OpenType Variable Fonts and the UI Challenge

The good old GX font OpenType variation font slider from Tom Rickner

Adobe Type Senior Manager Dan Rhatigan made a very good point in his TYPO Talk presentation: OpenType Variable Fonts (OTVF) need a UI that replaces the slider. The slider has been the default UI to show off variable font technology since the dawn of QuickDraw GX and Multiple Master fonts.

Sliders have their place but I agree with Dan: there has to be a better UI control concept out there. As he put it, with all that mathematics going on for developers to play with surely they can come up with an insanely great UI that puts all that typographic power and control in the hands of as many users as possible. And make it fun too.

We’ve been here before

This issue, how to make the complexity of advanced typography easy to understand and use for average users, is not new. It was hotly debated in the GX developer community of the mid 90’s because QuickDraw GX delivered many advanced typography features but no real Apple UI guideline to implement them.

I believe this UI issue is make or break for OpenType Variable Font reception in the market. Font wars aside, QuickDraw GX fonts and Multiple Master fonts failed because there was no compelling and consistent UI from operating system to apps that focused the technology to take users new places.

Just like Steve Jobs said back in 1997, it’s all about products that take users to fantastic new places they never imagined. It’s not about marketing cool technology. Start with the user experience and work backwards to the technology.

Hiragino Options Large

Buried and inconsistent features 

A quick user experience look of the advanced typography features in Hiragino Japanese fonts that Apple bundles in macOS Sierra illustrates the problem. Here is some simple vertical Japanese text in TextEdit, the only Apple app that supports CJK vertical layout.

Hiragino fonts have many advanced typography features that few users know or use because they are buried away in typography options accessed from the font selection palette. If you take the trouble of selecting it you can access the Hiragino Mincho Pro advanced typography options shown here:

Mincho Pro

The dog-eared and clipped off typography options clearly show the ‘buried features’ problem: this UI limits access to users who already know what font options are available, where to find them, and how to use them. But what is the experience for the average user and where does the UI and technology take them? Nowhere.

There is also the problem of inconsistent options. In previous OS X versions kanji glyph variants were accessed in typography options but now this important feature is buried away in the keyboard character palette. Most people know it as the place for finding emoji.

Watanabe gylph selection then
Watanabe glyph
Watanabe glyph selection now

Different kanji fonts also have very different typography options but the current UI doesn’t give user the user advance information or anticipate selection results. All the user can do is hunt, pick, look at the result and try again until they find what they want.

A new approach
How does anyone go about adding variation font options to this mess? To paraphrase Steve Jobs again: Oh, a slider, we’ll use a slider……..


Sliders are an early 1990’s desktop era UI idea that won’t serve us in the mobile age. It won’t work across macOS and iOS. It’s simple as that.

This is a special problem that demands a whole new approach from all sides: OS engineering, UI design, and developers building on top of those high level foundations. And the new approaches have to work across desktop and mobile platforms as well.

OpenType Variable Fonts are a collaboration between Adobe, Microsoft, Google and Apple, but Apple has a very unique position. OTVF is based on Apple’s TrueType GX technology that is already being used in the San Fransisco font deployed on macOS, iOS and Watch OS.

If anyone is in the position of facing the variable font UI challenge across desktop and mobile, it is Apple. I hope they realize the importance of this. The success of OpenType Variable Fonts depends on it.