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?
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.
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.)
To give a few examples, kerning doesn't interpolate in Illustrator, InDesign has no variable font support yet, and Chrome on Mac is still rendering ghost lines on overlaps. I don't think variable fonts are ready for mainstream use yet, but it seems like we're getting close.
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
Here are a couple of posts from two years ago that failed to predict the future:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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, 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.
Good to hear. I strongly prefer a printed book.