Public Sans fonts specimen

Typeface Review

Public Sans

Reviewed by Cordelia Yu on December 22, 2020

When I learned that the team who maintains the US Web Design System was working on their own typeface, I was skeptical. While downloading a webfont is fine if you have high-speed internet with unlimited data, it adds an extra burden for those with limited data plans and poor internet connections — often precisely those who need access to government services the most.

On the other hand, why must government design be subjected to utilitarian austerity? Like any brand or institution, governments have their own design sensibilities and needs, and a good typeface can help provide a unique and recognizable visual language. The privilege and mandate of government designers is that we design and build for everyone. Creating a typeface built on the principles of universal accessibility and the resources to maintain and grow it without needing to turn a profit would be a rare privilege afforded to most.

At the moment, Public Sans has only a basic Latin character set, but what if the government had a mandate to provide universal access for languages spoken and written in the United States? What if the team focused on expanding the typeface to character sets for endangered languages, Native languages, and those with few good quality typefaces?

This does not fix the equity issues in the digital divide or linguistic hegemony, nor does it deal with the issues of accessibility and universal design, the broader challenges of clear and trustworthy government content, or access to critical government services. It doesn’t even answer the questions of how we can equitably distribute access to good design.

One typeface created outside of the confines of capitalism will not create equity, accessibility, or universal design. But it does point to questions and a bigger conversation. For that, I am glad that Public Sans is here and excited to see what’s next.

Cordelia Yu is a content strategy and civic technologist at the intersection of digital and service design, institutional change, and decolonization. For the last few years, her work has been as part of a digital innovation team within the US federal government helping organizations and government agencies nurture equitable teams to build community-driven products and services.

One Comment

  1. Thomas Rettig says:

    It’s nice to see some open-source fonts to balance out the annual list.

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