The start point is the end point. The first time I saw Japanese stroke fonts in action, I had the same revelation Steve Jobs did when he visited Xerox PARC and was blinded seeing the first Graphical User Interface: this is the way it’s supposed to work. Stroke fonts are the way digital Kanji based CJK fonts are supposed to work. But they don’t work that way.
When one set of cultural priorities drive a technology standard, everybody else outside that culture is forced to adapt. This is the duality of technology and context at play. In one context a technology can be constructive and foster innovation, in another context the same technology can be stifling or even destructive. When DTP and PostScript fonts (the baseline font metrics layout model) were brought to Japan (the virtual body layout model) in the late 1980’s, it was both. It brought some innovation, but didn’t address important market needs because the technology was western centric and deemed ‘good enough’ for everywhere else.
Limitations of current outline font technology and the Japanese glyph set problem
When writing Hiragino Shock, it struck me how little things have changed, that 20 years later the most basic problems of digital Kanji fonts are still with us: a poor imitation of traditional virtual body layout using inadequate baseline font metrics, large files for each different weight of the same font family, confusing collections of different glyph sets. Regarding the last one I wrote:
For many developers (Adobe included), creating larger and larger fonts was not the best solution to handle the ever-evolving character standards. Adobe did go on to create more Japanese glyph collections but their ability to rally the industry around them diminished over time. Back in 2002 I thought that most Japanese fonts would probably stop at AJ 1-4, leaving Apple in the enviable position of giving users a industry standard super-font with every copy of Mac OS X…not a bad place to be. It’s pretty much how things panned out.
Former Apple MacOS text and layout architecture engineer Yasuo Kida echoed the same opinion and nailed it in the Hiragino Shock interview:
Another regret was that we should have created a solid subset (or subsets) of Apple Publishing Glyph Set / Adobe Japan 1-5. Applications that really need the whole set of APGS are books. Display typefaces obviously do not need the whole set, nor do magazines and so on. We were concerned that font developers might think it necessary, or be pressured from customers to develop whole AJ 1-5 or whatever whole set for every single font that they have when it is not really necessary.
To demonstrate this was not the case, we intentionally left some of our bundle fonts with a smaller subset. But it was not enough, it did not establish a solid character set category that everyone can follow. I should have worked with Adobe to develop a good standard subset based on X 0213 and give it a name. AJ 1-4 is not a good subset as it contains itaiji that many of applications do not need, and it does not contain important characters from JIS X 0213. AJ 1-4 is effectively used as a fallback subset right now.
The necessary glyph set depends on the job. Japanese book publishers need the Adobe Japan 1-5 glyph set, Japanese newspapers publishers need Adobe Japan 1-6 or 1-7, most magazines can make do with Adobe Japan 1-4 while most digital device display for apps only needs Adobe Japan 1-3. The situation is similar for all Kanji based CJK font collections in their respective markets and countries.
Font creation and end-user dilemmas
So what are customers supposed to do? Buy the most expensive font license subscriptions with the largest variety of glyph collections for each and every computer? Mix and match? And how much time and effort goes into managing all that when the production line or designer is juggling many different jobs that require many different fonts?
Going back to the original list of problems, let’s look at large glyph collections and large font file issues as one problem, and examine that problem on the font creation side and the font use side.
First of all you have to create all those Kanji glyphs. One of the glaring deficiencies of current outline technology is that every single Kanji must be traced and tweaked extensively. A ‘Standard’ Japanese font has 9,354 glyphs, the Adobe Japan 1-4 character set has 15,444 glyphs, Adobe Japan 1-5 has 20,317 glyphs.
Take that total and multiply by each weight (light, demi-bold, bold, etc.) that has to be designed and tweaked. It can and does take years to create a high quality Japanese font family, and so it goes. You have an idea of how much work goes into font-making and why Japanese fonts are so expensive. Last but not least the font files themselves are large—anywhere from 3 to 8 MB each—because the basic outline model is not efficient for complex shapes like Kanji.
Font file size is one of the problems that TrueType GX née OpenType Font Variation format (OFVF) is supposed to fix, but none of the major Japanese font vendors has released anything in OFVF. It’s a lot more work to do OFVF with Japanese fonts and the payback on all that extra work just isn’t there.
Put another way, if your business choice is using limited resources, do you use those limited resources: (1) to create new font designs that delight customers using the same production methods, or (2) to update and re-release old fonts in a slightly more convenient web font format? It’s a no-brainer that font development resources don’t go into OpenType Variable fonts.
The stroke font solution: taking outline fonts to the next level
Any solution has to be two fold: better tools to create large collections of Kanji based CJK fonts more efficiently and economically, and better ways to use them on devices that capture that same efficiency and economy. Stroke fonts address both of these problems.
Stroke fonts have been around for a long time in various forms. The beauty and eternal appeal of the technology is that it is very efficient at creating a large number of glyphs from a small reusable library of parts. This makes them perfect for small, power and memory contained devices, like Apple Watch. In 1995 Fontworks International was busy developing stroke based Japanese fonts of their library that used their built customer font scaler and OFA. What’s that? Let me back up and explain.
Anybody who has studied Chinese or Japanese knows that although each Kanji is unique, certain parts, i.e. strokes, occur again and again, recombining to create new characters. You can get a good feel for this by looking at Chinese or Japanese calligraphy. The brush is the most natural way to write Kanji, and with a little study, you quickly comprehend the order of strokes.
A group of researchers at Stanford in the late 70s~early 80s created prototype ‘Chinese vector fonts‘ based on the Metafont79 system that attempted to use Kanji stroke parts for computer display complex fonts in the extremely restricted memory and storage environments of early computer systems. Don Hosek started a project to refine and enhance those concepts based on Metafont84 before abandoning it for lack of financial support.
One of the real groundbreaking but unnoticed features of QuickDraw GX was Open Font Architecture, OFA for short. It was a simple but powerful concept: plug-in digital font scaler architecture that let font developers create new font technologies that ‘just worked’ by adding plug-in scalers: a plug-in scaler for PostScript, a plug-in scaler for TrueType, a plug-in scaler for stroke fonts and so on. Asian font developers such as Fontworks and DynaLab used OFA to create GX stroke based fonts.
In a similar way to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and vector font concepts, Fontworks International and DynaLab broke down their Kanji outline fonts into parts that loosely correspond to brush stokes. The crucial difference of these GX stroke fonts was that instead of earlier primitive ‘vector fonts’, they took outline font technology to the next level: smart outline stroke font technology for Kanji based fonts.
These smart outline stroke parts were kept in a library that the stroke-font scaler used to draw the character, resulting in a much smaller and more efficient font. At the time the Fontworks technical director, said that stroke technology “allows us to do weight variations over the full range from Light through Ultra Bold without losing typographic details all in a 4 MB font.” An equivalent OpenType Kanji font family can weigh in around 18 MB although a single OFVF file would likely reduce the size somewhat.
Stroke technology shines is character creation. Once a base library of stroke parts has been created, a designer can create high quality Kanji quickly and easily make adjustment and modifications. Fontworks then applied what they called ‘recipes’ to create different weights from the basic stroke part library. A key feature of the stroke font approach is that it preserves the stroke width as the part is scaled, which is impossible to do with regular outlines. This means efficient high quality blending is possible over the entire rage of font weights, difficult to with OpenType Kanji variable fonts.
Post GX stroke font development
Tomihisa Uchida was the lead font engineer for the Fontworks stroke font project that had two goals: QuickDraw GX stroke font versions of the Fontworks library to be bundled by Apple in Copland OS, a font productions tool suite called ‘2X2’ that used stroke technology for glyph creation and editing, but could export in multiple formats (Illustrator, etc.). After Apple hit the kill switch on Copland, Fontworks scrapped their GX stroke font project. The 2X2 production tool morphed into Gaiji Editor that shipped in 2000. Unfortunately Gaiji Master was killed in 2001 when Uchida san left Fontworks and joined Iwata KK to lead their font engineering team.
Since retiring from Iwata, Uchida san is working again on a stroke font based production tool. He showed it to me in 2019. The video I took shows some the features: the ability to switch between ‘full outline’ and ‘stroke outline’, intelligent point handles for efficient part editing and much more. Watching it in action is like seeing his entire Japanese font engineering career knowledge compressed into an application.
Stroke fonts saw quite a bit of action in Japan in the pre-iPhone handset era. The explosion of 3G Internet capable Symbian OS Japanese handsets with Docomo iMode and compatible services, leap frogging display sizes and specs demanded high quality scalable Japanese fonts that fit tiny storage and memory requirements. With their tiny overhead using a library of font parts to create a large variety of fonts, stroke fonts were the perfect solution. There were many handset stroke fonts: Morisawa had KeiType, Ascender Corp (later bought by Monotype) had Compact Asian font technology and Taiwan font developer DynaComware had DigiType.
Stroke fonts: a perfect match for smart devices
As far as I know, none of these are still used in the smartphone era. However the advantages of stroke font technology grow exponentially as device sizes shrink. Apple Watch, health trackers, AR glasses. Tiny compact high quality Kanji fonts with a wide variety of weights are essential. There are other non-Roman writing systems that could benefit as well. In 2016 industry sources said Apple was actively searching for “the best stroke font technology.” Maybe Apple plans to do something with it, maybe not.
The problem with OpenType fonts is not the technology, it’s simply that the current OpenType standard is a desktop era solutioin that has not evolved: it has not evolved to address the western cultural priorities that inform the standard, it has not evolved for the smart device era with storage and memory constraints. Let’s assume Apple is doing something with stroke fonts. They can fix a few problems:
- Stroke font scaler and format: a stroke based system font doesn’t have to fit within the restrictive OpenType format, but it can be developed in mind to be upwardly compatible, if and when OpenType evolves.
- Solving CJK glyph set confusion: because stroke fonts reuse the same basic library parts, supporting the largest CJK glyph sets is not a problem. It also makes CJK all-in-one fonts practical and also solves the problem with current CJK fonts: one design doesn’t fit every culture sensibility, what looks good to Chinese users does not to Japanese users and so on. Glyph variation ‘recipies’ for different cultural regions correctly display the versions that look best.
In addition to this there is one last problem not immediate to stroke fonts but related to vertical layout. As Adobe’s Nat McCully pointed out, ‘real’ vertical layout is impossible to do across apps and on the web with the current OpenType baseline model:
- No font metrics for virtual body/em-box glyph space placement: everything has to be accomplished with baseline metrics
- No reliable space control
- No reliable line breaks
Right now InDesign J is the only application that does real vertical layout because Adobe created proprietary Japanese font table metrics for virtual body layout. There needs to be open standard virtual body metrics included in font tables for robust real vertical layout that works across applications and on web pages because using CSS will never cut it. Along with the stroke fonts Apple could deploy new AAT tables incorporating virtual body metrics, again in mind to be upwardly compatible at a later time, just like TrueType GX variation font AAT was for OpenType variable fonts.
Not that any of this will happen, but I wanted to write about it one last time in the hope that by laying out the issues, the solutions can somehow live on. The end point is the start point.
Many thanks to Tomihisa Uchida and many other great folks from Fontworks, Iwata, Morisawa, Adobe and Apple who shared their time, thoughts and opinions over the years. It was a blast.