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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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