Open source casts new mold for type design

DejaVu font development gives Linux another toehold for its push into proprietary territory. Image: The DejaVu font

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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
The open-source approach, born in the field of programming, is catching on in a new area: type design.

In 2003, type design company Bitstream, in conjunction with the GNOME Foundation, released a font family called Vera for open-source use. Under the license terms, anyone was permitted to make new fonts based on Vera, as long as the derivatives were given a different name.

Now, with Vera essentially dormant, an international group has picked up work on an offshoot called DejaVu. There are other Vera derivatives, such as Erav. But DejaVu has caught on widely enough for it to be the default font for Dapper Drake, the latest update to Ubuntu Linux. It may also become the default font for Red Hat's Fedora version of Linux.

"DejaVu, from purely a user perspective, seems to be the one that has the momentum and benefits behind it," said Rahul Sundaram, one of nine board members for the Fedora Project, which governs the Linux version.

Fonts--letters and other characters that range in appearance from utilitarian to highly ornamental--are usually proprietary designs from companies called foundries. That proprietary nature doesn't jibe with open-source principles--a mismatch made glaring by the widespread use of Microsoft fonts on Linux.

But having practical and pleasing fonts for Linux is important, particularly as programmers work to improve GNOME and other graphical software to make the open-source operating system a better alternative to Windows.

DejaVu The "scratch-your-own-itch" motive that drives much development of open-source software lay behind the DejaVu project. Specifically, the itch was that Vera didn't have needed support for international characters. The DejaVu font is updated monthly with new and improved characters for displaying Chinese, Cyrillic, Vietnamese, Braille, Greek, Arabic, Uzbekian and other languages. Many characters added to DejaVu have come from other Vera offshoots.

"I think it's a simple demonstration of the power of open source," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said. Typeface design may not be the same as programming, but when it comes to the collaborative approach, "the principles are the same," he added.

The open-source philosophy has at its heart ideas such as collaboration, and the freedom to modify and redistribute an original project. It's extending beyond software, though. Some have applied the idea to politics, where independent individuals create their own advertisements instead of waiting for established campaigns to do so. And Sun Microsystems has applied it to hardware: Its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor design is governed by the granddaddy of free and open-source licenses, the General Public License (GPL).

Put a fork in it
Credit for launching DejaVu goes to Štepán Roh, said Nicolas Mailhot, who oversees DejaVu integration into the Fedora Extras package of add-on software. Roh helped consolidate a fragmented font design effort into what became DejaVu, Mailhot said.

Vera generated initial excitement, especially over its glyphs, or typographical characters. "The glyph quality was vastly superior to those of other FLOSS (free/libre/open-source software) font offerings at the time," Mailhot said. "Also, Bitstream released a full font set, including sans-serif, serif and monospace styles."

Roh said he started the project in March 2004. "The only TrueType fonts I had were Bitstream Vera. But they were lacking certain glyphs needed for the Czech language, so I decided to add them by myself," he said.

Though he had almost no experience in type design, he figured out how to add pre-existing elements such as accents to letters and wrote small programs to help automate others' design work. And several others joined the cause. "Whenever I heard about or found a new Vera derivative and decided that it was worth merging (because) it had superior design or superior glyph coverage, I asked the author for permission," Roh said.

In the software world, creating a new offshoot is called "forking." The freedom to do so is one hallmark of an open-source project. The Joomla content management system fork from the original Mambo project is a good example.

Forking is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it can lead to incompatible versions and dilute developer energies. But on another, when one project is dormant--as is the case with Bitstream's Vera--it can inject new life.

Several designers launched their own Vera forks, and Roh eventually helped merge the projects, Mailhot said. The designers had initially created limited extensions to include Western languages such as Welsh or Catalan, then later took on larger and more ambitious extensions, such as Greek and Cyrillic.

Roh tried to reach other designers to encourage them to cooperate on a single font, and largely succeeded in doing so, Mailhot said. "Today, the creators of other Vera derivatives have mostly joined the DejaVu team or stated they were perfectly happy about DejaVu merging their work in a common font," he said.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Bitstream apparently doesn't envision an update to Vera, though the company doesn't close the door to the possibility.

"Regarding our updating Bitstream Vera: If we were paid by the GNOME Foundation or another organization, we would be open to listening to offers and discussing it here at Bitstream," said Bob Thomas, director of product management at the company. "We'd consider doing it, depending on the updates and the time involved to complete the work."

Catching on
Sundaram proposed making DejaVu the default font for Fedora in May. He said a decision will be made by the time the next version of the operating system, Fedora Core 6, ships--currently scheduled for Oct. 4.

There are some complications, however, chiefly involving the conflicting font approaches employed by DejaVu and by the Pango software for displaying fonts onscreen. The high frequency of DejaVu updates is also an issue.

So far, things are looking favorable for DejaVu.

"It goes without saying that just because someone makes a proposal, doesn't mean that proposal will be accepted," said Max Spevack, the Fedora Project chairman. "The initial feedback from the user side is mostly positive. But the final decision has not been made, and we need to review it in multiple locales."

But for Roh, though he stepped down from the DejaVu "dictator" role, the victory already has been won. "Once the project got its momentum, it was inevitable that it would become the 'de facto' standard TrueType font in the FLOSS world, which I am very proud of."