Digital Defiant Studios

Published: 2012-01-19 00:00:00 -0800

Font Metadata + Search Engines

fonts and font metadata

There’s no doubt that the web landscape has shifted dramatically in the last few years. Specs for existing technology have finally been implemented in much higher frequency, leading to major trends in web design, driven particularly by the exponential growth of data and the ever-connected social networks that create more disruptive applications. One of the biggest trends of web design in this span of time is the convergence of print design methods being translated onto the web. Grid systems, robust font families and more emphasis on readability are very important trends nowadays.

This post focuses on fonts in particular, because there is some awesome technology out there that has potential to revolutionize not only the way we look at fonts on the web, but the way we perceive them as a commodity on the whole.

In a nutshell, this line of thinking can be translated thusly: Fonts = assets, Font ubiquity = high quality, low (or no) price.

Font = Assets

Fonts are most often seen as commodities that aid in creative production. Just like stock photography, PANTONE swatches, paper stock and illustrations, fonts constitute a means to an end, and they are priced accordingly. A lot of money is generated by licensing of fonts, but web applications have circumvented the traditional practices in favor of more intelligent models for the web.

Pricing online is based on two models: The price per domain model and the website Tiered model. The first charges a flat fee per URL. The latter charges a flat monthly fee based on a tier of assumed behavior (monthly pageviews, type of site, etc…). Sometimes these two are combined into a hybrid. These models have worked pretty well, especially because they are usually built on top of the Freemium model – make something free, then offer an upgradeable version with more features, better support… or whatever else.

Font Ubiquity

What has opening fonts up on the web done? It has exploded the market, that’s what. Font foundries, individuals and web applications have all capitalized on this niche of design and provided countless variations to existing font families, as well as bred a new generation of beautiful, industrious and economical fonts of all glyphs and sizes.

This ubiquity has made font pricing go down in major ways. Where once only big companies had access to fonts, the masses can make and use them with ease. Whole fields have been uprooted, making way for type designers with big ideas and little overhead to take on the challenge of recreating the fonts of old for the technology of new. Even Google is getting in on the action by both promoting and funding the creation of Open-Source fonts for its API on Kickstarter.

Font metadata

One thing that is still a bit lacking from web that is commonplace in print, are the details. With CSS and JavaScript, we can take the reigns and control the way our fonts look pretty well, but there is still something lacking.

  • Kerning and Tracking behaviors are not standardized in browsers
  • Line-height, em and pixel behaviors are not consistent in browsers
  • Font metadata is not readable in the way you might expect from a desktop environment
  • Font metadata is still not entirely encapsulated in the font or is lacking some useful components

These chief complaints are the basis for big font endeavors, particular the WOFF file format. This format was introduced by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and addresses these needs in an elegant manner.

Currently, implementation of WOFF is quite simple, but since it is not standardized there is some work involved to get it working in all browsers. FontSquirrel has a handy tool that I often use, but it still falls into the realm of hacks because of its lack of unilateral support from the browser community.

Another great font idea is the UFO project. The Unified Font Object project aims to make a font object that stores its own internal directory of metadata which can be interpreted by just about anything on the web. This would store information about type foundry, creation time, font metrics and much more, in one single encapsulated format. There is already a lot of press around this concept and I see it gaining ground as time passes on.

This post, from Ilovetypography, explains UFO from the Iceland conference of ATypI, an organization dedicated to typography and its many components. For the creation of fonts in UFO format, an awesome Python-programmed tool called RobotFont has been created for editing and creating UFOs.

Metadata = more semantic power

There is inherent creative power in data manipulation. This truism is surfacing often where we see innovation on the web. If we employ more data into our fonts, we give ourselves a lot more freedom in usage and usability. Font search engines will be useful as well as ubiquitous and design will be more streamlined as data informs designs and allows for more semantic thinking. Just imagine how useful it would be to filter fonts of certain types, styles, aesthetics and personalities based on their internal data structures. Automation based on more programmatic thinking will likely invade the territory of font-selection – it has in every other design front, and is not a a trend whose apex has been reached.