One of my major prompts for thinking about the essential qualities of open source has been the Google Fonts project, which claims to be a library of open-source fonts.
I wrote some previous comments (here and here) about Google Fonts as part of a discussion about Roboto, the new Android font. What follows is a more detailed criticism of Google Fonts, but it’s also a call for Google to do better. They can and they should.
How do I know they can? In the engineering arena, Google has shown itself to be a good citizen of the open-source world. For instance: Python. For seven years, Google employed Python’s creator and benevolent dictator, Guido van Rossum. According to Guido,
But what you won’t find on Google’s open-source blog, nor on its Open Source Programs website,
I’m convinced that they don’t. To make the case, I’ll step through my seven essential qualities of open source (including the dilution–reality dichotomy introduced in that article). I’ll explain how Google Fonts falls short, and what Google could do to improve the program.
Essential quality #1
Dilution: Open source arises from a spirit of freedom and cooperation.
Reality: Open source arises from a spirit of capitalist competition.
It’s no coincidence that Google launched its webfont project in May 2010, the same period that other competing services (like Typekit and Webtype) were also getting off the ground. It’s also no coincidence that this effort has emerged during Google’s campaign to become more platform-oriented rather than application-oriented, building out Android, Chrome OS, and Google Docs. The Droid and Roboto font projects are the clearest examples of platform-oriented fonts.
My complaint with the Google Fonts project isn’t that Google is benefiting from it. There’s nothing wrong with making money from open source. Many companies do. It’s that Google is trying to pretend otherwise by flying the flag of freedom and sharing:
Essential quality #2
Dilution: Open-source developers work for free.
Reality: Open-source developers are paid.
The idea that open-source contributors work for free is one of the most persistent and insidious myths of open source. Insidious because it’s the preferred tool of companies who want to harvest the benefits of open source without assuming its burdens.
Here, it’s not in Google’s interest to reveal the boring reality—Google benefits from Google Fonts—because it would dampen the enthusiasm of the designers who contribute fonts for little to no money.
Google Fonts uses a variation of this toxic line as part of its pitch to potential open-source font contributors:
To be fair, over the past year, Google has been making more of an effort to pay designers. One Google Fonts contractor told me that they were offering $500‑3000 per font. Let’s suppose Google pays you in the middle of that range ($1750) for each style in a four-style font family, or $7000 total. Let’s also suppose you spent three months on that project. Do you think that’s comparable to what a web designer employed by Google would get paid, including benefits, health care, stock options, etc. in the same three-month period? Clearly not.
How can Google do better? One model is to pay market rates for type-design services and then release the results under an open license. This was the model for the Droid fonts, made by Monotype Imaging. It would be an improvement, but not especially open-source in spirit.
The better option would be for Google to embrace the open-source model more wholeheartedly. Google doesn’t pay community engineers to work on open-source code. So Google also shouldn’t pay community type designers to work on open-source fonts. Instead, Google should provide those type designers the other benefits of working on an open-source project. (Keep reading.)
Essential quality #3
Dilution: Open source makes things free.
Reality: Open source redefines what is valuable.
In the open-source model, the point of making software code free is not to destroy the marketplace for software, but rather to shift the value elsewhere. Making one thing free without making something else more valuable misses the point.
Google has likewise missed the point by releasing hundreds of fonts for free without creating corresponding value elsewhere. In that regard, Google Fonts is not part of the lineage of open-source projects, but rather file-sharing projects like 1001 Free Fonts
You might counter by pointing out that the Google Fonts team has created new value by releasing open-source code for working with webfonts. True, but I consider the code-writing part of Google Fonts to be distinct from the font-creation part. Google has a good handle on how to work on open-source software. What Google is missing is a similar rationale for fonts.
How can Google do better? By putting forward a coherent concept of how Google Fonts can redefine value in the font market. The world already has plenty of useless free fonts. Google Fonts is blazing no trails there.
Google has multiple options. I think that Google Fonts could be an interesting training opportunity for aspiring type designers who can’t drop everything and move to Berlin or New York (or other urban center) to learn the trade. In this way, it would be similar to how open-source software projects provide opportunities for engineers without a strong résumé to learn and contribute. But the value of this mechanism depends entirely on the next point:
Essential quality #4
Dilution: Open source has no barriers to participation.
Reality: Open source relies on meritocracies.
I alluded to it above, but this is the moment to fully confront the unavoidable truth: measured by professional standards, the average Google Font is just awful. Some are better than others, but nearly all fall prey to at least one fatal flaw of being ugly, incomplete, poorly drawn, poorly spaced, amateurish, or just unusable. And I don’t say that to criticize the designers themselves. They’re enthusiastic about type design. But that enthusiasm should be channeled into improving their skills and making better fonts. Right now, it’s not. And Google isn’t helping.
If you think it’s unfair to compare Google Fonts to professional fonts, sorry, but that’s the open-source way. (See also Essential Quality #1.) The open-source option is only relevant if it can compete with the quality of the proprietary version. Does Google release tons of low-quality open-source code into the world? No. It lives up to professional open-source standards. Google should adopt analogous standards for fonts.
How can Google do better? This one’s easy: fewer fonts, higher quality. The need for new fonts is never in doubt. Time passes. Technology evolves. Requirements change. In the last generation, companies like Apple and Microsoft invested large sums in making the system fonts that millions of people have relied on for 20 years. Google has the opportunity to step into that role, if it chooses.
Essential quality #5
Dilution: Open source is democratic.
Reality: Open source relies on benevolent dictators.
This one’s also easy: assuming that Google developed fewer fonts, each project should be led by an experienced, respected, professional type designer. This would be analogous to open-source software, where projects are led by experienced, respected, professional software engineers. Google should pay these professional type designers market rates to assume these roles. They would become the arbiters of which contributions get included and which don’t.
Google would get professional-quality fonts at a lower cost than proprietary development.
Community type designers would get to work with professional type designers (which is the best way of improving skills).
Google would be releasing genuine open-source assets into the world, that would be good enough to inspire more development. For instance, the freely available font Charter—designed by the esteemed Matthew Carter in 1987—became the basis of Charis SIL. Have any current Google Fonts been similarly adapted?
Essential quality #6
Dilution: An open-source project can have one developer.
Reality: An open-source project requires multiple developers.
Most Google Fonts are the work of one to three designers, working in isolation from other designers. Maybe Google does some rudimentary quality control—it’s hard to tell from the results. But in most cases, the font is done when the designer says it’s done. The font does not have to meet any external standards.
With multiple designers working under a benevolent dictator, there would be a competition of design ideas. Type designers who were lazy or careless would quickly find that there was no room for their work. They would either improve their work, thereby becoming better designers, or retreat. Either way, the project would benefit.
Essential quality #7
Dilution: A software project can be open-sourced at any time.
Reality: Open source is part of the project’s DNA or it’s not.
But if that’s the case, Google has to change its approach. I said before
More broadly, Google should consider that its interests as a participant in the font world are parallel to its interests in the software world. Regardless of whether your project is open or proprietary, the results depend on the talent of the people building it. Developing the talent pool always pays dividends. But that can’t happen by merely making fonts free. It requires a more thorough and thoughtful approach. Google is possibly capable of that.
It’s also possible that Google, with its cultural bias toward engineering, simply doesn’t acknowledge that type-design skill exists and has value. If that’s so, Google Fonts will remain the Costco of typography: always getting bigger, never getting better. If that ends up being in Google’s best interests, fine. But please, Google—don’t call it open source. You know better. So do we.
First, to give Google some credit: I believe the Google Fonts project has been important in getting web users & developers comfortable with webfonts. When this article was first written, most major commerical websites were still using combinations of Georgia and Arial. Webfonts were rare. Today, the ratio has reversed. Webfonts have become part of the mainstream web.
Like many of today’s tech companies, Google likes to portray its most mediocre accomplishments as works of revolutionary genius. (PR people are cheaper than engineers, after all.) My concern during the Google Fonts surge in 2012 was that Google might try to redefine the font market around its own low standards, much as Amazon has defined the e-book market with the dreadful Kindle.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The Kindle is a key project for Amazon. By contrast, fonts have always been a minor sideshow for Google. Over the next few years, Google Fonts continued to pump out dozens and dozens of pretty bad fonts. (It wasn’t uncommon to see articles with titles like
Maybe the worst thing that happened to Google Fonts was that their core premise—namely, that quantity matters more than quality—was debunked. In 2012, Adobe released Source Sans and Source Code, two open source fonts that were actually quite good. The next year, Mozilla released Fira, which I thought was one of the best fonts of 2013.
At some point, I was told that my critique of Google Fonts had led to changes in their design process to be more open and inclusive. Yeah, right, whatever. Look, Google is a secretive corporate behemoth. Google’s engagement with open source is partly a theatrical gesture, as cynical as its candy-colored geometric logo. The point of discussing Google Fonts was not to help Google. (As if they care what I think.) Rather, it was to encourage type designers who were thinking about participating in the project to critically reflect on the costs & benefits. Because ultimately, Google is into open source like McDonald’s is into animal welfare.
January 2012 & November 2015