Los Angeles InDesign User Group

The Future of Fonts in InDesign: Variable Fonts and Color Fonts

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Los Angeles Valley College, 5800 Fulton Ave, Van Nuys, California 91401

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By Alvin Takamori


On September 20th, the Los Angeles InDesign User Group celebrated its thirteenth anniversary on the campus of Los Angeles Valley College. After a brief introduction by group manager Alan Bell, there was a short delay to get the technology to make the projector work. Fortunately, our guest presenter for the evening, Thomas Phinney, the CEO of FontLab, was flexible enough to begin his talk without pictures.


His topic for the evening is the latest trends in font development, color and variable fonts. He began with some background on color fonts. As with many new technologies, different companies have pursued their own standards for creating color fonts. The result is four different standards. Microsoft creates vector based color fonts. Google and Apple each have their own standards using bitmap generated fonts. Adobe-Mozilla uses Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) to make color fonts. The SVG standard allows the possibility of adding gradients.


The concept of color fonts isn't entirely new. Thomas explained that a font called American Chromatic was designed in the 1850s. It was a multi-color font created by combining separate ink runs.


Returning to modern times and the various color font standards, Thomas elaborated. As mentioned earlier Adobe and Mozilla use SVG format to create their color fonts. Microsoft uses Color Table (COLR) and Color Palette Table (CPAL) Open Type tables to create their color fonts. Google uses the Color Bitmap Data Table (CBDT) with the Color Bitmap Location Table (CBLT) format to embed data for their color fonts. Apple uses the Standard Bitmap Graphics Table (SBIX) to embed data.


The result of the different technologies is that different environments support different color fonts. When it comes to browsers, Microsoft Edge manages to support all four color font standards. Safari does not support CBDT/CBLT. Firefox only supports SVG and COLR/CPAL and Chrome only supports the Google standard of CBDT/CBLT.


Windows 10AE recognizes the SVG and SBIX format color fonts, but Mac OS and iOS only see the SBIX fonts. The COLR/CPAL format works in Windows 8.1 and later.


Turning to applications, the Adobe CC 2018 InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator work with SVG and SBIX formats. and actually Photoshop started working with color fonts in 2017. Quark Xpress also works with SVG and SBIX plus the COLR/CPAL format. Pixelmator, Sketch, and Word 2013 recognize SBIX color fonts.


Needless to say the current environment for color fonts is complicated. One way to simplify matters is to use the application FontLab Pad, which can open all the color font standards and export them as PDF, SVG or PNG files.


Next, Mr. Phinney began a discussion about variable fonts. They were first introduced in the 1990's. Apple created GX graphics and Adobe introduced Master Fonts. The variations were built around dynamic range changes, for instance light to extra bold. Each variable is called a design axis. As an example, a font that has different options from light to bold and condensed to extended has 2 axis.


The issue for the early variable fonts was that a master set of fonts would have to be designed for each axis. In the case of Adobe Master Fonts, combining multiple axis caused the number of masters to multiply. A font with 7 axis would require 128 masters. Apple's GX graphics was much better, requiring only one master for each axis plus one. So a 7 axis font needed only 8 masters.


Naturally the Adobe model was unsustainable and was replaced by Open Type in 2002. The Apple GX model was never widely adapted either and support ended in 2004.


The old method of making variable fonts would name each instance, "this is regular", "this is condensed". Each variable was like a stand alone font. The new generation of variable fonts, using savvy operating systems and apps can produce arbitrary instances of a font from a single master. These instances can be modified by using sliders. To change the weight of a font from light to extra bold, just move a slider. Now you are not restricted to choosing between light, regular, medium, etc. You can select options in between.


Thomas showed us examples of variable fonts on a website called Axis-Praxis. Each font had its' own set of variables. For example, a font called Gingham had one slider to adjust its' weight and another slider to adjust its' width. Another font called Amstelvar had about 15 different variables: weight, width, optical size, x-height, serif height, etc. A font called Zycom is a set of pictographs and moving the sliders would change the shapes or cause the images to move. With so many options, your choices seem infinite. You could push the sliders to extremes that create an illegible font. However, it gives the user greater control of exactly how they want a font to look.


If all this variation is not enough, our presenter showed us how to create and modify fonts using FontLab 6.


After that, we celebrated the 13th anniversary of LAIDUG by giving away a lot of stuff. Actually, we always do that.




Farthest Attendee Prize Winner


Mighty Deals—Leo Postovoit



Special Raffle Prizes


Dell E5400 14.1" Laptop Computer—Scott Rovin

Sharper Image Model Car—Lucy Hawkins



13 Door Prizes


$2 Baskins-Robbins Gift Card

Wayne DeSelle, Aaron Fooshee, Allan Gluck, Lucky Hawkins, Beverly Houwing, Jasper Johal, Richard R. Krause, Jr., Kathy Lange, David Nuon, Amy Parks, Scott Rovin, Jeff Schimsky, Andrew Keith Strauss



Raffle Prize Winners


Adobe Creative Cloud—Michael Powe

FontLab VI—Lucy Hawkins

WordsFlow Plus from Em Software—Ana Valencia

GoProof from Oppolis Software. 3 month subscription for 2 users—Wayne DeSelle

Stock Layouts—David Nuon

in5 from Ajar Productions—Scott Rovin

ID2Q from Markzware. 12 month subscription—David Hguyen

Expo Creative Asset Manager for Mac from Insider Software—Marc Halperin

Suitcase Fusion 8 from Extensis. 12 month subscription—Amy Parks

Font Agent Pro 8 from Insider Software—Kathy Lange

InMotion Hosting. Web hosting and free domain—June Czerwinski

DTP Tools Cloud for InDesign. 6 month subscription—Michael Powe

Multi-Find/Change 3.0 from Automatication—Michael Powe

Adobe Stock. 15 image licenses—David Nuon

InDesign Magazine. 6 month subscription—David Nuon

LA Web Professionals Group meeting tickets—Dickson Gee, Marc Halperin, Jasper Johal, Richard Krause, Scott Rovin




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