Complex Font Design
14 January 2010
Our digital world is undoubtably more complex than the one we had before, though this one is far tighter interconnected and it feels much, much smaller. By contrast, the rise of global monopolies have made some matters shockingly simple. There are for instance effectively only two companies that decide what font technology all type designers on the globe have to base their designs on. These two companies are Adobe and Microsoft.
Since its beginning, Apple has been, even more than the two other companies, on the forefront of developing advanced font technology - its CEO claims that his interest in design started with a calligraphy course - but its market share has always been too small to have a significant influence. So Adobe decides on the font technology for print and Microsoft on the font technology for office software and screen representation. Today, most people read text from a screen while using an internet browser. This screen can be either very large or very small. The system software of the computer connected to the screen is instrumental to the fonts that will appear on the screen. The dominating computer system software around the globe is still developed and sold by Microsoft for the time being.
A recent Adobe font release of a Japanese calligraphic font.Download Adobe font brochure
The font experts deciding on the global font technology are a handful of people working at Adobe or Microsoft in the US. They do not work in a particularly competitive working environment. Most of these experts spend their lives in their professional positions. Most of them are either computer engineers or linguists, visual design considerations, or even practical user considerations seem to be of a minor concern. The font world at this top level is rather academic: ivory towerish and directed by a few techno-pashas.The priority of technological and linguistic concerns are understandable, Microsoft and Adobe wanted to sell their products worldwide, so all major world scripts had to be incorporated with as little change to its existing technology, like the keyboard or the existing font technology, obviously based on original American industry standards for the Latin script. The result so far has been a uniting OpenType font format that allowed Microsoft to sell their office software in all major scripts and allowed Adobe to keep their original font format in which most of the Western high quality fonts were produced. OpenType allows for the production of extremely complex fonts files that are better considered as software applications. There is nothing 'open' in the OpenType format since everything font developers may fabricate will only show up when Adobe or Microsoft (or Apple) 'supports' these fabrications. And technology is rather short lived these days and the global masters directing these changes are only a few.
The IQ font production process The advent of the complex digital font format has resulted in interesting developments. For fonts produced in the Latin script we have gone recently through a period of a Golden Age in font design. There has never been so many high quality Latin fonts around as today mostly because font production in a digital environment required suddenly very little investment. This resulted in an explosion of font design here and there in a fast cascading level of quality. It sometimes looks as if the Latin font is a product that is at the end of its development. This could explain why technicians (and linguists) feel more challenged by developing calligraphic fonts than the more straightforward ones. Calligraphy has a practical undefinable array of small variations in individual character positioning and form variations of specific character combinations. That is in the nature of all handwritten text. With limitless patience and sufficient computing skills, an amazing amount of these variations can be put in OpenType font files. However, why do we want to make calligraphy with a keyboard? Isn't this nothing more than a rather expensive and eccentric hobby of techno pashas? Who really needs calligraphic fonts ? Moreover, calligraphic fonts need sophisticated publishing software to produce calligraphic text with them. This type of software offers a mind-boggling amount of typographic variations that may very well lead to producing horrible calligraphy (using the complex calligraphic fonts). These kinds of fonts make no sense at all as long as a skilled calligrapher is needed to use them sensibly.The abundance of high quality fonts in the Latin script is the exception. The situation for all the other scripts for which OpenType was effectively created is entirely different. The Golden Age in font design for these scripts is still in the distance. The text we daily read on our internet pages in the Latin script is shown in a very limited amount of font designs, but some of these fonts are excellent. For all other world scripts the situation is pretty painful to look at. The quality varies from bearable to horrendous. The reason for this is that type design is only widely practiced in the Western world, which is also blessed with one of the most simple and straightforward scripts. All other major scripts are (far) more complex and font development is mostly in the hands of technicians, often Western technicians related to the few software giants. Today, all of us can see most world scripts on our computer but the quality of these scripts need a serious (type) facelift.Two new font releases illustrate the current situation. Adobe has released a Japanese calligraphic font based on a sample from the 12th century. Belgian font designers got hot for a bizarrely complicated way to produce a display font for the Japanese Toyota company. Western type technicians and designers seem to be attracted above all by the technological exoticism.