Variable fonts

I'd like to discuss the subject of Variable fonts. Are we sure they are the future, or is it just something we are trying to push on the market, without the customers really wanting/needing it? I've spoken to a number of graphic designers who say they don't want to drag sliders when setting type, they want pre-made weights. Myself, I see each weight as a "work of applied art" (perhaps a bit pretentious), carefully selected and refined, rather than a font being some kind of interactive software.


  • Thanks, a lot of good thoughts there!
  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 197
    edited February 7
    Type design is something of a side thing for me. I'm mostly an art director/graphic designer.

    Most designers I know have heard about variable fonts but don't know that much about them. Only recently have they begun to run into them.

    When designers buy fonts, they typically purchase one or two weights for a particular project. Purchasing a more expensive variable font that contains more than the weights they need is often outside the project budget.

    In addition, they're concerned (and not without reason) that variable fonts won't print correctly or their software won't support the fonts.

    Even so, I think there's a future for variable fonts for the simple reason that most type designers rely on interpolation to create intermediate weights anyway. As long as they're doing that, it's sort of a no-brainer to save out a variable font too, even if they're not widely used.

    In addition, as old Type 1 font families soon become unusable, there might be a push to buy newer replacements. Rather than buy a dozen fonts to get the whole family, people just might be tempted to buy the variable versions to save a bit of money. 

    Eventually, there will be a critical mass of them available, graphics software will do a better job supporting them, and they'll gain acceptance. Of course, I could easily be wrong.

  • @Cory Maylett
    Mostly agree, but I don't think any foundry offers a variable version separate from (and cheaper than) the whole family. How I offer it, and most foundries that I know of too, is that anybody who buys the whole family also gets a copy of the variable font along with all the static files.
  • How many buy entire families versus a limited number of styles?

    Of the latter, how many might be willing to pay a bit more (vs $ x N styles) to get a variable font? Is there a model here that might lead to net increase in revenue?

    (Not a rhetorical question: I don’t make or sell fonts, so don’t have any first hand knowledge on this.)
  • @Matthijs Herzberg, I've handled my variable fonts like you. When someone buys the entire family, I include the variable font as an incentive. When the subject came up in a previous thread, I remember someone saying they offered their variable fonts separately at a discount from the full family. How common this is, I don't know. I haven't checked. I've considered doing the same, however.

    I suspect that, as @Peter Constable mentioned, there could be a viable market in selling variable fonts at a bit of a discount to people who would usually only pick and choose the fonts they needed from a larger family. I'm only speculating, though.
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,468
    edited February 7
    @Matthijs Herzberg Mostly agree, but I don't think any foundry offers a variable version separate from (and cheaper than) the whole family.
    I do. The basic desktop license for my Proxima Nova (48 styles) is $744. For the variable version, Proxima Vara, the price is $99. Rather than try to fit the variable version into static font pricing, I based the price on the number of axes (three in the case of Proxima Vara). 

    I think it's a mistake to assume that all purchasers of variable fonts are wanting "the entire family". They may only want a few custom styles, for example. In fact, most customers of Proxima Nova only purchase a few styles. Forcing people to pay the same as a full 48-style family would exclude most of the existing market for the static version, severely limiting the market for the variable version.

  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,468
    Consider also that in addition to whatever the price is for a variable font, there is also the cost of uneven and buggy support by apps and operating systems compared to nearly universal support of static fonts.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,266
    I think there are two different pricing issues:
    - what to charge if one sells ONLY the variable version
    - what to charge if one sells BOTH variable and non-variable versions of the same family

    In the former case, one likely wants to price in a way that makes the variable font attractive to those who don’t want to pay the full-family price. Also, probably to maximize revenue (or profit, which is a bit more tricky, but the marginal cost of additional units sold is low, aside from support costs.
  • @Thomas Phinney I've been thinking about this a lot lately.  I think one could provide variable fonts in web only format and basically charge the same amount as if it was a full set of single style instances.  I think value is in the flexibility for the platform, not some perceived financial savings.  At least for now, variable is very much not consumer grade and most businesses are only motivated by costs when they pile up. Looking at how most foundries price web embedding, I think the savings wouldn't be big enough to market variable that way.
  • Even so, I think there's a future for variable fonts for the simple reason that most type designers rely on interpolation to create intermediate weights anyway. As long as they're doing that, it's sort of a no-brainer to save out a variable font too, even if they're not widely used.
    It’s worth clarifying here: mastering any professional-grade font for use in the modern software environment is a highly-skilled, technical process. It is simply not true to just “save out” a font, especially not VF’s. The current VF mastering process is extremely brittle, highly specific and still in flux.

  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 197
    edited February 8
    @Kris Sowersby , Yes, high-quality font creation is "a highly-skilled and technical process." However, when intermediate widths and weights are interpolated, the vast majority of the work is already in place for producing a variable font.

    There can be endless tweaks to both the static and variable versions for high-quality work — some typeface designs more than others. But my point was the relative ease of producing a variable font from interpolation is something of a no-brainer for most, which I suggested might help ensure the continuation and eventual success of variable fonts.

    I don't think we disagree, however, that the highest-quality work isn't quite that simple. Perhaps you could provide some examples of how that's the case. I'm always eager to learn. As I mentioned, I'm primarily an art director who uses type. Designing type and building fonts is an increasingly serious after-hours thing for me, so more information is always welcome.
  • Our experience is that the production of variable fonts can often be *a lot* more laborious than producing the same family as a range of static fonts.

    In static fonts everything can be controlled without having to worry about point compatibility. In order to have that compatibility – for both on-curve points AND off-curve points AND anchor positions AND kerning – between all masters can be a real pain if you need to make sure that every instance looks good. There is no quick fix possible by just editing an instance.

    In variable fonts you often end up having to make more glyphs because all variation alternates need to be included in all masters. And those glyphs need to be kerned, hinted, etc.

  • I think it's a mistake to assume that all purchasers of variable fonts are wanting "the entire family". They may only want a few custom styles, for example.

    This may be true, but if you are selling a variable font, they are getting the whole family no matter their needs, right? I'm intrigued with how you approach the subject, and your observations on the non-monetary "price" paid for using variable fonts is certainly correct. Do you often find users looking for a specific instance? I never see them used in my fonts, but hey, maybe that's because I sell variable fonts a bit more conservatively.
  • I downloaded a variable Google font to test (Inter). When I went about changing the text to (Inter) I saw that there were all the unique weights in the font menu like: regular, medium, bold, and italics, etc. Is that how variable fonts appear on mac computers? I assumed I was going to see one font and I'd have to use the slider tool to adjust the weight. I really like seeing all of the standard weights by name. And I was glad that the italics were included. Are italics normally included in a variable font? If that is how variable fonts work I'd be willing to buy them. I normally work in Adobe Illustrator and all the tricks and shortcuts I use worked with this variable font.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,860
    With your strategy Mark, VF will erode the price of buying a complete family, in a downward spiral. Purchases will migrate to the cheaper VF.

    Just as OpenType fonts reduced the “price per glyph”, VF will reduce the “price per weight”. But perhaps the best metric for us is “price per master”. 
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,266
    Nick, is that a problem, and if so, why?

    Purchases are presumably also migrating to the VF from individual styles.
  • Marc OxborrowMarc Oxborrow Posts: 213
    @James Bridges — Look up "named instances" for insight into how/which weights appear in application font menus.

  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,384
    @James Bridges as Marc indicates, this is related to named instances in the variable font. The brief summary is that the OT variable font format is designed to be able to provide an arbitrary number of named instances within the design space that will behave like non-variable fonts in software without a specific variable UI (or in addition to the variable UI). So what you are seeing in the font menu are those variable instances that the font maker has named (and in some cases style-linked, e.g. regular->bold, roman-> italic).

    For a general overview of variable fonts and how they work, my 2016 article may still be useful.
  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 197
    edited March 17
    @James Bridges, in addition to what Marc and John mentioned, including italics in a variable font is possible, but separate italic variable fonts are more common.

    One reason for this is that significant differences exist between the italic and roman designs (number and position of anchor points and unique glyph designs) that make it impractical to interpolate them without many workarounds, design compromises, and intermediate instances. A simple slanted axis would be easy enough, but not a more traditional custom-designed italic.

    Even with separate variable roman and italic fonts in the same typeface, both will appear together in a Mac's font list (you specifically asked about Macs). But the roman and italic will have separate sliders.
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