Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Saving Typography
Soundtrack: “Dolly Dagger” by Jimi Hendrix

Design by Fire is one of my favorite blogs to read. First of all, it is less of a blog and more of an über-magazine dedicated not only to Design but to the thoughts of Andrei Michael Herasimchuk, who worked for Adobe Systems for many years as an interface designer. Which means he is a big reason why products like Photoshop and Illustrator are so damn fun to use. He was also project lead for Adobe Lightroom from 2002 through 2004 and he currently is a principle designer at Involution Studios. But really, this is not so much about him as it is about his fun and informative writings at Design By Fire. The fact that the site is so well designed is insignificant compared to awesome articles like this one. When I read it, my soul smiled.

The article takes the form of an open letter to John Warnock, who is a god among men in the design world. The letter is a plea from Andrei for John to “
consider releasing eight to twelve core fonts into the public domain.” And I have to say, I hope John Warnock reads Andrei’s letter and takes his request seriously. Because the future of design depends on it.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a typography nut. I love it. I love collecting new typefaces and fonts, I love studying the history, and I love it when I can find the perfect typeface for a project… the one that makes all the difference. And I get incredibly frustrated when people just slap some random font on a design without any care or thought. Right now Times New Roman, Arial and Verdana rule the design landscape, especially on the web. While Times is not a terrible font, Arial is nothing more than a poor bastardization of Helvetica and Monotype Grotesque, and Verdana doesn’t even work right (see also Tahoma, which is pretty much just a rehash of Verdana). Part of this problem is Microsoft’s attitude towards typeface licensing. It’s a long story, but back in the late 80’s there was a huge digital typeface language war which led to Apple and Microsoft agreeing upon a cross-licensing and product development deal, the fruits of which would be available to both parties. Microsoft’s solution, TrueImage, never took off, but Apple's TrueType did and TrueType has been built into the Mac operating system ever since. Microsoft was on the bandwagon a couple years later when they introduced TrueType into Windows 3.1. Apple, being the sticklers for quality they are, decided to license a selection of fonts that were very useful for professionals as well as for everyday use, like Helvetica, Times, Courier, and Garamond. Microsoft, being the cheap bastards they are, decided to grab a whole bunch of knock-off fonts, like Arial. Thankfully they also licensed Courier and Times, I'd imagine life without those typefaces would lead to a cold, dark, lifeless world. I shiver at the thought.

So this brings us to the modern day. Right now Apple only has just over 2% of the market share in the computer industry. That means that most of the computers in the world, almost 98% in fact, use Windows as their primary operating system. That means that a majority of amateur graphic design and desktop publishing projects are using fonts like Arial and Verdana. And this is a bad thing. If you have to ask why it's bad, just reread the third paragraph.

What can be done? Well, until Microsoft stops ripping off fonts, there won’t be much that can be done about Windows users having access to bad fonts. Thankfully with Vista and Office 2007 they are changing most of the default fonts that Windows users have overused and abused through the years. Maybe that means less Tahoma and Verdana. I hope so. I think what has to happen is something that Adobe and many of the world’s most prestigious font foundries are not going to like. I think they are going to have to listen to voices of reason, voices like Andrei, and make some sacrifices. I think Microsoft will have to stop being a cheap little bitch and cough up a few dollars for some decent typeface licenses. But most of all I think higher learning institutions are going to have to put more of an emphasis on teaching students about typography. It’s one thing to learn the tools of the trade. But it’s another thing to learn how to use design concepts like composition and typography effectively. And I just don't see that coming from places like the Art Institutes. I dunno, maybe Microsoft and Apple and Adobe need to start helping out in that area too, offering effective and concise tutorials on typography and typefaces to help users out with that side of things. Granted, that is not necessary for the dude who just wants to write an inter-office memo. I don't care what typeface people use for that. But when it comes to graphic design, both print and web, good typography is essential and necessary. I just hope it does not become a lost art.

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