Ben Crowder

Blog: #fontforge

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Weeknotes 2.1

  • Weeknotes are back, I think, and we’ll start a new season to celebrate the gap.
  • Today marks one full year since BYU announced that classes were going remote, and tomorrow is the anniversary of my work and the kids’ school following suit. One year. Whew. A bit mind-blowing. It’s certainly taken longer than we thought it would, but hope is finally upon us. My wife and I are looking forward to getting vaccinated next month, and then hopefully the trials with children go well. (We have a child with a high-risk medical condition, so we can’t really breathe easy until the whole family’s vaccinated. Which probably won’t be till the end of the year. Endure to the end!)
  • Quick update on the new job (which is great, loving it): while I still hit occasional pockets of onboarding slowness (new parts of the codebase, mainly), overall I feel like the impostor syndrome is mostly shutting the heck up. Also, Go turns out to be a great language for team-based work, at least in my view. Extremely easy to read, and it feels transparent, like it’s just you and what you’re trying to do, without the language getting in the way.
  • A couple weeks ago I messed up my back and have been dealing with the fallout since then. This time it’s taking longer to recover than it did a few years ago, which I suspect has to do at least in part with age. What a joy.
  • Art has slowed down a bit. I’m still planning to keep at it, but on a less regular basis. (It’s been my main thing for a while now and I think I’d like to focus more on other things.) When I do work on it, I’m planning to continue exploring the new texturing technique I used on Where Can I Turn for Peace? (probably redo a few old pieces with it). Maybe some more Blender, too, though I’m not really sure yet how that fits in.
  • Most of my writing projects are in the planning/outlining stages, so there’s not much to show yet there, sadly. (A fact which needs to bother me more, enough so that I start actually finishing stories. Good grief. But I guess part of working in public is being incompetent in public. Here you go! And I hope that the beats idea is the answer to my writing woes.)
  • I’ve finished the initial draft of lowercase letters on the Hinte typeface, and I’m in the middle of refining those and starting on the uppercase. Hoping to do much more type design going forward. (And eventually replace Literata on this site with something homegrown.)
  • As part of that endeavor, by the way, I’m itching to build that nice new web-based version of Curves. (FontForge is functional, sure, but its UI definitely does not spark joy for me.) Since I’ve already built the font-generating backend, the main remaining challenge here is just figuring out how I want the UI to work.

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I’ve decided to ditch Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps — Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator, mainly. I never thought I’d say that, but they’re too expensive. Instead, I’ll be using Affinity Photo, Affinity Publisher, and Affinity Designer. It’s a fairly small one-time cost instead of a dreary, never-ending, money-sucking subscription.

(If/when I need to do motion graphics or video editing in place of After Effects and Premiere, by the way, I’m planning to use the free version of DaVinci Resolve.)

So far I’ve only actually used Affinity Photo, to texture the piece I released yesterday. Worked like a charm. The live split-screen preview when applying a filter is brilliant, and the file sizes are much smaller, too. (In Photoshop I’d regularly end up with a 1–2 GB PSB file. With Affinity Photo, it’s closer to 300 MB.)

As far as typesetting goes, I still expect to use TeX (Tectonic) on projects where it makes sense — it’s what I used on the wide margin study editions since typesetting each language individually would have taken much more time — but it’s nice to have Affinity Publisher for other projects. I’m planning to use it for the book of narrative poems I’m (slowly) working on. (I’ll be setting it with Hinte, a new typeface I’m designing in FontForge. More on that soon.)

With Figma doing most of what I used to use Illustrator for, I don’t expect to use Affinity Designer all that much initially. But the raster brush textures are intriguing. We’ll see.

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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, aesthetically 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.
  • Scripting. Of course. Python or JavaScript. I’m looking forward to being able to generate kerning pairs via Python rather than having to do that outside of the app and paste the resulting pairs in. Or being able to script a set of things to do just before exporting to OTF (like removing overlap and checking for points at extrema and stuff).
  • 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.

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