Thoughts on font editor design
As I start getting more into designing type, I’m finding that I’m not as happy with FontForge. It works, yes, and I can design fonts with it, but it’s not beautiful, aeshetically or functionally. It doesn’t sing. It also has a lot of friction that slows me down. I’ve looked at the other font editors out there — FontLab, RoboFont, Glyphs — and they don’t really do it for me either. (Nor are they in my budget at the moment.)
I realized I’ve been spoiled by Vim and Blender, both of which have steep(ish) learning curves but which also are incredibly rewarding and efficient for power users. I want that kind of a tool to use when designing type. So, because this is me, I’m going to build one.
Well, sort of. I’m going to talk through the design out loud on here as I go along, occasionally building prototypes to better explain what I’m getting at. I’m sure at some point I’ll actually build it, since I already want to use it instead of FontForge, but for now I need more experience building type with existing tools so I can better know where the friction points are.
I’m calling it Curves, and yes, it’s partly tongue-in-cheek. Here’s a brief overview of some of the ideas behind it (some of which are already in existing font editors):
- Power tool for advanced users. Reading about Douglas Englebart’s philosophy on computing has gotten me itching to make power tools instead of newbie tools. There’s nothing wrong with newbies, but I’m more intrigued by the idea of focusing on power users. Learning curves are okay. (Weak pun semi-intended.)
- Web-based. Originally I wanted to make this a desktop app like Vim or Blender, but the more I looked into it, the less interested I got (C/C++ no longer appeal to me, and doing the UI in OpenGL to be cross-platform would put me at a lower level than I’d like, since I didn’t really like any of the OpenGL UI toolkits I looked at). Besides, all my recent experience is in web stuff, and being able to edit fonts from anywhere will be nice. (I think seeing Tridiv yesterday helped cement this decision for me, by the way.) Also, since web fonts are one of the main targets of an app like this, being able to load and preview the fonts in-browser will be a big plus. And web services have a lot of potential.
- Panes. I really, really love Blender’s windowing system, with non-overlapping panes. (Vim has something similar, though I don’t really use it that much.) I also love being able to easily store different layouts for different uses. With type design, this kind of setup feels like the right choice and would make it so much easier to switch between different parts of making type (designing glyphs, spacing/kerning, previewing text, OpenType features, etc.).
- Heavily keyboard driven. I’m thinking about possibly using chording and/or sequences (the latter ala Gmail, thanks to Mousetrap). Everything customizable, of course. At this point I’m thinking of borrowing Blender’s shortcuts for selecting (‘a’), moving (‘g’), scaling (‘s’), and rotating (‘r’) points, since they’re all on the left hand, which frees your right hand for the mouse. But we’ll see.
- Command line. I don’t mean running it from the Unix command line, but rather that I want a command line as an integral part of the app. Command lines are really, really powerful, and the idea of one specifically tuned for designing type makes me giddy.
- Search. Not just searching for glyphs by name, but a powerful query syntax so I can easily get a list of glyphs wider than X or with left sidebearings smaller than Y or what have you. And saved searches, of course, like smart playlists in iTunes.
- Focus on designing text faces for use as body copy. I’m still not sure what that actually means in practice, but some ideas are: previewing pages of text instead of just lines; editing and previewing the italic and bold weights together with the regular (rather than as separate fonts); programmatic relationships between regular and italic and such; visually edited components that can hook together intelligently and automatically remove overlap on export.
- UFO. No, not flying saucers. The Unified Font Object format is a nice XML-based schema that already has support in most existing editors and feels like a good platform to build on. (Besides, RoboFab can already read and write it.)
- Great OpenType feature support. One of my beefs with FontForge is that I have to use its UI for OpenType features. I’d much rather use Adobe’s text-based feature file format. Yes, FontForge can import/export it, but it’s not FF’s native way to edit OpenType, and I wish it were. (I, uh, like text.)
- DSL for editing glyph points. Visually drawing glyphs is nice, but I want to have a text editor pane beneath my glyph with code for that glyph that I can edit. (Text can be nicer for precision editing.) This would probably be a small domain-specific language. I’ve also thought about integrating it more completely — a fully-fleshed out parametric type design language, kind of like Metapost. The trick would be finding the sweet spot between writing parametric code and designing visually. I have some ideas for this that I’m excited to explore.
There’s more (I’m very interested in finding ways to improve the UI for drawing Bézier curves), but that’s quite enough for now.