Meet the designer behind some of the web’s newest killer fonts

Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones

Founders of Hoefler & Frere-Jones Jonathan Hoefler (left) and Tobias Frere-Jones (right)

The font world is being revolutionized. Thanks to newer browsers and greater bandwidth, there’s been an explosion of new web fonts  — tens of thousands of them over the last decade. We used to be stuck with Helvetica, Times New Roman or Comic Sans. New we’ve got hot new fonts like Mercury, Helvetica Neue and Museo Slab. These new-style fonts not only are prettier, they are designed with pixels in mind, so they reproduce much better on devices of different sizes.
Crisper typography, which is part of a larger design renaissance on the web, is more important than ever amid greater competition from native apps and rise of things like retina displays.  In addition to being more aesthetically pleasing, these new web fonts are also easier to use. Instead of having to download them to your computer, you browse online font stores or traditional font foundries for the font you want, click on it, insert a tiny piece of code, and, voila, your site is suddenly rendered in it.
What’s next in fonts? We posed that question to Jonathan Hoefler, cofounder of president of famed typography foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Last month, the company released Cloud.typography, in-browser versions of its 1,000-plus fonts. H&FJ has received numerous design awards, and its typography can be found everywhere, from magazines text to advertising logos. Its Gotham font, which was originally commissioned by GQ, can be found in a number of logos, including the Obama ’08 campaign.

In with the new, out with the old

See some samples of H&FJ’s most popular fonts, compared with the older print-centric fonts they’re replacing.

GigaOM: Aside from the multiple-screen functionality, what are websites looking for with typography?

dictionary Hoefler: Websites and their readers are looking for typography that can be as sophisticated as content. It’s interesting to think about something like Wikipedia, which is superior to a printed reference book in almost every meaningful way, despite having been limited to such a rudimentary typographic palette all these years.
Even dictionaries from the 19th century used more complex typographic palettes, with small capitals and swashes and slab serifs and gothics used to articulate information in different ways. We’re really excited to see websites start using the sort of advanced typographic vocabulary that readers deserve: It’s going to make reading online a lot more rewarding.

Are the aesthetic expectations for online fonts different than print?

Aesthetics are usually a function of custom, so it’s fair to say that what online readers expect is a byproduct of what they’re used to. A lot of these expectations are good ones, and still offer useful benchmarks for success when choosing a webfont: A lot of fonts on the web fumble over seemingly obvious expectations like “a bold should be demonstrably bold,” or “a text font should be legible at text sizes.
There are also expectations that H&FJ is looking to change, most of which have to do with two decades of print fonts masquerading as webfonts. If you’re able to suffer Helvetica or Times at 12 pixels, with their tight spacing and clogged forms, you’re going to be in for a real treat with a ScreenSmart typeface that’s specifically designed to be experienced at this scale.

What are your pet peeves with online typography?

WikipediaSmall thinking. I hate the notion that a 21st-century designer would sit down to create a family of webfonts, and feel hidebound by the expectation that it should come in “regular, italic, bold, and bold italic.” Or the notion that CSS properties, which exist to categorize fonts that have come before, should be considered a recipe for fonts that will come in the future. Conventions like “a family can only exist in nine widths” or “only two weights may be heavier than ‘bold'” are ridiculously arbitrary rules, and we’ve got them squarely in our crosshairs.

We don’t know yet. Right now I think a lot of people are looking for alternatives to the fonts they’re familiar with, and this is a great place to start. But what I really think we’re going to see in the coming year, and I hope Cloud.typography is an important part of this, are designers using not only new fonts, but new kinds of fonts on the web. I’m also hoping that the notion of “popularity” gives way to richness, in which there aren’t one or two font families dominating the web, but instead a thriving ecosystem of high-quality fonts that makes online experiences more distinctive.

What do you mean by “new kinds of fonts”?

By “new kinds of fonts,” I’m thinking about new categories of fonts that so far haven’t made it to the web. Reliable condensed [narrow] fonts for text sizes have been a mainstay of graphic design for more than a century, but the web doesn’t have a single good candidate in this category. But we’re also thinking about new categories of fonts that can be created, in response to how people use fonts on the web.

How are your fonts changing?

The biggest way in which our fonts are changing is that they’re all being designed with multiple channels in mind. We’ve always been pretty ruthless about editing our work, leaving things on the cutting room floor if we don’t think they’re up to snuff. With Cloud.typography up and running, we’re requiring that every new project have a way to thrive not only on paper, but on desktop and mobile screens.

How often does your staff of 17 create new fonts?

We create new fonts all the time: that’s actually all our design department does. At the moment we have 13 font families in development, comprising somewhere between 380 and 420 styles. During a family’s development, it’s common that its roster of styles expands and contracts, as we seesaw back and forth between wanting to keep its list of styles manageable, and wanting to give designers finer control. “As few styles as possible, as many weights as necessary” is our motto.
We’re holding our annual RoadMap conference in November in San Francisco, which will focus on experience design for the tech industry (tickets will go on sale shortly).