There is a certain historical irony, as Source Sans’ designer Paul Hunt points out, that Adobe saw need for an open source type family and decided to create one. But as Adobe developed more open source projects and was pushed to acknowledge the ever-growing primacy of open standards on the web, a project like this one had a certain inevitability to it as well.
The primary need for an open source type that would serve well in short UI labels came from requests, but Adobe’s “perennial interest” in text typography meant that Source Sans should also provide a functional text face for use on screen and in print.
Adobe’s Nicole Minoza describes Source Sans as, “a classic grotesque typeface with a simple, unassuming design”. This characterization is unsurprising given Hunt’s attraction to Morris Fuller Benton’s gothics as models for solving the design problem.
Source Sans’ six weights benefit from this guiding light, giving it a slimmer body and more upright posture than what I expect in a typeface optimized for text on screen. In UI screenshots, Source Sans feels more classically typographic than I would expect. Created at a time when on-screen doesn’t necessarily imply grossly low-resolution, it has a subtle but resonant character. Stanford University may have chosen it for its web identity, yet its sophistication isn’t such that it fights utility and accessibility of voice. It’s likely you’ve seen Source Sans many times, as it also serves as Digg’s text face.
Though what’s most intriguing about Source Sans is actually what it represents. Open source, at its core, means access. For this reason, Source Sans is more than a mere typeface. It’s a platform for development, expansion, and education. All of the source files used in production are available on SourceForge, the project is hosted on GitHub, and it is part of the Google Web Fonts library. This open sourcing has already lead to the incorporation of small caps and superscript capitals, added by software developer Logos and designed by Marc Weymann. Source Sans is a type family to watch and a project to be cultivated and appreciated.
Chris Rugen lives in Philadelphia, where his wife and daughter endure his longstanding fascination with type's unique role in culture and communication. He splits his time between his home and NYC, working as a Director of Design & Creative Communications at Columbia University.