The State of OpenType Variable Fonts vs. Advanced Typography Feature Fragmentation

 

Typo Labs 2018 had some interesting updates on OpenType Variable Fonts (OTVF), where they are now and roadmap directions to the future. The most interesting presentation by far was Jason Pamental’s Variable Fonts and the Future of Typography. One benefit of using variable fonts in our era of multiple digital devices is that maximum readability for any given content can be optimized across devices with optical sizing which doesn’t sound very sexy but pays big dividends.

Apple leverages this with the variable font capability in their San Francisco system font. It’s the thing that makes Dynamic Type dynamic and has existed on macOS since the QuickDraw GX era, Apple’s TrueType GX fonts provided the technology base for OTVF. Pamental stresses that there are many more important benefits to variable fonts than just optical sizing and the future of digital typography needs to incorporate them. I strongly agree with Pamental’s view but I also see problems.

The initial focus for OpenType variable fonts has been CSS web development and optical sizing support is in already in Safari and Chrome with Firefox and Edge joining any day. You can see and play with variable font examples on Axis-Praxis (ignore Arphic’s hideous  AR UDJingXiHei font, it’s some Chinese designer’s idea of a Japanese font). So far, so good.

We Have Been Here Before
The real problem is going to be the same problem we had before with OpenType: advanced typography feature fragmentation. I interviewed one of the top Japanese font engineers back in late 2003, Tomihisa Uchida of Iwata Corporation and he explained the problem. At that time Adobe was pushing the Japan market away from the expensive Japanese Postscript printer font model to the dynamic font download model of OpenType Japanese fonts with PDF and InDesign J. What Uchida san said in 2003 is still true today:

I work with newspaper fonts and layout. Newspaper font designs are different because the text is always vertical. Fonts need good layout to look their best.(Japanese) OpenType has fractions, third-width and quarter width glyphs, but most applications are not OpenType-feature aware so it’s a real waste. The result is pretty ugly.

Right now, the only OpenType (Japanese) layout engine out there is InDesign (J)…(this) means you have to use InDesign to access OpenType advanced typography…no matter what kind of fancy fonts you have, they look bad with poor typography.

Advanced Typography Feature Fragmentation in Action
You can see and test this problem for yourself on macOS with the recently revived egword Universal 2 Japanese word processor app and Pages. Hiragino Japanese OpenType fonts bundled with macOS are chockfull of advanced typography features (both AAT and OpenType tables) mentioned by Uchida san and much more: glyph variations, vertical substitutions, extended character sets, etc. The full set is listed in the crusty old macOS Fonts >Typography palette.

Hiragino font options
Hiragino advanced font features are found in the Typography palette but they don’t work across apps or platforms, some options are just plain broken

Hiragino has many advanced typography features but they don’t work across apps or platforms. Some listed features such as glyph variants are completely broken. Pages accepts some of the Hiragino advanced features but does not offer vertical text layout, a basic Japanese typography requirement because the Pages team only implements the lowest common denominator typography features that work across WebKit, macOS and iOS.

egword Universal 2 has excellent Japanese vertical and horizontal text layout but ignores Typography palette advanced fonts options in favor of its own app palette which only offers a sub-set of Hiragino font features.

The only place to use the whole Hiragino feature shebang is a trip to InDesign Creative Suite J. What’s the matter with you, don’t you have one?

Variable Fonts and What’s Missing
Where do OpenType Variable Fonts fit in this scenario? What and how are features offered and how does an app present them to the poor user who might want to use them?

The answer is something I have been trying to write about from my very first blog post and revisited last week. 3 years in I think I finally understand it: it’s the QuickDraw GX vision thing. It is not the API or any of the GX technology that westerners got hung up on and missed the big picture. I wrote:

QuickDraw GX, the vision part not the API, was the only major text layout architecture in a major OS I know of that treated all typography from anywhere as one single thing available to all applications. The Steve Jobsian ‘it just works’ for the entire world’s advanced typography.

Apple Advanced Typography Odyssey Chart

The critical difference was the GX vision of the world’s advanced typography and layout as one unified common fundamental thing that just works and is available everywhere seamlessly across the OS and all apps. All this advanced typography stuff doesn’t work unless it is one unified thing. Apple is the only company in the world that owns both the software and hardware across personal computer and mobile platforms so it comes down to 2 points.

One: If Apple can’t come up with an advanced typography vision again, OpenType Variable Fonts will suffer the same advanced typography feature fragmentation fate that OpenType advanced typography has suffered from all along: it will live in the Adobe app ghetto which is fine for the designers who live and work there, but it never leaves that world. It will be ignored by most of the developer community because they can’t figure it out on their own when different advanced typography features are fragmented and scattered across OS platforms and frameworks (UIKit, AppKit, Core Text, WebKit). And when app developers ignore it font developers are much less inclined to support OTVF, especially Japanese and Chinese font developers who have exponentially larger development costs than Roman based font developers.

When that happens typography remains stuck at the lowest common denominator feature set but users will never know the difference, or have the opportunity to find out. The end result is that after all this time, 22 years later and counting, fancy fonts still look bad with the poor typography we end up getting. That’s sad.

Two: Only Apple can give us world savvy advanced typography and layout as a one thing OS vision model for the rest of us. That might be too much to ask for in this era where open web standards dictate what kinds of, ahem, western centric advanced typography we get, but if Apple can’t do it, nobody can.

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