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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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That’s one word for it. Changing a brand that people have lived with so long. You can’t please everyone.  You hope to get 2 out of 3.

It’s so easy to overlook that the group most invested in the current brand are those in your own backyard. Employees will prove the most skeptical, which is a good benchmark for “does this pass the sniff test?” After all, if your brand messengers can’t get on board, then you’re not accomplishing much, are you?

Skepticism is natural since we’ve all lived with this current brand for so long. It’s like an old friend (or at least your favorite, albeit ripped to shreds, T-shirt) Familiarity breeds comfort. ‘New’ does not.

My thinking was that the best way to get people on board was to bring them along for the ride. In my previous post I talked about the research process and how involved our employees and partners were at the early stages. Since not everyone was involved in each phase, I started there.

Keeping in mind that those who ‘know’ a brand don’t necessarily understand consciously all the ways in which it touches them, we wanted to weave that in as well: What is a brand? Why does it matter? Research results? How does this alter how we talk about ourselves? What visual directives come out of this?

I modified this presentation so you could get the gist of where I was going.

Aside: You can see that I used Prezi as the medium- it is an awesome tool for presenters who are global thinkers (as opposed to linear). Complex concepts are rarely linear in nature. That’s what makes Prezi so spectacular for communicating (it is also so visually engaging that you can lull your audience into a trance, which can come in handy). If you haven’t used it, you should definitely check them out:

I presented the research information first. Some weeks later we then did a recap of this and presented the visual elements that key off of it.  The visuals were in a state of ‘partial’ completion, but enough to give a real taste.  For fun, at that time we passed out a backpack to everyone with the new logo and made some fresh, new-branded desktop art available for people to use on their internal machines. While not ready for prime time, it was just a simple way for the team here to test-drive the new brand. You know, try it on for size.

Following the ‘reveal’, I received a little bit of feedback immediately following. It was all positive, but vague. Then people here started living with it and talking about it and about a week or 2 later, I started to receive regular comments from people about how it made them feel, how others responded to it, etc.

Not that this is the definitive word. It’s a small thing. But my point remains the same: you have to win over the neighbors before you can run for Town Mayor (ok, admittedly, that metaphor is weak, but I think you get the point.)

Is everyone elated? Surely not. But at least we were able to bring them along for the ride so they could see the method behind the madness. At least then, like it or not, they know why we chose the path we did.

So far so good. But next up is our most critical audience yet: YOU.

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In the last installment I talked about how you know it’s time for a brand refresh.

So by now you know we decided to go for it. For me, there were 2 driving reasons to tackle a brand refresh now:

1- Evolution: This company is vastly different than it was 10 years ago. We are not 17 years old; we are 17 years strong (yes I’m a marketer, that’s how we talk…). We are ever-evolving and our brand should reflect the caliber of technologies we are building today.

2- The Human Element: There are truly wonderful aspects of our company that are not readily visible externally. This group is so customer-focused that we will obsess over a single frustrating customer experience. But, unless you have had direct interaction with our sales or support teams, you would not know the depth of our commitment to making users happy. Yet this is one of the core brand qualities that keeps people coming back.

“The friendly skies” of United

Getting Started: the Brand Audit

Oy. Like your  first step into the cold pool, getting started is the hardest part.

We started with a brand audit to tell us who we are. (OK, yes, we are Extensis. I got that part. But who are we from the outside-in?) Too many companies try to build their brand on top of who they WISH they were. Consider: any healthcare company—or US-based airline—that you can think of and you’ll see what I mean.

Ever hear the expression “you can’t fight genetics”?  Well, perhaps that also applies to branding.  You just have to be who you really are and focus on showcasing that, otherwise there is a high probability of looking like a phony.

“Love to fly?” Really? Because the rest of us hate it!

Yes, lost luggage IS special.

What (and who) we asked

First we had to get some probing questions answered:

  • Do we deliver what we promise?
  • What is our greatest opportunity?
  • Why do people choose to work for/work with us?
  • What have we never been good at?

Well, you get the idea. You simply can’t be afraid to get the answers you need to hear. It’s important stuff.

Yes, market research is invaluable. But at a certain point you hit serious diminishing returns (think: looking down the ramp of a ski jump.) There is a point at which you have enough evidence to move forward.  Tom Fishburne recently created a timely Brand Cartoon on this very topic.

In light of this, we chose to spend our time talking to our brand messengers: customers, employees, industry partners and sales partners.  We had a 3rd party team send out a survey to our employees and then conduct a series of in-depth interviews with customers and partners from across the globe (from customers like Publicis, to partners like Adobe and Microsoft). These guys know us, our product offering and how we fit into the bigger context of the industry. And, as we learned, they are happy to be brutally honest!

What We Learned

A few ‘pull quotes’ from the research:

  • “If they want something that’s solid and works they’re going to purchase our product.” (Employee)
  • “We really strive for quality: the fonts on WebINK are just one example.” (Employee)
  • “Solid products. Extensis really cares about the functionality.” (Sales partner)
  • “The most valuable piece is the internal talent.” (Industry partner)
  • “The best thing about the product is the depth of engineers that can work on the product.” (Customer)

Clearly, the employees here are the nerve center of this place.  But we have done a poor job of allowing this character to show through. For me, this was the biggest take-away: “They like us but they don’t really know us.”

We are not some monolith technology company that is slick but impersonal.  We engage our customers and value their opinions, we share that feedback across the organization, we act on it whenever possible, we work very hard to satisfy. We really do lose sleep over doing the right thing.  We really do groove-out on making customers’ jobs easier. In short: There is a face, a heart and person who cares behind every box. That’s exactly the Extensis we need people to see. OK. we can do that!

So it turns out those icy cold waters were rather refreshing, after all.

Visual Directives

Out of this mass of data we were able to distill some basic visual guidelines to pursue. We need to communicate we are a company that:

  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

So taking these and articulating them into a visual architecture is easy, right? (gulp)  This is where my ‘be brave’ advice comes in to play. And this is the point at which I’m preaching it to myself.

Next up:  The Visual Brand: It’s Decision Time

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Finally, 2012 is the year of CHANGE!

Of course, we know we are guilty of some of these (I’ll let you be the judge) so, we’ve decided that it’s time to embark on a makeover. Truth is, we’ve been working on the research piece of this in the background for a while. So why not learn from our trial and error? Swallowing our pride, we are going to share throughout the process to help those of you who may also be considering taking the plunge.

And now, a reality check.

A Pep Talk

There is never a good time for a brand refresh. It’s a universal truth you just have to suck up. Sorry.

For us, we are always on the cusp of some new product launch or initiative that will hamper the process. That’s how it works. I suppose if you don’t have competing priorities that complicate it, then you’re likely missing something.

But, don’t let timing deter you from the big decision. There are obvious and compelling catalysts for a company rebrand: acquisition, technology shift, etc. And then there are less obvious, organic catalysts. (See list above)

The bottom line is this: Companies Evolve. You find yourself introducing products or services in response to market opportunities and one day you wake up and realize that the overarching brand in your head is not the one the outside world is experiencing.  At least that’s our situation. Lets face it, if you are moving your business forward, you create the opportunity to ‘outgrow’ your current brand—and a refresh is in order.

What’s the desired outcome?

Smarty-pants marketers (and academics) will cite things like “increase shareholder value”, “capitalize on market trends”, “create buzz”, yada. I can’t subscribe to this. You increase shareholder value by fostering happy customers. If your effort doesn’t, in some direct way, touch your customers, then what value is it?

In my mind, brand is about connecting with your audience. It’s about how you, as an organization (of people), interact with the audience (people) and how they (people) feel about it. That’s it. Granted, there may be a hundred ways to impact this, but it really is that simple. And when you bring in new audiences, or narrow in on one market, you may need to noodle on how your company communicates.  If you keep it simple, probability of success skyrockets.

Why agencies LOVE brand redesigns and marketing teams LOATHE them:

As an agency, a rebrand is a huge challenge that gets the juices flowing (it is also a large task which is good for your bottom line). It is quite exciting. No matter how invested you are however, you are never going to forever ’live’ within the brand you help define.* It doesn’t work that way. Some may regret this disconnect, others may relish it.

This is why marketing teams hate rebrands (no, you are not alone). They are thrilling, in a ‘stick-your-neck-out-and-subject-yourself-to-endless-lashings’ sort of way.  Have a vision—on any given day you will need to defend your decisions. You have to commit (because you DO need to live within this brand). And above all, you have to be fiercely brave. Easy, right?

Well, I’ll let you know. We won’t be rolling out new materials for a while yet. They are coming soon, so until then, you can go through the process with us.

Next up: Why Extensis dove into the icy cold waters of a brand refresh

* If you do bring in a partner to assist in the process, choose wisely. Make sure they are as invested as is humanly possible. Fortunately, we’ve done just that. Shout-out to Blue Collar Agency and Owen Jones Partners.

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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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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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I was recently in St. Louis to present Server-based Font Management Best Practices to a great group of creative & IT folks, as well as visit some Extensis customers in the area. One day, I had a few extra minutes downtown and decided to drive around the iconic arch. Unfortunately, the parking situation is less than desirable (pay only), but in my quest to find a spot, I happened upon a massive trove of interesting street art just south of the arch. There’s a huge (looked to be many miles long) 15-20 foot tall wall that’s covered with graffiti just south of the Arch.

I tend to think that new creative ideas can come from practically anyplace, and it’s just a process of keeping your eyes open. Here are a few bits of typography and other creative content that I found during my few minutes perusing a short section of the wall. It sometimes kills me that some of the excellent creative work is so quickly painted over.

Here’s what the wall looks like, looking north. You can see the Arch in the background, behind all of the power lines.

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Check out this new app for the iPad called LetterMpress™. Basically, it’s an app where you can play with the traditional letterpress wood type, art cuts, and printing press techniques without getting your fingers covered in ink.

The virtual printing press in the app is based on a Vandercook SP-15, and comes with 13 vintage wood typefaces, dozens of art cuts, custom ink mixing, and a selection of paper stock. The developer apparently will add new typefaces and the like in future releases.

Check it out.

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You know when you see animals, sheep and faces in clouds? When Leslie McGuirk started seeing letter forms in rocks found along the beach, the concept for a new children’s book was formed. Ten years in the making, this cute book is perfect for your budding geologist/typographer/designer.

Take a look inside the book over at Amazon. [via Coolhunting]

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Every once in a while something comes along that’s just tailor made for our community. These bookcases are definitely one of those. With a handy cube design, you can spell out whatever you want, and still have a functional bookcase. From Italian designer Saporiti, these are gorgeous. Perhaps I’ll pull put on my wishlist for the office.

More information available from the Saporiti website. Production notes indicate they were supposed to be available last year, let’s hope that they’re released soon!

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