In April of this year, Google Fonts launched a morphing, monochromatic mini-site to promote the first collection of Korean typefaces to be added to its growing web font directory. Designed by E Roon Kang of NYC-based studio Math Practice, the site features Korean type that ranges from highly legible fonts used in operating systems to a typeface that mimics the form and texture of a potato flower. Kang’s clever UI design lends the site an atmosphere of a strobe-lit font fashion show: click around, and the background color flashes from black to white, the letterforms undulate, blur, and multiply infinitely.
Yet despite the graphic prowess of the site, the most impressive element to this collection is something purposefully unnoticeable: the seamlessness with which the type is displayed on the webpage. Unlike a Latin face, which may contain 250 glyphs, Korean fonts have glyphs that number in the thousands, resulting in large file sizes that can cause delays on the webpage. Google Fonts solved this problem with a slicing method informed by machine learning, which allows for browsers to only download the group of characters needed for that page. It’s a method it’ll use for the Japanese and Chinese fonts that will be added to the library in the near future. And it’s just one of several efforts that Google Fonts has underway to make excellent typography available not only across the web, but also across all countries, languages, and scripts.
Since its founding in 2010, Google Fonts has had the mission of making good typography openly accessible through its expanding directory of web fonts. The project’s roots stretch back to the early 2000s, when Google engineers needed to add fonts to new applications like Google Docs, but kept coming up against digital restriction formats (DRM) that rendered some fonts unusable. They built a system that could put open licensed fonts into Docs, but soon realized that there was a bigger opportunity to make those fonts available for everyone. That system became the basis for the Google Fonts library.
“Every year for the last several years, millions of people have gotten their first computer as a smart phone and use that to access the internet. It’s necessary for them to have as good an experience expressing themselves through typography as they would in English.”
Google Fonts operates under an open source philosophy that feels much more akin to software designers than typographers. “In the software world, people are more familiar with open licensing,” Dave Crossland, the program manager for Google Fonts. “But in the font world, even today, it’s much less common that the typical type designer is familiar with that type of licensing.” The team behind Google Fonts started out working mostly with individual typographers whose fonts they found especially expressive and appealing. These fonts were for the most part already open for anyone to use, though not usually properly licensed as such. The team now helps everyone from individual typographers to boutique foundries to major companies like IBM license their fonts under the SIL Open Font License (OFL). Then the typefaces are added to the Google Fonts library, where anyone can go to embed them on their own site.
The Google Fonts library launched at Google I/O with a little over 10 fonts, almost all of which supported English and Western European languages only. At the time, the collection was limiting—browsers didn’t even render kerning. “At first, we traded things like foreign language support and a finer quality of design because we knew that we could come back and improve those things later,” says Crossland. The directory has since expanded to include more than 135 different languages, some of which, like Korean, bring their own unique set of typographic challenges.
In 2011 and 2012, the team focused on building out the Latin collection, adding language support for Greek, Cyrillic, and Vietnamese (Vietnamese is its own type of Latin, because of its tall accent characters). Next they worked with Cambodian designer Danh Hong to put together a collection of Unicode Khmer fonts fit for the digital age. In 2014, Google Fonts added fonts with support for the Devanagari script, used in India and Nepal. “Every year for the last several years, millions of people have gotten their first computer as a smart phone and use that to access the internet,” says Crossland. “It’s necessary for them to have as good an experience expressing themselves through typography as they would in English.”
In 2015, the team commissioned small collections of Arabic, Hebrew, and Thai fonts. Recently, the focus has been on making Chinese, Korean, and Japanese fonts work as web fonts. “What distinguishes these is that they have such a large file size compared to other writing systems,” says Crossland. Whereas Latin fonts might be about 100 KB, a Korean font averages 100 times that size, at about 10 MB. “The latency of a Latin font is so fast that you won’t even see it,” says Crossland. “But at 10 MB, there will be several seconds where no text is being displayed, your page is paused, and it’s a very frustrating experience.”
The Google Fonts team worked with East Asian foundries to build a collection of essential Korean fonts. To decrease the file size so that the fonts could load onscreen, the team used a machine learning process that determined which characters were most commonly used together. They then used that information to divide up the characters into many different slices that a browser can download individually, and at a faster apparent speed than the entire font at once.
Google has also initiated the Noto Fonts project, which intends to provide fonts in Unicode for every language. Unicode provides a universal system for encoding text, which has been essential on the internet. “As the Unicode project has progressed and encoded more and more of the world’s languages, Google wanted a set of fonts that supported everything,” says Crossland.
Less than a decade ago, there was still resistance to the idea of the Open Font License for fear that it undermined the specialized skills of type designers. But the growing access to internet in all corners of the world today make a strong case for accessibility. “As type design globally is very much a growing industry, there’s more and more need for new typefaces that solve typography problems,” says Crossland. “If it’s available in Google fonts, it can become ubiquitous—anyone can use it.”