It took 4 1/2 years for the world to really notice the Wright brothers had accomplished human flight.
What a group announced at ATypI on Wednesday, 14 September, 2016 was not just another technical session at a fringe-interest academic conference. The OpenType 1.8 specification with its inclusion of ‘variable fonts’ is a Big Deal. I can’t even comment about what it means for type designers—though the tools in the works like FontLab VI it sounds promising—but in design applications it will allow for tremendous variation in use, opening up loads of new opportunities to explore a given typeface and use it in new and interesting ways. On the flip side, I can’t even comprehend the complexity ahead in figuring out just how to price them.
But let me back up for a moment.
Put simply, the new specification enables the creation of a font that can contain all the variations of a typeface. Not just weights and variants, but a number of different axes defined in the standard, including width, weight, slant, optical size, and italic. And the specification is extensible, so it can allow for more in the future. One font, near infinite variations. And this came about through collaboration led by Adobe, Microsoft, Google and Apple, with contributions from a number of vendors, software companies and industry experts. I won’t delve too deeply into the nuts and bolts, but you can watch the announcement itself, read the OpenType specification, the group’s joint announcement on Medium, Tim Brown’s excellent writeup on the Typekit blog and the announcement from Google. Truly remarkable:
Collaboration from all the major parties in font creation, distribution and display on a new format that that opens up a new world of design possibilities
As Tim points out in his post, there is still a lot of work to do, but the level of collaboration and support should tell you that there are a lot of people committed to bringing this to fruition. But we need to revisit something I emphasized above, and view it through the lens of the web:
One font, near infinite variations
Back in 2009, Typekit and the web font services that quickly followed reinvented web design for me. After years of making pictures of text and suffering through millions of pages of Arial, we could finally bring our love of good type to the web. But that was not without cost, as each weight and variant was an additional download. Each additional font we included added to our vocabulary at the expense of the user experience. Over time fonts became more optimized, formats and compression improved—but simultaneously adoption of mobile devices brought to home just how much network speed and latency dictate how much we can expect a user to put up with before just leaving for speedier pastures. This meant being miserly about fonts, limiting our choices in typographic and design vocabulary, and how much we could tailor our typography based on screen size.
But what if we could include only a single font, and do infinitely more with it?
It would certainly be a bigger file than a single font as we know it today, but the calculus determining benefits versus limitations just might come down on the side of choice by a landslide (at least that’s what my optimistic self chooses to believe). There’s work to be done: the CSS spec is just been proposed, browser support has to be implemented, and a whole lot of optimization needs to be realized in the format itself.
What I keep coming back to though is the combination of flexibility of the font format combine with the ability to react to the user’s device capabilities
Better line lengths and increased readability with slightly condensed yet optically sized type on smaller screens, greater variety of weights and scale driving a richer design vocabulary. When combined with emerging CSS layout specifications like Grid, Regions, and Shapes I can finally see our way forward beyond our current responsive web design landscape of endless squishy boxes of sameness. (For loads of additional examples of type and layout, check out Jen Simmons’ Labs site)
This is the biggest advancement in design on the web since Responsive Design itself
Ethan Marcotte helped revolutionize design on the web when he pioneered the concept of Responsive Design, showing us how we can create a single design system that adapts to the capabilities of the device upon which its viewed. Mat Marquis helped us define a way to use images that can react as well, presenting different sizes and even different crops of images that will be more appropriate for varying screen sizes. And I wrote about typographic systems that react that way as well (as did many others more talented than I, but it’s my article, so I get to link to my own stuff every once in a while).
But we’ve never been able to have the type itself respond to those same capabilities. Performance considerations and technical limitations prevented us as designers from really bringing the power and vibrancy of a full family of fonts into our design vocabulary on the web. Nick Sherman wrote about the possibility almost two years ago on A List Apart, but to be honest I wasn’t sure it would come to fruition. I’m glad to be wrong!
Imagining a better type of web
Better line length and legibility on small screens by using a slightly condensed version with optical sizing. Super-heavy headings—or super thin—your choice. Want slightly more accentuated italics for pull quotes? Easy. This is a gateway for designers with longstanding knowledge of typography to jump in with both feet and jolt us out of our collective squishy-box stupor. We still have to iron out the technology: we really need better tools for setting type on the web, but that will come, and with that the door will open wider for more designers to let their type flag fly.
One font file to download—even a larger one than we’re currently seeing—will deliver significantly greater possibilities. Add one other standard web font if you want some additional contrast, but we’ll have a vastly greater land of possibility when thinking through our designs than ever before.
Not everyone is convinced, but Mr. Butterick’s insistance that performance isn’t an issue is blind to the emerging resistance to web fonts in the development community for just that reason. If you still need convincing, go read these posts by Robin Rendle and Roel Nieskens—two of the sharpest pencils in the box. I’ve purposely been waiting to read them until I finished this, just so I don’t just repeat everything they say ;)
Stand up and be counted
The initial draft of the specification has been submitted to the W3C, and lots of discussion has been centered on the TypeDrawers site. But we need more designers in the conversation. Browser vendors and software vendors cannot—and should not—be responsible for working out all the details. Without participation by many, and the vigorous discussion that will ensue, we will never get to the best possible implementation, on the web or off.
I know others are off at conferences talking about the possibilities and sharing the knowledge. I can’t wait to do the same, starting this weekend at NEDcamp, and next week in Toronto at Web Unleashed.
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Read more about my experiences in Warsaw at ATypI: