The Current State of Variable Fonts (End of 2018)

Igor PetrovicIgor Petrovic Posts: 21
edited December 2018 in Font Technology
What's going on with variable fonts? Type design software made easy to make them, Adobe enabled their usage in CC2018, macOS, Windows, browsers support them, so why there are no more variable fonts on the market? It was all the rage in the past two years, but seems it's still far from being the standard, how come?
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  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,420
    I will eventually get around to figuring out how to do it.

    In the meantime, I have an older typeface family, still popular, that would be an ideal candidate for the format, if anyone would like to give me a quote on doing the work. 
  • I’m going to let other people figure it out. Variable fonts aren’t a headache that I need.
  • As a designer, until the two applications I use most often (InDesign for print work, Sketch for digital design) support variable fonts, I will merely be an interested observer.
  • Not arguing for or against them, but one other question I wonder about to add to the above is:

    Might some designers possibly find it preferable, on some level, or perhaps even reassuring, to know that the creator of the typeface has already fine-tuned the weights and made quality decisions for them about what to include in the family (and what not)?

    I also get that many designers like options and the ability to customize/fit the need of a project, and there are benefits to that. But perhaps the convenience of a well-stocked, pre-determined family by trusted type designers cuts down on the demand for needing variables and more control immediately?

    (To me, I would think having the width customizations is probably one of the bigger benefits though.)
  • I'm less interested in variable fonts as a design option, and more excited by the possibility of variable fonts and smart layouts combining to intelligently scale character widths/weights and line lengths, so that the designer's intent is honored regardless of the resolution and screen size of the viewing device.
  • @Dave Crossland Any plans for Google Fonts to start serving variable fonts?
  • Still some big issues to resolve.
    • Do they make things easier for the client?
    • Do they save time, resources and money for the client?
    • Do the enhance the clients' brand?


  • This all smells like Multiple Masters circa 1990
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,645
    Well, the situation is rather better than for Multiple Master, which was a technology only championed by one company, and not embraced by application makers even within that company. I think variable font technology actually risks falling victim to the opposite problem: the technology as spec'd and implemented in the OS and browsers—with the handful of registered axes providing interoperability with existing weight, width, slope, and size mechanisms—might already do everything that Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Adobe needed it to do. So there might be little impetus within these companies to carry the technology further. Conversations about adding mechanisms for virtual axes and more flexible manipulation of the design space seem to have gone quiet, although a couple of proposals have been published. After some initial enthusiasm for the idea of registering new axes, there seems to be general realisation about how difficult it is to do that without pre-existing software mechanisms onto which to bolt the axes for interoperability, and I'm not sure what the solution to that impasse is.
  • I don't think variable fonts will be initially successful through traditional retailers as fonts a customer buys, downloads and installs. I don't think the success of variable fonts depends on traditional font retailers pushing them or not. The usefulness of variable fonts isn't an obvious thing that you can easily convince people they need. As you can see in this thread, even some type designers don't see it. I think its initial success could come from bundling or inclusion with Adobe CC or with an OS. That way people could experiment with variable fonts and develop a taste for them. Many people first experienced OpenType features through the core Adobe fonts—perhaps the same thing could happen with variable fonts. When people use variable fonts for a while, they might come to the conclusion that the rest of their fonts would be more useful if they were also variable. I guess when OpenType features started showing up in Adobe core fonts, people started using them and wishing all their fonts had OpenType features. I think it must have helped drive the demand for OpenType features. Maybe once they start playing with variable fonts they already have, people will start to look at their old fonts and wishing they were all variable.
  • Other than automagic dynamic page layout for print, mobile and web. The only viable use exists in the VR and AR world based on the viewers proximity to the device, sign, etc. This may be more of a Bladerunner type thing once we're seeing more digital or virtual advertising in our HUD implants but that would be driven by large organizations solely. I agree with Ray these aren't likely to be a consumer desired product.
  • I think that both type designers and users actually have nothing to lose. Type families are anyway designed using multiple masters, and variable fonts are just one step forward (as I get it). The users who prefer to have predefined instances can have a dropdown inside "variable" panel where they can choose the exact style as a preset (not sure if this is implemented, maybe there are snaps on each axis where instead of numerical value it reads style name). I would say that is easier to implement in a workflow than to learn any basic tool inside any of any design software. 

    As @Ray Larabie suggested, a variable font is basically for users who purchase a full family. Other people still can buy single styles.

    Considering how often amateurs vulgarly stretch fonts using the bounding box (to the point the phenomenon is recognized in memes) seems that's an intuitive way of thinking from the user's perspective, maybe we can learn from their constant mistakes :) 
  • Igor PetrovicIgor Petrovic Posts: 21
    edited December 2018
    And here is the example I am currently going through: I am working on a logo project, and need to optically correct white on black version compared to black on white. I need just a subtly different font weight, like 2%. Variable would come handy... 
  • Here are a couple of posts from two years ago that failed to predict the future:

    Scott-Martin Kosofsky  
    December 2016
    I was a heavy user of a few of Adobe’s Multiple Master fonts (Minion, Myriad, and Penumbra especially) back in the 1990s. I worked in Quark XPress then, for which there was a plug-in. Contrary to many reports I heard, I never had much trouble with crashes or working with imagesetters. The interface was pretty much as Nick Shinn describes above, a set of sliders with which one controlled the axes. (It allowed you to type in numbers, too.) What was cumbersome, though, was the naming convention for the resulting fonts. One got to see a mini-rendering of the font in advance, but it was next to useless, as the screen rendering of the day was quite primitive. You used your best judgment about the parameters you were looking for, generated a font, and tested it. Using Multiple Masters for print, which was its intention, involved a good bit of trial and error so that, in the end, one had to remove many test iterations from the font folder so as not to become confused by the font menu, in which only part of the long name was visible, often the part that didn't tell you what you needed to know. 

    If, back then, one had to buy each font, iteration by iteration, no one would have done it. You bought a license for the whole thing and decided what to use and how to use it as you saw fit. Even though it will be easier today to see each iteration on the screen, in advance of purchase, the idea of buying the fonts by the iteration is a non-starter, I think. OTVar's usefulness will become obvious only when you see the font iteration in the context of your designed piece. You should be able to buy an OTVar font as an entire toolkit, not just a blade here and a handle there. It’s not hard to imagine that anyone who tries to sell the iterations one by one will, before long, be undercut by someone who selling the whole thing as a unit.

    If Multiple Master was so great, why did they abandon the program? The startup costs were very high, of course, and in the end, the number of people who understood what it did and had the patience and desire to use it was very small. I’m not sure that the story of OTVar will be much different, though I’d like to be wrong about that. An entire universe of uses has been added since the days of MM.

    By the way, looking at the Adobe MM slider interface is probably a good place to start. I can’t get my hands on an image of it, but I bet someone at Adobe can.
    Thomas Phinney  
    December 2016  edited December 2016
    Adobe abandoned MM because of a tough decision that: (1) trying to evangelize OpenType as a new format would be harder if one had to sell MM as part of the package; (2) Adobe's OpenType partner Microsoft didn't much care about axis-based fonts at the time and had no interest in supporting them. All this at the same time Adobe was trying to get out of system add-ons for font support (Adobe Type Manager).
    Things have changed a great deal, and it seems like everybody is on board. I predict that just one year from now, by the end of 2017, Variable Fonts will already be better supported than MM fonts ever were, on nearly every level:
    • at the OS level by multiple operating systems (versus none for MM)
    • by end-user applications with built-in sliders (I think MM had just one, with Illustrator)
    • by type design apps that output variable fonts (MM had what, two?)
    • and by other apps providing some kind of manual access to user-defined instances
    • there will be more VF families, produced by more different vendors and type designers (MM had 48 released families, from the Wikipedia page).

    I failed to mention what should have been my lead point about MM: very few people cared about its intrinsically good qualities. Among my book design colleagues were a number who, like myself, began their careers working in metal type, especially in what was then the more deluxe world of (metal) Monotype. One would have thought that they would be the first to embrace MM as a way to recapture the look of size-specific designs. What I learned, to my dismay, was that their interest was not in the virtues of the best metal types, but rather in the brand names: Monotype Bembo, Monotype Bell, and so forth. And, indeed, when they crossed over to digital, they used the types of the same names in their early Type1 incarnations—no matter how deplorable and anemic many of them were. It was never about true high quality; it was about retaining their identification with a brand that had a reputation for high quality. 

    I hope it’s different this time around, but I have my doubts. Perhaps corporate clients will carry it along. One more thing: if OTVar doesn't work flawlessly with Acrobat, it won't be at all useful for people who work in print.

  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,420
    edited December 2018
    Price is certainly an issue. I originally conceived of Beaufort in the early ’90s as a MM typeface, before Adobe pulled the plug on that format. It had two axes—width and weight—and a separate Italic. I subsequently published the family as 30 fonts (five weights, three widths) retailing for $439 basic licence. So that would be two VF fonts at $219 each—not, I think, a viable price point for a single font, whatever its capabilities.

    The present practice, as Ray notes, seems to be to include the VFs when a full family of “legacy” fonts is licensed.

    A more promising potential market is for custom corporate work, where the comparison with retail pricing is irrelevant.
  • Here are a couple of posts from two years ago that failed to predict the future:

    ...
    Thomas Phinney  
    December 2016  edited December 2016
    Adobe abandoned MM because of a tough decision that: (1) trying to evangelize OpenType as a new format would be harder if one had to sell MM as part of the package; (2) Adobe's OpenType partner Microsoft didn't much care about axis-based fonts at the time and had no interest in supporting them. All this at the same time Adobe was trying to get out of system add-ons for font support (Adobe Type Manager).
    Things have changed a great deal, and it seems like everybody is on board. I predict that just one year from now, by the end of 2017, Variable Fonts will already be better supported than MM fonts ever were, on nearly every level:
    • at the OS level by multiple operating systems (versus none for MM)
    • by end-user applications with built-in sliders (I think MM had just one, with Illustrator)
    • by type design apps that output variable fonts (MM had what, two?)
    • and by other apps providing some kind of manual access to user-defined instances
    • there will be more VF families, produced by more different vendors and type designers (MM had 48 released families, from the Wikipedia page).
    ...

    It seems to me that I was correct on my general thesis (“By the end of 2017, Variable Fonts will already be better supported than MM fonts ever were, on nearly every level”) and four out of five specific predictions. However, the total number of VF families available was probably fewer than 48 at the end of 2017 (if by some count it was more, many or most of those were prototypes).
  • Perhaps true, Thomas, but the universe of users and outlets is so far larger than it was when MM was released, in the early 1990s, that it’s a bit like comparing a weekly paycheck of $100 in 1935 with earning the same amount in 2018. How many Type 1 fonts were on the market when MM was first made available for Quark Xpress? Two thousand, I’d reckon, perhaps as many as four thousand. The current number of fonts in the marketplace is as much as 100 times that. (Several years ago, when I was fact-checking that point, I got in touch with Allan Haley; we came to the conclusion that the number in mid-2015 was likely around 220,000 fonts that could be purchased individually.)

    It’s a bit upsetting that Adobe has not yet implemented variable fonts for InDesign. That’s where most of the world’s printed texts are set. “It’s on our list,” says Adobe. I'm a little alarmed to say that what is high on the list is often a reflection of user interest. 

    Please don’t get me wrong; I think OTvar has the potential to be an amazingly great asset. I can only hope its virtues will be well promoted outside the Type Tunnel. Who will be the public champions of it?

  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 1,563
    edited December 2018
    What do you mean about “MM was first made available for QuarkXPress”? Have I forgotten Quark doing something special for MM support in the early days of MM? Multiple Master fonts were made available for all apps. Late in the game, Illustrator introduced an MM slider interface, but that was years later.

    InDesign is a print-focused app, whose market is in decline. So I expect that it gets a lot fewer resources than Photoshop and Illustrator as a result. Sad but realistic. It is just getting fewer new features in general.

    As for who will champion OTvar, we have seen  efforts from a variety of places. There are a bunch of folks doing it.
  • Still some big issues to resolve.
    • Do they make things easier for the client?
    • Do they save time, resources and money for the client?
    • Do the enhance the clients' brand?
    Parametric Variable Fonts do all three for sure 
  • Parametric Variable Fonts
    What's that?
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,046
    edited December 2018
    Font Bureau/Type Network proposed Parametric axes to Microsoft on their axis registry GitHub repo, and demonstrated them first in Amstelvar and then Roboto Delta. Stay tuned :)
  • Thomas, I recall that Quark did, indeed, include a pull-down menu to access the Multiple Master “Font Creator.” It was available at least by 1994, perhaps in late 1993. I remember this because it was in early 1994 that I began working on a monumental book project set in about sixteen size- and weight-specific iterations of MM Minion.

    It seems my memory hasn't failed. Lo and behold, I found an article in Infoworld from July 1994 that confirms the existence of this plug-in, which was then available only on the Mac versions of QuarkXpress and Page Maker.

    By the way, the number of print books has been increasing steadily, though modestly, worldwide since 2009, whereas e-book sales have dropped, as have investments in electronic textbooks and other such ambitious projects. 


  • That article claims that both PageMaker and QuarkXPress had custom MM instance creation in their Mac versions (in July 1994). Does anyone else remember this being the case?
  • George ThomasGeorge Thomas Posts: 493
    edited December 2018
    ...whereas e-book sales have dropped, as have investments in electronic textbooks and other such ambitious projects.

    Good to hear. I strongly prefer a printed book.


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