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What’s New in Open Fonts: № 001

Greetings, innocent reader!  I decided a few moons ago to see if would be valuable to periodically write up a “what’s new in open fonts” column, to cover small developments and/or incremental progress in the realm of open/libre typefaces and in free software for type design / typeography / text stuff.  When there are big stories, those tend to get covered, but in between those many of the smaller or less exotic improvements can get lots in the S/N of regular Internet Life.  I don’t know if it will prove valuable or not, but we can at least see.

In any case, as often happens, life gets in its own way, and here we are close to the end of 2014. That is a good time to look back, though, so that’s what I’ll do.  For the sake of space, however, we’ll break things up just a bit.

This first installment is going to cover news that happened in the time period between Libre Graphics Meeting (LGM) 2014 this past April and—roughly speaking—TypeCon 2014.  I already wrote up a rough report of recent developments immediately after LGM; it ran at the free-software news site LWN.net (where I work).  You can read it here: https://lwn.net/Articles/593614/ … and you can, in a sense, consider that “issue № 000.”

So with that bit o’ accounting out of the way, let’s begin.

Recent Releases

Five “big” open font releases have landed recently (at least five that I know of; if I’ve missed any, let me know). “Big” is, of course, a relative adjective; what’s listed below essentially accounts for fonts that garnered widespread attention because of where they come from or where they are used.

First is Fira, which was designed by Eric Spiekermann for the Firefox OS mobile operating system. Firefox OS, of course, comes from Mozilla, and is a free software platform where everything runs on HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript.  Fira saw a 3.1 release in May; since the early work in 2013 (when it was called “Feura” and consisted only of a sans) there has been a monospaced companion added to the family, plus expansion to considerably more weights (in upright and italics).  As of the 3.111 version, there are seventeen weights—though the heaviest (“Ultra”) and the lightest five (“Two”,”Four”,”Six”,”Eight”, and “Hair”) are designated as experimental.  Also noteworthy is that the build notes and a tech report are available to the public. Fira now seems to be developed by Carrois Type Design, although I haven’t found a source documenting what exactly the relationship or the plan for the future of the font family is.  If you know, do tell.

Source Serif, from Adobe, was also released in May. Source Serif is the latest edition to Adobe’s widely used “Source” family.  As you probably recall, Source Sans debuted in 2012, Source Code (a monospaced typeface) followed in 2013.  Source Serif was designed by Adobe’s Frank Grießhammer (who otherwise seems to be renowned for his overwhelming devotion to the Unicode box-drawing characters, which, in a sense, also makes him a ‘box-drawing character’ when you think about it); it is based on ideas from the work of Pierre Simon Fournier.  It is a transitional face, but despite having a distinct historical lineage from Source Sans and Source Code, the team has done a lot of work to harmonize the design within the larger family (or “superfamily” if you’re one of those weird taxonomist nerds).

In July, Google unveiled its collaboration with Adobe on Noto CJK, an addition to its Noto family that covers the full Chinese, Japanese, and Korean character sets.  If there’s any lingering doubt about the size of such typeface, Adobe’s blog post on the release points out that the OTF files contain 65,535 glyphs—which is the maximum possible in OpenType.  Whether that amounts to a major problem needing immediate attention in OpenType is a popular discussion point.  Nevertheless, Noto CJK (like Noto) is available under the Apache 2.0 license.  Noto is a derivative of the Droid font family (of which there are several) designed to cover as many of the world’s languages as it can; I have not been able to track down more precise info on the designers and developers working on it.  As is always the chorus in this little dog-n-pony show: if you know, please tell me….

Speaking of Droid, Google’s shiny new replacement for Droid (or the Lance Henriksen to its Ian Holm, if you will…) is Roboto, which also received a major update in July.  The update was again the work of Christian Robertson; the redesign was done in concert with the latest Android release.  Most of the changes, according to the announcement, are to rhythm and spacing, although there are a few distinct changes to common glyphs, such as the legs on R and K and changing the dots (on i and j, but also on punctuation) from rectangular to round.

Last but not certainly not least, GNU Unifont released its latest update, version 7.0.03, in July.  The update covers every printable code point in Unicode 7.0, Plane 0.  If that name doesn’t ring a bell, GNU Unifont is a fallback font; it is used (for example) to display the generic titlebar symbol for all glyphs in the FontForge UI.

Naturally, there have been plenty of open font releases other than these.  Google Fonts announces new releases on its Twitter feed; by my count there were seven: Khand, Rajdhani, Teko, Kalam, Karma, Hind, and El Mukta.  Open Font Library featured many more releases—too many, in fact, to list individually in any practical sense.  But you can watch the OFLB Twitter account as well, although the RSS feed is a better alternative for compatibility reasons.

Software Development:

But new font families were not the only releases of note.  One of the easy-to-overlook releases this year was that of Adobe’s Font Development Kit for OpenType (AFDKO), which saw its first Linux release in the spring.  AFDKO is a collection of utilities for building, testing, and QAing (it’s a word; trust me) OpenType fonts.  When this Linux release happened, users still had to agree to Adobe’s non-FOSS license agreement in order to use it, but it was a big step anyway.  For the first time, it became possible to use many of these tools on Linux, both for one’s own fonts as well as to build Adobe’s own open font releases. It’s not too useful to have an open source license on a font if you can’t actually build it, after all. We’ll see what else happened with AFDKO in the second installment of this 2014 recap….

A totally unrelated release that caught my attention during this timeframe (and should catch yours as well) was version 0.2 of Raphaël Bastide’s ofont.  Not to be confused with sfont, which is Daniele Capo’s library for doing weird tricks with UFO fonts in the DrRacket IDE. Ofont is a simple web framework for deploying a font web site. You can use it to publish your own open fonts in an easy-to-scan-and-sample manner, or to build a microfoundry site.  Most importantly, when Bastide says it’s simple, he means it: this is a configure-it-in-plain-text-and-you’re-basically-done system, not some heavyweight monstrosity like WordPress or MediaWiki.  The best example of it in action is Bastide’s own font site, usemodify.com.

Arguably the biggest software story in the open font space this year, however, is Metapolator. Metapolator is a parametric font-family design tool that builds on the underlying precepts of Donald Knuth’s METAFONT. The idea is that the type designer can manipulate the parameters that describe an entire font—stroke widths, slant, x-heights and cap heights, contrast, weight, and so on.  Starting with a single font, the designer can extend it into a consistent font family, rather than having to rebuild every family member from scratch.

It’s a powerful and appealing concept, but it is also one fraught with design challenges.  Whole-font parameters are not easily visualized like actual Bézier curves in a glyph are, and making them easy to work with is a pretty new idea.

To make sense of the problem space and work towards a useful-and-usable interface, the project has been collaborating with interaction designer/developer Peter Sikking of Man+Machine Works. Sikking is long-time member of the free-software graphics community, and is perhaps best known for his interaction architecture work with the Krita and GIMP teams.  Both of those projects have reaped huge benefits from their respective collaborations; Krita virtually reinvented itself as a first-class natural-media painting application, and GIMP has brought sense and flexibility to a number of its tools over the years with Sikking’s designs (he most recently previewed some work reinventing the text tool, which will be interesting to watch).  So the outlook for Metapolator evolving a good UI/UX for its unusual design task is good.

But the process is not a quick one.  I talked to Sikking about the Metapolator work via video chat at the end of the summer.  Metapolator developer Simon Egli was originally going to join us, but wasn’t able to make it.  At the time, Sikking had completed working out the product vision with the Metapolator team (i.e., refining the purpose and goals for the application) and had recently worked with a number of type designers to observe their existing workflow for the tasks Metapolator is intended to address, and to get feedback from them about Metapolator interface issues.  He was still in the process of sifting through the results of those conversations, after which he would get to work mapping out how the designers would want to use Metapolator and how that lines up with the development team’s viewpoint and the actual codebase.  The plan was to have the designer vision distilled out by September, then a plan for working it into the UI the following month.

The nice thing about my procrastination on this whole endeavor is that that time period has now passed, and you can take a look at the results.  There is a thorough write-up of one face-to-face meeting in late July, an exploration of possible concepts for how multiple parameters (≥ 2 in particular) between master fonts could be presented, and (perhaps more importantly) Sikking has written a design overview that documents the overall structure for how users (type designers, specifically) would interact with Metapolator.  If you read through it—which you should—what you’ll see is how the user’s process of working on a font family with Metapolator breaks up into separate stages of activity: exploring the parameters of interest (weight, slant, style, etc etc), actually editing a font that is “metapolated” between multiple original masters until it passes muster, turning the metapolated intermediate into an actual, real font instance, etc.

There is also a lot of detail in Sikking’s writing that relates to the specifics of the eventual UI: ensuring that tools, menus, and panels fit onto appropriately-sized screen dimensions and so on. That may be less interesting to the type designer than the how-to-use-the-application questions, but it’s certainly good to consider all of those practical questions from day 1, rather than letting them slide to day 0 (note: in this case, “day 0” means whenever the resulting application is launched. “Day 1” on the other hand, means the much earlier starting-point day for the whole process. It’s a mixed metaphor. Deal with it. Maybe some enterprising mathematician would like to explore mapping the production calendar into the reverse-unit-interval [1,0] to see how that affects software development; I don’t plan to tackle it).

What comes next is the implementation phase.  More on that later, perhaps, since much of the recent work on it took place after the arbitrary pre-TypeCon deadline for this write-up.  The best place to follow its progress is the Metapolator Google Plus page, where the team is posting frequent updates.

Other News:

Finally, there was one other significant development in the open font community between LGM and TypeCon, and one that is particularly not fun for those involved.  Designer extraordinaire Vernon Adams was in a serious road accident in late May.  You may know Vernon from the Oxygen font family that has been adopted as the UI font for the KDE desktop environment, or from any of his dozens of other open fonts (which you can read about at his site, newtypography.co.uk).  I first got to know him online, as he routinely was able to dig up scans of old ATF specimen books that bordered on being higher resolution than the real-world itself, which was enormously helpful.  A bit later, I spent a week cooped up in a weird Google office building with Vernon, Eben Sorkin, Jason Pagura, Ben Martin, and Molly Sharp, co-authoring the book Start Designing With FontForge—as part of Google’s GSoC Documentation Camp.  It was actually a one-week booksprint guided by FLOSSManuals’s Adam Hyde, and it was a great experience all around (even when the espresso machine was misbehaving).

In any case, to return to the story at hand, Vernon’s accident was, as alluded, a bad one, in which he was banged up quite a bit. In fact, he was in an induced coma for quite a while, since it evidently can be very touch-and-go (particularly in the early days) where head injuries are concerned.

The good news—and it doesn’t get much better—is that, after all of that time and torment, Vernon is on the mend. Out of comas and casts, and in recovery.  That means a lot of the physical-therapy stuff that it takes to recover from a serious injury, though, which isn’t fast.  But he’s also close by to where his family lives, for which everyone’s grateful as well.

I don’t feel like I ought to dwell too much on Vernon’s recovery process, since that should be his family’s purview.  So I’ll just say that it’s great to see that he’s making progress, and I’m looking forward to the next time our paths cross in person. And I’m already thinking up sarcastic comments to make for whenever that pathcrossing takes place (I suspect that Vernon will find all the public attention pretty embarrassing, so we’ll go from there…).

If you want to stay more on top of Vernon’s story, his wife Allison is blogging about it all at sansoxygen.com. Again, I’m taking a cue from the family that it’s alright to point to the site (since it’s public), but as always, this is kind of personal stuff, so I hope we’re not intruding too much on Vernon’s privacy by mentioning it.

The end (part 001)

That wraps up this edition.  As promised, I will be back to discuss TypeCon to the end of 2014 in a follow-up post. Seeing how long this one is, I hope to compress things a bit more for the next installment, but if I’ve left something out, please drop me a line. If there’s still an excess of information for volume 002, I’ll just try and use smaller words.

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