ATypI 2011 International Type Conference (Part 2)
Following on my first post about the conference, here are more thoughts on Reykjavik and some interesting talks on fonts and global typography.
As mentioned previously, Reykjavik was a blast. The entire population of Iceland is about 400,000 people, and one thing about being small… well, the President of Iceland himself opened the conference, with an entertaining and surprisingly design-literate talk. Further to the fabulous food mentioned before, Reykjavik has at least two top-notch Indian restaurants (yes, really). Also a world-famous hot dog stand, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, just a couple blocks from the conference location. It’s known for having fed Bill Clinton, and for the hot dogs, which are topped with a remarkable mix of honey mustard, catsup, remoulade, and both fresh and crispy-fried onions. The crispy onions are what makes them work for me, so the second time round I asked for extra on those, and it was fabulous.
So, on to more talks and observations from the conference, some lightly edited notes. I didn’t always have my laptop with me and take notes, unfortunately. Then again, reading summaries of all those dozens of talks would doubtless get dull; this can at least give you a good bit of flavor from what was probably my favorite type conference I have attended to date.
Steve Matteson and Dawn Shaikh
Steve (Ascender, now Monotype again) talked about the evolution and development of the open source Droid typefaces for Google, with particular focus on the Latin (English) and Arabic designs. Two different styles were required for Arabic, kufi and naskh to cover the needs of different countries. They did much discussion of how style was coordinated to have the Arabic echo some features of the Latin, and also on-screen legibility for Arabic (especially at the high-res screens being used on modern mobile devices).
The feedback process was a big challenge. Dawn talked about research with users and stakeholders on the international (non-Latin) fonts. She was brought in to the project quite late. Among other things she had to decide when the fonts were good enough to accept, which in practice meant securing 100% stakeholder buy-in for each new font. At the same time, she was under pressure for speed. Because of tight timelines, the research was qualitative rather than quantitative in her stakeholder reviews. She used 1:1 interviews with native speakers, Googlers, and external particiants. Sometimes she did focus groups, as with Thai where she couldn’t get anyone to give any critical feedback 1:1, but a focus group got them to open up. Some reviews were by email as well; some people wrote multi-page documents at each step! However, it was really hard to keep some people interested and involved over multiple iterations.
Johannes discussed Minion Math, a bunch of fonts full of specialized math characters which act as third-party supplements to the fonts comprising Adobe’s Minion typeface. He picked Minion for a variety of reasons. One of them was that he felt he needed a typeface that had a range of optical sizes, and was a clear and unobtrusive text typeface. (If you don’t know about optical sizes for fonts, it’s a very interesting and cool thing, well written about by Adobe.)
Johannes added an extra optical size beyond the four minion started with, and did all four weights of Minion, for a total of 20 faces. The 2008 release had 1300 glyphs per font, but now has been revised with 2900 glyphs per font. It also implements support for Microsoft’s OpenType math extensions, first seen in Cambria Math. It should work well in MS Word.
OpenType CFF for Web Fonts
Christopher Slye, Adobe
Christopher presented an argument for web font users and consumers to treat OpenType CFF (either raw .otf, or in WOFF) as equally useful as TrueType TTF. It has a number of advantages from a font production POV, as well as some from a font rendering POV. For me personally, he was basically preaching to the faithful, but there may have been some in the audience with different views.
Not the title of a talk, just my grab-bag heading for a bunch of talks, mostly on the later days when I wasn’t taking notes right during the talks.
There were a number of talks fitting a conference theme of special characters that are part of the Latin alphabet but are peculiar to individual languages. Iceland has two of them, the eth (Ð, ð) and the thorn (Þ, þ), both of which appeared in several talks. The eth makes a hard th sound (like “the” or indeed like “eth”) while the thorn makes a soft th sound (like, well, “thorn”). As a type designer, my main takeaways on these letters are that the lowercase eth need not have the round part of the letter come to the full x-height, it is often just subtly shorter, or even a fair bit in a heavier weight (to allow the top part to maintain its shape and weight), while the capital eth needs to have more of its crossbar on the inside of the D part than on left side of the stem (to allow for better spacing). Also discussed were the specialized Swedish letters Æ/æ, Œ/œ and Å/å, and the gaelic “wynn” (Ƿ, ƿ).
The single most interesting such talk to me was the one on the German eszett (ß), which looks a bit like a lowercase beta, but serves the role of a double s or “sharp s.” Though it has long only been a lowercase character, being represented in caps as two capital S shapes. Recently a capital eszett has been added to Unicode, and this has been controversial. What made this talk interesting was that instead of spending half or more of their time discussing the design of this new letter, the talk was about the rationale for it and whether it was really necessary. This is apparently a very contentious hot topic among German typographers, and some heated opinions were heard at the conference. Personally I came away convinced that the capital eszett is clearly needed from a text processing point of view, and should be included in fonts. There’s a need to be able to round-trip case conversion so important information (such as the correct spelling of names) is never lost. If people don’t like it having a special shape, they can give it the shape of two S’s instead, but I think standardizing on a shape is a Good Thing. Graphs were shown of previous new-character adoption timelines, and it seems that I’m too old to see the end of the eszett controversy, but by the time my kids reach old age it will be a done deal.
Just a day or two ago, we on the ATypI board announced the location of next year’s (2012) conference: Hong Kong! It promises to be exciting. It will be hosted in large part by Hong Kong Polytechnic University, with lead organizer Keith Tam. I can’t wait!