Name: Public Sans
Designer: Dan Williams
Organization/Foundry: Technology Transformation Services
Release date: April 2019
The seed for Public Sans was planted back in 2015 when the U.S. Digital Service and the government’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS) released the first version of the U.S. Web Design System (USWDS)—a library of code, tools, fonts, and best practices created to help designers across the government sector build reliable and consistent websites. The USWDS was an ambitious project created, in short, to usher in a more usable and modern era of government digital products. But funnily enough, designing a new typeface was never part of the plan.
During this time, Dan Williams was a consultant with TTS, where he was helping with the initial USWDS roll out across websites like the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labor (today, the USWDS is used by more than 200 government websites). During his downtime, Williams, who is now a product lead on the USWDS project, began exploring what a custom typeface for the USWDS might look like. The overall governmental design system still was (and is to this day) using Merriweather and Source Sans Pro as its default fonts, but Williams thought a custom typeface might come in handy internally or on projects his team was handling like Cloud.gov.
He recalls that his team was constantly on the lookout for a font that was simple, readable, and mostly traditional. Something like Libre Franklin—only more modern. “Libre Franklin was so close to our desired design that adapting it felt achievable,” he says. “We began work on [Public Sans] primarily as a design exercise.”
Because Public Sans wasn’t pitched as a long-term project with a specific use case, Williams spent the next two years designing the typeface in his off-hours. “Design work, at least for me, happens in fits and starts,” he explains. “I was able to experiment with type design when I was taking a break from other kinds of design work.” The typeface launched this spring with the rollout of USWDS 2.0.
Why’s it called Public Sans?
The name nods to the fact that the typeface is free and open-source for the public. It’s downloadable on Github.
What are its distinguishing characteristics?
Public Sans is a not-so-subtle homage to Libre Franklin, an open-source update from Impallari Type to Morris Fuller Benton’s 1912 Franklin Gothic. Like Libre Franklin, Public Sans has a friendly, but no-nonsense demeanor. In the words of its designers, it was created with as “few quirks as possible.” The typeface is meant to be neutral, legible, and consistent like a system font.
To get there, Williams and his team replaced the rounded terminals on Libre Franklin with sharper edges that feel Hevetican in their precision. Even with the font’s determined practicality, Williams wanted to make sure Public Sans had some personality. “I like the lowercase ‘a,’ and found it quite amusing to see the effect of different curves on its appearance,” he says, “how the dejected penguin of a lowercase ‘a’ can look more or less jaunty depending on the carriage of its tummy.”
Currently, Public Sans comes in nine weights, ranging from 100-900, in roman and italic. Eventually, Williams would like to release a variable version. He figures that over time, Public Sans will shift and morph given that it’s an open-source font. “I hope that I’m simply launching this craft, not necessarily steering it to its eventual destinations,” he says.
What should I use it for?
Right now, TTS uses Public Sans in its own internal documentation, websites, and design assets, though it’s being used on some federal sites already like Cloud.gov. Williams says so far the most practical use case for the typeface has been as a way to test for font normalization. He explains: “At any step in the USWDS type scale, we adjust the final font size output so different faces look optically similar in size. This helps prevent big layout changes if projects change typeface, and allows USWDS to better incorporate work from outside project teams. Now Public Sans can be a stable normal target and we can be confident in its metrics. Designers can use Public Sans in their wireframes and know that the hierarchies they establish will stay the same regardless of how the visual design changes further along in the process.”
That said, Public Sans is free to download and Williams encourages anyone looking for a system font replacement to give it a go on their digital interfaces.
What should I pair it with?
“Probably Georgia,” Williams says. “I’m often surprised by how beautiful Georgia can be.”