Embracing Variability: A Discussion with Thomas Phinney on Fonts

Erin Lynch


Let’s face it. Typography is tough. From its design to its construction to its application, type can be one of the most challenging aspects of the design field. When type is done right it can be a thing of beauty and inspiration. When it goes wrong, it’s oh so wrong. Type design and its use is an acquired skill — one born from experimentation, practice and experience.

The advent of web fonts added a new wrinkle to the typographic landscape. The ability to move beyond web safe type was what we were all clamoring for, but opening that door brought new responsibilities for both type designers and type practitioners. Web fonts ushered in type choice, issues surrounding resolution and mechanics as the gates were opened to type in the digital space.

Thomas Phinney has been navigating these volatile waters for most of his career. He has worked behind the scenes as a type designer, type advocate, and most recently as the president of FontLab. Thomas has his fingers on the pulse of the type profession and is an unbelievable source of knowledge. We got a few minutes with him to talk about font construction, web fonts, and the future of type.

Some sites load a split-second slower, but in exchange (for having web fonts) we get better and more varied designs, instead of cookie-cutter web sites that look surprisingly alike. ~Thomas Phinney

Typeface design seems to be a long and meticulous process. What does it take to design type well?

To design type well it takes patience (because yes, it is long and meticulous) and skill. Generally that skill is born of experience. A type designer can spend years and even decades refining their craft. There are tons of resources on type design, whether online or classroom-based. I have a whole web page devoted to these resources.

Web fonts are a critical part of the current web landscape. What are some considerations in preparing type for the digital space?

Well, all type is digital in form, it’s just a question of whether it is displayed in pixels or in some more fixed medium. The big questions these days that get to the type-on-screen question would be how small is it going to be displayed and on what resolution of device? When the number of pixels gets small and/or the visual size of the text display is small, the design may need to be adjusted to accommodate — or even the whole design made from the ground up to optimize for that size.

This is not, in general, all that different from the kinds of adjustments expert type designers have been making for decades or even centuries. When you look at how type designs have been optimized for very small sizes in print, mostly we find ourselves using some of the same things for text sizes on screen.

Of course, the new wrinkle is hinting, additional code that optimizes the rendering of letters when so many pixels are involved. That’s an entire additional art, and there are people who do nothing but this as a full-time job.

Creating glyphs in Fontlab.

It’s interesting that we don’t think much about the hurdles that type on the web once posed. What do you feel have been the biggest pros (and cons) of having a method of native and JavaScript-based application of type on the web?

Before we had native web fonts, web designers were dependent on fonts already present on the user’s device. As the range of devices grew, our ability to be very sure about what fonts a user has on their device was reduced.

Web fonts are a tool that allow you to not only avoid the problem that Android devices don’t have the same system fonts as Windows, but also have a choice of thousands of typefaces instead of a dozen “web-safe” fonts.

Additionally, web fonts allow for distinctive branding and design. They are, simply put, a good thing. The only downsides are around the extra bandwidth involved, but even that can be mitigated by improved browser behaviors.

To take that one step further, what do you think has been the effect of designers having access to so many typefaces in the digital space? Do you feel it’s been positive or negative?

Some sites load a split-second slower, but in exchange we get better and more varied designs, instead of cookie-cutter web sites that look surprisingly alike. It’s pretty much purely good.

OpenType allows designers more control in their font construction. Do you have any tips to take advantage of the power of OpenType?

For people using fonts, pay attention to (or research as needed) what OpenType features they have, and use them as appropriate. Go out of your way to pick fonts that have the features you need. If you need small caps in your design, choose a typeface that has real small caps built in.

What do you think are some of the biggest issues still facing type as we move further into the digital space?

Interface and skilled usage of variable fonts (announced today at ATypI in Warsaw) is the next big thing, I think.

During your career you’ve worked on several type design projects, including the creation of some Cyrillic faces. What are the complications and considerations of designing type for a foreign language system?

With your native writing system, if you’re a type designer, you have a fairly strong innate sense of what shapes are “normal” for a letter and which are not. But when doing type design for a writing system you don’t know so well, you lack this well-developed sensibility. So you have to figure it out by looking at a lot of typefaces, and preferably well made ones.

We’re all interested in knowing what this super secret announcement is from Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, and Google and how it pertains to the future of type. Can you give us any hints?

It was finally announced today! OpenType Font Variations, also called “variable fonts” are coming. I wrote briefly about it in an article entitled, Fontlab Opentype Variations, and on my own site in a post entitled, The Lesson of Color Fonts for Variable Fonts.

Basically, variable fonts allow “design axis” which users can use to select the exact style they want within a “design space.” Imagine for example you have a variable font version of Myriad. Instead of being limited to the specific styles created by Adobe, a user with a savvy app would be able to pick the exact weight and width they want, from anywhere within the weight range and width range that Myriad offers. Variable fonts can be built with any design axis the type designer can imagine.

Thomas Phinney is President of FontLab, the font software tools company. Previously he was product manager for fonts and global typography at Adobe, and then senior product manager for Extensis. In the 2000s he was instrumental in driving the adoption of OpenType, both within Adobe and in the marketplace.

This story was originally published on WebVisions blog. You can find the original article at: http://www.webvisionsevent.com/2016/09/embracing-variability-discussion-with-thomas-phinney-on-fonts/



Erin Lynch

Designer, writer, pixel articulator, educator, and neurodivergent human. Subscribe to my newsletter, Past Tense, at erinlynch.substack.com