[OTVar] Introducing OpenType variable fonts

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  • yanoneyanone Posts: 85
    “Restricted variable fonts”
    This won’t pass through marketing. You can’t tell customers that the products they buy are restricted.
  • New Diet Variable Fonts. All the font without all the calories*.

    * instances
  • More like all the calories without all the flavor.
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,416
    edited October 2016
    @yanone
    This won’t pass through marketing. You can’t tell customers that the products they buy are restricted.
    Marketing people can come up with whatever terms they like to describe products. It really doesn't interest me, except insofar as I believe the technical name of a thing should be descriptive, and hence should remain independent of marketing; ergo, 'variable fonts' rather than 'superfonts'.

    The term 'restricted variable font' seems to me accurately describe a font in which OT font variations technology is used in a way that restricts access to the design space to discrete instances. As @Ben Blom has pointed out, other descriptive terms are possible, e.g. 'discrete variable font' or 'non-continuous variable font'. Are these any better from a marketing perspective? It seems to me there would still a job of customer education to be done to explain why some variable fonts behave differently from others. No snappy marketing name is going to obviate that.

  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,284
    There is already a perfectly good technical term for this kind of thing: Metafont, coined by Donald Knuth in 1979. 
    (The classical Greek prefix meaning “beyond”—hence Metafont would cover both “restricted” and “unrestricted” implementations.)
    But every organization wants to put its own brand on the concept, hence Multiple Masters, GX and now Variable.
    So don’t kid me that “Variable” is anything other than a snappy marketing term!

  • METAFONT™ is a trademark of Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. 

    The technological concept is abstract.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,284
    edited October 2016
    When the concept is an invention that is productized, it is generally trademarked, if not patented. So the technical and marketing aspects are conflated.

    Knuth’s definition was spot on, 30 years ago.

  • Ben BlomBen Blom Posts: 228

    In a marketing context, I would not speak of a “variable font”—but of a “variable font family”. As a technical description, or as a name of a format, “variable font” makes sense: it is (like) a single font that can vary. As a functional or marketing description, the term “variable font” (singular) may suggest to be less than what it is. Functionally, a “variable font” is not one font—but a font family with a few, many, or very many members. When selling variable fonts—using the label “variable font”, would be underselling your product, in the sense of suggesting that it is less useful than it is.

    In a marketing context, I would not use “non-continuous” instead of “discrete”. “Non-continuous” is an accurate technical description—but labeling something you sell as “something which it is not”, does not seem to be a good marketing approach.

    Whatever labels will be used for variable fonts in a marketing campaign to introduce them—prospective customers should, in that campaign, always get very clear answers to questions like “What are  they?”, “Why would I want them?”, “How do I use them?”, etc. So, whatever terms or labels will be used for variable fonts—there will always be a job of customer education. And indeed, when there would be “two types of variable font families”, prospective customers should also be educated about this.

  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,416
    edited October 2016
    Nick, Metafont is a parametric glyph creation program, using implicit equations and pen shapes to compute shapes. It's not remotely like OT variable fonts, which are outline based.

    [It would be possible to use Metafont as a production source for creating glyphs to be built into an OT variable font, just as it is possible to use Metafont to create non-variable outline fonts.]
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,284
    edited October 2016
    John, “variable” fonts, as the next level beyond static fonts, was well described by Knuth in the link I posted. Intents and purposes of tool technology seem to me to be more important than the specificity of means, with regards to an appropriate name.

    [And, as has been mentioned, it would also be possible to create static fonts in the variable-font format.]

    Knuth was perhaps the first to give the variable-font concept a name—metafont—but the concept perhaps originated with Adrian Frutiger in 1955, whose diagram here gives a strong suggestion of infinitely variable parametrics:



    Another precursor would be camera-lens modifications of photo-typositor settings, which could vary slant and orthogonal scaling. And weight, by under- or over-exposure. That would date back to the 1950s, I suspect. Was there a special name for that incremental quality?

    In his theoretical work “The Modification of Letterforms”, Stanley Hess called the Univers-like chart “Continual Proportionals”.
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 929
    edited October 2016
    While the name Metafont may have some merit (it's certainly catchier), I think adopting a new name for OpenType Variable Fonts would be problematic.
    • The name Metafont already exists and has a history in the type world, so this could lead to confusion.
    • The name OpenType Variable Font, for better or worse, is already out there (all the official documentation uses it), and it's probably too late to get everyone to agree on a new term.
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,416
    The name OpenType Variable Font, for better or worse, is already out there (all the official documentation uses it), and it's probably too late to get everyone to agree on a new term.

    Quite apart from the fact that Metafont is a trademark that refers to a different, specific technology — and not, as Nick suggests, to some general notion of fonts with variations, regardless of the technology, which is what actually needs to be named —, it isn't up to 'everyone' to agree on a term for the OT technology. It's up to the people who made it, who spent considerable time determining how best to describe and to identify it.

    [For the record, my own suggestions were multifont and, after the discussion had gone on too long, Mutant X Font.]
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,080
    "OpenType Variable Font", soon to be OVF ;-)
  • OVF is Omega Virtual Font (a 16-bit extended version of TeX’s original 8-bit Virtual Fonts).
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,080
    edited October 2016
    Well then, perhaps OTVF ?
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,284
    edited October 2016
    This is an upgrade to OpenType technology, which, rather than being simply v.2 has been earmarked, for marketing purposes, with a loosely descriptive name. Nothing wrong with that. The original name for variable fonts (Metafont) was already taken, as was, as far as I understand it, the most technically accurate (Multiple Master).

    Aren’t all these different names just proprietary terms for different kinds of parametric fonts?

    What interests me is the emergence of the idea that typefaces are not families made up of discrete fonts determined by the designer, but contain “an infinite variety of related letters”, as Knuth put it, instances of which may be determined by users. I would say that concept was pretty epochal, of the same order of change as the distinction that Unicode made between characters and glyphs.

    Interesting times!
  • Yes, these are all different names for specific kinds of parametric fonts. As they are, in fact, different, it is useful to have different names for them.  :)  Lions, tigers and house cats are all felines, but they are generally distinct (even though it is possible to cross-breed lions and tigers).

    Many of these labels are technically “proprietary,” the primary effect of which is to stop people form using those labels incorrectly, which in my book is a Good Thing. Lions are not in fact tigers, nor vice versa.

    Personally, I find the notion of infinite degrees of variation quite exciting, and always have (since the first time I ran into it back around 1993 or so). I'm cautiously optimistic that the stars are aligned correctly for this particular version of the concept to become well-established and widely supported, even if the process does take some years.
  • The "meta" in "metafont" suggests some abstraction of a font, which could imply a lot of different things. But "Metafont" was a particular technology that used particular approach to abstraction that could be described as parametric. I've sometimes seen "parametric fonts" used to refer to a particular approach that used skeletal strokes to describe a glyph's morphology and parameters to modulate strokes. But in general, "parametric" suggests that there are variable inputs that produce some variability in the output, and that is true for both Metafont and OT Font Variations.

    All the same, "variable fonts" is the recommended marketing term for OTFV. "Normals" will understand that more readily, I think, than "parametric fonts". 
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,284
    The feline analogy is not quite right.

    From the user’s perspective, Metafont, Multiple Master and OTVar all produce the same result—infinite adjustment along a design axis/axes—although by different means (“technologies”).

    So it would be more like whether the lion is created by normal breeding, cloning, or artificial insemination.

    **

    By the way, I am not suggesting renaming Variable fonts, just discussing the relationship between naming, ends and means, and marketing.

    The concept of parametric design also operates in other fields, such as music.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 958
    edited October 2016
    Well then, perhaps OTVF ?
    I see files named TTV in the wild already - and I suggest to the spec authors to add a recommendation it the spec for a 3 letter file extension. 
  • Does it still need to be limited to three letters in 2016? Would they even work on systems that have/had that restriction?
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,416
    I see files named TTV in the wild already - and I suggest to the spec authors to add a recommendation it the spec for a 3 letter file extension.

    The recommended file name extensions remain .ttf and .otf

    It's an extension of the OpenType format, folks, not a new format.
  • Katy MawhoodKaty Mawhood Posts: 189
    edited October 2016
    The recommended file name extensions remain .ttf and .otf
    Please can there be a metadata entry detail to identify that a font is a variable font?
    It's an extension of the OpenType format, folks, not a new format.
    This may be confusing for customers, who will make assumptions. I am concerned about backwards compatibility.
    Because OpenType Font Variations is a new technology, it requires substantial updates to font handling infrastructure in operating systems and/or applications, and has very limited backwards compatibility; this also differs between the TrueType and CFF flavours.
    More broadly, how might vendors handle variable fonts in SaaS models? Is it an extension to their licensed formats – and thus an automatic update – or a new technology with an additional cost.
    It is anticipated that some font customers will, for some time, need both variable and non-variable versions of fonts, for deployment in newer and older environments.
  • Ben BlomBen Blom Posts: 228
    Please can there be a metadata entry detail to identify that a font is a variable font?

    In addition—it might be a good idea to have a metadata entry which identifies a variable font as either a continuous variable font, or a discrete variable font.

  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,416
    edited October 2016
    @Katy Mawhood

    The OpenType format generally avoids explicit metadata regarding font capabilities, instead relying on either the presence/absence of specific tables or on the table version string to be queried by software. I'm not sure of the historical reason for this, but suspect it may be because of the tendency for explicit metadata to become out-of-synch with the table data on which software support actually relies.

    In the case of variable fonts, the presence of the 'fvar' table is the most reliable indicator, since this is obligatory in both TTF and CFF variable fonts.

    _____

    More broadly, how might vendors handle variable fonts in SaaS models? Is it an extension to their licensed formats – and thus an automatic update – or a new technology with an additional cost.

    I think SaaS is too broad a category about which to make predictions. Much will depend on how a particular software service supports fonts anyway, e.g. leveraging local system APIs or via FreeType or similar, and hence on updates to those libraries. In any case, I would be surprised to see extra costs to subscribers associated with variable font support.

  • In the case of variable fonts, the presence of the 'fvar' table is the most reliable indicator, since this is obligatory in both TTF and CFF variable fonts.
    Ok, good thank you. :) Concurrent deployment could become quickly confusing unless font management and typesetting systems are able to differentiate, with clear markers for the user. Multiples of 500+ fonts is not going to be fun to manage.

    Is there a way to escalate concerns for software support? Is this a valid concern?
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,416
    edited October 2016
    @Katy Mawhood

    Is there a way to escalate concerns for software support?

    I'm not sure what you mean, but my concern at the moment is that variable fonts are moving faster than anything I've seen before in 20+ years in the font business — certainly far, far faster than OpenType did — and I'm worried about being left behind.
  • VF is a VERY different extension.

    ps. Given that the calculation of the final result is a inner product, can I name the x-and-delta in *var tables as a bra, and the ranges thing a ket?
  • @John Hudson

    Font management software does not currently enable filtering by the 'fvar' table. How can this point be brought to the attention of decision makers for these software types? Licensees may require a specific technology but find themselves unable to spot the difference until real application. This is problematic both in terms of permissions and user experience. During an adoption, both variable and non-variable versions of fonts may be required for deployment in newer and older environments.

    Slow-moving industries will continue to be slow-moving. The extensive coverage that non-variable fonts already offer across the breadth of unicode code points, and their many glyph variants, is unlikely to be migrated for some time. Many non-variables will not be forsaken; the surprising longevity of some postscript fonts and proprietary encodings is evidence of that.

    It's a new technology in a saturated market; the stock of non-variables is colossal. Which is more important to end users, the typeface or the technology?
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