Japanese Text Layout for the Future* (hint: there isn’t one)

I finally had time to catch Adobe Nat McCully’s ATypl Tokyo 2019 presentation. He covers a topic I have covered many times before: the (sad) state of CJK typography. As Nat points out most software developers and system engineers talk about CJK support as typography without any idea of what it means. Throwing CJK glyphs on a screen is not typography, they are not the same thing at all.

The defining feature of CJK typography and layout in general and Japanese typography in particular is that space is an essential composition element equal with text and graphics, with fine space element control way beyond a baseline. Instead of thinking about how much space should be between text, flip it around and think about how much text should be between the space. Baseline font metrics will never deliver great CJK typography because there are too many limitations.

This is why InDesign J implements virtual body metrics based on Adobe proprietary table information for true high-end Japanese layout. There is no virtual body standard digital font metric standard so everybody implements the missing stuff on the fly and everybody does it different. Unfortunately the irony of it all is that Adobe played a huge role in how these limitations played out in the evolution of digital fonts, desktop publishing (DTP) and the situation we have today.

QuickDraw GX was the only time in computer history that fonts, layout engine and the basic OS came together to solve these limitations for all language systems and all language typography as equal from the bottom up. Parts of that effort survived, such as Apple’s SF variable system fonts based on the TrueType GX model, and the inclusion of the TrueType GX model as the base technology for OpenType Variable fonts.

Nice as this is, it’s only a tiny sliver of the GX vision pie. Many other baseline font metric and CJK typography limitations still exist. Outside of a handful of people like Nat at Adobe, and the Adobe CJK typography ghetto approach of keeping all the insanely great stuff corralled in the InDesign J text engine, little is being done to address them.

After 20 years of watching things slide sideways, I don’t see much hope for the future evolution of great CJK typography on digital devices. Most western software development people think that having CKJ glyphs on a screen is ‘good enough’ CJK typography, end of story.

Already I see the OpenType Variable Font effort devolving into a bauble for web developer geeks, always stuck in demo-hell, never going mainstream. It is the same story as the quality CJK typography on digital devices one. When the current Adobe CJK leaders like McCully and Ken Lunde, who passionately care about great CJK typography and devoted careers to fixing the problems, finally retire, I think it will be the end of an era. In many ways we are already there.

Ken Lunde posted a wonderful overview of his Adobe career, also his ATypl Tokyo 2019 presentation.