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Archive for the category ‘web fonts’

Typography of the future: variable fonts

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I’ve just finally watched the Special OpenType session, ATypI 2016 Warsaw of the “Special OpenType Session” from the ATypI 2016 Warsaw in Warsaw in September. (Because of scheduling and flight conflicts, I didn’t arrive in Warsaw until the evening of that day, so I missed the live event. Not surprisingly, it was the talk of the town among attendees at the conference.) The discussion in the video is highly technical, but the upshot of this development is exciting.

Variable fonts” seems to be the name that everyone’s adopting for this new extension of the OpenType font format. What it means is that an entire range of variations to a basic type design can be contained in a single font: all the various styles from Extra Light to Extra Bold, for instance, and from Compressed to Extended. Instead of a super-family of separate font files, you can have one font that, conceivably, contains them all.

The presentation had representatives from Adobe, Microsoft, Apple, and Google, reflecting the fact that this is truly a cooperative effort. All four major companies (and several smaller ones) have committed to supporting and implementing this new standard. That’s a very important fact: usually, adventurous people come up with an ambitious new spec for wonderful typographic features, but the problems arrive when the developers of operating systems and applications don’t fully commit to supporting them. This time, from the very first, the companies that develop those apps and OSes are committed.

What that means is that, if it’s implemented properly, the new format will make it possible for font developers to create fonts that adapt to changing circumstances. For instance, in a responsive web layout, you might change the width of the text font as the width of the window gets narrower or wider. You could also change the weight subtly when the screen colors are reversed. These small, almost unnoticeable, but very important variations could make reading onscreen much more comfortable and natural.

This is a watershed. What it reminds me of is two different nodal points in the development of digital type: multiple master fonts, and web fonts. The introduction of variable fonts at this year’s ATypI conference has the same “Aha!” and “At last!” feeling that the introduction of the WOFF font format standard for web fonts had at Typ09, the 2009 ATypI conference in Mexico City. Both events mark the coming-together of a lot of effort and intelligent work to make a standard that can move the typographic world forward.

The history of multiple master fonts is sadder, and it points up the pitfalls of creating a good idea without getting buy-in from all the people who have to support it. The multiple-master font format was a breakthrough in digital type; with its flexible axes of variable designs, it made possible a nearly infinite variation along any of those design axes: a weight axis, a width axis, or (most promising of all) an optical-size axis, where the subtleties of the design would change slightly to be appropriate to different sizes of type.

But the multiple master technology, developed by Adobe, never made it into everyday use. The various Adobe application teams didn’t adopt it in any consistent or enthusiastic way, and it wasn’t adopted by other companies either. Instead of being incorporated into the default settings of users’ applications, giving them the best version of a font for each particular use, multiple master was relegated to the realm of “high-end typographers,” the experts who would know how to put it to use in airy, refined typographic projects. That’s not the way it should have worked; it should have been made part of the default behavior of fonts in every application. (Of course, users should have had controls available if they wanted to change the defaults or even turn it off; but the defaults should have been set to give users the very best, most appropriate typographic effects, since most users never make any changes to the defaults at all. It’s important to make the defaults as good as possible.)

Now it sounds like the new variable-fonts technology is going to be incorporated into the operating systems and the commonly used applications. If this really happens, it will improve typography at the everyday, ordinary, pragmatic level. And what that means is the improvement of communication.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this works in practice. And to putting it to use myself, and helping in any I can to improve and implement these new standards.

[Images: (left, top) Peter Constable speaking at the Special OpenType Session at ATypI Warsaw, September 2016; (left) schematic of the design variations of Adobe’s Kepler, designed by Robert Slimbach.]

FontCasting

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During last year’s TypeCon in Washington DC, FontShop’s David Sudweeks videotaped interviews with a number of type designers, and with at least one non-type-designer: me. He asked questions about how I’d gotten started in the field of typography (“sideways”) and about book design, which gave me an opportunity to set out my ideas about the typography of onscreen reading, and the nascent Scripta Typographic Institute. (That’s a subject that I’ll be taking up again at ATypI 2015 in São Paulo next month.)

Now that interview has been published. The parts about book design & e-book design start at 1:25, after some introductory material.

All of the FontCast interviews are short, focused, and well edited.

Georgia & Verdana’s expanded palette

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While I was a program manager at Microsoft Typography, two of the typefaces that fell within my purview were Georgia and Verdana, the highly readable screen fonts designed by Matthew Carter in the 1990s to make reading text onscreen easier on the eyes. So I was in a position to encourage and approve a joint project of Ascender Corporation (now a part of Monotype Imaging) and the Font Bureau to work with Carter to create a much-expanded set of fonts for both Georgia and Verdana. The project was announced two years ago; this week, Font Bureau and Monotype Imaging have released the new fonts.

Georgia Pro and Verdana Pro are now large type families, with five weights instead of two, each one with its accompanying italic, as well as small caps and several alternate kinds of numerals; and all of those weights and styles are repeated in condensed form. This makes it possible to have truly bold headlines in either typeface, or to fit copy into narrow measures, or to combine weights and widths in expressive ways within a typographically consistent page.

Not surprisingly, given the advent of downloadable web fonts, both Georgia Pro and Verdana Pro are being shown off in a web-based type specimen from Webtype. And they’ve been hinted to be as consistent as possible across platforms and browsers.

I’m looking forward to seeing them put to use.

Regional powers

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I’ve been looking with interest at “CSS Regions,” Adobe’s entry into the arena of flexible page design on the web. This is clearly the sanguinary bleeding edge of onscreen design today – designing intelligent layouts that will behave differently (but coherently) under different circumstances, most notably on screens or in windows of different sizes and shapes.

Adobe Labs has released an experimental WebKit-based web browser, as a platform for showing off what CSS Regions can do. The demonstrations are mostly about shapes: they include multiple columns, arbitrarily shaped text blocks, text that flows from one text block to any other text block on the page, and a couple of other, more specific tricks. In the demos, text wraps neatly around images or around other text, in a highly flexible manner.

It’s good to see these problems being tackled. But there’s something missing. As an earlier Wedmonkey article about this technology put it, “when it comes to the flow of text around images, pull quotes and other block level elements, well, web typography falls apart.” CSS Regions is clearly aimed at enabling design with these “block level elements.” But that’s only macro-level typography; what about the typography of the text that’s doing all that wrapping? We need the same level of control over text typography on the web that we’ve got today on the printed page. And not just in an inflexible page created in InDesign and turned into a static PDF.

More tools, please.

Web type at last!

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This has turned out to be the year of web fonts. I don’t just mean typefaces designed for use on the web; that’s been going on for at least a decade and a half, most notably with the spread of Verdana and Georgia throughout the online world. I mean that at last we’re getting a workable system for using a variety of typefaces on web pages – and being reasonably certain that everyone viewing those pages will see the same typefaces, not some substitute based on what happens to be available on their computer.

A year ago, this seemed impossible. There was a whole track of programming at the ATypI conference in Mexico City about web fonts, and lots of interest in the topic, but there seemed to be no common ground for agreement about the right way to move forward.

WOFF

In the past year, however, the key players came together to form a Web Fonts Working Group under the auspices of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), and after months of hard work and persuasion, they agreed on a new format for web fonts. It’s called WOFF (Web Open Font Format), and it’s well on its way to becoming a generally accepted standard. According to Erik van Blokland, one of the creators of the format, WOFF will be “the only (!) specification that W3C will recommend for use on the web.”

All of the newest versions of major browsers, either out now or out soon, support WOFF, including the recently-released beta version of Internet Explorer 9. (Mozilla Firefox was the first to implement WOFF support; Mozilla was one of the developers of the format.) Browsers may implement other formats as well, but WOFF is likely to be the only format that’s guaranteed to work across all “modern” browsers.

Properly speaking, WOFF isn’t a new font format; it’s a software wrapper around an existing TrueType or OpenType font. The WOFF wrapper includes “metadata” – information about the font – that font vendors can use to tell you who designed the typeface, who licensed it to you, and what the terms are for that license. This is just information; there’s no enforcement involved, no DRM, nothing to prevent someone who’s willing to go to a little trouble from unpacking the font inside the wrapper. The purpose of the metadata is to make it obvious to anyone who downloads the font that it’s a web font, intended for use while viewing a web page, not a “desktop” font that you can use in any file or application you want. This whole approach is promulgated on the assumption that most people, if it’s clear and easy for them to do the right thing, will, in fact…do the right thing.

Web-font services

The newest versions of all the major web browsers support WOFF, which makes it a universal format going forward. Looking backward, of course, is another story. What about older browsers that don’t have WOFF support built in? Lots of websites will be viewed in older versions of all of the major browsers. That’s where web-font services come in.

At the same time that vendors and manufacturers are coming out with sets of fonts intended for the web, an increasing number of web-font services have sprung up, each offering its own system for supplying those web fonts to designers and end users.

There are two parts to a web-font service: 1) making the fonts available to web designers so they can specify them in the designs of their web pages; and 2) enabling those fonts to be downloaded to users’ systems when they view those web pages.

The web-font service takes care of delivering the right fonts in the right formats to each version of each browser; the website host or designer makes an arrangement with the service, usually for a fairly nominal fee, and then uses the fonts available for that service in designing their web pages.

The list of web-font services is growing almost daily; so is the list of font foundries who are offering their fonts in web versions. There are many different ideas about the best way to do this, both technically and from a business standpoint. A web designer just has to pick one and give it a try. They’re all available right now.

There is variation in quality, of course. Typekit, for instance, which is perhaps the best known, offers fonts from a lot of different foundries; some of them are better engineered for onscreen use than others. Webtype.com, launched by Font Bureau, offers not only a web-font service but several families of carefully designed new fonts, with their roots in metal but their forms dictated by what works onscreen. Adobe recently launched their web-font library, a wide selection of font families from their larger font library, and already Adobe has upgraded and improved the rendering of some of those fonts. On the web, it’s very easy to update things, to iterate; there’s no final form. Now that the floodgates have opened, you can expect things to keep changing fast, and the quality to keep getting better at a rapid rate.

For users, the WOFF revolution is a very good argument for upgrading your browser, since only the newer versions of each browser will support this format. (You may get good results from some of the backward-compatible formats offered by some web-font services, but you will get better results – the type will be more readable – with an up-to-date browser.) If you’re a web designer, it’s time to start looking into WOFF.

[Image: an apt slogan taken from the homepage of webtype.com]

Pontificating

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I was interviewed last week, along with Simon Daniels, by “unsolicited pundit” Glenn Fleishman, who writes regularly for the “Babbage” blog on The Economist‘s website. The subject was type on the web – a huge subject that I’ve been trying to write my own blog post about without success. I guess it’s easier to have someone else asking the questions (and writing up the answers) than to put it all together yourself. I think Glenn plans to write more about the subject; this one article doesn’t come close to exhausting it, but it’s a good start.