A Convergence

This past two weeks I've spoken to dozens of designers, educators, type designers, and foundry owners about specimens. Whilst there are some trends in the discussions, which is the topic of this blog post, I will say this: the thoughts and feelings about specimens amongst the type community are as diverse as the community is. So let's dig into some initial insights. What do people think of, and need from, digital type specimens?

What do I mean by digital specimen?

For any given type release, foundries producing one or two, or all of the following:

  • A printed promotional 'specimen'. This is not a complete specimen showing all characters, in all weights, in a variety of typesettings, but it is a snapshot. Something to tempt you with. But, it's also a keepsake. Something special. Often small. A limited print run (as they are expensive). Maybe a collaboration with other well-known designers.
  • A technical specimen. Typically, these are now PDFs but sometimes they are printed as well. They are lengthy documents. Specimens of each glyph, weight, and various sizes. Full documentation of feature set.
  • A microsite. These are one-off, bespoke websites to document a typeface release. They may include long-form content, and other supportive material. They are part of the marketing collateral and might be on their own URL.
  • A digital specimen as part of a catalogue on a foundry's website. These are templated pages. Maybe there is a bit of bespoke artwork, or some slight design variance per typeface, but typically these are imported images from other printed material.

Many designers I spoke to have different views as to what constitutes a digital specimen and we can see this in the diversity of offerings. If we consider a type specimen as a thing you use to make decisions about a typeface, then I'm coming around to the idea that a type specimen is actually all of these things.

The digital physical divide

There is a clear divide between printed specimens and digital specimens amongst type designers and consumers of type. Physical printed specimens are keepsakes. They are are to be carefully archived, collected, traded, and kept for reference. Digital specimens are templated and ephemeral. Hard to keep track of. For the type designers, they are frustrating and costly to produce. But a necessary piece of work.

When I talked with designers about physical specimens, people would smile. They would get excited about the feel of paper and the smell of ink. Some type designers would relish the process of creating with their work. When we talked about digital specimens, I heard tales of frustration. Of cost. Of regrets, and time misspent. I wonder what's at play here? Is it just the nature of digital work that it is more time consuming sometimes. That it is more frustrating because of the ever changing landscape of consumer behaviour and technology. Or is that, simply, type designers would rather spend their time elsewhere?

The marketing is happening elsewhere

People are finding out about fonts in other places: newsletters, social media, blogs, industry press. If marketing is about the story, then the story is being told elsewhere before a designer gets to the specimen. They already arrive primed. Either they've just seen a quick visual, or they've read an interview with the designer. They've received a recommendation from a peer. They move very quickly into actings on their needs. This, almost exclusively, is 'can I use this font in my project?', and then almost immediately afterwards 'how much is it?'.

What about trial fonts?

So, I can say with some degree of certainty that the designers I've spoken need to preview and design with the font in its native environment. For web designers, our environments vary: from browsers – on phones, tablets, desktops and laptops – to native app environments, but also the design software we use such as Adobe XD, Sketch, Figma. A long list keeps getting longer. To really pressure test a font, we need it in a compatible format for each environment. This is where trial fonts come in.

Trial fonts allow me to use a heavily subset version of a font for free. Brilliant. I can use this in design software once I've installed it locally. We're not quite there yet... trial fonts for me are not that useful because they are typically .otf or .ttf downloads. Some foundries offer webfont formats, and Fontstand also has – for some typefaces – a time limited (three hours) trial for web fonts. I'd like to see this increased because three hours is not normally enough time to really assess something in code on multiple browsers, in staging and in production. Sure, renting is an option, but it'd be good if that were extended to a day.

But what impact do trial fonts have on the production of comprehensive type specimens? Why spend the time when a foundry could just point you to a download button saying 'try it yourself, anyway you want, free of charge!'.

Digitally native patterns are maturing

When I worked at Monotype six years ago, we worked on a type tester. We iterated on the design over a year or so. Since then, it's clear that this design pattern has matured into a grey edged standard. Most people I've spoken to so far see them as a required element in a digital specimen. This is good to hear as it's very clear that users want them.

I am surprised, however, as I noted last week, that there are only a couple of freely available plug and play scripts for these. I've been thinking why that is. Is it because the type foundries are hiring companies who'd rather build these from scratch? Each and every time? Sure, there are many ways to skin a cat, but I'm surprised we're not seeing much efficiency and collaboration here.

Images of text are still prevalent. When assessing a web font's performance, designers and developers need to see the web font in action. Not a picture of the font, but the actual font in the browser. Remember: different browsers and operating systems, across the bazillions of devices we have to consider these days, is very different. This was a source of frustration for quite a number of web designers and developers I spoke to. On discussing this with type designers and foundries it's clear this is a response to a few things: time, skills, cost, and control. It's time consuming, and therefore costly, to recreate or produce exquisite web typography. Importantly, though, many type designers – whose minds are firmly in print media, rather than digital – this is a question of control. They feel more in control producing designs and specimens in print.

A convergence

One of the goals of this project is to produce a pattern library of reusable components to make effective digital type specimens. Not every type designer or foundry has the resources or inclination to ensure that what they are producing actually has an impact. The initial insights form the last few weeks of interviewing and desk research are showing that there is a convergence of design patterns for digital specimens, and there are trends in both foundry and user needs. The research will continue for the next few months as I move towards prototyping.

If you'd like to participate in this, please let me know! It will involve minimal time on your part – maybe a 30 minute chat over Zoom