Type Design Technical Advances

Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,463
edited March 17 in Font Technology
I've been making fonts on the Mac since 1987 (with Fontographer) and I was thinking about the technical advances that have been made the most difference for me:

  • PostScript and Fontographer. Practically goes without saying.
  • Larger screens. The 512 x 342 pixel 9" Macintosh display was a real problem. It was like designing through a keyhole.
  • Affordable PostScript laser printers. Early PostScript laser printers were beyond my budget. Until I had one, I relied on others who did, such as Kinko's or service bureaus, which was a big bottleneck in the design process.
  • Flat screens. Large CRTs were better than small ones, but they often had inconsistent geometry, and the curvature could be misleading. With flat screens, all these problems vanished.
  • Anti-aliasing in font editors. Short of higher resolution displays, this made it easier to judge the shapes of curves.
  • "Retina" displays. This has significantly reduced the need for making printouts and brought true WYSIWYG to font editors.

The speed of processors has also been a factor, but that's been more of a gradual thing.

I'd be curious to hear what advances have been significant for other type designers, including those on Windows and other platforms. Also, I might be forgetting things. Finally, what future advances might be on the horizon or do you wish for? 

Comments

  • Surely "smart font" technology (OpenType and predecessors like QuickDraw GX) deserves some mention. Also, the advent of Unicode.
  • I made significant skill improvement thanks to the invention of fine gel pens. Yes it was all possible with a pencil or a ball pen, but a fine gel pen made it so much easier to draw small details.

    I remember an old recording of a type designer drawing with a fountain pen and I could not believe it how precisely he made the drawings. That is just another lever of skill!  

    As for gadgets - of course a graphic tablet! So far it is my favourite input device for everything.

    Future advances?
    Displays - it would be great to have a display with very dark black color but less shiny lights. Something like an E-ink displays. There is definitly a lot of room for improvement in this regard.

    And yes, I only draw fonts for my own pleasure, and don't do production. Last time I used Fontforge I had mixed feelings, so I think I'm lucky to stay 'analogue'.

  • @Ray Larabie Are you really sure you can go back to Fontographer 4’s maximum zoom of 200% as pictured below? ;)

  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,183
    @Paul van der Laan No problem if the screen resolution is low enough. I still work in relatively low resolution because the pixel increments are helpful. I turn off antialiasing sometimes to check curves and angles. I don't feel comfortable if I can't see pixels.
  • @Mark Simonson
    I'd be curious to hear what advances have been significant for other type designers, including those on Windows and other platforms....

    Sometimes it is necessary to scan an image from a manual sketch at an early stage of the design. Now scanning images are no longer needed and replaced with smart phones.



  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,463
    edited March 21
    @andi aw. masry I still use a flatbed scanner, but it's true that a smartphone can take its place for many tasks. The amount of space it takes on my desk is becoming less and less justified.

    Some drawbacks I can think of:

    - It's difficult to get the smartphone camera perfectly oriented toward the subject in terms of angle and distance. Some kind of tripod or stand can help.

    - You have to be careful with the lighting.

    Depending on what you're "scanning" these may not be problems.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,846
    edited March 23
    What is different about digital fonts, that couldn’t be done before?
    Two things, at least, that I’ve explored.

    Certainly, alternate glyphs are nothing new, but they were previously manually set by typographers, not massively embedded in fonts, and capable of informing their raison d’être. In Duffy Script, I created a pseudo-random effect with four versions of each character.

    With phototype, the same gylph artwork was used for different sizes of setting, but sharpness was lost in the many reproductions involved during the pre-press process, and also in sizes larger than the original glyph art. Now it’s only the resolution of the rendering device which determines the sharpness of fine details, at any size. Compare Beaufort with a similar, slightly earlier type design, Novarese’s Symbol, which had serifs beefed up to maintain a sharp effect at text size, but becoming progressively chunkier in appearance with increasing size.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,166
    When I started in 2008, everything except "Retina displays" was there, and I've definitely seen the importance of that, but with some caveats - one junior type designer I commissioned had never owned a laser printer and I had to encourage him quite strongly to purchase one!

    Once he got a high resolution color laser printer, he did recognize it as a 'game changer', which I was very glad about, since I had wondered if indeed it was going to be a let-down, and he was going to cuss me for wasting his money, haha

    I think the big change for me since 2008 (which was already well underway by then) is the now dominance of reading-on-screen. Even in 2008, pre-iPhone, paper was the dominant medium.

    This relates to retina/laser proofing, in that, now, the on-screen proof is the "real" one, and paper proofing is something to improve the design process, but in a way secondary.

    Overall, I agree with all those discussed so far, especially Unicode, Smart Fonts, and Open Formats... in addition to UFO for that, and despite the inability to fully express OpenType Layout, I'd suggest "FDK text source" for authoring smart font features as a separate advance to smart font formats themselves, since the binary-only formats of earlier tools for authoring those features were also painful.

    And then, separate again in my mind, is the availability of "pro level" libre font compiler code - both AFDKO and fontmake - which supplanted FontForge. That's been essential for the later development of variable fonts and color fonts advances.

    Finally, another big change from 2008 is more formal standardization processes for font technology, at W3C and ISO, with WOFF, WOFF2 and MPEG Open Font Format.
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,346
    edited April 11
    ...despite the inability to fully express OpenType Layout, I'd suggest "FDK text source" for authoring smart font features as a separate advance to smart font formats themselves, since the binary-only formats of earlier tools for authoring those features were also painful.
    I’d argue that FDK, in its inability still to fully express OTL, is ultimately not an advance, but actually a roadblock: the reliance of so many font tools on FDK as a basis for writing and compiling OTL has hampered font development for many scripts, and led to twenty years of near stasis in OTL tooling. [Maybe I should cross post this to the hot takes thread. :D ]

    By ‘binary-only’, I presume you mean reliant on a particular application for compiling? The VOLT project format is plain text—and admirably suited to hacking, as we’ve shown with our FL7–to-VOLT and VOLT-to-FDK tools, but yes, relies on being opened in VOLT to compile. I have been trying to get MS to release the VOLT compiler or sufficient documentation to clone it for a long time, but as you know they had some unhappy experiences open sourcing font tools.
  • @andi aw. masry I still use a flatbed scanner, but it's true that a smartphone can take its place for many tasks. The amount of space it takes on my desk is becoming less and less justified.

    Some drawbacks I can think of:

    - It's difficult to get the smartphone camera perfectly oriented toward the subject in terms of angle and distance. Some kind of tripod or stand can help.

    - You have to be careful with the lighting.

    Depending on what you're "scanning" these may not be problems.
    There is a solution for the problems (and no, I still have a Nikon, a flatbed scanner and an automatic scanner for sheets):

    https://readcoop.eu/scantent/

    This is maybe an option to scan specimen in libraries:

    https://www.czur.com/product/aura

  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,166
    they had some unhappy experiences open sourcing font tools.
    It is a great pity they did not leverage the other parts of the company that does know how to make open sourcing Microsoft code a happy experience. 
  • Todd JohnsonTodd Johnson Posts: 17
    edited April 28
    I have a unique perspective probably, because I designed type in the late-80s for a now-abandoned computer platform. That led me to abandon font design altogether until very recently. So a 30 yr. font hiatus makes the technical changes really stand out.
    1. The high resolutions for displays and printers. 300 dpi printers were the norm back then, and hinting was REQUIRED for any font to be readable under 16 pts. (hinting wasn't an option then, unless you worked for Adobe or maybe URW.  I would have to get a service bureau to pull "lino" proofs for me at 1200 dpi, or 2400 dpi if wasn't feeling too frugal.  Anyway, now I can SEE what I'm doing on screen and on paper. I am using MUCH less paper than I would have before.
    2 Resolution aside, the large size for monitors. Multiple monitor connectivity.
    3 But the most amazing thing to me, is the degree of control I have when manipulating beziers. Assuming the other tools are like Fontlab in this respect, being able to slide control points around a curve and along its tangent; Being able to click a button and have the control points replaced with ones at the path extremes and getting little if any curve distortion; Being able to specify curve tensions, and corner radii. This is all freakin magic!  (I showed this to a designer friend who's response was "Why on earth doesn't Illustrator have these features?!" Yes, that would be cool. Illustrator's bezier tools are still pretty much the same as in the very earliest versions.
    4. The negative, from my perspective, is that type designing has become so much of a software engineering thing. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but the two individual skillsets and interests are very different. The mindsets are different. Outcomes are different. Sadly, I'm not about spend a significant amount of my remaining few years fumbling with command line tools, learning python, or hosting a github repo, just so I can publish a font. You'll understand that when you get into your 60's and discover all the young folks are doing things VERY differently. 
    Someone with software skills (most of you, clearly) should write some GUI interfaces for the necessary parts of fontmake, fonttools, etc. so that folks like me can skip or ignore messing with the boring/annoying command line stuff and just get things done. Until then, Google Fonts will probably be limited to those fonts produced by combination software engineer+font designers or have friends/resources that can handle that part.

    ..Todd


  • I should add that one impact of my point #3, is that I find myself using a broad nib pen, and/or paper sketches much less than before. That's probably not a good thing , as I can see the difference in approach and outcomes in the results.
  • Simon CozensSimon Cozens Posts: 593
    Someone with software skills (most of you, clearly) should write some GUI interfaces for the necessary parts of fontmake, fonttools, etc. so that folks like me can skip or ignore messing with the boring/annoying command line stuff and just get things done. Until then, Google Fonts will probably be limited to those fonts produced by combination software engineer+font designers or have friends/resources that can handle that part.

    If you're making libre fonts targeting Google Fonts, then I kind of did that - it's called googlefonts-project-template, which runs all the fontmakey/fonttoolsy things automatically on GitHub Actions for you and puts the results onto a web page. You can watch a one minute video about it.

  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,241
    I do not mean to belittle what @Simon Cozens has done, because I think it is both cool and useful! But… adding build automation to Github feels like a VERY different thing than adding these functions to a visual font editor, IMO.
  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,166
    edited April 30
    Google Fonts also accepts submissions via email of vfc to [email protected] along with a clear statement you are the sole original author and are licensing it under OFL, with a request that we'll take care of everything else. 

    I've updated the official contribution docs to clarify that and address this barrier to contribution.

    https://github.com/google/fonts/pull/4574/files
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