Apple’s Once and Future Japanese Variable System Font

2020 is the coming out party for Apple designed OpenType variable fonts, both the SF Pro system font and the all-new New York font shipping with iOS 14 and macOS 11. The Apple created variable font technology is not new of course. It has been around since the QuickDraw GX days along with the TrueType GX enhanced Skia font. It was due to be standard in MacOS Copland system fonts including Japanese. Then Steve Jobs returned to Apple and everything changed.

Yes, it has taken 25 years for an Apple created technology to make it into the basic system. It proves my long stated belief that technology doesn’t matter unless it is built into every nook and cranny of the OS foundation. The TrueType GX Skia variable font has been around all this time, but it only matters now because the SF Pro system font has gone variable.

Why is It Taking So Long?
iOS 14 and macOS 11 variable font basics are covered in an excellent WWDC20 video, ‘The Details of UI Typography’. It’s important to remember that while OpenType variable font technology is ‘world ready’, at this stage they only apply to Roman based font sets. It’s going to be a long time before we see a Japanese language system font in variable format.

There are many reasons. In the WWDC20 video Loïc Sander of the Apple design team drops a big hint when he explains that while digital technology (PostScript fonts) “gave us a lot more flexibility in handling text,” it also “made typography a bit more crude than it used to be.” The statement shows how clueless designers and engineers outside of Japan can be about Japanese fonts and typography.

While a ‘bit more crude’ might be true for Roman based fonts and text layout, PostScript fonts completely broke traditional Japanese font design and composition models. Everything was thrown out because Adobe made no accommodation outside of western typography needs when creating the PostScript font DTP foundation.

Japanese DTP forced users to adapt to technology rather than technology solving their production problems. I know this because everyday at work I had to deal with the endless problems and limitations of Japanese PostScript fonts that could only reside on the output device.

Another big problem was that Adobe relations with Japanese PostScript licensees in the 1990’s was not healthy. Adobe stuck with closed print device font licensing for far too long and discouraged independent font production wherever they could. Because of this situation, digital font progress in Japan was slow and very expensive.

Here are some challenges facing Japanese variable fonts.

Once Upon a Time
One basic flaw of OpenType font outline technology is that it’s extremely inefficient for kanji glyph production and storage. Every glyph has to be created and stored separately and doesn’t scale well. This is why OpenType CJK fonts on tiny devices like Apple Watch are a match made in hell. One solution to this problem is stroke fonts. Stroke fonts use a library of basic glyph parts to efficiently create complex glyphs.

Stroke fonts are a perfect fit for kanji font production and for small constrained devices like Apple Watch because reusable parts don’t take up precious resources. On the desktop, stroke fonts can do weight variations over the full range from Light through Ultra Bold without losing typographic details, all in a single 4 MB font while an equivalent OpenType variable font can weigh in around 18 MB.

The technology has been around for a long time and was supported up until macOS 9 but lost out when Apple quietly dropped the QuickDraw GX derived Open Font Scaler architecture in the migration from classic to macOS X.

While stroke fonts are not supported in the current Apple OS lineup, on the font tool side stroke font technology has appeared in software such as the classic MacOS Gaiji Master from FontWorks. The lead engineer of that effort is currently working independently on a similar gaiji glyph tool for Windows based on stroke font technology that is much more advanced than the old and long unavailable FontWorks software. I plan to cover developments in a future post.

The Japanese Font Production Challenge
iOS/macOS Japanese system fonts were not created by Apple, they are licensed Hiragino fonts from Screen Holdings (SH), originally created by independent font design studio Jiyukobo in the early 1990’s. There is much more work involved creating a Japanese font compared to Roman based languages. Hand drawn glyphs are created, scanned and cleaned up for digital production.

The Adobe Japan 1-7 glyph collection requires 23,060 glyphs for a single weight, multiply this work by the different weights for one family and you get an idea how massive the undertaking is. From Osamu Torinoumi, one of the key designers of the Apple licensed Hiragino font on its creation:

On average, one person would (hand) draw 12 or 13 glyphs a day, which is not much change of pace from the days of creating block type…the whole process, from start to finish, took three years.

One might think that a single CJK (Chinese-Japanese-Korean) font sharing a common design can streamline the process but this is a huge misconception. Each culture has centuries worth of different design aesthetics that good design must incorporate: what looks good to a Chinese designer and works well in a Chinese text design, looks terrible in Japanese context. I have yet to see a decent digital ‘kana’ design from a Chinese font designer. Osamu Torinoumi on the differences in creating the Simplified Chinese Hiragino Sans GB:

“We worked with the Adobe GB 1-4 character set (29,064 glyphs) at 2 weights. Basically we had to finish one weight in 6 months. One year for the entire project. At first we only thought we would be there as backup, but Screen kept passing us all the questions from Beijing. It turned out to be a lot more work than we anticipated.”

Jiyukobo sent all the original Hiragino design data to Hanyi Keyin through Screen and they adapted the designs for China. Torinoumi said that one of the major differences is that Chinese design demands that Gothic (sans serif) characters mimic handwritten style. This means the character should be slightly off center within the virtual body. “Even after the project was over I still didn’t understand the difference between Japan and Chinese “Kokoro” glyph which the Chinese designers insisted were different.”

The Variable font UI Challenge
Finally we get to a problem on the Apple OS platform side that has been around since the GX days: how to present advanced typography features in a useful and easy to understand system UI that works everywhere. What works on macOS obviously won’t work on iOS, but iPad OS will need some degree of advanced typography feature access. Sliders have their place but I agree with Adobe Type Senior Manager Dan Rhatigan who made a very good point in his TYPO Talk 2016 presentation: there has to be a better UI control concept out there.

fvar
Dear Apple, didn’t Adobe tell us not to use sliders?

This is because there are many more OpenType Japanese variable font features than just weights. There are gylph variations, vertical layout variations, horizontal and vertical compression for tatechuyoko instances. In macOS Catalina these are hidden away in the crusty old Font Pallet that is desperately in need of a major overhaul. Please tell me that macOS 11 fixes this or that Apple has a vision how to.

Oh where can my glyph variations be?

Japanese typography is unique in that it has preserved its own print ‘moji bunka’ cultural history and vision that China and Korea have largely abandoned in the face of western centric computer culture that all too often pretends to care about such things, which it does not. If it did we’d have vertical text in web browsers by now that actually works. I hope a rich text culture can be preserved and conveyed to future generations even in such small details as a well designed and executed Japanese variable font for computers and smart-devices.


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