Monotype on The History and Future of Variable Fonts

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We’re in a golden age of typography. Lettering is all the rage, and all over Instagram. For those who have grown tired of web safe fonts such as Verdana, it’s easier than ever to use nearly any font to dress up your site thanks to TypeKit and Google Fonts, among other services. And with Fontstand not only can you try and buy fonts, but you can also rent them.

With OpenType 1.8—soon to be updated to 1.8.1—a whole new world of typography will be available to designers and users. The new wave of variable fonts promises a whole new typographic world of opportunities, and Monotype’s Tom Rickner is excited about the possibilities.

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Font Formats, Then & Now

Digital type has undergone a number of changes over the years, and Monotype’s Tom Rickner has been involved with those changes nearly every step of the way. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rickner was a member of the TrueType team at Apple, “working within the Blue system software group, responsible for System 7 for the Macintosh.” He also completed hinting of Matthew Carter’s Georgia, Verdana, Tahoma and Nina typefaces for Microsoft.

Rickner has been with Monotype since 1994, when he began working on conversion of the PostScript Type 1 library to TrueType, as well as the creation of new typefaces. He’s currently Director of Monotype Studio, getting variable fonts (OpenType 1.8) and its tech into the hands of designers, advocating for variable font development and innovation. But what exactly are variable fonts? To appreciate what they are and what they will be, you have to learn how font formats have changed over the years, going back to the 1980s and the desktop publishing era.

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the Skia typeface by Matthew Carter

Desktop computers, and especially the Apple Macintosh, made it easy for anybody to use a computer thanks to WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) software. You didn’t need to understand how to input directions into the machine’s command line—you just pointed, clicked, clicked and dragged, and got the results you wanted. Programs such as Pagemaker (first by Aldus, then acquired by Adobe) let you design your layout on a computer screen, choosing from a selection of fonts and styles to set your typography. HyperCard, which predates the modern web browser, was another tool for doing so. You placed images and text into a layout and chose the font to use for your headlines, subheads, body copy, and captions.

[Related: Fantastic Fonts from Foundries Around the World]

During these early days, many fonts were pixelated on screen and on the printer, especially if you used a dot matrix printer. Raster fonts had stair-step edges. Soon digital typography evolved from raster to vector, and font formats changed too. Adobe PostScript, created in the 1980s, enabled high-quality raster and vector graphics to be rendered on screen and on printers, but you needed one font file for the screen and another file for printing. Many consider PostScript Type 1 fonts to be the beginning of the digital typography revolution since they brought great looking digital typography to the masses. You’re limited to 256 glyphs in a PostScript font, which by today’s standards and compared to what other font formats offer, is a low number. Type 1 and Level 2, are still in use, and the most recent iteration, Adobe PostScript 3 is used on computer platforms around the world. PostScript transformed the way people used, interacted with, and created digital typography.

More changes happened in the 1990s as designers embraced digital tools and the value of digital typography swept through the industry. Apple developed TrueType for digital fonts and licensed it to Microsoft. Both Apple and Microsoft used TrueType in their respective operating systems. You can still find TrueType fonts in use today since TrueType allows for far more glyphs than PostScript. According to Rickner, “TrueType and OpenType (which includes CFF Postscript) both support up to 64k, which is 65,536 glyphs.” A glyph can be a letter, number, punctuation symbol, math symbol, swash character, fraction, or any other form occupying the font’s table. TrueType contains screen and print information all in one file, and uses TrueType hinting for on-screen rendering. But there’s a downside. TrueType fonts are native to each system, meaning you need one for a Mac and a different one for Windows.

In the 1990s, Adobe and Microsoft worked together to end the so-called font wars (yes, it was an actual thing and can be found in news articles from that era). The two companies developed a platform that combined the best of PostScript and TrueType. The resulting OpenType gave designers and users fonts with a large number of glyphs, that “up to 64k” number that Rickner spoke of. With OpenType, designers can create one font file with Latin and non-Latin scripts plus alternate characters, fractions and old style figures, ligatures, small caps, and swashes, among others.

OpenType Grows Up

Forthcoming versions of OpenType, known as variable fonts and including version 1.8 and beyond, will bring about even more changes. Rickner credits Google’s Behdad Esfahbod for taking on the challenge of investigating how OpenType could be taken to the next level. OpenType 1.8 brings the past into the future, especially since its variable fonts are an outgrowth of TrueType Variations, the 1990s predecessor TrueType GX Variations, according to Rickner.

At its outset, OpenType proved that companies could work together and unite their efforts to bring about positive change. OpenType 1.8 and its variable fonts will continue that tradition. Current collaborators pushing variable fonts forward include not only Google, but also Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe. Monotype is working with operating system developers, type designers, and font app/tool developers, to build what Rickner calls “the infrastructure for producing and delivering variable fonts that solve real world problems.”

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Variable Font Benefits

  • Control for the type designers, font developers, and also the users
  • Smaller file sizes, making for quicker load times on the web
  • One file, making for easier file management
  • Variation with one glyph many ways, with changes such as weight, width, or even single aspect changes such as a Q’s tail being incrementally changed
  • Easier distribution

The more I learned about variable fonts from speaking with Rickner, the more I saw the possibilities. Imagine if you could subtly alter the letter Q with its tail changing length, position, curve, transition, or thickness. Want a thinner tail but a narrower tail width? You can change that too. Want a version that works great at 36 points or larger, and another version that works well for 8 points or less? You could have that too when selecting typefaces, provided the type designer has created those versions and built them into the Open Type 1.8 variable font file. And you would just have one font file, being able to see how your typography looks in realtime by toggling an easy-to-use interface. Move a slider in your design software and see the letterform or letterforms change on screen. And if you’re a general user, wanting to change a font on a web page or in an app, you’d ideally have similar control.

Why Variable Fonts, and Why Now?

Rickner emphasizes that this evolution in font technology can happen and should happen right now, for a number of reasons. “I think it is the perfect time because the major players now have type rendering systems that have reached a level of maturity, and are now in a position to approach a technology that can provide a better and more fundamental level of control for users. In particular, I see this greatly benefiting skilled typographers and designers who are interested in solving deeper issues than just getting type on a screen or on a page. We have the opportunity to optimize our typefaces depending upon context, and we can deliver greater controls to our users. I think designers will embrace that if the applications present the degree of control we put into the font files themselves.

As for everyday users of type, other than potential size savings and speed enhancements in terms of browsing web pages with complex typography, I suspect the underlying changes will be largely invisible. And I’ll bet that content providers will be thrilled if this improvement occurs, whether or not users notice. Users tend to only notice when things get worse, not better.“

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Although variable fonts are in an early stage of development, you can play around with some of the current releases. Typefaces such as Kairos Sans by Terrance Weinzierl are already available. Rickner sees more and more variable fonts coming soon—very very soon. “I would bet that OS developers and web browsers should all provide basic support for rendering variable fonts within a year. They may not allow arbitrary selection of instances in a font, but I expect them to be able to select and render any stored ‘named instance’ in the font. Certainly the Webkit nightly build has already surpassed that with example sites enabling us to use sliders to choose arbitrary instances.”

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With variable fonts, optical sizing could make a big comeback in a big way, with small changes or more noticeable ones happening for different sizes

Refreshing and reviving existing typefaces to get them up to OpenType 1.8, where they take advantage of variable font’s benefits will happen over the coming months. But there’s more to the future of type design than re-creating and updating what’s already been done. Ideally, new typefaces will be developed from scratch, taking advantage of variable font technology and addressing old as well as new design problems. Rickner hopes to “bring back optical sizing and optimal readability akin to the foundry days when different cuts of type existed for different uses, such as print.” He also has high hopes when it comes to the caliber of work that variable fonts will enable and encourage type designers to create. “I relish the thought that we could get back to the level of quality we once had, to serve the message and serve the reader.”

Images and typography examples courtesy of Monotype.


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