Marcus and Ivanka in the Canonical Design team sat me down for some words of wisdom a few months ago. “You think you need a logo, but what you really need is a new font. One that sets the standard for both professional design, and embracing the values of Ubuntu in the way it’s produced.”
And how right they were.
Figuring that we wanted to do this once, properly, we said we’d build a complete family: various weights, variable-width and mono, across some of the key language groups of our community. We knew we couldn’t do everything but we figured we could establish a rigorous core upon which everything could be done. We’d fully hint and kern the work too, so it’s good enough to be a default interface font for something we all use all day long. A huge project, one that will take some time to finish. But today we’re publishing the first source for Ubuntu, the font, a milestone worth celebrating.
Marcus introduced Bruno Maag of Dalton Maag, who expressed a willingness to engage around an open font, and we agreed to buy the rights to the work completely, so that it could be licensed freely.
Bruno pulled together a very energetic team of typographers: Lukaz, Amelie, Shiraaz, Malcolm and more, all folks who live and breathe type and typography and keen to explore this rather crazy idea of inviting crowds into the inner sanctum of type design.
We knew at the start we were bringing together two very different worlds. We wanted a process which would ensure participation without drowning out the clear leadership needed for a coherent result. Bruno steered Marcus, Ivanka, me and others through a core initial process where we defined the range and scope of what we wanted to take on, and the values we wanted reflected in the result. I learned that a font is grounded in real values, and fortunately we have a strong expression of the six attributes that we value in Ubuntu and Canonical: collaboration, freedom, precision, reliability, adroitness, accessibility. That small team was best positioned to distill those into the typeface, and shape the broad strokes of the work.
Ubuntu is a global phenomenon, and we knew at the start we didn’t have the breadth of eyeballs close at hand to keep the font on track as it expanded. So we planned a process of expanding consultation. First within Canonical, which has folks from nearly 30 countries, and then within the Ubuntu community. We published the font to Ubuntu Members, because we wanted folks who participate and contribute directly to Ubuntu to have the strongest say in the public process of designing the font. We heard from Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, Indian, Chinese and many other cultures. Not everyone has glyphs in this first round, but everyone has had a hand in bringing us to this milestone.
The design team needed help with this outreach program, and it turned out that a longstanding member of the community, Paul Sladen, has a personal interest in typography. We noticed a marked uptick in the pace of bug triage when Paul got involved, and it was going so well we asked him to tackle it semi-professionally. The result has been really fast feedback to people making comments. I’d like to thank Paul for bringing that crucial stewardship to bear on the community engagement process, we would not have made it to the deadline without him.
We also had the benefit of a tool produced by Richard Lee and others in the design team, which lets people identify specific issues in the font, particularly as rendered in various web browsers on various platforms. fonttest.design.canonical.com is very cool: it lets you pick the characters, weight and size, takes a screenshot for you in most browsers, or helps you capture the essential details for the bug report. Fonts are software, but they are not software as we know it, Jim. So the tool helps us keep track of all the tricky details that might help debug a problem someone’s having.
A key open question, of course, was licensing. There are two obvious candidates, among quite a large field: the OFL, from SIL, and the GPLv3 with a font-specific clause added. Digging into this in more detail turned up a tricky situation: both approaches have issues which precluded us from adopting them immediately. We started speaking in some detail with Nicolas Spalinger of SIL, and Dave Crossland, who has done extensive analysis on the libre font process and dynamics. We offered to underwrite an SFLC review of the OFL, and SIL has expressed a willingness to participate in that, with a view to finding common ground that would bring Dave, ourselves, and many others under one common font licence, but we were running out of time. So we came to the compromise of an interim license, which you can find at bzr branch lp:ubuntu-font-licence While licence proliferation sucks, I’m optimistic we’ll converge in due course. James Vasile from the SFLC will help ensure the final result is wiser with the help of all the experience the SFLC gained in stewarding the GPLv3, and SIL and Dave will bring deep typographic industry insight.
Dalton Maag have started talking more widely about their experiences so far in the process. I was worried that they might be put off by the rowdy nature of open commentary, but I would credit them with a sterling constitution and thank them for the way they stepped up once the bug tracker really started to hum. There are few issues that are escalated which don’t get a rapid response and framing. Of course, there are differences of opinion, but in many cases genuine issues have been identified and handled. The team at DM have gotten into a great cadence of weekly iterations, and Paul has been ensuring that work makes it into the hands of Ubuntu users. As of today, *all* Maverick users have it installed by default (I believe this is true for Kubuntu as well, at least I answer questions in support of that goal).
What’s really interesting is that DM have said there is world-wide interest in the project. Many professional typographers are starting to think about open fonts. Now is the time to set a very high standard for what is achievable. There are hard questions to be answered about how the business of typography will evolve in the face of open and free type, but historically, those questions have best been answered by the bold: those who get involved, those who put themselves in the front line.
In due course, we’d like the Ubuntu font to reflect the full, extraordinary diversity of the Ubuntu community. We can’t do it all at once, and so we’re proposing a process for communities and cultures that feel part of the Ubuntu family to participate. If you want the Ubuntu font to speak your language, you need to do a few things to prepare for it. The hard, hard part is that you’ll need to find a qualified, local typographer who is interested in participating and in leading the design of your glyphs. You may need to find several, as we won’t necessarily embrace the first candidate. This is a serious matter: we welcome the crowdsourcing of bugs, glitches, rendering problems, hinting and kerning issues, but we want coherent, professional contributions on the core design. If that sounds exclusive: yes it is. Quality takes time, quality takes precedence. There are other fonts with lots of coverage, we have only one shot to get your glyphs done really beautifully then freeze them, metrically, for all time in the Ubuntu font.
The broader process looks like this.
First, you need to create a wiki page for your language / culture / glyphset (could be Klingon! Phoenician! Elvish ;-)) on wiki.ubuntu.com/UbuntuFont/Coverage. There, you need to document the glyph set you think is required, and any historical quirks that are peculiar to doing it well, such as OpenType features or alternative approaches.
Second, you need to file a bug on launchpad.net/ubuntu-font-family called “Ubuntu Font should support [Klingon]“. If you want, you can invite members of your community to note that they are affected by the bug. We’ll be looking for ways to prioritise communities for attention.
Third, you need to contact local typographers, and tell them about Ubuntu, open content, open typography. If they are still listening, you have just opened the door on the future for them and given them a big head start :-). They will need to be willing to contribute to the font. They will know how much work that will be. They won’t be paid to do it, unless the local community can find a way to raise the funds, but since there is a genuine sense of excitement in the air about open typography and this project in particular, we think you’ll find bold and insightful typographers who are keen to be part of it. Add their details to the wiki page, especially details of their typographic portfolio. Update the bug with that information.
The tools used for open font design are in a state of flux. There are some exceptional technical pieces, and some dark swampy bits too. Dalton Maag will be leading sessions at UDS with folks from the open typography community, with a view to producing what Dave Crossland described as a “lovely long list” (I’m paraphrasing) of bugs and suggestions. Be there if you want to get a professional typographers insight on the toolchain today and what might be possible in the future. All of the Ubuntu font sources are published, though the license does not require source to be published.
Nevertheless, the process for designing your community glyphs will likely involve a mix of free and proprietary tools, at least for the next months. We’ll ask DM to review the portfolios of candidate typographers, and make recommendations for who should be given the go-ahead to lead the work, language by language. Once core glyphs are designed, we’ll facilitate LoCo-based community feedback, much as we did for the main font. We want local Ubuntu members to have the strongest public voice in feedback to their typographer. And Canonical, with DM, will provide feedback aimed at keeping the whole consistent.
Once the glyph design process is wrapped, the typographer will lead hinting and kerning. That’s the tough, detailed part of the job, but essential for an interface font that will be used on screen, everywhere on screen, all the time. And at that point we’ll start automating feedback, using fonttest, as well as starting to integrate those glyphs into the main Ubuntu font. We’ll publish point releases to the main Ubuntu font, with major releases designating points where we update the set of “fixed and metrically frozen” glyphs, point releases denoting occasions where we add or update beta glyphs in the public test font.
In each point release, we’ll include perhaps one or two new glyph sets for beta testing. We’ll prioritize those communities who have followed the process, and have the most substantial community interest in testing.
Phew. If you got this far, you’re interested :-). This is going to be one of those things that lives a very long time. It will take a long time to get everybody represented. But we’re going to do it, together.