TYPO Labs: Variable Fonts

»Oh crap. That’s my new job.«

Dan Rhatigan, giving the opening lecture of TypoLabs 17, addressed the hot topic that all of the 280 attendees interested the most straight away: Variable fonts!

by Verena Gerlach

Now, being Senior Manager at Adobe Type (after having been type director at Monotype), he felt like having been back to graduate school, he says. He just started his new position at the moment, when the biggest new thing for the type world was just announced as OpenType 1.8.1 on AtypI Warsaw. This new technology, that keeps the whole community busy, actually is so brand new, that Dan promised the audience not to give any promises. Everything is in motion, developing very quickly. There is no status quo, and no-one actually knows where this is all going. But what we all know is: It is going to be great!

“Variable fonts are going to happen”.

© Norman Posselt (Monotype)


Of course there is a lot development from the industry that no-one is allowed to talk about yet.
The most condensed way to describe this new font format: A family in one file. But this is not at all what the community is only interested in. It is much more about all the possibilities to create countless styles and features of a typeface from only this one source.
Dan remarks, that even his current talk could be outdated after he finishes it (and he is right). Everything is very premature.

“Great time for patience”

A complete overhaul: Variable Fonts require updates from the OS level upwards to application control.
It is a giving and receiving: The industry is investing a lot of money into this new technology, and of course they are speculating to get it back and make even more with it. To the same time, the overall type developer scene is using this professional play ground to exercise their skills and contribute their ideas and knowledge.
After the “type wars” in the 1990s, now, the big players are collaborating not just with the community, but also among each other.
A lot of the results can be seen and developed further via Github. But this is exactly the point: the variable fonts technology right now is only interesting for the font developers and the font tool developers, who just love to solve riddles. There are many unresolved questions for the tools to make fonts with. Variable fonts format is not useful for pure font designers yet, because, beside the browser based application “Fontview”, that needs to be installed first, there is nothing existing to actually show the new developed (or designed) fonts.

So it indeed is mostly about this playing with multiple axises (f. ex on Laurence Penney’s http://www.axis-praxis.org/) and showing off with the technical possibilities.

Dan wishes to once have an interface that is not using sliders anymore, but how this might work, he of course dosen’t know yet.

© Norman Posselt (Monotype)

When it comes to actually design WITH type, Dan points out the risk of spoiling all the technical work behind the actual products (the fonts), by not making it visible or accessible to the type setters or graphic designers. This is what happened to the OpenType features, that mostly are like sleeping beauties, hidden behind any toolbars and popup menus. So this is a very high task for the marketing people too.

“Typefaces need to be the least complicated part of a design job”.

What I have learned as a type designer and type user? To stay patient and follow what is happening.

People who have supported Dan and the community:

  • Miguel Sousa
  • Frank Griesshammer
  • Read Roberts

Website with a great example to mention: Zeitung > http://www.underware.nl/