New fonts for captioning and subtitling

This activity will commission and/or simply design new fonts for captions and subtitles. And to prove they work, we’ll test them, and improve them if necessary. At that point, we can and will sell them commercially.

Announcing development of our first font...

We have begun research and development of our first typeface family for captions and subtitles.

...and our participating designers

We’re also proud to announce the first set of our participating designers. Yes, we really meant it when we said we were working on our first fonts.

Principles for new development

Typeface variation

Practitioners need a wide variety of fonts and can be trusted to put even unusual fonts to good use. We want to escape the disability ghetto, where it’s assumed that products for people with disabilities can be ugly and undesigned, or that only one variation of an item will suffice.

Therefore, we intend to design at least one extended family in each and every established typeface classification. Every font category you can think of (yes, very much including script and blackletter, or cursive and casual) will have at least one well-tested screenfont family.

The more common categories will offer several competing font families, with large Unicode character repertoires, as captions and subtitles have a habit of turning up in unexpected languages, like Bulgarian, Slovenian, and Romanian. (And English.)


Custom-designed screenfonts for captioning and subtitling represent a lucrative market.

Embedded chips
Essentially every television sold in the U.S., along with certain other devices, must contain caption-decoding circuitry. (There is no requirement in Canada, but Canadians nearly always receive the same sets.)
  • 25 million TV sets are sold each year in the U.S. Assume 90% of those carry caption decoders. At an unreasonably low royalty of 5¢ per television set, font sales would accumulate to US$1.1 million every year – indefinitely.
  • With enough variations of typeface designs, multiple OEMs could license different and exclusive fonts. OEMs could achieve their business goal of being different from competitors, while designers achieve the goal of licensing to as many OEMs as possible.
  • Multiple systems require multiple fonts, including Line 21, NTSC ATSC (high-definition), PAL teletext, PAL DVB, and PAL high-definition.
  • Prices in this segment are quite substantial. Bitstream charges up to US$17,500 per license for Tiresias Screenfont.
Software OEMs
Makers of captioning and subtitling software can include custom-designed screenfonts with their products, which are often not cheap. (A typical installation for one product is US$12,000 per workstation.) Makers of DVD authoring software are another market.
Captioners and subtitlers can buy the fonts at retail. This market shouldn’t be underestimated; custom-engineered fonts intended for specific purposes tend to end up being used for other purposes (e.g., Bell Centennial used for display type).
Player OEMs and operating systems
Online video players (QuickTime, Windows Media, RealPlayer) can be pre-equipped with fonts, or fonts can be installed in operating systems to facilitate captioning and subtitling.
Analogue cinema systems use all the existing subtitling technologies, plus newer technologies like datawalls and projected bitmaps. Digital-cinema systems are still in development but will permit burned-in, bitmap, and streaming-text captions, all of which require fonts.
Set-top boxes
Embedded fonts and bitmap fonts for STBs and onscreen menu systems are a large and growing market.

Existing fonts

Testing and research

Screenfonts developed in this project will be tested with various audiences – with and without hearing or visual disabilities, speaking various native languages. We have to be able to demonstrate that our fonts perform well even as we design them to look good. Functional characteristics are as important as typographic sophistication and visual appeal.

New methodologies for typeface testing will need to be developed. In every case, we need to be able to prove that the screenfont in question performs adequately for captioning and subtitling for the three target audiences – deaf and hard-of-hearing, visually-impaired, and nondisabled people. (The incidence of multiple disabilities is high. Many deaf people wear glasses, and studies have suggested that deaf people are more likely to have incorrect eyeglass prescriptions.)

Research documenting the efficacy of our typefaces will be published, usually after the fonts are released. Research will not be kept secret, though it may be limited to final release candidates of typefaces.

We know this sounds a bit vague at present, but testing will, if anything, be the most important differentiator between this project’s screenfonts and everybody else’s. We will add more detail as we learn more and as our plans develop.

Distribution deals

The major font vendors never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. We offered exclusive distribution deals to major type vendors. In the cases where we weren’t simply ignored, the response was “Customers aren’t complaining about the print fonts we’re selling them.”

So we’re going to innovate in the way we commission, license, and sell fonts. And once we have contracts signed, we’ll tell you all about it.