Transforming type: The changing landscape of digital type design and typography

I’ve been involved in print design since my high school days of working on the school newsmagazine. It’s where I got my start learning the basics of design, layout, typography, and it’s what became the foundation for all my other design-related ventures.

Only within the past school year, however, have I started getting into type design and studying typefaces. Type is a very nuanced field to get into—there’s a lot of history to a practice that’s been going on since Gutenberg mechanized the printing press, and because of that it can seem daunting to a lot of people (it was to me, at least) who want to start learning about it but have no idea where to begin. That, along with the huge glossary of terms type designers use to describe the smallest parts of letterforms, can make the field seem hostile to beginners who have only had a cursory experience with type.

But there’s another way to approach learning about type, which is to treat each font less like an anatomy figure and more like a work of art, something that provides a snapshot to the culture and time in which it was designed. This is more or less what Robert Bringhurst talks about in his book, The Elements of Typographic Style, where he brings an historical context to the design and study of typefaces. While his system of categorization isn’t perfect, it does frame type in a context that people without a deep background in typography should be more familiar with.

But study is only one side of the coin. The practice of type design has just as much nuance. Type designers today craft type on font editors, which are basically specialized vector drawing programs. These programs can be as bare-bones as just a pen tool and can be extended to create beautiful letterforms. There are a variety of font editors out there, including open source projects like FontForge and Birdfont, as well as companies out there dedicated to font software, like Fontlab, which is currently in the process of a complete rewrite of their flagship product, Fontlab VI, now in public preview. I got the chance to talk to Thomas Phinney, a type designer and educator and president of FontLab, about FontLab VI, the challenges of creating type design software, and the future of typography.

The responses given in this interview have been edited for length and clarity.

Josh Shi: You’ve had a long past in typography and type design, including an 11-year career on the font team at Adobe as product manager for fonts and global typography. What’s your role now at FontLab?

Thomas Phinney: I do one or two things. There’s a lot of business stuff that needs managing. There’s also some strategic direction questions and I’m, probably unsurprisingly given my background, on software and product management side of things.

I’ve been using FontLab software for twenty years before I joined the company so it was a really interesting opportunity to help develop and manage the company that was using stuff that I had used extensively as a type designer and as a person who’s teaching someone intro type design. I really had fun with that aspect of it. And I feel like with teaching gigs and as an educator in type design, it puts me in a good position to have a good sense of what users need and what the challenges that the people using the software are facing. Where are there problems? What gives them trouble in our software? What things about the design process in general are difficult for them?

What exactly are the difficult parts of creating type design software?

I think the biggest problem is really a fundamental one, which is that fonts are essentially a very specialized kind of software themselves, and there’s a lot of technical aspects to it. And most of the people who are at least initially interested in type design are more artistic and not necessarily very technical.

The fundamental issue is bridging that gap, allowing people who are more creative and design-oriented to succeed in making these little design tools essentially.

And so the fundamental issue is bridging that gap, allowing people who are more creative and design-oriented to succeed in making these little design tools essentially, that have a lot of technical aspects, and then the additional complication is for the most design-oriented people, you want to not have them forced to deal with the technical stuff and for the more technical people you want to allow them to have access to those knobs, dials, tools, to get into the technical underpinnings and that’s a tough dichotomy. It’s an open question, but thus far it’s not clear that the market is really big enough to sustain type design tools that are completely different sets of tools that meet completely different needs. And there are some interesting challenges there as to how you address these divergent needs that people have without making something that’s either not sophisticated enough for the technical power users or too complicated and difficult to use for people who just want to do design.

So how do you draw the line between the art and the science?

I think that the general answer is you want to have really good defaults so that the default behavior will get the right result for the average person, and then you want some way for the power user to work around or to get at the underlying stuff or change things. So it’s a challenge but, yes, we are trying to serve both audiences as it were. And part of the answer is that the default behaviors have to work for the average user. The power user can go and twiddle things, but if you make it so that everyone has to twiddle things, then you just screwed up. You lost the more design-oriented user.

What were some of the limitations that you had to work around in the past with digital type design?

One wasn’t really a limitation of software, but of hardware, and that was of screen resolutions. So we have plenty of things in digital type design where you’re working with these imaginary units, font units, in a design space called the em square. And the problem is that the size of that space is like 1,000 or 2,000 units depending on what you’re doing. And back then, your screens were just nowhere near that resolution and it was actually immensely helpful to be able to see a one-unit difference. And if your screen just isn’t high enough resolution to do that, you’ll just have to be zooming in and out all the time. Nowadays I’m sitting here in front of a 4k monitor which now has 2,160 vertical pixels and at any normal zoom level one of these font units is always at least one pixel now. And that is actually one little thing, sufficient resolution is this huge improvement.

Every designer that’s making a font is making a decision about what languages it’s going to support, whether they do it consciously or not.

There are a lot of other things facing type designers. One is increasing complexity of typographic functionality that you can build into a font. So this OpenType thing that we were starting to push in the late 90s and really became mainstream in the mid 2000s, it was great, but it means that there’s more typographic potential that you can place in fonts, and all of a sudden type designers have more decisions to make.

Another area where they have more decisions to make is language support. And so helping type designers figure out which things like saying, hey if you want to support this language you need these characters in your font, because really things are pretty open ended and there’s a lot of overlap, so for instance the letters you need for French and the letters you need for German and the letters you need for English. I have long had a particular interest in dealing with character sets and language support and so on, so it’s an example of particular interest to me, but de facto every designer that’s making a font that is something other than a symbol font is making a decision about what languages it’s going to support, whether they do it consciously or not.

What is FontLab VI trying to accomplish that other font editors have been lacking?

I think FontLab VI, in terms of what other font editors have been lacking, FontLab VI is an attempt to really rethink what you can do in a font editor and have some radical new tools in terms of drawing and editing. Most of these things were entirely invented from whole cloth or are coming from other domains like mathematics. One or two ideas like curvature visualization same from CAD tools and a third party plugin, but a lot of these things were just stuff that had never been done, either never in any font editor anywhere for most of them, or had never been built into a font editor. So it’s just a whole host of things, and honestly probably more than we should have put in a single version upgrade. The codebase was getting pretty ancient and in its 20-year history FontLab had only been completely rewritten once before this, so it was long overdue for a full rewrite, which is great in some ways.

Thanks to personal computing, people who wouldn’t have known what the word “font” was twenty years ago now practice typography on a daily basis. How much more accessible do you see typography becoming, and in what areas?

There’s already been this huge revolution in both typography, setting type, and type design, making fonts, have been democratized by the digital revolution. And in some ways, maybe sort of twice in the sense that, if the original democratization of typography and type design thanks to computers and digital tools allowing anyone to set type and anyone with enough time on their hands to make fonts, if the original event was an earthquake, the web revolution and the coming of web typography and web fonts over the past seven years or so was sort of like a major aftershock or a few more buildings down.

The web thing has been weird because for a while it was anti-typographic in some ways because the control of the typesetting, as it were, was a lot less than the setting for a web page where everything is fluid and things can be resized and a lot of the kinds of things that typographers used to do at first for a long time weren’t really possible, or at least impractical on the web, including being able to specify arbitrary fonts.

But thanks to web fonts and advances in web technologies like CSS and HTML, with CSS3, basically the web has become a medium for more serious typography. And a very similar thing has happened actually with ebooks, where ebooks are probably about three to five years behind where the web has been with this regard, but ebooks have had the same problem where most of typography went away for most types of ebooks. Ignoring the ones that are just static PDF-based, but the ones that were reflowable and would work on devices with arbitrary screens, had some big problems in this regard. And yet that too is in the process of changing and with each one of these things where this new thing comes along, whether it’s the web or ebooks, eventually it gets good typography, or at least the capability for good typography back, and the ability for arbitrary fonts. That’s what we saw with the web, that’s what’s happening now with ebooks as well with font-embedding for ebooks moving forward. and as each of these things happens, all of a sudden all the same skills, knowledge base, whatever, becomes relevant again and a new set of people who are using the new tools suddenly get interested in it. Fonts still matter, text still matters.

About the author

Josh Shi

Student Fellow

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