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Typeface Review

Fira Sans

Reviewed by Matthew Butterick on March 11, 2014

Complimenting Erik Spiekermann for Fira Sans, his latest typeface, seems a little like telling the Iron Chef that he really knows how to cook. Yeah. Duh. We might even ask whether Fira has an unfair advantage over other fonts from 2013, because it’s built on the adamantium-plated skeleton of FF Meta, which Spiekermann has had 25+ years to polish (see also FF Meta Serif and FF Unit).

Though the design may be familiar, Fira is still notable for the circumstances of its birth. It was commissioned by the Mozilla Foundation for the Firefox OS and released under the SIL Open Font License. So let’s give the Mozilla Foundation credit for understanding that type is a valuable asset, putting a suitable budget behind the project, and hiring someone who knows what he’s doing — just as Microsoft did in the ’90s when they commmissioned Verdana and Georgia from Matthew Carter. (Let’s also recognize designer Ralph du Carrois for his work on the project.)

Though the OFL permits modifications, I don’t think of Fira as an “open source” font because it doesn’t invite contributions. It is a finished work. (Indeed, the Fira repo shows no changes to the fonts since they were released last September.) When the Iron Chef serves dinner, you don’t ask for the ketchup.

But Fira can be freely redistributed. This was an essential feature for me as I was redesigning the docu­ment­ation for the Racket programming language. Because Racket is licensed under the LGPL, I could only use libre fonts. Fira offers the pleasure and utility of Meta, with the flexibility of an open license. What’s not to like?

Ask the libre-font curmudgeons. Roughly, their view is that libre fonts damage the market for proprietary fonts, because they legitimize knock-offs of popular designs and erode the perceived value of type.

Oh, really? With Fira, Spiekermann has taken his own proprietary design — and not just any design, but Meta, a longtime bestseller — and created a libre version. If the curmudgeons were right, this irrational act should’ve destroyed the market for Meta and weak­ened the market for similar faces. But it didn’t. Meta remains high on the sales charts. Other popular sans serif fonts have remained popular. So let’s get over it: libre fonts and proprietary fonts can peacefully coexist because they serve different market needs.

Fira is also the latest evidence of an overlooked fact about libre fonts: that most of the good ones are being made by designers of proprietary fonts.

Don’t take my word for it. We have data. Google pub­lish­es cumulative web-usage figures for the 657 libre font families on its servers. As of Jan 23, 2014, and consistent with the 80/20 rule, the top 100 fam­ilies accounted for over 80% of the total webfont views.

Let’s consider the traffic generated by those 100 families. If we look only at families made by type designers primarily involved with proprietary fonts, we see that those families account for 75% of that traffic. Designers who focus on libre fonts account for only 25%.

We needn’t read too much into this fact. Let’s simply say that it debunks a favorite theme of libre-font fanatics, which is that libre fonts are changing the rules of type design. No. They’re not. In fact, good libre fonts and good proprietary fonts are more alike than different, because they embody the same design virtues: precision, diligence, care. Standards still matter.

That shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s been true across the whole libre-software ecosystem for 25 years. Standards matter because user expectations are consistent. For instance, libre operating systems have to be as good as the proprietary alternatives or no one will use them. The same is true of fonts.

It also reminds us that good libre fonts aren’t easier or cheaper to make than good proprietary fonts. As usual, there is no free lunch. With Fira Sans, the difference is that a rich relative is picking up the check. In the Iron Chef’s kitchen. Thank you, Uncle Mozilla. Arigato, Erik.

Matthew Butterick is a typographer, writer, and lawyer in Los Ange­les. He is the creator of Butterick’s Practical Typography. His most recent typefaces are Equity and Concourse.

4 Comments

  1. Petar Perovic says:

    Is there a complete specimen of Fira anywhere to be found? No one mentions language support or other technical features of the typeface. Meta Pro supports Cyrillic and Greek (not sure about Hebrew) and I was wondering is it the same case with Fira?

  2. Alexey Zubkov says:

    Petar,

    Fira supports Cyrillic but it’s worse than Meta Pro’s. To name the worst offender: ‘л’ (lowercase ell)’s left leg doesn’t stand firm on the baseline. Meta Pro’s Cyrillic was made by Russian designers at ParaType, unlike Fira’s.

  3. Alexey,

    I’m not too surprised. The announcement of Fira was welcomed with enthusiasm by Greek users, until they saw the fonts. It was hard to believe that something so clunky and uninformed could have been designed in 2013. That it was based on Meta makes it worse, since the style is easy to adapt. The worst thing about it is the inconsistency: half the glyphs are perfectly fine, some are mediocre, and some are just terrible. The worst are the gamma (a contraption so ugly and alien to Greek eyes it is as if all the excellent Greek typefaces of the last fifteen years never happened) and the kappa, which is not even a Greek letter. A huge disappointment.

  4. I am very surprised that Fira was picked as a favorite. I’m sure it is a technically well executed family (at least I used to be sure before I read the comments above), but as a custom typeface for a company that aims forward, it feels strange to me to select a (modification of a) typeface that is so clearly rooted in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Wait a decade or two, and it might’ve escaped the shadow of doom.

    I’d ask the Iron Chef for some chili-flavored ketchup, instead of a bowl of reheated soup from the last millennium.

    I hear “custom font” is trending on Dribbble. My guess: Mozilla wanted to do a custom font, but they didn’t want it enough to foot the bill for original work.

    So, why is it your favorite again? Because it’s libre?

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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