Thoughts on an improved OpenType UI, from a UI designer and user of fonts.

Zara Vasquez-Evens
Nov 4, 2014 · 6 min read

Naturally, when Yves Peters stood up at ATypI Barcelona and started a revolution for a better user interface in our typesetting software, I was on board. Ultimately, this is an issue that affects me and my design team directly. It affects our workflow and our ability to utilize typefaces to their full potential, while improving the quality of our own work.

If you are new to this topic, I urge you to go back and read the argument for Why A Better OpenType User Interface Matters.

— Yves Peters

I am a user interface designer, with an educational background in traditional graphic design. I create visual languages. As a designer, I am also a buyer and user of fonts for both creative and practical applications. I rely on and use the software that fonts are made accessible in, such as Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator, of which this initiative is currently being targeted. Some readers may even think I am naïve. My primary perspective is both from the fields of user experience as well as graphic design; two areas from which there hasn’t yet been much representation in this growing effort towards a better interface for OpenType fonts. I feel inspired and obligated to join the conversation because it appears to be dominated by the voices of experts in the type industry, not so much the end-users of fonts.

Fundamentally, the problem is bigger than simply re-designing the UI. Of course, there is absolutely no doubt that improvements can and should be made to the basic framework of Adobe’s product interfaces. More exposure and easier access to features and functionality is a given. It is equally the hardest part (running the proposal up the chain of command in a massive company) and the easiest part. However, there are many additional components to consider before we start mocking up new menu structures so that clicking on/off toggles for Discretionary Ligatures is more prominently displayed.

Wearing my UX hat, we must ask ourselves this question: Who is it that we consider to be the end-user of OpenType fonts? Is it the broader graphic design community? Typographers? This is an important question to answer, because ultimately these are the people who are affected by the proposed improvements, not necessarily the people who are proposing them. There must be data somewhere on who, primarily, is buying and using Adobe software to set type. It could be of value.

The solution needs to be designed for everyone, kind of. When I say everyone, I mean people who have never heard of OpenType and maybe don’t know the difference between a font and a typeface… yet. Perhaps the elite don’t want to consider these people their target demographic, but the reality is that they probably make up a significant segment. We must be all-inclusive. When moving through the process to a better UI, have consideration for designers across multiple disciplines and to non-designers who haven’t had the luxury of exposure to the typographic arts.

Much of the technical jargon that is used in type design does not translate to many professional graphic designers.

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The menu organization is only a small part of the problem. What do these labels mean to most users?

What the sh*t is a Stylistic Set? Most of the discussions and UI mock-ups floating around of proposed UI solutions that I have seen, seem to be created by type designers, for expert users, i.e., people who know a thing or two about font technology. While every idea is valuable, there is a fundamental UI component that seems to be overlooked and that is nomenclature. There are differences in the language that type designers speak and the language that the broader design community speaks. A good example of this is Stylistic Sets, as illustrated by Jonathan Hoefler in this article. Much of the technical jargon that is used in type design does not translate to many professional graphic designers, therefore I believe that half of the problem with accessing and using OpenType features in software is directly related to how they are labeled. Let us not forget that most OpenType verbiage is only understood by a small subset of the design community.

To paraphrase fellow designer André Mora, we can re-organize menus and provide easier access to discretionary ligatures all day long, in hopes of creating a simplified tool, but the word discretionary is hardly discreet. There is room for improvement in this regard. If we don’t address the need for a simplified languageterms that can be understood by everyone who uses fonts — we will likely fall short of a real solution.

On the other side of the coin is educating users. How are we planning to educate people on the complexities of font technologies and the features available to them? How can type designers and advocates for great typography better inform the general population on how to take advantage of a font’s potential? This currently happens to some extent, though mostly within a specific user base of folks who are already privy to the black magic of type. The air is ripe for knowledge as the typographic arts become a more prominent element in today’s designer toolkit. Identifying new methods of teaching them and talking about OpenType is perhaps the most complicated aspect to tackle.

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Over-simplified, perhaps, but provocative nonetheless. BTW, this typeface is Bouquet by Dzianis Serabrakou.

What the solution might be, I do not know. That is what this dialogue is for. In terms of simple improvements to the user interface, I am very keen on the notion of a purely visual and truly context-aware typesetting experience. Not unlike the writing environment here on Medium or other tools that focus on intuition and simplicity. I’m inspired by one of Kris Sowersby’s proposals in his recent article Towards An Ideal OpenType User Interface, where he illustrated what a dynamic OpenType panel might look like if it was only composed of visual choices, not unlike how many of us use the Glyph palette. It was framed as a radical solution, but sometimes the more radical path is the one that will make the most impact. Solving for the interface will require a certain level of risk-taking to begin to unveil the real potential behind the tools.

@lippincottbrand quoting someone else, Twitter

We need tools that are dynamic, context-sensitive, and smart. They should anticipate our desires and make recommendations (no, not Clippy). I’m probably going out on a limb, but imagine if Adobe applied their analytics technologies to consumer software and, specifically, to our typesetting tools. They already have this in place with highly evolved analytics and personalization/targeting technologies for enterprise. Not only could they collect a wealth of information about how designers work, they could ultimately predict and adapt to designers behaviors and workflows, needs, and even preferred price points (from font purchase history perhaps). Imagine if this was done dynamically and on-the-fly. Another area of opportunity for Adobe is their Digital Publishing Suite, where interactive content is king. It is a no-brainer that these types of features would be highly valuable to the company, their clients, and to end-users of the publishing platform.

The quest for a better OpenType interface will require a more holistic analysis of how we utilize fonts and how we talk about them, before the details of the UI are solved. Let us stop thinking about this exercise as simply an overhaul on menu organization and the accessibility of features. My hope is that Adobe will engage with people from all disciplines to learn about their needs and also work closely with the type community to forge a path towards educating users and simplifying the language used around OpenType. I also hope that type designers will try to better understand what the users of their fonts really need and how to improve upon teaching them about the power of OpenType.

Despite my criticism, I am a big supporter of the initiative and I look forward to progress and being an active participant in this dialogue.

Please sign the petition and join the conversation.

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