers, and graphic designers. The latter group tend to see “˜added value’, largely because I suspect that is what their job is about.

  4. I’m not surprised when that he brought up a need to control font use on the web, basically via a form of DRM. He’s in a bubble. That’s never going to happen. There are enough free fonts out there and there will only be more. People are more than willing to leave the paid fonts behind on the web. Even Microsoft, who could afford to license fonts, chose to create their own fonts instead. (Much to our dismay, but still.)

    If font makers think the majority of the web is going to be paying them license fees, forget it. Technology will move beyond them, it happens all the time.

  5. The dek for this article makes it sound like it answers a lot of questions about Webfonts, but the article actually turns out to be an interview with a couple of Berlowian zingers thrown in at the end.

    Truth in advertising?

  6. Maybe I have an overly naive view of the technical obstacles involved, but if browsers contained their own type rendering engine instead of relying on the operating system’s (as I assume they do now), would they not be able to “ring fence” the downloaded font within the browser space thereby obviating the need for new licences and meta data?

  7. Very interesting article, Mr. Berlow and Zeldman.

    I have done a little bit of design work online, nothing to earn much – more of a “light hobby”. I’m very glad to have stumbled upon your thoughts, suggestions, and tips.


  8. Interesting Mr. Berlow and Zeldman.

    I am wondering if this will help web designers to make their life easier or more complicated.

  9. 1. Design an awesome typeface in all weights and variations that looks great even with 9 pixels height and anti aliasing turned off. Make it contain all unicode characters. These are the requirements for web fonts, thanks to Microsoft and Apple for putting some work into this.

    2. Put this many years of work in the public domain.

    3. Lobby all operating system vendors to include this typeface in all their operating systems.


    Type-Designers seem to me like the music industry of design, they try to sell something to the internet that is not really useful or needed anymore. If they want to change something, work on FREE high quality typefaces.

  10. OFF and hence OpenType are no longer controlled by Adobe and Microsoft alone, but as an open standard can take anybody’s input. If Dave thinks these bits are important, perhaps he could be bothered to, say, actually propose it?

    Also, “a permissions table to be added with all due haste to the OpenType, CoolType, TrueType, and FreeType formats”… I hate to point it out, but CoolType and FreeType are not font formats (or formats at all). They are libraries that handle font imaging for certain applications, analogous to the system libraries on Mac OS and Windows.

    But most importantly, adding this info to the font formats would be trivial, and probably easily done… the hard part is convincing the W3C to recommend that web browsers respect the new bits. There are some W3C members who sound like they would never agree to any such thing.



  11. @Wrinkles Treatment :)))

    bq. I don’t think 99% of web designers are obsessed with “˜free’ in the same way that developers are — otherwise they would all use Linux & Gimp over Apple and Adobe software.

    And i don’t think 99% of *users* are obsessed with fonts. Unfortunately, these users have to handle the technology to display them. They might have to upgrade their browser or download a plugin. And this in a world where roughly a quarter of web users are still on Internet Explorer 6 and have helpful hints automatically added to their blog comments by trojans. Makes me LOL!

    I call out to all designers to understand the challenges and possibilities web design has to offer and stop longing for more fonts. This topic is haunting the web since the first graphic designer accidently clicked on Netscape instead of QuarkXPress, so it is getting really old.

    If designers want another font for reliable web usage really badly, get together and build it, like the “DejaVu project”: is doing. There is a chance that it might end up on people’s computers. If you call for a technological solution, in the hope that Apple, Adobe or Microsoft would give you what you want, you will open pandora’s box.

  12. @ Dragan Espenschied

    bq. And i don’t think 99% of *users* are obsessed with fonts.

    Quite. Given how many people think Comic Sans is the most appropriate font for use in every situation under the sun, and the proliferation of websites that use utterly awful fonts for screen reading, I think it’s fair to say that a huge proportion of people would be unable to pick an appropriate font for the job if it was the only one available and had big flashing lights pointing to it saying “this is an appropriate font” …

  13. The important thing about font-embedding with @font-face, is that the font can, finally, “travel” with the document. What’s holding that up is strictly, strictly, an Intellectual Property problem and nothing else.

    Frankly, I can’t believe Berlow is as clueless as he seems.

    There is already a permissions table in TTF and OTF. Why do we need another one? The suggestion that first, the OTF format needs to be amended before we can even begin to tackle the problem of embedding fonts is, frankly, nuts. And moot – direct linking to TTF/OTF files using @font-face is supported in Safari, FireFox 3.5, and Chrome 2. In IE, @font-face – requiring conversion of the OTF to a compressed EOT file – has been supported for over ten years.
    Berlow is talking about shadows, in-lines, outlines, fill variety, twisting, when we can’t even display a simple paragraph in a font optimized for screen-readability and make something as simple as THAT happen consistently across browsers and platforms.

    Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but Berlow’s comments, taken in light of the practical impediments to the standards-compliant use of fonts on web pages today are so far removed from the real issues as to be misinformative.

    If Berlow is typical of type-designers as a whole in regards to savvy about browser technology, technical and legal hurdles, and the web in general, boy are we in trouble.

  14. re “permissions table”
    It’s here:
    We’ve already been working on this for years and the first implementation will be coming out in Fontlab products this summer. Anyone who creates an OpenType font will be able to specify the permissions right in the font and any application or OS will be able to read the permissions.

  15. To all who found this interview inspiring, interesting, or just plain fun! Thanks for the encouragement. As you can see we’re up against all manner of voodoo, misunderstanding and fright.

    E.G. there is not a permissions table in TTF and OTF. There is a bit repurposed from a failed MS technology, inside a table from a failed IBM technology, currently being used for defining PDF embedding rights. I would not let this be repurposed for web font linking, because it is utterly inappropriate. Wanting this repurposing belies underlying hostility toward the PDF technology, the font industry and readability.

    The OTF format needs to be amended before we can tackle the problem of Linking fonts, (there is no embedding). The proposal made on the part of this founder was ‘requested’ by the W3C and the browser manufacturers because they proceeded/want-to-proceed with @fontface, sans due diligence.
    I mentioned shadows, in-lines, outlines, fill variety and etc., because it is an extension of the problems faced by web-founders that reaches down into ‘why we can’t even display a simple paragraph in a font optimized for screen-readability.’ I do not expect everyone to understand the details of hinting, screen readability, and software legalities, but I’m bound to out-try anyone from here, (in casual ‘friendly’ conversation) to court (in formal ‘legal’ conversation).

  16. The author of this article fails to mention that typefaces / fonts are NOT protected by copyright laws in the United States. It’s a dirty little secret font designers don’t want you to know.

    Adobe + Many companies try to purposely claim fonts (Font Folio 11) are SOFTWARE and therefore deserve protection.

    The court’s tend to disagree about 98% of the time. While I expect to pay for my fonts, I think it’s shameful to not address this issue.

    DRM for fonts? Kiss my ass. You can probably use some sort of .htaccess protection, but don’t expect to sue me anytime soon for font-face when I accidentally use your commercial font.

  17. @david berlow
    I’ve been told by a trusworthy source who knows you personally that you are “a great font guy” but in regards to fonts on the web, well, a machine-readable End User License Agreement in the form of a more elaborate permissions table is still besides the point. The browsers that now support font-linking ignore the permissions table that already exists. And there are, strangely, sound legal reasons for them to do so. (But explaining why that is, for most readers of ALA, would be a crashing bore. So let’s let it go, eh?)
    Keep making great fonts, please!

    @court kizer
    Font creation is both labor and knowledge intensive. And the pool of people who are really good at it is small. If ever there was an example of copyright protection acting – as the framers of the Constitution intended – to promote a useful art (in other words, to encourage font-makers and keep new fonts coming) this would be such an example.
    If you’ve got another idea for a method of compensation for those who create the font-sets we need, I’d love to hear about it.

  18. I have to say that my knowledge of fonts is pretty limited, so I really enjoyed this article. I liked learning more about how fonts are created.

    I know typography is really important to most designers, but I don’t think the average person gives them all that much consideration (even though they can be influenced quite a bit by them).

    Nice interview! Thanks!

  19. I am now studying my Multimedia 2 year course. Though i am 24 i am really getting to like web designing. I completed my software engineering degree program. SW is really not my field i figured and web designing should help me in online earning for personal sites and as well for clients. Nice interview mate. Keep it up.

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