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2018-11-20 : 11:04
Just minutes ago, at the ATypI conference in Warsaw, the world was introduced to a new kind of font: a variable font. Jointly developed by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Adobe, a variable font is, as John Hudson put it, “a single font file that behaves like multiple fonts”. Imagine a single font file gaining an infinite flexibility of weight, width, and other attributes without also gaining file size — and imagine what this means for design.
Imagine condensing or extending glyph widths ever so slightly, to accommodate narrow and wide viewports. Imagine raising your favorite font’s x-height just a touch at small sizes. Imagine sharpening or rounding your brand typeface in ways its type designer intended, for the purposes of art direction. Imagine shortening descenders imperceptibly so that headings can be set nice and tight without letters crashing into one another. Imagine this all happening live on the web, as a natural part of responsive design.
A responsive lettering example, courtesy of Erik van Blokland. This shows one kind of flexibility that variable fonts will enable.
To facilitate just such advancements, people from our four companies (along with notable independent contributors) have been collaborating for more than half a year on a significant improvement to the OpenType font file specification that now includes a new technology: OpenType Font Variations, which allows type designers to interpolate a font’s entire glyph set or individual glyphs along up to 64,000 axes of variation (weight, width, etc.), and define specific positions in the design space as named instances (“Bold”, “Condensed”, etc.). Get a technical overview and a complete introduction by watching this video of the announcement at ATypI or reading our joint announcement on Medium, penned by John Hudson:
While earlier font interpolation technologies emerged from the font format wars of the early 1990s, and were developed and championed by individual, competing software companies, OpenType variable fonts are the product of a new collegiality aimed not only at defining a common standard but also interoperable implementations.
Given this high-profile collaboration, it seems as if the whole world is moving in unison toward our future with variable fonts. But it’s going to take some time – and a lot of effort – before this new kind of font becomes something people can design with and readers can read.