Font families can sell for hundreds of dollars. Gotham, a popular typeface used by President Barack Obama’s campaign and many others, costs nearly $1,000 to license a complete set of 66 different styles. But The League of Moveable Type, gives all of its fonts away for free. What's more, it makes them open source, so that other people can modify the fonts and make their own versions of them.
And people have. Raleway, designed by Matt McInerney and released in 2010, was expanded from a single weight into a family with nine weights, from “thin” to bold to “black,” each with matching italics, in 2012 by Pablo Impallari, Rodrigo Fuenzalida, and Igino Marini. It's now one of the most popular font families on Google Fonts, a collection of free fonts hosted by the search giant.
Over the past decade, companies ranging from startups like the IT tool company Datto to giants like Intel and IBM have commissioned professional type makers to create fonts that those companies open sourced. Even Adobe, which sells licenses for some of its font families for hundreds of dollars, has released a "super family" of open source fonts.
It's easy to see why web designers would want free, high-quality fonts. But why would an independent type designer open source their work? Just as in open source software, the reasons vary.
For companies, the reasons to open source a font that they've commissioned often mirror the motivations for releasing open source software. For example, programming tool maker JetBrains released a new font called JetBrains Mono designed for reading and writing code. The company open sourced the font so that programmers could easily provide feedback and improvements through Microsoft's code hosting and collaboration platform GitHub, much as a company might release open source software in the hope that others will help improve it. "It feels like a real collaboration," says JetBrains team lead Konstantin Bulenkov.
Even if designers don't contribute improvements to a font directly, companies can benefit from making their work open source. For example, Adobe Type senior manager Dan Rhatigan says releasing its Source super-family of fonts as open source has enabled the company to test new typography technologies like "variable fonts," which make it easy for a designer to adjust the weight of a typeface, before rolling those technologies into other products.
In other cases, open source fonts help support other aspects of a company's business. For example, Google Fonts program manager Dave Crossland says many of the fonts Google has funded most recently are designed for under-supported languages in developing countries. These efforts buttress Google's "Next Billion Users" initiative, which aims to bring more people in developing countries online. Better support for more languages means more users, and ultimately, more money for Google.
The incentives to create open source fonts weren't always obvious. In early 2009, a graphic designer and programmer named Micah Rich came across a forum post by a student who was interested in knowing more about how fonts worked. The student asked whether there was a professional-quality open source font to learn from. The replies weren't kind. "There were like 20 pages of professional type designers saying, 'This is our livelihood, how dare you ask us to work for free?'" Rich says.
Rich understood where the designers were coming from. Type design is a laborious craft. In addition to drawing hundreds or thousands of individual characters, you need to define the relationship between characters or groups of characters. It takes months of full-time work to create a new font. But the complete dismissal of the open source model bugged him.
"I would never have learned anything about code if not for open source," he says. "Design and programming are not that different."
There were a few professional-quality, fully open source fonts that had been around for years, including Adobe Utopia, Bitstream Charter, and Victor Gaultney's Gentium. But there were far more poor-quality free-to-download fonts, many of which weren't released under true open source licenses that would allow you to study the inner workings of a font or distribute your own changes to the original. As the forum poster learned, it wasn't easy for a newcomer to figure out where to start. So Rich and his design-business partner Caroline Hadilaksono came up with the idea of an “open source type foundry” that would curate high-quality open source fonts and encourage type designers to share their work. They launched the League of Moveable Type website in early 2009 with its first offering, Junction, a sans-serif typeface that Hadilaksono designed in college.
"We’re not asking type designers and type foundries to sacrifice profit," the League's manifesto says. "We’re asking them to consider the benefits, to create a community where we not only have a high design standard for print and web alike, but also a community where we’re able to share our creations, knowledge, and expertise with our peers and the world."
Soon other designers were submitting fonts to the League of Moveable Type website, including McInerney's Raleway.
The timing was perfect. Web browsers had only just begun supporting a feature that allowed developers to embed fonts into websites. Before, web designers tended to design sites around the dozen or so screen-friendly fonts that come installed on most computers, such as Verdana and Georgia. Embedding fonts meant web designers could choose any font that they had permission to use. But designers needed high-quality fonts with licenses that would allow them to use the fonts on the web. That helped drive demand for open source fonts, says Jeremiah Shoaf, a graphic designer who runs the typography website Typewolf.
Today the League of Moveable Type has a stable of 17 font families. Other open source type foundries, so-named in the days when companies sold typefaces cast in metal, have followed, including Collletttivo and Velvetyne. But the most important collection of open source fonts is probably Google Fonts, which was launched as Google Font Directory in 2010. It's grown to a collection of 987 font families that designers can use for free on any website.
Google Fonts includes font families like Roboto, which Google developed for use in the Android operating system, as well as open source fonts from around the web, including some from the League of Moveable Type. In many cases, Google has paid type designers to finish or expand existing projects or commissioned well-known professional type foundries such as Production Type and Colophon Foundry to create new fonts. "Getting big players onboard has certainly helped raise the bar on quality," Shoaf says.
But there are still independent designers who make new fonts without expecting to profit. For example, Froyo Tam open sourced the futuristic font family Ferrite Core DX earlier this year as a way to give back to the graphic design and typography communities. "I think of it like the freeware scene of the late-'90s," says Tam, who, like most open source type designers, also designs commercial fonts. "I wanted to build a structure that other people could easily build off of."