TYPO Labs: World Universal Engines and Planet Fontlab

After John Hudson’s complex opening speech on The Universal Shaping Engine (USE), a new model for OpenType complex script handling, it was hands on at the FontLab VI session. A lot of “nerd speak” centered on how coordinates are floats, how to create smoothest possible connection between two curve segments and of course on new tools in the recently released update and how to use them.

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by Luc(as) de Groot, LucasFonts

Warming up with John Hudson. In a great talk John addressed problems with the current Uniscribe, the MicroSoft system technology that takes care of OpenType font processing, which currently has 9 different shaping engines built in to accommodate all the worlds scripts that are currently supported. Not all Unicode features are supported equally well in these shaping engines, so a typographic feature might work in one but not in another script. He then revealed that there is now being worked on a Universal Shaping Engine (USE) that should be able to process all the worlds scripts. With several super nerdy and lovely examples he showed what an extremely complicated undertaking this is. My favourite expression in his talk: “Vowel Killer”. And I’ll think twice before designing Bengali and Burmese.

FontLab VI, session 1 of 3.

In the first of the three FontLab sessions at TypoLabs, Adam started of by explaining that FontLab 6 is a complete rewrite combining the good things of FontLab 5, Fontographer and the UFO technology, a complex and ambitious undertaking.

This FontLab successor, codenamed Victoria, has been shown at various conferences since 2011, but only since a few months, a public alpha version was made available for the Macintosh platform.

This public release has been received with mixed feelings, apart from missing stability and missing production capabilities, the product is so far away from FontLab 5, and so very different from any other type design program, that no one can really figure out how to do design or anything else in this app.

This lecture for the first time gave some insights into why things are so different, and that there are actually some interesting new and usable concepts.

Before Adam starts, he needs to customise views and settings in various places with the help of colleagues, the default settings of FontLab 6 are obviously not ok yet. He then types several letters in a glyph window and shows that they can be edited simultaneously by selecting several ascenders and moving them upwards. Nice. We can add service layers, for backgrounds, to store shapes or to keep different versions of a shape, and we can add production layers, that become part of the exported font, useful for coloured fonts or even for experimenting with adding serifs.

The concept of component glyphs seems to have disappeared temporarily, it is now named “shapes” and “clones”. FontLab can detect clones in a font, identical shapes that occur more than once, and then these all literally become the same shape. Clones can even be serifs, and if you then change this shape in one glyph, it will simultaneously change in all other clones as well. Powerful but scary because it is not obvious in what glyphs such clones change. We can give these cloned shapes a name to make them appear in a gallery, from which they can be dragged out to build new glyphs. (some might remember this was a nice feature of Letraset FontStudio from 1991)

The Workshop Better Béziers with FontLab VI was an in-depth presentation by its developers Yuri Yarmola, Thomas Phinney and Adam Twardoch (left to right) with unexpected results

In previous FontLabs, all font units would round to whole numbers, now we get a much higher precision, in nerd speak: coordinates are floats. This will result in a higher quality of transformations like scaling and rotating. By simply pressing the H key the coordinates are shown rounded. For Italic fonts, the whole grid of font coordinates can now be slanted, activated by pressing the backslash key. On a slanted grid, the shift key constrains movements to the italic angle, cool. Then Adam can’t find the preview panel on the small screen of the projector, and FontLab crashes on smart corners, so their function has yet to be revealed.

On points, curve segments and continuity

Now Thomas Phinney, a well known name in the font industry and new president of FontLab takes over from Adam. Thomas demonstrates Genius points, that will automatically reposition to make the smoothest possible connection between two curve segments, meaning that the curvature on both sides of the points remains equal. Personally I don’t think such points deserve the name Genius, because I consider the position of points to be much more important then the continuity in curvature, and because the human eye can get away with big differences in curvature as long as the shape is good. In many situations, the Genius concept will make the shape suffer. Thomas then shows the harmonise contour function, which is a bit like applying Genius just once, combined with balancing the control vectors. At this point, the FontLab team starts a small fight about the exact implementation of this function :-). I can imagine these functions are attractive for rough stuff and beginners fonts, but should be used with care on shapes that have already been properly designed.

TYPO LabsFontLab world by Lucas de Groot

It’s dark and it’s detailed. In this 90-minute session providing an in-depth look at the new outline design process in FontLab VI 

Then points can be made into Servant nodes, whose position is interpolated on the fly, which kind of replaces the interpolate tool from FontLab 5, whose potential remained hidden to most users. Thomas showed the Rapid tool for tracing scans, click makes corner points, double-click smooth points. Some claim this is faster then the standard Pen tool.

He then shows the Tuni lines, a blue line between two control vectors to change the tension of a curve, and with a double-click to balance the control vectors. One can even select several Tunni lines and modify the tension of many curves simultaneously. The intended tension for a font can be set in font info, and is used in the rapid tool and the drawing of ellipses. We now have a new scissors tool that recreates overlaps when dragging over a connection of two strokes. A cool feature that Georg Seifert introduced in his Glyphs app. A click with the scissors tool opens the path. Yes, shapes can now be built with overlapping and even open paths, and with the new fill tool we can define which enclosures become white or black. This is going to solve various interpolation problems inherent to the old MultipleMaster technology.

Adam Twardoch demonstrated how glyphs are organized into Layers and Shapes and explained how the new Rapid tool complements the improved traditional Pen, and talked about the new point types Genius and Servant points, Smart corners

Later Thomas outlined some more innovations for drawing shapes, with the ctrl and alt key down, moving a point will proportionally scale adjacent control vectors. The C key activates Power Nudge, which is also kind of a replacement for the old Interpolate tool. With the shift and alt key down, points will slide along a curved contour, which can be helpful for changing weights in the “diagonals” of round shapes, and also the bottom curve of a “c” can be elongated, following the existing curve. Impressive. When you drag points with the alt key down, special things might happen, and in case you lost track, dragging points with the ctrl key pressed will temporarily switch off all magic settings.

Further improvements and how to use them

Even the knife tool was improved, clicking on paths just adds points, drag with the control key to create two separate closed shapes and drag with the alt key to create two opened shapes. The new eraser tool can be used to get rid of points, and with the shift key you get “safe” erase, in which important points will remain, and with the control key the eraser can even turn a collection of too many points into a smooth S-curve.

Yuri explained that points can have names assigned to them, that should be helpful for TrueType conversions. When I think of the amount of glyphs and points that I have in my fonts I get a bit scared.

Then an “improved” font audit was demonstrated, to find mistakes in the outlines, and with a “fix all” the whole glyph disappeared. That is not supposed to happen, but is also a proper method to solve a  bad glyph. During Thomas’ presentation, Adam and Yuri tuned in regularly — the team seams to be in a pleasant working mood. In some metrics list we see that the widths of glyphs will have colours assigned to them, not helpful at all when tested on a font of mine, but the visual result fits well with this years’ conference logo.

FontLabs Q&A session, the beef and the breaks

In the Q and A I ask the developers to explain improvements to the famous FontLab 5 metrics window, because I could not find it at all in the public beta of FontLab 6, but it turned out that this was done on purpose, because seemingly the improved glyph window can be used for typing, previewing, spacing and kerning.

TYPO Labs 2016 Fontlab world by Lucas de Groot

A highly concentrated Luc(as) de Groot following the latest development in the FontLab world in the classroom of the first TYPO Labs conference 

But of course we doubted that this was true, and after the lectures, on the chill-out grass in front of the conference hall, a group of designers spontaneously mobilised to persuade the developers to bring it back, we are hooked on its functionality and want to be able to double-click any glyph in a metrics window to open and edit in a separate glyph window. I think we succeeded :-)This illustrates that on technology focused conferences the beef happens in the breaks, these are maybe even more important that the lectures themselves, and need to be long and on-site. Developers are yearning for feedback from designers that tell them when they have gone too far or missed out on something. My compliments to the conference organisation for the endless supply of refreshing drinks, they literally help to speed up the development of font technology.

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photos by Norman Posselt/Monotype