Fonts, Yes. Foundries, No.

Aug 17, 2009

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”.

Samples Of Cast-Metal Type.<br />Today, the term "type foundry" is a relic, as useful as these.

Samples Of Cast-Metal Type. Today, the term "type foundry" is a relic, as useful as these.

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.

Foundries, No.

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.

Yeah! Screw those old-economy assholes!

Yeah! Screw those old-economy assholes!

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.

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