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How did you discover your passion for typography? I was a freshman at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)’s School of Printing Management and Sciences—now the College of Art and Design—when I attended the annual Frederic W. Goudy Award & Lecture. The recipient and lecturer that year was John Dreyfus, a typographical adviser to the Monotype Corporation. His talk on the survival of the Baskerville punches caused me to consider, for the first time in my life, that I was surrounded by letters that I read every day, and that these letters were created by someone. After that lecture, my interest in typographic things heightened, and I took more courses related to type—its history, layout and design, calligraphy, machine typesetting, letterpress and anything related to letterforms. During that time, I met fellow type enthusiast Steve Matteson, with whom I’ve worked with in five different businesses over the last third of a century. At RIT, I also met three of my design heroes, whom I would later get to work with: Kris Holmes and Chuck Bigelow of Bigelow & Holmes, and Matthew Carter of Carter & Cone.

What insights did you take away from working on the first TrueType fonts at Apple? It was certainly exciting to work on the TrueType team during the beginning of what was dubbed the “font wars.” There was a tremendous collaboration between Apple and Microsoft as they competed with Adobe to raise the bar for quality in outline fonts, with each of them attempting to make their format the primary standard across the computing and publishing industries. I was in the unique position of getting to work with font developers from type foundries around the world, including Bitstream, Compugraphic, the Font Bureau, Linotype and Monotype. What I learned is that people in the type business have respect and reverence for their collective histories, and they are passionate about pushing type and technology forward. I learned that almost anything can be improved, and that an ideal is something we may never reach, but with time and effort, we can get closer to it.

What are the unique opportunities and challenges of font engineering? No two operating systems—and rarely even two applications—interpret the OpenType font format in the same way. Cross-platform compatibility is a common requirement from our customers, and enabling that seems like a never-ending challenge. There is an intricate choreography between the font data; the application or browser; the operating system, the rasterizer, which turns outlines into pixels, and the line layout engine, which converts input strings of text into reordered and “shaped” glyph sequences.

What excites you about font engineering today? With the OpenType specification version 1.8, and with its steady adoption, variable fonts are now poised to become a reality, not just a dream. Variable font technology provides type designers with the ability to expand their palette of stylistic offerings within a typeface family without overtaxing resource constraints on the web, like file sizes, which adversely impact download speeds and page performance. At the same time, this provides graphic designers and user interface/user experience developers with greater flexibility and control over the typographic subtleties in their work. It’s rare that we make things easier for both the designers and the users at the same time, but this is one such case of that.

As we return to the days of optimizing type designs for different optical sizes, we will also be able to better serve the reader. We lost that capability—or, I should say we made a choice to discard that—when we made the switch from hot metal to photo and digital type. We made a conscious compromise to reduce typographic quality in exchange for reducing typographic complexity and data size when we realized that we could easily use a single master design scaled to any point size through a photographic negative or through a digital outline of the letters.

Find your own voice, and let’s make some type together!”

What is your favorite typeface that you’ve worked on? Goudy Forum Pro. Although it was released in 2009, the idea for the typeface started when I was digitizing it from work I had hand composed and letterpress printed with the original foundry type at RIT’s School of Printing. It lay dormant for quite some time, and through the encouragement and the counsel of Steve Matteson, I completed the extant design and expanded it to include small capitals, swashes, alternates, ligatures and a host of fun OpenType features. Forum was the perfect typeface to include a roman numeral feature, and I enjoyed working on the OpenType layout to support that. It was satisfying to return to an early work, polish it and take it to a place I couldn’t have back in the 1990s.

What’s one thing that people misunderstand about typeface design? The white space is equally as important, if not more so, than the black shapes. In that respect, it is like music. Anyone who’s ever listened to a beginner pianist pick out the notes in a melody will understand. You can get all the notes in the right order, but it is the controlled pacing, and the rests in-between, that gives the melody form and shape.

How has technology changed the way we design typefaces? The use of interpolation has had the biggest impact on how we design families of typefaces in the digital era. With Adobe’s introduction of Multiple Masters, followed by Apple’s response with TrueType GX and variations technology in the early 1990s, we used interpolation to produce intermediate styles between two or more static designs. Now that this technology is becoming part of the operating systems and applications, we can give the user control over aspects of a typeface at “run time,” rather than the type designer limiting those choices at “design time.” This tech also enables type to be animated as well as dynamic. I’m eager to see what creative uses are discovered or invented to take advantage of this capability.

What tools do you find indispensable for your work? My primary type design tool is Glyphs, which is designed and developed by type designers. Frankly, nothing else compares and no one provides better support. Georg Seifert and Rainer Erich Scheichelbauer have brought so much curiosity, inventiveness and fun into this business of designing and building type. The other “tool” is more of a skillset, and that is learning about scripting in the Python programming language. Every professional type design tool today supports Python to some degree, and it is powerful for the automation of previously mind-numbing tasks and the development of new functionality right in your tool of choice. There is a wealth of free courses and tutorials to learn Python.

What do you think typeface design will look like in the next ten years? I anticipate more designers designing with variable technology in mind from the outset, rather than considering the technology as a means to package and optimize families with large ranges in style variation. There is also still room for improvement in how the tools take advantage of variations technology. We’ve just skimmed the surface of what is possible within the OpenType specification version 1.8. I’m hoping that once we have proven a viable infrastructure and market for variable fonts, we can then start exploring the unplumbed depths of this technology.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to design her first typeface? Make friends with a type designer and then just start doing it. You’ll find that this relatively small field is filled with people who are passionate about sharing what they’ve learned with those who will listen. It is easier than ever to build fonts for the desktop and web, thanks to the influx of better tools in the last decade that are available to almost anyone. If type is the visual representation of voices, then we need more diversity and voices than ever before. Find your own voice, and let’s make some type together!

Tom Rickner is a creative type director at Monotype with a career in type that spans more than three decades. He has designed some of the first Multiple Master fonts for Adobe and TrueType GX Variations fonts for the Font Bureau and Apple. Although he is most well-known for his hinting of Matthew Carter’s Georgia, Verdana, Tahoma and Nina typefaces for Microsoft, Rickner’s expertise and passion are found at the intersection of design, tools and technology related to fonts, including variable font technology. He leads the team of award-winning type designers that make up the Monotype Studio, as well as the many custom fonts designed for corporations and brands around the globe. He is a graduate of the School of Printing Management and Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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