An Interview With Kernest’s Garrick Van Buren

Jul 13, 2009

As reported on June 30, A Sneak Peek At Kernest, web font services site Kernest, is slated to go live this week on Thursday, the 16th. I got together with Kernest founder, Garrick Van Buren, to ask some questions:

Rich: Why did you decide to create a web font services site like Kernest?
Garrick: I was experimenting with embedded fonts more than a decade ago, when they were first supported in Netscape 4 and Internet Explorer 4. Even then, the two primary challenges were font licensing and variations in browser support. Today, licenses like the SIL Open Font License, Creative Commons, and GNU Public License protect hundreds of fonts and 3 of the 4 major browsers have a consistent @font-face implementation.

Rich: When did you begin work on it?
Garrick: I wrote Kernest’s founding document: ‘A Proposal to Create the YouTube of Typefaces’ in March of 2008. Then, after a summer of conversations with type designers and web designers, I mapped out how I wanted it to work and started building toward the mid-July 2009 launch.
(See: A Proposal To Create The YouTube Of Typefaces originally published at MNteractive.com.)

Rich: Has it been primarily a solo project, or did you rely on a team?
Garrick: A project like Kernest is always the work of many; Darrel Austin pulled the visual design together, The Foundation is generously hosting the initial launch, and Chank Diesel has generously allowed me to test Kernest with a select group of his fonts. Those involved in the private preview have provided invaluable input to help me smooth out Kernest’s rough edges.

Rich: What part of Kernest’s development have you found to be the most problematical?
Garrick: With wide-spread support for @font-face and the speed in which URLs are shared – using a font consistent with its license is paramount. There are a seemingly infinite number of ‘free’ fonts on the internet, some of these have a license supporting @font-face usage, others exclude it completely, still other fonts have an ambiguous license. I’ve read hundreds of licenses and all the fonts within Kernest support @font-face usage.

Rich: Did Kernest involve the creation of any special back-end tools? I’m thinking especially of the processing of TTF’s into EOT files. And if so, is there any chance those tools might make their way to developers as spin-off products?
Garrick: The technology behind Kernest is continually evolving, and I’ll be refining it well after the initial launch. While I see a number of ways components within Kernest might be isolated and spun-off, right now I’m focused on everything working together.

Rich: Have you approached any “retail” font vendors or are you focusing strictly, for now, on open-source fonts and fonts that specifically allow @font-face linking to “raw” TTF or OTF files?
Garrick: I’ve spoken with a number of type designers and some have been very open to working together, including Chank Diesel. Chank allowed Kernest to experiment with a selection of his free fonts. He also wrote a font-embedding overview titled, “The Sad State of Today’s Web Typography – Fertile Ground for Font License Revolution” confirming the need for a service like Kernest.

Rich: In creating Kernest, you’ve had to survey a lot of “free” fonts. How do you feel about the screen quality of the free fonts you’ve seen as compared to retail fonts or, for example, the fonts that ship with the Windows Fonts folder?
Garrick: Display fonts, text fonts, monospaced fonts, and bitmapped fonts are all appropriate for different purposes. Historically, websites have been, unnecessarily, restricted to a small handful of fonts deemed appropriate for all occasions. This restriction is one of the factors keeping both free and retail fonts from having a presence online.
Overall, @font-face is a completely different environment than print. Even exploring the free and open-source fonts – a 1MB file is not uncommon. This size is simply inappropriate for @font-face use. I’m interested to see type designers create fonts exclusively for @font-face, perhaps a small character set, focused on a few small sizes, and licensed under SIL’s Open Font License or the MIT license.
Kernest focuses on fonts with licenses supporting @font-face usage. There are nowhere near as many of these as I’d like to see. I’m continuing to work with type designers and type foundries to bring their for-fee fonts into Kernest under @font-face supportive licenses.

Rich: Some designers and developers have expressed concern about the reliability of font services. They’re concerned about what will happen to their pages if your servers go down. What’s your response to this?
Garrick: Today, Safari 4, Firefox 3.5, Opera 10, and Internet Explorer support @font-face. While that’s 90% of browsers – there are an increasing number of browsers that don’t. The Kindle, iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and XBox just to name a few. Well-designed websites gracefully adjust to accommodate the requesting browser’s capabilities.
Historically, it has been good practice to add a prioritized series of fonts in a website’s stylesheet. For example, it’s fairly common to see: “Helvetica, Arial, sans serif”. In this example, if Helvetica isn’t available on the browser’s computer – it tries Arial, if that doesn’t exist – the type is rendered in the computer’s default sans serif font.
If a font service is unavailable, the browser will select the next font in the prioritized list, just as it does today.

Rich: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share with the readers of Readable Web?
Garrick: Like movable type and the Apple Macintosh, @font-face is a significant inflection point in type’s history. The coming years will bring us web-exclusive fonts, web-exclusive typography, and – my hope is – web-exclusive, professional type designers. I’d like Kernest to play a significant role in fostering these web-only type designers and their work.

News:

Garrick Van Buren will be appearing as part of the panel at the symposium on Web Fonts at TypeCon 2009.

Readable Web will be there to report!

Our coverage of TypeCon 2009 begins later this week…

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