Photo by Hugues de Tournemire

One Year Later: Launching Prototypo

An Interview with Louis-Rémi Babé and Yannick Mathey of Prototypo

There’s been a lot of interest in parametric type design. What did Louis-Rémi and Yannick learn about how users are using Prototypo after its Kickstarter launch? TypeThursday sat down with them to learn more.


This TypeThursday Interview is brought to you thanks to our sponsor, Typofonderie.

TypeThursday: Guys, thank you so much for coming in for this conversation.

Louis-Rémi Babé : Thank you for interviewing us.

TJ: Yeah, totally. How did Prototypo get started?

L-RB: Yeah, so, Yannick is going to introduce the project because he was the one who had the idea originally.

The Origins of Prototypo

Yannick Mathey: At the beginning of Prototypo, I was beginning my last year of studies in Strasbourg, France. I had one year to make a project and type design and code was a big interest for me, but I didn’t know anything about it. So in one year, I decided to study the basics of type design and code and produce a prototype of the application. And make a video on Vimeo to let people know about the project.

L-RB: And Yannick presented the application on several occasions in France. He did different presentations and he got known in the type design scene. It was three years after he started the project, I discovered a video of the first version of the application that he developed alone. I was very impressed.

At the time, I was a web developer and I was looking for an interesting project with technical challenges to work on. So we soon realized that we were living in the same city. We met up in person. We decided that we wanted to spend some time on the project and work on it one evening a week first. When we realized that it was technically feasible to start it again using more web technologies and that we got along together quite well, we decided to spend more time and almost switched full-time working on the project.

We worked almost full-time for six months before doing the Kickstarter.

TT: That’s really interesting. How long did you do that once a week setup and then switch over to the full-time? Three years?

L-RB: No, it lasted, I think, one or two months.

YM: Maybe two months.

L-RB: Yeah, during the summer of 2013, I recall. And then we worked almost full-time for six months before doing the Kickstarter, the crowd funding.

TT: Oh, so you did a preliminary test, then you went right to building the prototype and going to Kickstarter for it? That was the timeline for it?

L-RB: Yes, yes.

TT: Louis, as the technical person on the technical side of it, what were the technical challenges in developing a Prototypo?

Technical Challenges in Making Prototypo

L-RB: So, I used to work on websites. Not web applications. I used to do mostly static websites with little user interaction. I had to learn how to structure a large code base to make the application reliable and fast enough. The second main challenge was to allow users to preview their typeface in real time. That was the big improvement in Prototypo, was that users could see a complete typeface being modified, being parametrized in real time in the browser. When the user was interacting with the interface, there is a constant flow of data going back and forth between the browser and the server and the interaction.

The big improvement in Prototypo, is that users could see a complete typeface being modified, being parametrized, in real time in the browser.

Metaflop was already a parametric font creation tool on the web, but every time you modified a parameter, you had to wait for that modification to be sent to the server, and for the complete font to come back to you. Which was a bit frustrating.

TT: It’s been a year since Prototypo has gone from a Kickstarter to being used by users. Is that correct?

L-RB: Yeah. In March — No, it ended in May 2014, so it’s more than a year now.

YM: No, it ended in June 2014. More than a year.

L-RB: At the beginning, we believed we could produce a commercial version in December, six months after the campaign. But, in fact, it was a little bit more complicated. We rebuilt the application Prototypo from scratch to produce a better one and improve the design of the typeface and of the user interface. So it took us around one year to produce a commercial version.

TT: How many people are signing up for the service? What insights or trends you would not expect initially are you observing from these users?

Who Is Using Prototypo

L-RB: So far, there are, I think, 5,000 people registered to use the application. During the Kickstarter campaign, we had 1,800 people registered. What we realized from the campaign was not all of them were graphic designers. We got people from different backgrounds; architects, artists and some hobbyists. We knew there were some hobbyists doing type design, but we were surprised at the number of people who were not graphic designers. There were approximately 70% designers and then 30% not in design.

What we realized from the campaign was not all of [the backers] were graphic designers.

TT: Sometimes it’s very surprising what people actually use type for and how they apply it. Did you see anything like that in the time it’s been in use?

L-RB: We were mainly expecting graphic designers and not type designers to use Prototypo. We were expecting type designers weren’t going to make much use of it. But we received feedback from type designers who told us that they were likely to use it to experiment with typefaces.

Issues with Parametric Type Design

TT: A lot of people have issues with parametric type design. They feel like this is going to remove type designers as a relevant force in making type. That’s really interesting to hear you say type designers are using it as a sketching tool. A starting point to think about it within the parameters of type design. That’s very fascinating.

Type designers already use some parametric applications like Superpolator to generate super families. It’s in the same way of thinking.

L-RB: Actually, type designers already use some parametric applications like using Superpolator with masters to generate super families. It’s in the same way of thinking. So, the way we want to make it work is that right now the parametric typefaces that we’re shaping with the application are drawn and built by Yannick with translating designs produced by Jean-Baptiste Levée of Production Type.

We are translating it into code. Every point in the vector shapes are translated to code: mathematic formulas which combine the parameters values of the sliders in the UI and some variables. We want to make it possible ultimately for type designers to create the typefaces. We want to make it easier than it is right now to create the parametric typefaces. So, we know that there is going to be a lot of work to make it work well and to make it seem more visual than what we have right now, which involves a lot of code.

Prototypo won’t be successful if we can’t get type designers to help us create parametric typefaces inside the application.

YM: That’s why it’s called Prototypo. We’ve seen a debate recently regarding parametric type design. Some type designers say that it might remove some space for type designers, for professional type designers. That’s not what we feel. We feel that we need type designers to create the parametric type faces inside those parametric type design tools. Prototypo won’t be successful if we can’t get type designers to help us create parametric type faces inside the application.

That’s the direction we want to take for the next development. We want to allow power users and type designers to create their own parametric type faces inside the application or in a different app to be used inside Prototypo.

TT: Well, I look forward to seeing this happen. I want to thank you guys for your time. I really appreciate it.


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