For most of the 500 or so years since printing began, typefaces were made out of cast metal. The companies that provided them were called “foundries” or, more specifically, “type foundries”.
Once computers arrived and offset printing replaced letterpress, typefaces were digitized and stored as computer files. These files came to be called fonts — the word font evolving from an earlier usage meaning a collection of one size only of the characters making up a particular typeface. Since the new digital files included all sizes of a typeface, the meaning was adjusted slightly to fit, and thus the word “font” made a smooth transition into the digital age.
For typefaces designed as a family with multiple weights and variants such as regular, bold, italic, medium, small caps, condensed, etc…, each member of the family is stored in it’s own file and is, on a technical level, a font in and of itself.
Typefaces today are inextricably bound to the font files used to define and display them. The very idea of a typeface without a corresponding digital file is obsolete. And so the words “typeface” and “font” have come to be used interchangeably. To those who would argue that “font” refers to the digital file and “typeface” to the design, I say fine by me. But nothing much gets lost if the distinction isn’t made.
For the past month or so I’ve spent a good deal of time talking and corresponding with type designers and font vendors. One thing I’ve learned is that there is no more a “font industry” than there is a “jazz industry”. People get into it mostly as a labor of love, and not a whole lot of money gets made. Few can make it work as a full-time occupation and need to mix in teaching and other design work to earn a living.
Now, as readers of this blog know, type designers, web designers, and browser makers have gotten into a bit of a tussle lately about the licensing of fonts for use in web sites. In an oft-cited blog post on the subject, titled “Fuck The Foundries” author Mark Pilgrim goes off on a bit of a rant about it.
Here’s a sample:
Seriously. Fuck them. They still think they’re in the business of shuffling little bits of metal around. You want to use a super-cool ultra-awesome totally-not-one-of-the-11-web-safe-fonts? Pick an open source font and get on with your life.
The crazy thing is, I couldn’t care less, obviously, about Mark’s use of the “F” word. I understand his anger and share in his frustration. Yes, he’s quite wrong about what business font makers think they’re in but what really bugs me is his use of the word “foundries” to create a false perception to bolster his argument. It’s deliberate rabble-rousing and a disservice to the readers of his blog.
Who are “The Foundries” of which he speaks? Well, whoever they are, I don’t like the sound of them. A cartel maybe? Definitely monolithic. Probably monopolistic. And who would want to live in Pittsburgh, anyway?
You see, “type designers” sounds kind of human, and it’s a lot harder to say “Fuck You” to real people. But “The Foundries”, now, there’s a group you can safely despise.
Some words can make the evolutionary cut and some just can’t. Unlike the word “font”, which nods to the past without bowing to it, the word “foundry” is forever a slave to its history. The term “type foundry” is archaic and rightly deserves to be thrown in the scrap-heap as unsalvageable. There are no type foundries anymore, Mark. The people who make and market fonts have made the transition from molten metal. In fact, some type designers are also sophisticated programmers and web designers who could wrap your own skill-set around their little fingers. They certainly can mine.
If it seems remarkable that font producers might not feel good about participating in and contributing to a system that encourages their work to be distributed with nothing in it for them in return, so be it. But fictional “foundries” have got nothing to do with it.
In regards to typefaces, leave the word “foundry” to the history books, that’s where it belongs.