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The Font BoF at Libre Graphics Meeting 2018

(Call it What’s New in Open Fonts, № 003 if you must. At least this one didn’t take as long as the LibrePlanet one to get pushed out into the street.)

Libre Graphics Meeting (LGM) is the annual shindig for all FOSS creative-graphics-and-design projects and users. This year’s incarnation was held in Sevilla, Spain at the end of April. I barely got there in time, having been en route from Typo Labs in Berlin a week earlier.

I put a “typography BoF” onto the schedule, and a dozen-ish people turned up. BoFs vary wildly across instances; this one featured a lot of developers…

Help

…which is good. I got some feedback to a question I posed in my talk: where is the “right” place for a font package to integrate into a Linux/FOSS help system? I could see that working within an application (i.e., GIMP ingests any font-help files and makes them available via the GIMP help tool) or through the standard desktop “help.”

Currently, font packages don’t hook into the help system. At best, some file with information might get stuffed somewhere in /usr/share/doc/, but you’ll never get told about that. But they certainly could hook in properly, to provide quick info on the languages, styles, and features they support. Or, for newer formats like variable fonts or multi-layer color fonts, to provide info on the axes, layers, and color palettes. I doubt anyone could use Bungee without consulting its documentation first.

But a big question here (particularly for feature support) is what’s the distinction between this “help” documentation and the UI demo strings that Matthias is working on showing in the GTK+ font explorer (as discussed in the LibrePlanet post).

The short answer is that “demo strings” show you “what you will get” (and do so at a glance); help documentation tells you the “why this is implemented” … and, by extension, makes it possible to search for a use case. For example: SIL Awami implements a set of features that do Persian stylistic swashes etc.

You could show someone the affected character strings, but knowing the intent behind them is key, and that’s a help issue. E.g., you might open the help box and search for “Persian fonts” and you’d find the Awami help entry related to it. That same query wouldn’t work by just searching for the Arabic letters that happen to get the swash-variant treatment.

Anyway, GIMP already has hooks in place to register additions to its built-in help system; that’s how GIMP plug-ins get supported by the help framework. So, in theory, the same hooks could be used for a font package to let GIMP know that help docs are available. Inkscape doesn’t currently have this, but Tavmjong Bah noted that it wouldn’t be difficult to add. Scribus does not seem to have an entry point.

In any case, after just a couple of minutes it seemed clear that putting such help documentation into every application is the wrong approach (in addition to not currently being possible). It ought to be system wide. For desktop users, that likely means hooking into the GNOME or KDE help frameworks.

Styles and other human-centric metadata

The group (or is it birds?) also talked about font management. One of the goals of the “low hanging fruit” improvements to font packaging that I’ve been cheerleading for the past few months is that better package-level features will make it possible for *many* application types and/or utilities to query, explore, and help the user make font decisions. So you don’t get just the full-blown FontMatrix-style manager, but you might also get richer font exploration built into translation tools, and you might get a nice “help me find a replacement for the missing font in this document” extension for LibreOffice, etc. Maybe you could even get font identification.

Someone brought up the popular idea that users want to be able to search their font library via stylistic attributes. This is definitely true; the tricky part is that, historically, it’s proven to be virtually impossible to devise a stylistic-classification scheme that (a) works for more than just one narrow slice of the world’s typefaces and (b) works for more than just a small subset of users. PANOSE is one such system that hasn’t take the world over yet; another guy on Medium threw Machine Learning at the Google Fonts library and came up with his own classification set … although it’s not clear that he intends to make that data set accessible to anybody else.

And, even with a schema, you’d still have to go classify and tag all of the actual fonts. It’d be a lot of additional metadata to track; one person suggested that Fontbakery could include a check for it — someone else commented that you’d really want to track whether or not a human being had given those tags a QA/sanity check.

Next, you’d have to figure out where to store that stylistic metadata. Someone asked whether or not fontconfig ought to offer an interface to request fonts by style. Putting that a little more abstractly, let’s say that you have stylistic tags for all of your fonts (however those tags are generated); should they get stored in the font binary? In fonts.conf? Interestingly enough, a lot of old FontMatrix users still have their FontMatrix tags on their system, so they say, and supporting them is kind of a de-facto “tagging solution” for new development projects. Style tags (however they’re structured) are just a subset of user-defined tags anyway: people are certainly going to want to amend, adjust, overwrite, and edit tags until they’re useful at a personal level.

Of course, the question of where to store font metadata is a recurring issue. It’s also come up in Matthias Clasen’s work on implementing smart-font–feature previews for GTK+ and in the AppStream project <font>-object discussion. Storing everything in the binary is nice ‘n’ compact, but it means that info is only accessible where the binary is — not, for example, when you’re scrolling through a package manager trying to find a font you want to install. Storing everything in a sidecar file helps that problem, but it means you’ve got two files to lose instead of one. And, of course, we all die a little on the inside whenever we see “XML”.

Dave Crossland pointed out one really interesting tidbit here: the OpenType STAT table, which was ostensibly created in conjunction with the variable-fonts features, can be used in every single-master, non-variable font, too. There, it can store valuable metadata about where each individual font file sits on the standard axes of variation within a font family (like the weight, width, and optical size in relation to other font files). I wrote a brief article about STAT in 2016 for LWN if you want more detail. It would be a good thing to add to existing open fonts, certainly. Subsequently, Marc Foley at Google has started adding STAT tables to Google Fonts families; it started off as a manual process, but the hope is that getting the workflow worked out will lead to proper tooling down the line.

Last but not least, the Inkscape team indicated that they’re interested in expanding their font chooser with an above-the-family–level selector; something that lets the user narrow down the fonts to choose from in high-level categories like “text”, “handwriting”, “web”, and so on. That, too, requires tracking some stylistic information for each font.

The unanswered question remains whose job it should be to fix or extend this sort of metadata in existing open fonts? Particularly those that haven’t been updated in a while. Does this work rise to the level of taking over maintainership of the upstream source? That could be controversial, or at least complicated.

Specimens, collections, and more

We also revisited the question of specimen creation. We discussed several existing tools for creating specimens; when considering the problem of specimen creation for the larger libre font universe, however, the problem is more one of time x peoplepower. Some ideas were floated, including volunteer sprints, drives conducted in conjunction with Open Source Design, and design teachers encouraging/assigning/forcing(?)/cajoling students to work on specimens as a project. It would also certainly help matters to have several specimen templates of different varieties to help interested contributors get started.

Other topics included curated collections of open fonts. This is one way to get over the information-overload problem, and it has come up before; this time it was was Brendan Howell who broached the subject. Similar ideas do seem to work for Adobe Typekit. Curated collections could be done at the Open Font Library, but it would require reworking the site. That might be possible, but it’s a bit unclear at the moment how interested Fabricatorz (who maintains the site) would be in revisiting the project in such a disruptive way — much less devoting a big chunk of “company time” to it. More discussion needed.

I also raised the question of reverse-engineering the binary, proprietary VFB font-source format (from older versions of FontLab). Quite a few OFL-licensed fonts have source  available in VFB format only. Even if the design of the outlines is never touched again, this makes them hard to debug or rebuild. It’s worse for binary-only fonts, of course, but extending a VFB font is not particularly doable in free software.

The VFB format is deprecated, now replaced by VFC (which has not been widely adopted by OFL projects, so far). FontLab has released a freeware CLI utility that converts VFB smoothly to UFO, an open format. While VFB could perhaps be reverse-engineered by (say) the Document Liberation Project, that might be unnecessary work: batch converting all OFL-VFB fonts once and publishing the UFO source may suffice. It would be a static resource, but could be helpful to future contributors.

It probably goes without saying, but, just in case, the BoF attendees did find more than a few potential uses for shoehorning blockchain technology into fonts. Track versioning of font releases! Track the exact permission set of each font license sold! Solve all your problems! None of these may be practical, but don’t let that stand in the way of raking in heaps of VC money before the Bitcoin bubble crashes.

That about wraps it up. There is an Etherpad with notes from the session, but I’m not quite sure I’ve finished cleaning it up yet (for formatting and to reflect what was actually said versus what may have been added by later edits). I’ll append that once it’s done. For my part, I’m looking forward to GUADEC in a few weeks, where there will inevitably be even more excitement to report back on. Stay tuned.

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