The Current State of Variable Fonts (End of 2018)



  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,630
    edited December 2018
    I haven't checked my old QuarkXPress manuals, but the PageMaker 5.0 manual (1993) mentions an option for using MM fonts in the Character dialog. That's probably when support was added.

    I happen to have PageMaker 6.5 installed on my modern Mac (in SheepShaver), so I made a little demo (featuring Adobe Jenson MM, which I purchased way back when and still have):

    Not sure why the type looks funky at the end. Could be something to do with running on an emulator.
  • The user and all related content has been deleted.
  • Kent LewKent Lew Posts: 905
    I managed to find my old PowerBook G4 and get it booted. It’s running OSX 10.3.9 which I believe was the last version that could still launch Classic mode to run old OS 9 applications. I managed to get classic Quark 4.1 up and running.
    Font Creator was an XTension, so it had to be enabled in the XTensions Manager. After which (and after relaunching), it showed up in the Utilities menu.
    I didn’t have the wherewithal to make a demo video like Mark. But I took a few screenshots (which I’d forgotten were saved in PDF format back then):

    According to the About dialog, this version of Font Creator is ©1985-1997 Quark Technology Partnership.
    The last book I remember using a multiple master for was back in 2003. (A few custom instances of Kepler, on a cover.)
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,630
    edited December 2018
    MM fonts shipped with a utility called Font Creator with which you could create instances for use in any program. It looks like the Quark plug-in is exactly the same thing functioning as a plug-in.

    In PageMaker, when you changed the sliders for in the MM Fonts... dialog, it didn't create an instance, it just affected the selected text and (confusingly) the name of the font goes missing, in other words, a blank space where the font name should be in the dialog and palette. Seems really buggy or doesn't work properly for some reason.

    Instances created with the standalone Font Creator app do show up in PageMaker's font menu though.
  • notdefnotdef Posts: 168
    edited December 2018
    Would it make sense to have a tool that lets you generate instances from a variable font in foundry web shops? (Coupled with a subset trial font, to determine what exact style the customer needs.) Something like that could potentially operate within the current price model.
  • That's actually a great idea.
  • A great idea, indeed. I mentioned, at the end of my 2016 post, that “looking at the Adobe MM slider interface is probably a good place to start.” I’m glad to see that Mark and Frode agree. The interface should be improved, of course—it is, after all, 25 years later. Yet the purpose and goals of the Adobe interface are perfectly clear. If only the same clarity had been brought over to the implementation of OT features in the various composition apps, which are today a dispersed and jumbled mess, hidden to all but the more experienced users. Look, for example, at what one must do to find the contents of stylistic sets.

    So far, we’ve shown here only three of the Multiple Master options: weight, width and optical size. There was, in addition, a fourth slider that was used on certain fonts: a style slider. One of the fonts (it was the first created) to which it was applied was Lance Hidy’s Penumbra, in which the style slider enabled one to go from serif to sans serif. 

    After the Multiple Master program was abandoned by Adobe, Penumbra was released in four iterations: Sans, Flare Serif, Half Serif, and Serif, each in light, regular, semibold, and bold. As the designer himself has written, the abandonment of MM deprived him of his own favorite weight, exactly halfway between the light and the bold. To achieve that for the occasional line or two, he has had to rely on Illustrator’s blend tool.

    Nonetheless, Penumbra has been a success, and it appears to have been the inspiration (albeit uncredited) for the caps of Thomas Phinney’s Hypatia Sans, which added a lowercase.

  • Nonetheless, Penumbra has been a success, and it appears to have been the inspiration (albeit uncredited) for the caps of Thomas Phinney’s Hypatia Sans, which added a lowercase.

    That would be incorrect in a couple of regards: (1) I wrote about it in November 2005 (, and (2) the cap proportions of Hypatia Sans are entirely modeled on the Trajan lettering. But that is true of Penumbra as well, hence the similarities.

    I generally avoided looking at Penumbra, Futura, and their kindred while working on Hypatia Sans. Although Hypatia didn’t ship until April 2007 (with CS3), by the time of that blog post, the Latin portion of the design was pretty nailed down.

    Bringing this back around to the nominal topic: many typefaces from Adobe and other vendors, including both Penumbra and Hypatia Sans, were originally designed using MM technology. It will be interesting to see if/when they get updated/retrofitted to OpenType variations. I imagine Penumbra would be much higher on the list, as it is more interesting (due to the serif axis), would probably be easier to convert as it actually shipped as an MM, and has a much smaller glyph set. (Hypatia’s extensive language coverage may be a plus, but dealing with it it is also just a lot of work.)

    Anybody care to comment on their plans for re-issuing existing typefaces as variable fonts?
  • Thanks, Thomas, for bringing that blog post to my attention. I withdraw my remark about Penumbra being uncredited as one of your inspirations for Hypatia. But as for the resemblance of the two types, I’m not so sure that it stops at Trajan’s Column. As Lance Hidy wrote in his essay on Penumbra in The Eternal Letter (which I co-edited with Paul Shaw, MIT Press, 2015), Penumbra is the offspring of Trajan and Futura. As such, the majority of the letters follow the Trajan proportions and geometry, while others (D, O, Q, R) are more aligned with Futura. There are also some intersections of the two designs (M and N, most obvious among them). 

    Your Hypatia O and Q (aside from the tail) are also very close to the Futura model of nearly perfect circles (rather than the ovoid Trajan forms) and your D is much narrower than the very wide Trajan D, again quite similar to Futura. As such, you made the same choices that Lance Hidy made a decade earlier. Strong designs like Penumbra make strong impressions, and it may well have been the case that earlier work stuck with you subliminally while you were working on Hypatia. Personally, I find the similarity of choices for some key letters a little too close for comfort.

    A sans serif “modeled entirely on the Trajan lettering,” as you describe Hypatia, would, to my mind, look more like Robert Slimbach’s Trajan Sans or Thomas Lincoln’s excellent (and sadly overlooked) Roma.

  • I apologize for my comment above being off-topic. I felt it wasn't worth opening a new thread for it.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,348
    Marc Oxborrow said on Decemver 17, 2018:
    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.
    @Marc Oxborrow

    Now that InDesign and Sketch have had support for a long time, how has your relationship to variable fonts changed?
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,348

    Would it make sense to have a tool that lets you generate instances from a variable font in foundry web shops?
    In addition to a variable-to-static font instantiator, I've also pondered the idea of a variable design space subsetting tool, that would enable customers to generate smaller variable fonts containing only the axes and deltas they need. I can imagine this would be particularly attractive to web font customers.

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