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The latest unlicensed-font-usage lawsuit was filed yesterday in New York City. Wisconsin-based Font Diner is suing Mixpanel, a mobile-app-analytics company in San Francisco, for font copyright infringement. The company alleges that Mixpanel used their typeface Coffee Service, designed by Stuart Sandler, embedding it in a Tumblr theme which they made available to all and sundry, which was not permitted by their license. The lawsuit asks for $1-million-plus for copyright infringement, and another $1-million-plus for breach of contract.

Coffee Service

Yes, sticking a font you don’t own into an app or theme so that it can generate custom titles and headings on demand requires it be properly licensed. Then proceeding to give everyone and their dog access to the font makes it an even bigger problem, because you are giving away somebody else’s font software.

You can see the current version of the offending “Showroom” theme on Tumblr, using a similar but clearly different typeface. (The lawsuit acknowledges that Mixpanel has changed the theme to no longer use Coffee Service.)

Showroom theme

Showroom theme

However, in the court filing, once can find a screen grab of the earlier version using Coffee Service. (Sorry for degradation due to multiple translations here.)

From reading the lawsuit, the Tumblr theme uses the font converted into Cufón format, which is not allowed by the font license—even Font Diner’s web font license specifically disallows use of Cufón. Plus, even if that use was allowed, that would not make it okay to give away the converted font or allow any number of interested others to use it.

The lawyer in the Font Diner v Mixpanel case is the ubiquitous Frank Martinez, who does legal work for many type foundries, including litigation. You may know him from everybody suing NBC (there have been three distinct lawsuits against various branches of NBC since 2009), the Rick Santorum website lawsuit, and so forth.

As I happen to have been in New York this past week, I actually had dinner with Mr Martinez this past Tuesday, to get his perspective on many aspects of font lawsuits. Although we didn’t discuss this case in particular, it is interesting to see how it fits into the bigger picture.

The Mixpanel lawsuit claims that Mixpanel refuses to license the font for the use already made, or otherwise compensate Font Diner for the usage.

This is an important point. When talking font lawsuits, a lot of people seem to have the idea that individuals and companies making fonts troll the world looking for end user infringement and sue whenever they find it. But from my discussions over the years, both with those litigating parties and Mr Martinez, the overwhelming majority of cases involve the company or type designer approaching the offending company and asking them if they would please just pay for the legit license for the use they were already making. It is usually only complete refusal to make things legit that causes a lawsuit. I remember one high profile case of recent years in which the foundry told me that the lawsuit really just represented the latest in an ongoing series of infringements by the defendant over a decade, with constant and repeated overtures by the foundry for them to get legal, to no avail.

I am not, of course, claiming that every single font legal action undertaken has merit. I have seen a type foundry’s lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter to a company, in which they alleged unlicensed use of two fonts. Of the two fonts in question, one was in a bitmapped logo designed by an outside designer who was legitimately licensed, and the other font was not even being used—it was a similar typeface. They told the foundry’s lawyer as much, and never heard from him again.

Of course, if you are a company with more than a very small handful of designers, it might be hard for you to even know whether you do or do not have a font on one or more of your computers somewhere. That’s the kind of thing that our Universal Type Server software can be an immense help with. It can track which fonts are in use across a team or organization, control who has access to which of those fonts, and help track license information as well. Check it out.

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I have a couple of talks coming up in New York (AIGA/WebVisions, Feb 27) and Austin (SXSW, March 9) in which I will be talking about my “Font Detective” cases: basically cases where I have been called upon as a font expert to authenticate or debunk dubious documents, or make other typographic determinations with legal consequences. Come learn how mistakes in typography, printing and font selection ruined what could have otherwise been perfectly good forgeries!


Although I do a variety of moonlighting and consulting on the side from my day job here at Extensis, this is far and away my favorite kind. I have looked into over a dozen cases since 1998, and I can’t imagine having more fun than investigating puzzles like these, seizing on each and every angle, trying to come up with decisive elements that could prove forgery with certainty. (One can’t really “prove” a negative, like something not being a fake.)

Among the folks who have consulted me over the years: a US Treasury agent, a Fortune 10 company, the Washington Post, and the PBS TV show “History Detectives.”


My version of the talk for New York will be “the long version,” a whopping two hours (including questions), but I am confident that people will be kept engrossed that whole time. When I did the “long version” in Chicago, the audience was so involved that when I tried to let them have a 10-minute break after an hour, they refused to go! I had let on that I could cover more if we went straight through, and they wanted more cases instead. In the New York talk I will cover eight of my cases, including the big ones and several smaller ones that have unexpected conclusions, because it turns out real life is not actually the same as the movies. This talk is to benefit AIGA New York, and is sponsored by WebVisions and Extensis.

At SXSW in Austin I will be doing “the condensed version,” an hour focused on my three most interesting cases, including my first case (a forged will) and one involving then-President George W. Bush.

I hope to do the full talk here in Portland to benefit our local AIGA some time soon, and doubtless it will spring up elsewhere! Maybe by then I will be able to talk about my two most recent cases—each with millions of dollars at stake.

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Just last week we got your votes as to which asterisk I should submit for Font Aid VI, the project where a font is constructed from donated glyphs with all proceeds to hurricane Sandy relief. This time it’s all asterisks. I designed three, and you picked one.

Here are the designs again:

three asterisk images

Left to right: Spiky, Rounder and Medium asterisks

And here are the results:

5 votes for spiky, 15 for rounder and 21 for medium

It looks like a strong lead (and even a majority of total votes) for “medium,” which was also my favorite choice.

But I was intrigued that the comments from the backers of my Cristoforo font were 1 for spiky, 5 for rounder and 1 for medium. Maybe it was too small a sample, but I’ll take that as indicative that perhaps the folks backing my font have a different preference than the overall tally. So while I went ahead and submitted the “medium” asterisk to Font Aid VI, I am making “rounder” the default asterisk in Cristoforo.

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The good folks at the Society of Typographic Aficionados (SoTA, the organization that runs TypeCon each year) have organized Font Aid VI, a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy relief. Font Aid is an irregular charitable project. Basically a bunch of type designers create a single glyph each, and the resulting font is sold with all the proceeds going to charity. This year it’s a font of asterisks.

I thought I would contribute something, but I quickly found myself with three different asterisks. However, Font Aid only takes one glyph per designer. Will y’all help me choose which one of the three asterisks above is the best? The deadline for voting is Friday Nov 16, 2012 at noon Pacific Time.

three asterisk images

Left to right: Spiky, Rounder and Medium asterisks

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Dr Myra Thiessen from the University of South Australia (Adelaide) presented some interesting new research at the annual ATypI international typography conference in Hong Kong last week. It was supportive of the results from the previous “ugly fonts” study, but she pointed out that does not mean she agrees with the conclusions generally being drawn from those results. She had some pretty convincing arguments as to why making stuff harder to read in general might not, in fact, enhance learning. Don’t go and immediately make all your presentations, essays and marketing materials harder to read!

Luckily, I got a quick photo of the slide where she summarized the arguments against. Here is the text:

However, if more cognitive capacity is needed in identification that means that less is available for higher-order functions related to comprehension and assimilation.

  • long-term cognitive capacity may be negatively affected
  • no cognitive capacity to engage with other stimular (i.e. less likely to notice the gorilla in the room)

Reading is as much about preference as it is about legibility

  • if a text is difficult to be read it is less likely to be read
  • reader fatigue is more likely

Mediocre photo from my smartphone below. 🙂 (I note that her comments about “preference” are basically why people will tend to prefer and read more legible documents.)

illegiible fonts debunked

illegiible fonts debunked

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“Your logo is not your brand”
Well, of course it’s not! We all know that. However, we also know that it can communicate volumes. At Extensis, we have additional considerations here: If you are in our business—selling to creative teams and font enthusiasts- then the logo typography we choose will clearly communicate more to our audience (on a conscious level) than most other companies’ logos communicate to their audience. In short: our audience knows their stuff, they are smart and discriminating. And yes, they are just about as opinionated as I am. Touché.
—Extensis Marketing VP Amanda Paull

This leapt out from the many other options:

Extensis e-head logo

“Wow, Amanda. That’s… wild,” I said.

She had just given me my first look at this proposed (typo)graphical element of the new Extensis logo. It was just one option, and not even the one being pushed most heavily by our friends at Blue Collar Agency who were helping our re-branding effort. They had in turn roped in their friends at Owen Jones & Partners. Mark Rawlins from OJP, along with Simon Walker had come up with this thing, that I promptly dubbed the “e-head.” It was an “e” for Extensis, but it could also spawn comic-book word balloons. In fact, the first treatments had the Extensis wordmark being “spoken” by the head, like this.

In retrospect, I think that the angle of the sides of the speech balloon being just slightly off from the angle of the italics was one of the reasons these didn’t work for me. “I need some time to think about that e-head graphic,” I told her. “Can I get back to you tomorrow after I sleep on it?” She agreed, and I went off to ponder whether something this radical and arguably lighthearted would work for our brand. It couldn’t be further from the old logo:

I looked back over the feedback Amanda had gathered during the branding survey Blue Collar had done for us.

“Should be simple. Doesn’t have to be over the top.”

“I think we need a bit more kitschiness. Modern, slab serif perhaps.”

“They should use something with a no-nonsense quality, to give the sense of dependability and technology.”

“But it should have a twist, to give the sense of creativity as well.”

Well, the e-head certainly fit the bill on those counts. Perhaps except the “over the top” part. Having the wordmark spoken by the head in a dialog balloon probably met that. But if we just stuck with the e-head by itself? Simpler, and any over-the-topness came from the sensibility it conveyed, not from being overly-complex or too “busy.”

Then there were the directives arrived at for the branding redesign. As mentioned a couple posts back in this series, we wanted to communicate that Extensis:

  1. Loves type
  2. Is open and approachable
  3. Respects design tradition while progressing forward
  4. Takes our work and our customers, but not ourselves, seriously

Well, the e-head certainly communicated open, approachable, and not taking ourselves too seriously. As I looked at it more, the more convinced I became that as long as we balanced it just right with a typographic treatment of the “Extensis” name, this could work just fine. Maybe it would be a little bit polarizing, and some people would hate it. But I thought they would at least notice it, remember it, and maybe even talk about it. Yet over time it would just become comfortably familiar. The next day I made an impassioned plea in favor of the e-head (though not necessarily the wordmark-in-the-word-balloon). Amanda and other marketing folks bought it. We explored other approaches as well, but we focused more and more on what typographic treatment to give to “Extensis” that could pair with the e-head.

The setting needed to be a bit less silly and playful than the e-head, so as to counter-balance it a little. But if it got too serious it would just clash instead of complementing. Trying to find the right balance was tricky. Some more wordmarks in word balloons we tried:

But outside of a word balloon approach, they had also shown us two treatments with all-caps slab serifs, Rodeqa and Donnerstag.

Two weights of Rodeqa Slab 4F by Sergiy Tkachenko:

Donnerstag by Jeremy Dooley:

Rodeqa is a unicase font, but I looked at a lowercase version of the Donnerstag.

There were things I liked about Donnerstag, but essentially I just wasn’t happy with how a lot of the lowercase letters were drawn. It seemed very inconsistent, in that contrast between thick and thin strokes varied wildly from letter to letter. DOubtless it was a deliberate design decision on Dooley’s part, but it didn’t work for me.

Somewhere in here we agreed that lowercase was better. Not quite as formal and stuffy, I thought. So Rodeqa dropped out of the running. Then I started suggesting other typefaces. A few of my thoughts…

Museo Slab 300 by Jos Buivenga:

Vista Slab Light by Xavier Dupré:

Adelle Light by Veronika Burian & José Scaglione:

Still, nothing was quite working. Amanda and I spent half an hour going over all the options I’d tried to date, and identifying what we liked and didn’t like about each of them. Finally I went back to Amanda and said, “Give me a day or two to work with some letterforms myself and I can make something we will like. I’ll start with Adelle, because it is just so darned well drawn, and modify it until it meets our needs.”

I started by interpolating a custom weight, roughly mid-way between the regular and the semibold. In my experiments was about as light as I could go and still have the letters hold up nicely even when the logo was really small.

I made the letters quite a bit wider (and thus a bit more rounded), not just by stretching them—that would distort the shapes—but as real designed extended letters. (I got some help from RMX Tools, which I used to add a width axis in FontLab Studio.) After that, I modified the shapes quite a bit.

The treatment of the x was inspired by Xavier Dupré’s Vista Slab. Lopping off the left part of the t crossbar made it seem more modern and also helped with what would otherwise be awkward spacing between the x and the t. I also lopped off the inner right serif of the n (like Donnerstag or Palatino), and then I had to make the n a tad narrower to compensate for the missing interior serif. I gave the s more playful ball terminals (like Donnerstag or Archer). Although I had messed with it a lot, the great underlying craftsmanship in Vik and José’s letterforms gave me a great base. Now the whole thing was a bit more jaunty and modern, compatible with the e-head without being quite as extreme.

Soon we began to roll it out internally. The first showing was just the wordmark without the e-head. In retrospect… not such a good idea. But a few months later we showed it with the e-head, and regular human heads started to nod. They could see what I was balancing the wordmark against. Last week it went up on signs at our downtown Portland headquarters.

Every time I look at it I like it more. That’s a good feeling. But I will be very interested to hear what outside folks think of it!

This is the fourth in a series on rebranding:

P.S. This is a simplified version of the logo development story. The full version would have three times as many steps and shown another 50 or 100 fonts! For the font geeks out there, in tweaking Adelle, I used RMX Tools to create a multiple master, and added a width axis! Then I tweaked both weight and width until I got the initial letters “right.”

[Updated same day to add/resize some graphics and clarify one sentence. And again to add a note on RMX Tools. And again to add links to previous posts in the series.]

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Type Detective - image processing by Chris Lozos / Dezcom

Type Detective - image processing by Chris Lozos / Dezcom

Next Thursday evening (Jan 19), I’ll be at the Type Directors Club giving a talk about forensic typography: using fonts, typography and printing technology to detect forged documents, and a number of the cases I’ve been asked to investigate. Learn how stupid mistakes ruined perfectly good forged documents, from the NFL to the US Presidency!

It seems particularly apt to give this talk in New York City, as there have been two local “forged documents” cases in the news in just the past week, both involving staff at New York City high schools: an employee faking a death certificate to get a longer vacation, and another faking a jury duty letter.

Please come to my talk, from 6:30-8:30 pm on Thursday Jan 19. The Type Directors Club is at 347 W 36th St, New York, NY.

Also, here are some links about my past type detective activities:

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Following on my first post about the conference, here are more thoughts on Reykjavik and some interesting talks on fonts and global typography.

As mentioned previously, Reykjavik was a blast. The entire population of Iceland is about 400,000 people, and one thing about being small… well, the President of Iceland himself opened the conference, with an entertaining and surprisingly design-literate talk. Further to the fabulous food mentioned before, Reykjavik has at least two top-notch Indian restaurants (yes, really). Also a world-famous hot dog stand, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, just a couple blocks from the conference location. It’s known for having fed Bill Clinton, and for the hot dogs, which are topped with a remarkable mix of honey mustard, catsup, remoulade, and both fresh and crispy-fried onions. The crispy onions are what makes them work for me, so the second time round I asked for extra on those, and it was fabulous.

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand was yummy! With me were Adam Twardoch (FontLab), Georg Seifert (Glyphs font editor), Frank Grießhammer (Adobe), Lawrence Penney (MyFonts), Richard Kegler (P22 / Making Faces)

So, on to more talks and observations from the conference, some lightly edited notes. I didn’t  always have my laptop with me and take notes, unfortunately. Then again, reading summaries of all those dozens of talks would doubtless get dull; this can at least give you a good bit of flavor from what was probably my favorite type conference I have attended to date.

Droid Fonts

Steve Matteson and Dawn Shaikh

Steve (Ascender, now Monotype again) talked about the evolution and development of the open source Droid typefaces for Google, with particular focus on the Latin (English) and Arabic designs. Two different styles were required for Arabic, kufi and naskh to cover the needs of different countries. They did much discussion of how style was coordinated to have the Arabic echo some features of the Latin, and also on-screen legibility for Arabic (especially at the high-res screens being used on modern mobile devices).

The feedback process was a big challenge. Dawn talked about research with users and stakeholders on the international (non-Latin) fonts. She was brought in to the project quite late. Among other things she had to decide when the fonts were good enough to accept, which in practice meant securing 100% stakeholder buy-in for each new font. At the same time, she was under pressure for speed. Because of tight timelines, the research was qualitative rather than quantitative in her stakeholder reviews. She used 1:1 interviews with native speakers, Googlers, and external particiants. Sometimes she did focus groups, as with Thai where she couldn’t get anyone to give any critical feedback 1:1, but a focus group got them to open up. Some reviews were by email as well; some people wrote multi-page documents at each step! However, it was really hard to keep some people interested and involved over multiple iterations.

Minion Math

Johannes Küster

Johannes discussed Minion Math, a bunch of fonts full of specialized math characters which act as third-party supplements to the fonts comprising Adobe’s Minion typeface. He picked Minion for a variety of reasons. One of them was that he felt he needed a typeface that had a range of optical sizes, and was a clear and unobtrusive text typeface. (If you don’t know about optical sizes for fonts, it’s a very interesting and cool thing, well written about by Adobe.)

Johannes added an extra optical size beyond the four minion started with, and did all four weights of Minion, for a total of 20 faces. The 2008 release had 1300 glyphs per font, but now has been revised with 2900 glyphs per font. It also implements support for Microsoft’s OpenType math extensions, first seen in Cambria Math. It should work well in MS Word.

OpenType CFF for Web Fonts

Christopher Slye, Adobe

Christopher presented an argument for web font users and consumers to treat OpenType CFF (either raw .otf, or in WOFF) as equally useful as TrueType TTF. It has a number of advantages from a font production POV, as well as some from a font rendering POV. For me personally, he was basically preaching to the faithful, but there may have been some in the audience with different views.

Global Type

Not the title of a talk, just my grab-bag heading for a bunch of talks, mostly on the later days when I wasn’t taking notes right during the talks.

There were a number of talks fitting a conference theme of special characters that are part of the Latin alphabet but are peculiar to individual languages. Iceland has two of them, the eth (Ð, ð) and the thorn (Þ, þ), both of which appeared in several talks. The eth makes a hard th sound (like “the” or indeed like “eth”) while the thorn makes a soft th sound (like, well, “thorn”). As a type designer, my main takeaways on these letters are that the lowercase eth need not have the round part of the letter come to the full x-height, it is often just subtly shorter, or even a fair bit in a heavier weight (to allow the top part to maintain its shape and weight), while the capital eth needs to have more of its crossbar on the inside of the D part than on left side of the stem (to allow for better spacing). Also discussed were the specialized Swedish letters Æ/æ, Œ/œ and Å/å, and the gaelic “wynn” (Ƿ, ƿ).

Nadine Roßa and Ralf Herrmann on the capital eszett

Nadine Roßa and Ralf Herrmann on the capital eszett

The single most interesting such talk to me was the one on the German eszett (ß), which looks a bit like a lowercase beta, but serves the role of a double s or “sharp s.” Though it has long only been a lowercase character, being represented in caps as two capital S shapes. Recently a capital eszett has been added to Unicode, and this has been controversial. What made this talk interesting was that instead of spending half or more of their time discussing the design of this new letter, the talk was about the rationale for it and whether it was really necessary. This is apparently a very contentious hot topic among German typographers, and some heated opinions were heard at the conference. Personally I came away convinced that the capital eszett is clearly needed from a text processing point of view, and should be included in fonts. There’s a need to be able to round-trip case conversion so important information (such as the correct spelling of names) is never lost. If people don’t like it having a special shape, they can give it the shape of two S’s instead, but I think standardizing on a shape is a Good Thing. Graphs were shown of previous new-character adoption timelines, and it seems that I’m too old to see the end of the eszett controversy, but by the time my kids reach old age it will be a done deal.

ATypI 2012

Just a day or two ago, we on the ATypI board announced the location of next year’s (2012) conference: Hong Kong! It promises to be exciting. It will be hosted in large part by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, with lead organizer Keith Tam. I can’t wait!

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In the outpouring of Steve Jobs tributes and analysis, most have understandably focused on bigger and broader questions of his impact on technology, society, and popular culture. But Digital Trends published an interesting piece last Friday just about Jobs and his impact on typography. After being interviewed for that, I decided I would like to expand on my comments there a bit. (If you’ve ever been interviewed, you know how it is—a tiny fraction of your comments usually make it to print or video. That’s just the normal and expected result, how reporting goes.) By now you’ve probably already read several, maybe even dozens, of articles about Steve Jobs life and impact (see Levy in Wired, or NPR as one of the many trumpeting the centrality of design in his technology). This is a narrower and more focused look at just one aspect of Jobs legacy: typography.

Steve Jobs holding an iPhone 4. Photo credit: Matthew Yohe. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Steve Jobs holding an iPhone 4. Photo credit: Matthew Yohe. Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Before the Mac, there was digital printing and publishing, but it was far from WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get). It was a grim world of cryptic codes embedded in text to produce visual results in print, but not on screen. I imagine we would have gotten WYSIWYG publishing eventually (it was already happening at Xerox before the Mac), but how mainstream, and when?

When the Mac shipped in 1984 with built-in proportional fonts that you could see on screen (remember Chicago, Geneva, Monaco and friends? Designed by the same woman who did the original Mac icons, Susan Kare, later adapted as scalable outline fonts by Bigelow & Holmes), with printers that printed the same fonts you saw on screen, it was an immediate impact on typography for everyday computer users. When the Mac shortly thereafter (1985) combined with Aldus (later Adobe) PageMaker and the Adobe PostScript page description language (Warnock and Geschke’s brainchild), with PostScript supported both in the LaserWriter personal laser printer (even if it did cost 3x as much as a Mac) and Linotype’s Linotronic 300 imagesetter, desktop publishing arrived. Suddenly people could design and proof on a desktop hardware that was affordable to a professional or business user—and soon thereafter even to hobbyists. Compared to previous dedicated publishing systems, the ability to see what you would get, and the cost difference, were nothing short of revolutionary.

Jobs soon was drummed out of Apple for a decade, and went and did NeXT Computers instead (and Pixar, but that’s another story. By integrating Display PostScript as an integral part of the NeXT operating system, he created a computer system where for the first time WYSIWYG worked practically seamlessly and included fonts scaled on screen from the same outlines used to image them in print. NeXT never did terribly well, for a variety of reasons, but some of the ideas in it went very far (and indeed, eventually Apple bought NeXT and made the underpinning of that OS the core of OS X).

So Jobs wasn’t at Apple in the late 1980s, but I credit Apple’s next typography move in part to the example of NeXT. On the Mac (and Windows), fonts still looked like junk on screen, even if they were nominally WYSIWYG. Previews for PostScript fonts were still achieved in the 1980s by scaling bitmap fonts on screen. Other fonts were bitmaps only. For either, at a different zoom level or at any size that didn’t have a hand-tuned bitmap, they looked awful. Even at designed sizes they were jaggy. There was no system level support for scaling outline fonts on screen.

So around 1989-91 Apple developed TrueType, which they immediately swapped with Microsoft in exchange for a PostScript language clone (which was pretty awful, Microsoft got the best of that deal by far). Suddenly we had really good-looking scalable fonts on screen! Adobe responded to Apple’s announcement by making PostScript fonts also render better on screen with the “Adobe Type Manager” add-on (which would be integrated into operating systems a decade later), and even got to market first with. Between these two moves, a second typography revolution occurred in the early 90s. Suddenly fonts looked great on screen and you could print them at full resolution to just about any printer.

There have been assorted improvements since, but many key elements of modern typography were brought to the mainstream by Jobs. Being able to see what fonts look like on screen. Showing proportional fonts on screen. Scaling the same font outlines for screen as for print. Putting a “font” menu in applications, and having all applications share a pool of fonts installed at the system level (instead of associated with some specific printer).

In another company one would not necessarily credit the leader for so much. But Jobs legendarily ruled such details, and even smaller minutiae. By all accounts he was often hell to work with, and his singlemindedness caused plenty of problems. But I can’t even begin to guess how long modern digital typography would have taken to reach its current state without him, and whether so much of it would be available to the average computer user. Even 15 years ago a person on the street could have a “favorite font,” and we can thank Steve Jobs for being one of those who made it so.

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This is the first of a couple of posts on the annual ATypI (Association Typographique Internationale) conference. AtypI is the primary annual international fonts and typography conference, held in a different world city every year. This year it was in Reykjavik, Iceland, Sep 14-18. Next year’s destination should be announced in a week or two, as we on the board are in the throes of decision-making right now. The decision is between Hong Kong and Yerevan (capital of Armenia!).

Lake at south end of downtown Reykjavik

Lake at south end of downtown Reykjavik

Flying in to Iceland was itself an experience. As we approached to land, I could see how barren and craggy much of the landscape was. No wonder Apollo astronauts practiced lunar excursions here! But Reykjavik itself turns out to be a remarkably cosmopolitan experience. Both the food served at the conference and nearby restaurants were fabulous; best food I’ve had while traveling since ATypI was in Rome back in 2002! I even tried whale for the first time, which turns out to taste a lot like Kobe beef (yes, really—whales are mammals, not at all fishy). Probably the last time as well, however, as I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of eating such bright mammals, no matter how tasty they may be. I’ll bet vegetarians taste great, too….

Harpa concert hall and conference center

Harpa concert hall and conference center

The conference itself was held in the amazing and beautiful brand new Harpa building, a combination of concert hall and conference center. Photos can’t do it justice, with its amazing glass walls with a mix of irregular hexagonal tiles and hexagonal vertical cylinders…. The whole thing overlooks the harbor with fabulous views. And yes, those angles are for real, not an artifact of some odd camera angle.

Most of the rest of this post is going to be about things of interest especially to those who design type: font development tools (three new font editors were shown!), competitions, and such. In my next post I’ll talk about web fonts and some other cool content.

Granshan International Type Design Competition

After a day of recovering from travel and visiting with type colleagues, my first “serious” day in ReykJavik was taken up with judging for this competition. This was my first time as a juror for a type design competition, so it was especially interesting. What makes Granshan different from some other competitions is that it is focused on non-Latin writing systems (English is written with Latin letters, btw), especially Armenian, Greek and Cyrillic. This is the fourth year it has been held.

Judging the Granshan competition

Judging the Granshan competition

It was an interesting process, and I enjoyed working with the other jurors, who included folks from several of our WebINK partner foundries, such as Veronika Burian (TypeTogether) and Emil Yakupov (ParaType). Language barriers were interesting, and as we sat and discussed, at least three languages were in general use for basic communication: English, Russian, Armenian.

I can’t give away the results, as they are yet to be announced later this month. But I am happy to talk about the process. The voting system involved rating the finalists on a 1-5 scale. In the end we ended up not awarding a top prize in one category, just second and third place. On the other hand, the grand prize decision was shockingly easy; one of the entries was simply so masterfully executed and stunning that there was hardly any discussion needed. It was the only entry that all the jurors gave a perfect “5” to, and for at least half of us, it was the only “5” we gave.

EPAR Table

What is an EPAR table? “Embedding Permissions and Recommendations.” This is basically metadata with modular and easy-to-read info about the license terms of the font. The advantage to users, if it was displayed in font management applications like Suitcase Fusion and Universal Type Server, or even by the operating system, would be an easier to read short summary of the license terms. It would be to the full End User License Agreement (EULA) what one of the Creative Commons summaries is to the full legalese. That seems like a good thing. Of course, it also seems like there was nothing stopping type foundries from doing this even without a table to put it into a font….

Ted Harrison, CEO of FontLab Ltd (purveyors of various font editing tools), has been promoting the idea of adding this table to OpenType fonts for several years now, and getting it into his company’s products, though it is not yet part of the OpenType spec proper, nor is it yet under formal consideration AFAIK. It is now supported in Fontographer 5.1, just released a couple of months ago, and about to be in FontLab Studio 5.1 (the free update for Lion compatibility, currently in very late beta testing).

Originally, Ted has an “Electronic EULA Abstract” (EEULAA), and then David Berlow from The Font Bureau had a vaguely similar “EPAR” proposal, and now the two have merged. What’s changed with EPAR compared to earlier versions of the EEULAA, is that it is no longer so focused on language-independent, machine-readable bits. Now it is more short text blurbs on different subjects. This is at once less awesomely useful, but much more practical/achievable, IMO.

Ted wants to get font management vendors like us to expose this table’s metadata in their user interfaces. Of course, the ideal thing would be if OS vendors would do so as well. That seems to me to be likely dependent on actually getting it into the OpenType spec, as a start. TBD how that will go.

ATypI audience

ATypI audience

Font Editors

I was surprised at how many different new and upcoming font editing programs were showcased at the conference. Font editors are useful not only to people who want to make new fonts, but folks who want to modify existing fonts (where that is permitted by the license terms), or just to crack open fonts to see how they are made or traipse through the font data.

By way of background, today most commercial font design and production is done using FontLab Studio, and most type conferences have many workshops and the like featuring FontLab. For more casual users Fontographer (also owned by FontLab Ltd) is also popular, as well as FontLab’s “lite” version, TypeTool. People who want a free or open source alternative have FontForge. For such a niche market, there is an embarrassment of riches in tools!

Designing with Spirals

Raph Levien from the Google Web Fonts team demonstrated and talked about his new web-based font editor, which had been called ‘Spiro” at one point (though he didn’t use that name in the presentation). It’s still very beta, not yet out there and usable. But it seems at least close now, which is cool as I remember first hearing about it some seven years ago now! This is Raph’s “20% project” at Google.

The big feature is using Euler (Cornu) spirals instead of cubic bezier curves as the basic graphics primitive. This not only allows for, but actually pretty well guarantees smooth curves! This is great for all sorts of things that are easy to mess up in existing font editors, such as the transition of a straight line to a curve, which is hard to get the right kind of “gradual onset” for, with cubic beziers. Another advantage of spirals is that they don’t get distortions in MM interpolation like we can easily get in cubic beziers (unless one designs them carefully with some irritating limitations).

It won’t change the formats of curves as stored in end user font files (and that’s okay, it doesn’t need to), but I’m a big supporter of using these as a better graphics primitive for type design tools.

Raph is already supporting multiple master (MM) like technology in Spiro, which again is just crazy useful as a font development tool, even though multiple master fonts are pretty much a defunct technology as far as being an end user font format.

Raph intends to do lots to support collaborative type design workflows. He didn’t go into a lot of details on this subject, but envisions multiple users being able to work on the same font at the same time. Presumably the file is stored in the cloud like Google Docs.

A few other key things about the tool. It:

  • is integrated with Google Web Font directory, can open fonts from there directly.
  • is programmed using Google Web Toolkit (written in Java, compiles to JavaScript)
  • has great performance, even with huge Asian fonts. Competitive with native apps running on a desktop OS.

Parametrized Type Design

Frank Blokland

Frank has complex thoughts about type design, both outlines and spacing. For letter shapes he distinguishes between aspects that can be expressed as abstract parameters (potentially allowing for things like designing a serif once and applying it across a typeface), and a few things that are done at the level of the individual letter.

Frank also showed an approach to expressing the horizontal proportions of a typeface, and applying that to automatically spacing the typeface based on the internal proportions of the letters.

Some of Frank’s ideas are being brought to life in a type design tool! It is to be part of the existing DTL FontMaster suite of tools, which is developed by URW++ and mostly used by the folks at Dutch Type Library, but also made available to all who want to license it (though the pricing keeps it out of the hands of all but very serious users).

RoboFont: the UFO Font Editor

Frederik Berlaen

RoboFont allows direct editing of fonts/glyphs stored in the UFO format (Unified Font Object). For those who don’t know it, UFO is a public spec for font editing files. It actually stores individual glyphs as separate files in a directory structure, which has some potential advantages (for example, in collaborative font editing workflows). Because the format is open and public, it is popular among the very sharp folks I think of as “font hackers”—and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I think we’ll see more use of UFO not only among modular tools but also as a general font interchange format.

RoboFont does not try to be a swiss army knife like FontLab Studio. It does not do manual hinting or auto-kerning. It does not provide knowledge about glyph names. It integrates with MetricsMachine for kerning. But it is very modular and very easy to snap additional functionality into it, which might be provided free or for more $$, either by Frederik or by third parties. Even just in the couple of weeks since the conference several small modules have come available, and it is impressive how easily they are added to an existing setup, it’s as easy as installing apps on an iPhone!

Like “Glyphs” below, RoboFont seems about satisfying the needs of its creator and like-minded folks. It isn’t trying to be all things to all people. Whether it meets any individual’s needs will depend on whether they think like the person who invented it.


Georg Seifert

Georg Seifert shows his Glyphs font editing application

Georg Seifert shows his Glyphs font editing application

Glyphs seemed to me to be very much a tool intended to satisfy its creator according to his strong vision of what it ought to do and not do, which may or may not have everything other people want. There are some very sophisticated tools for guides and measurements. One notable feature was the eradication of the dividing line between preview strings and glyph editing; you can edit outlines in place while seeing those outlines as part of an entire string of glyphs. Very cool.


In my next post I’ll discuss some other talks, including several relating to the theme of the conference on specialized letters in the Latin alphabet, which is shared by western European languages such as English and Icelandic. For example, the German eszett is a lowercase double-s ligature—why does it need a capital form?

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