What You Need to Know About Variable Fonts

Cities, Manholes and Typography

This is an Interview with Tim Brown and Bram Stein of Adobe Typekit with Ulrik Hogrebe. Ulrik designs stuff at frog design, CIID alumni and former CD for BBC News and The World Service. Also designs type, slowly. You can read the original interview here. (via our friends at at TypeThursday).

Ulrik: Hey Bram and Tim. Great to have you both in for this. I am thinking today is primarily a deep dive on variable fonts, and then we’ll see where things take us. Let’s start with an intro, Tim ?—?why don’t you start?

Tim: Sure thing, Ulrik. I’m a designer, writer, speaker, and toolmaker. My special interest is typography.

Ulrik: And Bram, we spoke in May about your project the Typography Inspector. What have you been up to since we spoke last time?

Bram: I’ve been working on a book called the Webfont Handbook, which came out earlier this month. It covers a lot of the things you need to know when using webfonts; licensing, hosting, text-rendering, subsetting, performance optimization, and of course, also variable fonts.

Ulrik: Maybe we start with just a basic definition of what variable fonts are? Tim?

Tim: A variable font is, as John Hudson put it, “a single font file that behaves like multiple fonts”. Imagine a type family as you’ve always known one to be?—?it has a Regular, an Italic, a Bold, maybe a Semibold. Many typefaces today have different widths?—?so, a Condensed, or an Extended, in different weights.

What variable fonts do is turn those many individual font styles into “design spaces”, which affords efficiency and flexibility. Any point or range in a variable font’s design space is accessible to designers. Need something more bold than Semibold, but not as bold as Bold? You can find it. Need something condensed but not as condensed as Condensed? You can find that too.

There’s a lot more to this, but I hope that gives you a general idea. Also, thanks so much for having me and Bram here. But there are lots of people besides us thinking about variable fonts, and experimenting. In fact, some of the folks behind these ideas have been writing and designing for this moment for decades. Adobe pioneered Multiple Master technology back in the ’90s. And folks like David Berlow and Erik van Blokland have been experimenting with digital type for years, pushing the boundaries and helping us all understand the potential of a variable space.

Ulrik: Right. Of course. It takes a village, right? So unpicking what you just said, there are a number of things at play. So you have the font itself?—?as in the lines and points of it. Then you have the file technology and then I guess you also have the means of controlling the font?—?which I am supposing is the CSS support or standards that need to be baked into “the web” to allow us to use these fonts in the first place. Is that accurate?

Tim: Right, there are many parts to this. There are the fonts themselves, which adhere to a specification (this is what the big announcement was last year?—?the new OpenType specification that included variable fonts). Then there are rendering engines that make the fonts visible, and browsers & design software that need to support those engines. And finally people need ways of designing with variable fonts, via instructions like CSS and software UI.

Ulrik: Got it. And can you tell me a bit about its origins? Or it’s purpose, really?

Tim: I think Bram can speak to the immediate advantages best, and in terms of the origins (in conceptual stuff decades ago, and in collaborative spec work more recently).

Bram: I love talking about this. I look at variable fonts from a completely different angle. Of course, I’m also very excited about the possibilities variable fonts open for design, but my primary focus has been the performance benefits.

Instead of serving a font family as separate font files (like Tim said earlier: regular, bold, etc.) you could serve a single file that contains the entire design space for only a slight increase in file size. This will have an enormous impact on performance; serving one file is going to be much faster.

I think what’s really interesting about variable fonts is that it has a little for everyone: type designers, developers, and designers. That’s probably also the reason why we’re seeing such fast adoption. Everyone is excited about it.

To read more about variable fonts; read the original article here. If you would like to meet London-based type geeks at TypeThursday events, click here. 

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