John Philips – Open Font Library – Full Interview

John Philips – Open Font Library – Full Interview

John Philips

open font library logo


FULL INTERVIEW by Shirish Agarwal

– What inspired you to start the Open Font Library (OFL)?

My previous work on Inkscape and Open Clip Art Library ( and a desire to help build out communities where none exist. I’m interested in bridging the various free and open graphics communities and the fonts-domain is a super weak area. The thinking is that by focusing a community of designers around fonts, the quality of fonts around the desktop will increase similar to how Inkscape has helped improve overall design of the free desktop.

– What advantages does the OFL have over other sites offering free fonts?It is focused on what the free and open software/content communities desire, so the entire operation is transparent and open. There is the SIL Open Font License and CC Public Domain declaration in place to help free fonts for use, re-use and remix. Also, the software is completely free software and using Creative Commons’ open source project, ccHost (

– What do you hope to achieve through OFL?

We hope to improve the overall quality of fonts on the free and open desktop. We want to have completely brilliant, free and super high quality fonts for anyone to use on the free desktop. If that happens to solve needs for the larger world, then so be it! But, we have found focusing on a specific area is vital to a project like this.

– What goals do you have for the OFL?

I want to make this a super-dynamic community that lowers the barrier for participation in creating fonts, which is a hard endeavor to do! I’m particularly interested in developing a friendly culture that makes lovely international fonts and also as being a place for free and open fonts to be pushed upstream. If one looks at the font packages in various distros, it’s totally a mess! Also, there are some fonts where the licensing and/or agreement for usage is dubious.

– Can Windows or Mac users use OFL fonts?

Yes, there shouldn’t be any problems. We are focusing on collecting both the source and output of font files. George from Fontforge is an active community member and has worked to make this a nice reality. We have the good folks in the larger free and open font community helping to make sure the site is useful.

– Is OFL the first site you’ve worked on?

Hopefully it doesn’t look that way! No, I’ve been working in the field for like 14+ years now. I’ve been building websites and projects for ages. I started in free and open source with Inkscape and have worked at various companies doing open site design and project building. Inkscape work transitioned into Open Clip Art Library (, which always is in need of other developers! I also have built large projects for my present employer, Creative Commons.

– How did you create the site? (software, language, etc)

I used to be anti-website engine in favor of pure html, php, and css. But, have converted to building most of my projects with WordPress. When I first started working for Creative Commons, I was tasked with building up the engine behind the big music remix community, ccMixter ( The engine that powers that site is called ccHost ( and there was a decision made at some point that this engine is the best way forward for building Open Clip Art Library and Open Font Library. It is totally great to develop on this engine and is underscored that Creative Commons has a full time developer hacking on it in addition to other community contributors, of which I am one now, since I have transitioned to being the Business + Community Manager for Creative Commons.

Anyway, in terms of tools I use: vim, ssh, evolution (for lots of coordination), pidgin (for lots of chat) and epiphany web browser for wiki editing and testing.

Note, that this project is a large collaborative project, so it’s not just me. I try to structure out a road map for our community of contributors, and then we all (ideally) lend a hand.

– How long did it take you to create the first version of the OFL site?

Half-day at best, because I’m an expert at installing ccHost. It still looks quite similar to Open Clip Art Library, but that is just because we wanted to get the core functionality solid before fixing the site’s decorations 😉

– If somebody made free fonts which license should they put them under?

That is a tricky question and I recommend anyone [who’s interested] to talk to a lawyer about [it]. There are some problems at least in the USA with how fonts work with copyright. With the project we have taken the approach of both allowing for no license (public domain) and the SIL Open Font License because that license has been sussed out by SIL for free-ness and potential legality issues.

So, I can’t really recommend what license to use, but you can use Open Font Library as a great place for free and open fonts.

I would say however that source code licenses are not tailored for content, such as GPL and LGPL. The SIL Open Font License is tailored for fonts.

– How much time and no. of steps are there in making a font?

Sadly enough, I don’t directly make fonts. I’m the community-building guy on the project and rely heavily on Dave Crossland, George Williams and others to handle this aspect of the project. They are great to talk to about building fonts. In the times I’ve worked on fonts, back when I did design, it is a time intensive task!

– Any specific suggestions for the free software community so font designers feel more at home here?

Yes, jump into helping out at The project is an open book, so its open to you to change it!

– Do you use free software to make free fonts or do you feel the need for using commercial software to achieve the same?

I’ve used both [types of] apps. George’s FontForge is a great tool that now has the ability to save fonts directly to the Open Font Library, which is quite cool!

– A brief list of software, your comments on what you think of the following tools which are in use for free font development.

fontforge – The number one app at the time! Go George! It would be great to get a GTK-based interface for this and would open the door for more developers, but that’s been on the table for a while.

Inkscape – Of course Inkscape is the best vector editor in the world (plugggg!!!)

Gimp – Gimp is useful for converting old typefaces, etc…always brilliant

scribus-font-preview – Awesome!

– Any suggestions for upstream free software font tools to make font designers feel more at home?

If you aren’t on our list and talking with us, please do so! We want to make the healthiest font ecosystem possible!

– What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a similar site?

Make a solid plan and double any estimates for how long you think tasks will take 🙂 Also, it is nice to have a plan for keeping afloat financially during, or have you nights and weekend budgeted.

– Your take on Apple fontbook vis-a-vis say gnome-specimen?

One of my colleagues at Creative Commons, Alex Roberts, who is incidentally the founder of gEdit, has been working on a fontbook-like app for offering the type preview functionality and type manager features, but not sure where that is at at present:

– Comments on the ‘liberation’ font released by redhat

Great to see RedHat releasing some other fonts. We are hopeful they will endorse the SIL Open Font License and include some of the Open Font Library fonts as well.

– What do you feel about the ‘GPL + restrictions’ under which the liberation font has been filed & the reaction of the wider community to the same?

It would be great to get the Liberation and other fonts under a font license the community endorses, such as the SIL Open Font License. The OpenFontLibrary community has been pushing on this now so it is hopeful that the font will be under a font license and similar movement will coalesce around other font packages.

– Anything you are looking forward as regards to free fonts in the next 6 months or so?

Mainly getting more developers and working to build out features like previews for the fonts, etc. That is super high priority.

– As a font designer, do you see/feel any differences between any of the WM’s or it doesn’t matter? Flexibility etc. ?

I try to stick with Gnome now, mainly to go with the herd and try to focus any bugfixes etc to build up free and open desktop. The tools are really developed to work on any desktop, so its really up to preference.

– Is using free software for font-design something you will recommend to an upcoming/novice font designer?

Yes, absolutely so that fonts spread more and more! With commercial fonts, the legal clarity on usage is very unclear, thus its important to lower this barrier to get more type designers in to create and others to use fonts where the legality isn’t so questionable.

So, for type designers at schools and commercially, why pay the big bucks for apps when you can both use great free software to develop fonts, and then also have a free place to host your fonts as long as you make the licensing of that fonts clear.

– Comments about career/money-making opportunities for taking/making free fonts as a profession?

Well, obviously, as has been shown with other content fields like music and video, spreading you works and maximizing views is high priority that yields fame and reputation. Often, if you work hard, other forms of income follow this, so better to spread your fonts and get them all throughout all various OLPCs, OpenMoko’s, Gnome desktop, etc. Think how that sells if you are trying to get a job! Oh, I designed this free font that is on 5 million computers around the world! Who is going to get hired, the guy who has one font he sold to 5 clients for $500 a use, or one that is on 5 million computers! Which one is more successful?