TYPO Labs: State of FontLab

Lots of talks and workshops covered the topic of FontLab – four of them are summarized below. Sessions by Adam Twardoch, Yuri Yarmola and Thomas Phinney.

By Luc(as) de Groot

Sessions 1, Adam Twardoch: Make your fonts variable. Upgrading existing font projects to OpenType Variations

On the first day of the conference Adam Twardoch, program manager of FontLab, spoke about making your fonts variable. However, instead of talking about FontLab, he showed how to use a whole bunch of other tools: Glyphs.app, Superpolator, Fontmake, font surgery tools, vfb2ufo and FontForge. Not FontLab, but interesting.

TYPO Labs 2017

© Normal Posselt (Monotype)

Session 2, Yuri Yarmola: OpenType Variations in FontLab VI

The workshop in the afternoon by Yuri Yarmola, the lead programmer of FontLab, was impressive. He explained the limits of the old Multiple Master technology, and that both the Mutator Math (interpolation and extrapolation) and the GVAR algorithms (only interpolation) have been implemented. Masters will be able to live anywhere in the design space, there will be no limit to the number of axes, there is a clever way to show a range of instances within the design space. It is even possible to make an axis for color, so that a glyph could blend from red to green. I do not see any practical use for this in my daily design work yet, but it’s good to be prepared for anything.

TYPO Labs 2017

© Norman Posselt (Monotype)

FL6 can already open GX fonts and it can take care of master compatibility automatically. Yuri showed how to open several fonts from the Myriad family and how to create a variable font with just a few clicks. He even turned a serif font with a sans serif font into a working blend. Currently, Yuri is working on a tool to help making masters compatible in cases where you do not want to rely on the brute force. With the help of named nodes, it is even possible to blend paths that have different amounts of points. We can add an axis for just a few glyphs or the whole font and design space files from other applications can be read and written. Unfortunately, the export function of variable fonts is not finished yet.
Of course, Yuri had to show that you can draw glyphs with a bunch of open paths, where a paint bucket defines the black areas, even when working with several masters. Nice. He told that there are several Python APIs implemented, so a lot of the old FontLab Macros will work.


Session 3, Thomas Phinney, Spacing and Kerning in FontLab VI

The philosophy of FontLab 6 is “high flexibility for the user”, you can work just like in FontLab 5 if you like but also in ways introduced in other apps. The current beta is still very far from the FontLab 5 workflow, but they’re working on it. We can now edit glyphs directly in the metrics window, handy for working on a laptop. We can do tracking in the metrics window, which allows to check how kerning works with spacing applied, or to find the best values for the capital spacing feature, and we can make this tracking permanent through the actions feature.

© Norman Posselt (Monotype)

© Norman Posselt (Monotype)

The presentation is a bit messy, actually three people are on stage, Thomas and Yuri juggling with laptops and the same keyboard and talking with each other quite a bit. This well reflects the fact that FontLab 6 is intensively in progress and still has a few lose ends. Variable kerning was only enabled last week, and Undo is not working yet for spacing and kerning.
One innovation they show is sticky metrics, you can edit the outlines of a glyph, make it wider, and the metrics stay the same. And of course, we have parameters for metrics values (e.g. side bearings), which some might remember from FontStudio 1991.
Similar metrics can now be linked, clever algorithms find similarities by shape within an average range; however, linked metrics still need manual update, similar to Glyphs and Letraset FontStudio. Live update slows things down and is difficult to undo, I was told. Linked Metrics can also be accessed through Python, there are actually three different Python APIs in FontLab 6.
The whole presentation took only 40 minutes, with just few questions from the less than half filled hall, FontLab 6 does not have the magnitude of FontLab 5, a decade ago, when there wasn’t much else on the market for professionals.
Yuri explains the measurement line in the metrics window, showing distances between all glyphs in the string. The new Pairs and Phrases panel shows either a small list of to-do pairs or a handful of short lines of text. If kerning would be that easy :).
In the Kerning window, you can press the alt and control keys to override class kerning on the left or right side.

There is no more key glyph needed in kerning classes, hurray!

The new way of working is – according to Adam – inspired by Metrics Machine, an application from Tal Lemming to do metrics and kerning.
One of the new FontLab file formats VFJ, a Jason based file which can be edited with a text editor. This is good news, the old VFB files were in a proprietary binary format.

© Norman Posselt (Monotype) © Norman Posselt (Monotype)

In FontLab 6 we can preview the kerning from a compiled form, that might have been imported or generated, and we can look at the raw kerning from the kerning table.
In the metrics window which sometimes is named windows panel, confusingly, command-+ adds space on both sides of the glyph, the { and } keys can be used to align glyphs to the left or right, just like one can align elements (FontLab’ s new name for composites) and points with the same keyboard shortcuts, and the ;-key can be used to center glyphs, although it actually destroys the spacing. Sometimes you might see a red arrow in the kerning mode, this notifies the user that the kerning value is far off from the value automatic kerning would apply. The automatic kerning now happens in the Pairs and Phrases panel, select a few pairs and click the eye symbol. Automatic kerning classes should work pretty well right now.
In the Q and A someone commented on the lack of tutorials. Well, the FontLab guys are working on that too, and actually looking to hire someone to help them with this. FontLab 6 public beta can be downloaded from FontLab.com, and as there are still quite a few awkward things, I urge you all to try it out and ventilate your thoughts in the FontLab forum. Even harsh comments are welcome.
It is obvious that FontLab 6 is full of fancy things that might impress novices; smart guides, smart corners, automatic curvature, balancing control points, smart zones, color fonts, etc. – things that professional users sniff at, and that the focus in the last years of development should have been more on making it work in the first place.

Session 4, private after party.

On Sunday afternoon, in a four-hour session with Yuri I could show a variety of complex projects currently in FontLab 5, and highlight many of the problems that make the current beta unusable for real work. I did not count the many times he said “oh, I hate it” about FontLab 6, so his list of things to change and fix has grown again. Not all hope is lost :-)