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Variable fonts are a hot topic. This new variety of fonts is being heralded by typophiles as virtually the second coming of movable type. Type mavens like Dan Rhatigan, senior manager of Adobe Type and member of the board of the Type Directors Club, Jason Pamental, author and web typography expert, and Tom Rickner, senior type designer at Monotype, have written articles, published blog posts and given presentations about variable fonts. (Thomas Phinney’s in-depth article in Communication Arts’ January/February 2017 issue does a great job of explaining how they work.) Although the experts also provide caveats regarding the future of these new fonts, enthusiasm—on the edge of ebullience—rules the day.

Variable fonts will be important and will change how some of us work, but they are far from the contributions of Johannes Gutenberg, Ottmar Mergenthaler, and even Morris Fuller Benton and his father, Linn Boyd Benton. The primary benefit of variable fonts is maximizing bandwidth and load time in websites. The idea behind a variable font is that a single file contains the basic font information, and the web browser or software generates permutations of the design; this means that a single variable font can substitute for a very large typeface family of many weights and proportions. Tests have shown that this results in significant savings in digital footprint. It’s why variable fonts are the result of collaboration between Adobe, Apple, Google and Microsoft, all companies that need speedy web load times to survive.

Savvy (and optimistic) type designers and typographic experts see even more opportunities in the technology behind variable fonts. In addition to making weights and proportions of typeface designs practically infinite, we’re being told that variable fonts can enable infinitely fine-tuned typography, optical sizing and even design changes, like creating both serif and sans serif glyphs from the same font data. All these benefits can also come in handy to support responsive design.

The idea behind a variable font is that a single file contains the basic font information, and the web browser or software generates permutations of the design.”

SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT?
For years, graphic and interactive designers have made it pretty clear that unless these functions are easy and intuitive to use, they don’t care about them. Three typographic technologies have preceded variable fonts: TrueType GX, Multiple Masters and OpenType. Each was developed to solve a big problem. GX fonts were developed to enable the setting of complex non-Latin scripts in Apple products. Multiple Masters grew out of interpolation technology that Adobe used to develop new typeface families. OpenType fonts primarily offer multiplatform support, large character sets and automatic glyph substitution for non-Latin scripts.

Type designers and aficionados also saw the potential for many other benefits from these earlier technologies, like the substitution of alternate glyphs, optical sizing, typeface design changes and typographic fine-tuning. Although each continues to do the job it was designed to do, none of them lived up to typographers’ dreams. GX fonts never found general acceptance, and Adobe dropped Multiple Masters, which did not become a commercial success,  after a couple of years.

“What about OpenType fonts?” you might ask. Sure, we all use OpenType fonts, and in addition to their basic benefits, we can get hundreds of alternate characters, fancy ligatures, swash characters, small caps and alternative figure designs by the score and more typographic features than you can shake a stick at. And that is the problem. There are a multitude of possibilities, but taking advantage of them is so complicated, inefficient and counterintuitive that their potential goes unrealized. If features are programmed into the fonts, we are happy to take advantage of them. If we have to discover the features or figure out how to use them, we generally don’t.

There are more than a few other issues to contend with—some the size of a Mack truck. Not only will type designers and font makers actually have to make variable fonts—including retrofitting designs like Avenir, Gotham and Proxima Nova—but also, developers will have to support variable fonts in their applications, and Cascading Style Sheets standards will have to be expanded to allow for these fonts’ capabilities in digital environments. Above all, if we want designers to capitalize on the benefits of this new technology, the user interface (UI) has to be intuitively simple and consistent.

But even with these supersized issues, variable font technology will succeed. The primary reason is the importance of web page load time. According to Pamental, “Several surveys have shown that nearly half of web users expect a site to load in two seconds or less, and they tend to abandon a site that’s not loaded within three seconds. About 80 percent of web shoppers who have trouble with website performance say they won’t return to the site to buy again.” The end result is that a lot of potential sales go unrealized because of an eye-blink difference in load time. The threshold for quick load times is about 150k of data. When you consider that a typical font takes up about 50k, it’s pretty simple math to figure out that more than a couple of fonts will put load times in dangerous territory. “Fewer fonts may mean faster load times,” says Pamental, “but they also dumb down the typographic voice and limit [its] vocal range.”

In one of his blog posts, Rickner says, “What took approximately 555k to store and input 48 TrueType Fonts can now be served up and rendered with a single variable font of only 66k. That is a saving of approximately 88 percent in file size. While the degree of saving is heavily dependent on the size of the character set, the degree of complexity or subtlety in the design, the number of axes, and the number of instances, these numbers are a reasonable approximation of the kinds of saving one might expect from many families built as a variable font.”

Above all, if we want designers to capitalize on the benefits of this new technology, the user interface (UI) has to be intuitively simple and consistent.”

GOOD NEWS FOR OTHERS
Variable fonts can also aid in the creation of responsive design. When applications and websites use a variable font, designers can potentially choose a particular style within the range of the design axes, and the operating system will apply the appropriate deltas and OpenType substitutions to create a virtual font for rendering text in that style. “Variable fonts can extend typographic range, improve performance and even improve the readability of digital ads,” explains Pamental. “Web and other contextual digital designers are the primary beneficiaries.”

Another place where the effect of variable fonts will be felt is in brand design. If you’re involved in just about any aspect of creating or maintaining brand consistency, the success and range of variable fonts will have a major impact on your work. If the providers of important branding typefaces retrofit their fonts and make them available as the variable variety, you’ll be using them in the web pages and digital ads you create for your clients. If the typographic staples of branding are not made available as variable fonts, you’ll be substituting these with fonts that are variable—and maybe even considering changing the typefaces typically used for branding to variable fonts. If this happens, OpenType fonts like Arimo and Roboto may become the new go-to for designers.

WHAT ABOUT EVERYONE ELSE? 
You only need to look at the unrealized potential of OpenType to get an idea of what the near future of variable fonts will look like. Full-on adopters of variable fonts will be about as likely as finding Melania Trump at Wal-Mart—at least in the near term. “The likelihood of a variety of new approaches to application UI both excites me and scares me a little,” says Rhatigan in an interview he did for designer Khoi Vinh’s blog Substraction.com. “It would be great for applications to rethink how they can help users improve their typography, but I know that people often resist change to controls that they’ve used for ages. I think a delicate balance is needed: an updated experience that leads people to understand the capabilities, instead of just dumping new options in front of them. But I think there’s also a lot of potential in accessing some of the capabilities of variable fonts under the hood.”

Adobe, Apple, Google and Microsoft have been laying the groundwork to support variable fonts for some time. Adobe recently announced that it will be bundling six variable fonts in Photoshop. Apple has expanded its GX technology to support variable fonts—as has Google in its font production. Google will also include support for variable fonts in the next generation of Chrome. And Microsoft says it will begin to provide support for the use of variable fonts in its products. Still, all this outside support for variable fonts will be of little value if designers find it difficult, tedious or time-consuming to use these new superfonts.

NEXT STEPS
What should you do? For now, watch and wait. Track how developers and browser owners come to accept and support variable fonts. Keep an eye out for new designs, as well as the retrofitting of classic branding typefaces to variable font technology. Pay attention to the interfaces that develop for variable fonts. One may surprise us and become the new standard for enabling the power of these new fonts. As Pamental says, “If type is the voice of our words, with variable fonts that voice has become a chorus.” ca

Allan Haley is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation. 

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