Future Tense

Google Is Building the Esperanto of Fonts

Noto currently has 96 fonts in its family.  

Screencap from Google Noto.

Everyone makes fun of Comic Sans. But if you think about it (which we rarely do), designing and implementing digital fonts is complicated. There are Web standards and protocols to contend with in order make a font decipherable everywhere. And there isn’t a universal font that supports every language. But Google is working on one.

Noto, Google’s Esperanto of a font, was first released for certain languages in 2012, and recently the company added a new Chinese-Japanese-Korean font pack, bringing the total number of Noto fonts to 96. The goal is to cut down on “tofu,” those rectangular boxes you sometimes see when a program you’re using doesn’t support a certain character.

The Unicode Consortium, the same group that organizes emoji standards, has been working on the universal font issue since 1987. But as NPR’s Tanvi Misra explains it’s difficult to develop a universal standard that is culturally sensitive and can handle the virtually infinite nuances of language. Google’s effort seems pretty extensive—when you scroll through the list of supported languages, there may be some that you’ve never even heard of—but it’s a long way from being finished.

Pakistani-American writer Ali Eteraz explained his mixed feelings about a universal font to NPR: “I tend to go back and forth. Is it sort of a benign—possibly even helpful—universalism that Google is bringing to the table? Or is it something like technological imperialism?” In its effort to catalog and standardize language, Google could inadvertently make decisions that limit a language or push it in a direction it wouldn’t have otherwise gone in. NPR uses the example of Nastaʿlīq Urdu, a type of calligraphic script used in famous Urdu poetry, but not supported by Unicode. Without a way to digitize the script into individual symbols, Nastaʿlīq poetry can only be shared as images, which makes it difficult to disseminate widely.

Noto’s website says that “[i]ts design goal is to achieve visual harmonization across languages.” And if it can do this respectfully, the Internet will be a more open place. Maybe Noto can push Comic Sans out once and for all.