Open Source Font Software
An Interview with Open Source Advocate Eli Heuer
What does it look like when you mix mathematics, open-source programming and typography? We find out by speaking with Open Source advocate and Font Engineer, Eli Heuer.
Thomas Jockin: Eli, thanks for being here for TypeThursday. I noticed you recently gave a lecture of The History and Future of Free Software Font Editors at OSD-NYC. I’m looking forward to learning more about you and your interest in Libre fonts.
Eli Heuer: Hello, yes, OSD NYC is a great group, that talk was fun. It wasn’t easy to talk about this subject with Dave in the room, most of what I know I learned from his dissertation. So, I was nervous I would get some details wrong. I didn’t seriously get into libre type until 2012, and even then I had no idea what I was doing. I think I tried to release some fonts under a creative commons license before I knew about the OFL.
The OSD design talk before mine was amazing by the way. It was about this small publisher called Cita Press, they publish public domain works written by women from the 19th century, it’s a very inspiring project: http://citapress.org/
TJ: You’re referring to Dave Crossland of Google Fonts, correct?
EH: Yeah, I first meet him at Libre Graphics Meeting in Toronto in 2015. That whole conference was a life-changing experience for me. I had given up on the idea that I would ever be able to work as a professional designer that year and was working as a logistics manager at a CSA-like grocery delivery company. When I was trying to be a designer I was using a Mac, because tools like RoboFont and DrawBot only work on Macs, but I wanted to switch to GNU+Linux. I loved the idea of using simple software designed by a global community of DIY hackers. I also wanted to use repairable and upgradeable computers like ThinkPads. Macs are too expensive for me, I like to live a thrifty, low-cost lifestyle.
So going to this conference was my way of getting into this community, and I found the whole experience to be very interesting. I didn’t know groups like OSP existed, that you can have a serious design practice only using free software.
Mathematics, Programming and Type Design
TJ: That’s interesting you were ready to give up on design. You’re currently a studying mathematics at CUNY. Did your introduction of Libre Graphics and meeting Dave cause you to explore mathematics?
EH: Yes, Libre Graphics Meeting helped publish and distribute a book about graphic design and free software that was typeset in LaTeX(ConTeXt). I started getting interested in Donald Knuth and Metafont, typesetting math proofs and trying to read Knuth’s book The Art of Computer Programming.
Then during the 2016 US election I was working with Jacobin Magazine as a front-end web developer, all the backend developers used Haskell, so I started learning that in my free time, and that pushed me further in that direction.
I failed algebra in high school, so in a way studying at CUNY is just my way of learning all these things I was too restless to learn when I was younger.
TJ: Forgive me, but could you tell me what is Haskell? I know Metafont is a parametric font software.
EH: Haskell is a functional programing language. If you remember from math class when you would have composite functions, like GoF and FoG, a function that takes another function as input, it’s kind of like that.
Anyway, the Haskell community has lots of people who work in this interesting space between art and math, and I really enjoy that kind of thing.
TJ: I recall Jacobin Magazine is a socialist, anti-capitalist publication. Would it be fair to say your interest in libre fonts and open source font software is motivated by similar beliefs?
EH: In the past I have done lots of low-budget or free-for-friends design work. I was very frustrated with using proprietary fonts for things like that, and the options available at the time weren’t good for libre fonts. Most designers I knew would pass around a USB drive full of pirated fonts, but I felt bad using these. I felt like there needed to be better resources for DIY designers.
I don’t want to associate with any political group. I just think artificial scarcity is bad design. It’s easy to copy a digital font, that’s the grain of the medium. I want to work with the grain, not against it.
TJ: Well said. You shared before you have an interest in the intersection of type, math and open source. Where would you like to take your design practice?
Eli’s Next Projects
EH: I’m really struggling with my work right now so I’m not sure how long my career will last, haha. I had to switch back to using a Mac to do some font development work, and it has been a painful experience for me. I loved typesetting my math homework in GNU+Linux with LaTeX, It felt so fun and empowering!
My main goal right now is to help build a better cross-platform font editor so I can do more work live-streaming type design on Twitch. I was doing some of that kind of work this year and I made a custom-designed version of XMonad (a tiling window manager written in Haskell) just for this activity.
XMonad is a good example of why GNU+Linux is so amazing for graphic design work, you have full control over everything. I always feel happy and empowered when using free software, when something isn’t working the way I want it to I can always dig into the source code and make changes. I’m not always successful, but it is always a great learning experience.
I contribute to the free software font editor TruFont when I have time. I made the new shapes tool for example. If anyone wants to learn the technical side of font development for free, TruFont always needs more contributors. You don’t need to go into debt to learn this stuff, just join a free software community.
I made some recordings of my screen as I worked on the shapes tool for TruFont. I want to do more of this to help people get started with Python programming.
TJ: Now that’s exciting! Eli, where can people follow your work and developments down the road?
EH: I have a blog here: https://elih.blog/
I struggle to keep it updated, but I know many people feel that way about their websites. Next time I redo it I’m using HTML and CSS only. Currently it is built with a Python static site generator.
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