Autumn 2002

A cast of thousands

The future of type design

There was a time when the level of pre-press technology that was essential for a designer to understand was limited to a drawing board, Rotring pens, a process camera and a waxing machine. Since the early 1990s designers have familiarised themselves with computers of (mainly) the Macintosh kind,

and many have to take a day-to-day interest in their welfare and upgrade needs. A key part of that knowledge relates to fonts. The issues include which format to purchase; where to put them on the machine; and what utilities to run them with. Now, having just got used to the PostScript and TrueType formats, along comes OpenType.

The OpenType format has been around for five years, and is widely used for rendering complex scripts such as Arabic. It also offers rich typographic controls to Latin script designers. Yet because of the scarcity of program support, it has only just begun to make an impact on designers’ lives. This has prompted the question: is this another short-lived and potentially expensive diversion like Multiple Masters, or is it a significant improvement which might also influence the Quark XPress vs Adobe InDesign battle? In order to understand the significance of OpenType we may need to be reminded of the formats currently in use.

When the Apple Macintosh, PostScript, PageMaker and the LaserWriter all appeared in 1984, type changed forever. No longer was type something produced behind closed doors by a few companies for use on their own proprietary typesetting machines, it was now a software product that could be combined with other graphic elements and could work on any Mac or printer that supported PostScript, the page description language invented by Adobe. This separation of type from a proprietary typesetting system was termed ‘device independence’. For the first time since metal type, it was possible to mix type from different manufacturers together in a more seamless way than placing strips of paper alongside each other on a board and positioning them under a camera. As with anything new, it took some years for the technology to be embraced by type manufacturers and the design community.

The PostScript font technology included outlines, which are best understood as the basic design intended to be reproduced, and bitmaps for onscreen display. Adobe defined a number of font formats PostScript could work with, of which the best known were Type 1 and Type 3. The specification for Type 3 was documented in the PostScript reference manual and was freely available to other manufacturers, Type 1 was the native format which the company held as proprietary.

A characteristic of PostScript Type 3 fonts was that their onscreen display depended upon bitmaps for the commonly used point sizes – 9, 10, 12, 14, 18, 24, 36, 48, 60 and 72. If these were not available and for other sizes, the screen display initially looked for a size which was a multiple of the requested size which could result in very jaggy letters: a mockery of the idea of wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) which was crucial to the Macs’ early success. And at a time when the most powerful Macs had hard disks of only 40mb, these fonts took up considerable disk space because of the number of bitmap sizes needed.

PostScript Type 1 fonts included ‘hints’. Hints are a set of instructions built into a font which ensures the consistency of appearance regardless of the position of a character against the grid of the screen display or low-resolution output device. These fonts when installed on a Mac with Adobe Type Manager (ATM) appeared smooth because the screen was able to make its own display based on the outline font. Only one size of bitmaps was required by the system, and due to other features of the format and the way it was interpreted by a PostScript rip, the fonts had a significantly smaller file size. Adobe eventually published the Type 1 format specification in 1989 and other manufacturers were then able to produce their own type libraries in the format.

One of the limitations of either of these formats was their limitation to a 256-character set, not all of which was available for use from a Mac keyboard. While often larger than those of some of the cheaper typesetting equipment it replaced, the basic set supplied in Western Europe and the us (known as ISO Latin 1 set) has a full set of West European accents, but only two ligatures and a mass of mathematical symbols seldom used. Typographic niceties relied on type designers making extra fonts often called ‘expert’ which contained small caps, other ligatures and non-lining figures and creating extra work for the typesetter or designer. In addition, fonts with special character sets could only be built and accessed in non-standard ways by the end-user, and any later change of typeface by them could create confusion.

These limitations, however, were more than offset by the ease of use of the Apple Macintosh and the new ‘desktop publishing’ and other graphics programs it supported. The Mac also changed the way type was designed: the Ikarus program gave way to programs designed specifically for the Mac such as Altsys (later Macromedia) Fontographer and Letraset FontStudio, which enabled anyone to produce type that appeared to be ‘technically’ as good as that from a major manufacturer. As well as encouraging and enabling a whole new interest in type design and production, the tools made customising fonts for specific purposes much easier.

PostScript, which describes the outlines of a typeface in what are known as ‘Bézier’ or ‘cubic’ curves, was followed in 1991 by Apple’s own TrueType format, which describes outlines as ‘quadratic curves’. TrueType has two important advantages over PostScript Type 1 and 3 fonts. First (and until recently only of benefit to pc users), TrueType’s character sets are based on Unicode: ‘a character coding system designed to support the worldwide interchange, processing, and display of the written texts of the diverse languages of the modern world. In addition, it supports classical and historical texts of many written languages.’ Unicode v.3.2 (2002) accommodates 95,156 characters – enough for all the world’s major languages and writing systems. Second, TrueType allowed for more complex hinting of characters for on-screen display and low resolution output. This latter advantage became increasingly important as use of the Web grew in the mid- to late-1990s.

Towards intelligent fonts
Attempts to provide experienced type users with more sophistication and control led to the development of Multiple Master fonts by Adobe in 1991 and gx fonts from Apple in 1992. Multiple Masters allowed the ‘morphing’ of designs along axes between pre-set master poles, and gx incorporated layout intelligence and supported alternative characters – but neither made significant inroads into the marketplace due to the lack of application support and a perceived over-complication of the product. I suspect that there was also a feeling that these fonts existed because the technology allowed it rather than because they were what designers really needed.

In the intervening years, incompatabilities of the PostScript and TrueType formats across the Windows and Macintosh operating platforms, as well as commercial expediency, have led to Adobe and Microsoft working together, and in 1997 OpenType was announced. OpenType can contain either PostScript or TrueType font outlines (font names are suffixed .otf or .ttf respectively) and each weight is supplied as a single, cross-platform file. The fonts can have an expanded character set based on the international Unicode encoding standard and, in addition, there is the capability for the type designer to create many additional glyphs (small caps, swash variants, alternative ligatures etc). A single OpenType font could therefore, contain iso Latin set 1, Greek, Cyrillic and East-European character sets plus additional characters within a single file. Adobe is shipping fonts like this already. Such capability promises much for multilingual companies and publishing, and possibilities for both type designers and graphic designers. Whatever the advantages of the new format however, its success will depend on the ease with which it can be implemented and seen at work. Although the fonts themselves have a rugged simplicity to them (the single cross-platform file), to fully reach their potential both the operating system and the applications must offer OpenType support for both their Unicode character sets and their advanced typographic features. At the system level, the intention is that all three font formats should function side by side. Windows 2000 provides native support for OpenType, and Apple has integrated the PostScript and OpenType rasteriser into Mac OSX.

At application level, there are two factors to consider. The first is the availability of the fonts themselves. Much of Adobe’s library now exists in the format and new and revised designs – including Chaparral, Myriad and Warnock – featuring advanced typographic features are now appearing as Adobe Pro fonts. Adobe have licensed the development tools to more than 100 designers or companies and more than 3000 people have licensed Microsoft’s Visual OpenType Layout Tool (volt). The type design program FontLab supports the creation of fonts in either PostScript, TrueType or OpenType formats.

The second factor concerns the support of programs that use type to support the new format. As might be expected, Adobe has spent a considerable length of time ensuring that all its programs, Photoshop and InDesign are able to support it. It is with InDesign, in particular, that the capabilities of new fonts may be fully exploited and help that program compete seriously with Quark XPress. Adobe InDesign has well reviewed h&j features, and full OpenType support. With multi-lingual fonts, either glyph insertion or keyboard drivers will access relevant parts of the font, while additional glyphs can be accessed as required from floating palettes. All these font features can also be applied as part of paragraph and character styles making formatting much simpler.

Quark seems content to rest on its laurels and on the fact that its product has become a publishing standard. It is less memory-intensive and will run on older machines and the financial saving InDesign offers on purchase is easily negated by staff re-training costs. The program, however, offers no OpenType or Unicode support.

Prior to writing this article I had thought the new format and new type design program were a sign that type design was reverting to its former manufacturers-only status due to the complexity of the format. This theory was unfounded. The cross-platform nature of the OpenType font files cannot be praised highly enough and as regards large character sets, they are a welcome but optional addition that will suit some fonts more than others. Even to an individual designer producing fonts for their own use the format has much to offer, and many independent designers – including Justin Howes, John Hudson, Zuzana Licko, Rich Roat and Jeremy Tankard – are starting to work with the format. At present there are aspects of the technology and its application which are far from ideal, but OpenType will certainly take off if these bugs are ironed out quickly and the fonts are recognised for what they are: real practical and creative solutions for the future.

1. Monotype were still using their own ‘Command Language’ rather than PostScript to encode fonts on the Mac in late 1987 for instance. In the design industry at large, it wasn’t until 1990 that most British designers finally accepted that Macs were here to stay, but arguments about creativity vs production continue today.

2. There were Types 0-13 and Type 42.

3. ATM is actually a stand-alone version of the PostScript rip (raster image processor) which handles fonts. The same rasteriser is built into PostScript printers, various Adobe applications and recent versions of Mac os and Windows.

4. The Ikarus type design system, introduced in 1974 by Dr Peter Karow, was widely used by major type manufacturers.

5. These have been documented in this review many times: Eye no. 3 vol. 1 (pp.36-43); no. 7 vol. 3 ( pp.26-39); no. 15 vol. 4 (pp.10-16 and 26-35); no. 40 vol. 10 (pp.40-47).

6. (11/7/02)

7. This fits the first of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) goals: ‘to make the Web accessible to all by promoting technologies that take into account the vast differences in culture, languages, education, ability, material resources, and physical limitations of users on all continents.’ (11/7/02). Unicode has been used in all their specifications since 1996. In addition, the increasing use of storing data in xml as a primary source capable of export for any purpose will only reinforce its importance. Unicode is an ongoing project: at present there are many minority and historical scripts still to be encoded.

8. OpenType has minimum system requirements of Mac OS 8.6 and atm 4·6·1 and the latest PostScript printer driver, or Windows 95/98 with atm support and the latest PostScript printer drivers. At the time of writing (July 2002) there are a few bugs reported with Mac OXS10.1.5 and the kerning data of existing PostScript fonts does not work with Microsoft Word and Macromedia Freehand. The ability to add new keyboard layouts to support additional languages, a strong point of earlier versions of Mac OS, does not yet exist.

9. FontLab has now replaced both Macromedia Fontographer (last updated 1996) and Letraset FontStudio (last updated 1991) as the main type design software. FontLab has made good use of user feedback when preparing updates and the outline drawing tools for the new version.

10. InDesign’s h&j features are based on the HZ program developed by Peter Karow and Hermann Zapf.

11. A search for ‘OpenType’ on the Quark website yields only three results, none of which suggests the company’s strategy, and emailed questions remain unanswered.

Phil Baines, designer, tutor: typography, Central Saint Martins, London

First published in Eye no. 45 vol. 12 2002

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.