This mainly refers to serif and sans serif typefaces used for everyday body text, not "wacky" display typefaces.

I've been looking at a lot of typefaces today and it occurred to me that there are SO many that looks similar. Now I know I'm not a "typeface connoisseur" and that there are such subtle differences between them but surely there will come a day when most legible font have been "made"?

let's say in 100 years from now, the amount of people getting into computing/design grows exponentially and the amount of people creating new typefaces day in day out just gets bigger and bigger. Surely there are only so many variations of a legible font possible?

e.g. There are so many typefaces are out there that basically look the same as things like Helvetica/Arial but with such subtle differences. How long can we keep tweaking fonts for?

Will the day come when there is no possible way to create a typeface that looks different from another without having to purposely alter it to be different?

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    Interesting question. I suspect an expert in typography history could show a long gradient-like succession of very similar typefaces, each of which looks almost identical to its predecessors and contemporaries, but which when viewed as a series, show clear slow transitions as fashions change over the course of decades, ending with recent trends like for example the slow, subtle shift away from smooth yet sharp angular low-contrast Swiss sans like Helvetica towards clean, rounder low-contrast sans like Segoe. But I'm not the person to write that answer.. – user56reinstatemonica8 Apr 16 '15 at 11:13
  • @user568458 Something like this crossed my mind but more and more people today are designing than ever before and it's only going to increase. unless we somehow start viewing typefaces differently I don't see how they can be changed much from what we have now to the next 100 years. – SaturnsEye Apr 16 '15 at 11:34
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    Think of it like trends in music. There have always been thousands and thousands of musicians taking current musical trends in very slightly different directions. Some are new ideas, some are old ideas re-worked. Some catch on and evolve into new trends, most don't. For example, in recent years we've seen fonts with elements of both sans and serif, like Museo or Marcellus. These might inspire a new trend. Or they might not. – user56reinstatemonica8 Apr 16 '15 at 11:46
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    Are speculative questions like this allowed here? – Brian Apr 16 '15 at 17:43

It is not really going to stop (but the reason is not nesseserily design per se). The reason you have many similar different manufacturers of same looking font is same as why you have lots of manufacturers of subtly different nails.

Ownership is defined in this case as copyright, so if you wanted a font that is subtly different, you need a entirely new font. Let's say you have the wrong kind of umlauts for the language group you're interested in. Because the maker of the font is most likely not going to do the change for you, you need to build the entire font anew. Thus a very minor change ends up in a new font, the design was not really meant to produce a new font but ended up doing so to claim copyright. So this is a side effect of our regulatory framework.*

Technologies change, with changing technology fonts need more features. Maybe we will finally have duo colored fonts for example. Another example is that you need a new kerning table or sharper corners as your manufacturing process becomes better. Also there's a new wonderful world of 3D fonts where you design the embossed corners too.

So somebody would take a existing designs as basis, but build the missing pieces. These are all new designs, perhaps not ideas per se but still. There is infinite room for variations in this space just because of the sheer number of combinations.

Is there room for new looks and feels? Yes, but its a incredibly slow process of getting acceptance. So body fonts may not appear to change all that much. Will it ever stop? No, changes will continue to happen.

Soon we will have emoji in the fonts etc.

* By now you should recognize that our insanely long copyrights is a problem, since in 30 or so years, whenever you need a small change, you need to build the entire font anew for a trivial change as the typefaces shape itself is not protected and not just the implementation. Anyway I'm not against copyright per se.

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Yes, experts say around 2043 we'll hit 'peak typeface' and production will drop precariously.

Oh, they'll still find deposits of original typeface ideas scattered here and there across the planet, but we can safely assume that for all intents and purposes, that's it. This is all the type we'll ever find.

At that point, the graphic design industry will likely have about 10 years left. After that, all graphic design will also have been invented and from there on out, everything will be produced with a simple Photoshop CS32 plugin.

It was a good run.

Mark Twain actually predicted this many decades ago:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

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  • This is really the only viable answer here :) – Scott Apr 17 '15 at 19:17

Ultimately a typeface is a representation of an individual or organization's creative vision for displaying commonly accepted symbols representing written human communication - and there's an almost infinite potential when you include human creativity. And we tend to like to relearn the same lessons our own way - meaning some aspiring designer will recreate Helvetica-like fonts just to learn things in the process. So will there ever be a day when one can't make a different typeface from another outside of purposely altering it? I won't say never, but I would say possibly unlikely because of the human creative element in the mix.

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This is a great question. Sometimes when an outsider enters a new culture they assume everyone looks the same. But as they get to know that culture they find out that each individual in that culture is completely unique.

The same is true when it comes to typography. Many people, when they first look at Arial and Helvetica for example, think they are identical—coming from the neo-grotesque culture. But on further study there are many many differences between the two. These small differences throughout the typeface give a composed paragraph a subtle change in tone and voice.

I think as long as people have distinct and individual voices there will be new typefaces to help carry that voice to readers.

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Typeface design evolves, among other things, to match the changing materials on which we write. Chiselled inscriptions on Roman columns required different typefaces to hand-written mediaeval manuscripts; the invention of the printing press required new kinds of typefaces, as did the first dot-matrix printers and "video terminals".

A lot of the standard fonts on PCs (Arial, Times New Roman etc.) were designed specifically to work well on the low-resolution monitors of the day. Font smoothing was a paid-for extra in Win95 as part of the "plus pack" and didn't work yet with all screen/graphics card setups, so Arial and friends had to look ok in their "pixelated" form.

Or consider the bitmapped Chicago font in "classic" Apple OSs. It only really works well in one situation, but does that brilliantly: for UI elements on screens where you can see the individual pixels if you squint at them. Vertical lines are exactly 2px thick, with the horizontals 1px.

With higher-resolution a.k.a. "retina" displays, yet again a new kind of typeface is called for. Digital typefaces are changing as the screens on which we display them get better.

Typeface design will not stop evolving unless technology itself stops evolving, which I consider unlikely. I do not know yet what kind of typeface is best suited to overlays in smart contact lenses or in futuristic devices that interface directly with our brainwaves to create virtual-reality text, but they're probably not the same ones as we use today.

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  • Arial was designed as a replacement for Helvetica and Times New Roman was designed for newsprint. Neither was actually designed specifically for screen usage (and tend to not be great options for that). – DA01 Apr 17 '15 at 19:26

The easy answer has already been given - that no - it will never ever stop. There are countless reasons given - but there's never a new idea, etc - refer to joojaa's answer.

I think we have to consider the right-brain, left-brain duality to this question, however.

Someone creative would say no, but someone logical would say yes.

As an engineer in the technology industry, who has dabbled in art and typography, perhaps I can satisfy both the logic and the feeling.

The number of fonts may never end, as more people try to make something unique, however... Someday technology may make fonts, typefaces, etc. identifiable - we may eventually have a system similar to the way we classify species in biology. At that point, every distinguishing feature of a font may have a list of valid values, and we have a database for all possible combinations.

Someday, fonts may be stored like screws and nails in a hardware store - by size, length serifs, etc. Maybe this answers your question for the future. Fonts have standardized attributes (each letter only has a few variations of itself), and so the number is finite.

So for now, people make "new" ones getting around copyright, but eventually in the next few decades we'll have it down (sadly) from an art to a science. It's already getting close - look at some font databases online.

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    I don't agree that it will ever be a 'science'. It's art. We've been classifying typefaces since the beginning of moveable type, and yet we still can't reach a consensus on how to do it, and likely never will. Which is part of its charm, IMHO. – DA01 Apr 16 '15 at 17:40
  • Welcome to the site and thanks for your answer! Feel free to stop in to our chat and say hello, we don't bite! – JohnB Apr 16 '15 at 18:01
  • Google Fonts already allows you to search fonts in the way you describe, using sliders to determine various characteristics of the typeface. – anaximander Apr 17 '15 at 11:28
  • Google Fonts is one of the font databases to which I referred. And I think it's okay to be both a science and an art. Donald Knuth (one of the tech greats) would say Computer Science is an art. I'll leave that philosophy for others to handle. I don't think our failure to reach a consensus makes something unscientific (look a microprocessor and network architecture specifications for example). Our lack of consensus in the science gives us freedom in the art. – Plasmarob Apr 20 '15 at 19:16

(Note: for those with speculation phobia reading is not recommended)

If we take only readability as a development criteria, then the font design has its peak. Here it is important to make it clear that we must talk only about letter forms and not about assignments of letters to phonemes (those assignments are pretty much conventional by nature). Also if one is interested in this problematics, one should forget for a while about his habits, namely treat a font just as some objects which are put on a line.

So the task is to design a character set which has optimal readability and this leads unavoidably to certain constant forms. What are those forms exactly is an opened, but solvable question and at the same time is a very good question, because the current "peak", namely Garamond-like small letters, is not the peak.

This can be seen by checking its geometry after central criterias:

  • Letter distinctivity: currently too many letters share same geometry or elements.
  • Amount of letters in alphabet: still we have too many letters, this should be reduced as much as possible. Ca. 20 glyphs should be enough to encode the speech (number 20 is pure speculation though). This is the prerequisite to fullfill the first criteria easier.

What else must be done:

  • Drop the x-heigth paradigm, namely release the letters from x-heigth box. Otherwise it would be impossible to fullfill the first criteria. Different heigth paradigm has some negative impact on readability, but is unavoidable step towards the first criteria, which has stronger positive impact.
  • Introduce more symmetry in forms. This is more speculative than above mentioned principles, but still it seems to be truth. It is understood however that vertical line symmetry is of more importance than horizontal line symmetry, in other words V-like forms for example are more acceptable than L-like or d-like forms.

So I think it will come closer to the peak faster if one follows the above principles.

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