… welcome! | photo by Frank Rolf
Before I start I’d like to quote Erik van Blokland, from his presentation of Superpolator. What he says about his impressive application applies to some extent to all the tools showcased at the Robothon09 conference – “make simple things fast, and complex things possible”. This perfectly encapsulates the concept behind them. If I may paraphrase Abi Huynh’s excellent comment in my initial Robothon is not a manga entry, “the tools presented are utilised for the production aspect of the type design process. […] They are tools that allow for creativity and enable more creative approaches by helping with somewhat monotonous tasks and technical details in type production. There is no substitute for great drawing and the type designer’s eye.” The most often heard reactions from the crowd were people exclaiming they could have saved weeks of work if they had had those tools, and the presentations were regularly interrupted by spontaneous outbursts of applause.
Erik gets the first badge | photo by Ben Kiel
Like I mentioned in my First impressions I missed the morning session. The first presentation I attended was by Tal Leming, right after lunch break. Now I have noticed that most of the times when you read about Tal in specialised blogs and websites, adjectives like “amazing” and “scary smart” keep popping up – I once used “terrifyingly intelligent” myself – and for a good reason. As I couldn’t code to save my life it is difficult for me to judge how high he ranks on the awesomeness scale next to other type design/code wizards like the van Blokland brothers, van Rossum, Berlaen, …, but I reckon he might be top dawg. Let’s just say that the audience was very impressed by his novel solutions, and the efficiency and deceptive simplicity of the tools he showcased.
Tal Leming | photo by Eben Sorkin
Tal started with explaining the new version UFO2, the file format he developed with Erik and Just. This included a dramatically expanded info object, improved support of OpenType features, etc. – the list just went on and on, with Tal highlighting examples. Let’s say most of it made sense to me at the time – the file format is human readable – but don’t ask me to reproduce any of it here.
First up was his Area51, a code editor for fonts in UFO format. As Tal commented “I like to see what a glyph looks like, instead of what it reads like” – as UFO is an XML-based format it is very flexible and transportable, but there’s no visual representation. The application allows you to look at what’s inside your UFOs, edit and test their features, and quickly generate OpenType fonts directly from the UFOs (AFDKO needs to be installed) for testing. This is where Erik shouted the infamous words: “Can it also edit glyphs?”.
The second application was equally impressive, also because I actually understood all of it. MetricsMachine was announced by Tal with: “I hate kerning more than you do.” What followed was a number of functionalities that streamlined the tedious task of hand kerning type, like deriving the kerning of small caps from the kerning of the upper case. Again the application proved that Tal fully understands the power of a good interface, for example by using colour codes for the character shapes, thus revealing their similarities and differences. A nifty little detail that was met with enthusiasm was the progress bar that shows how far along you are with kerning your font.
Tal’s last application was Prepolator which allows the type designer to prepare the glyphs in his fonts for interpolation, checking numbers of node points, contour order, contour direction, start point position, etc. The fun part of this presentation was that Tal showed how step by step he gradually simplified and speeded up the process, eventually ending up with a very powerful interface that automates most of the work. Ricardo Lafuente’s witty “automagically” he uses on his blog nicely translates the feeling most of us had when witnessing the application work its way through a glyph set. This by the way is why Tal and the others make such great interfaces. When developing there is no second-guessing what the type designer might need, because they simply are type designers themselves.
Prepolator doesn’t do interpolation, because that’s what Superpolator is all about, the amazing application by Erik van Blokland who spoke next. Erik started by illustrating the fundamental flaw in classic interpolation. It uses extremes (thin compressed, thin extended, black compressed, and black extended) to interpolate the other weights and widths in a type family – the multiple master principle. Yet to obtain the best possible regular those extremes usually need to be finetuned to the point of losing their character and become quite dull. Superpolator however can work with whatever master the designer wants to, and the best possible regular weight can be used as an additional master between the thin and the black. Furthermore the designer doesn’t need to have all four extreme masters. By judiciously placing masters in the design space the software can even go beyond the designed extremes and actually extrapolate weights and widths, which had me quite baffled. Those new extremes can be generated and set as masters to further refine the design space. Superpolator is an amazing piece of software, and there seemed to be no end to its capabilities and features.
The last presentation was Tal again, explaining how he builds applications. It all seemed to make sense to me when I saw it at Robothon, but I guess it went a bit over my head. My lack of insight and hands-on experience in coding is to blame. If you want to learn more I suggest you read Ricardo Lafuente’s Day 1 - Afternoon entry.
That was the first day, which ended ahead of schedule. We had more than enough time to have dinner – I joined Peter Bruhn and Stefan Hattenbach in an Indian restaurant – and then make our way to Petr van Blokland who was throwing a party in his studio in Delft. Fortunately Peter Bruhn forgot his badge when leaving the hotel, because returning to the hotel to get it made us miss our tram. The next tram we took was the one where all the type people including Erik got on, and if we hadn’t had them to guide us we’d never have found the place. Petr’s studio was packed and there were good times all over.
Party at Petr van Blokland’s studio | photo by Abi Huynh
I talked to lots of people, including OurType’s Fred Smeijers, and two of his Leipzig ex-students Thomas Thiemich and Maurice Göldner. They designed two of the three most recent releases on OurType – respectively the super family Alto and Meran. The third new release being Lirico by Hendrik Weber, who won a Certificate of Excellence in Type Design at TDC2 2009. Fred is Professor of Digital Typography at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig, and this school is rarely included when the other two type design courses Type and Media and MATD Reading are mentioned. I think this is a bit weird, especially when you see the quality of those three latest OurType releases. Judging by their (type design) output, and the theory thesis they submit at graduation the Bachelor course at HGB looks like the real deal. HGB has had type classes for 100 years, and Jan Tschichold and Albert Kapr were there. They are in the course of publishing a book about the importance of the type classes at HGB throughout the 20 century, and its influence on German scene. I’m looking forward to its release and finding out more.