Variable Fonts with Dan Rhatigan

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If you’re working in the typography world, you may have heard the whisperings of collaboration between some of the biggest names in technology. Adobe, Apple, Google and Microsoft have been working together (with the help of independent type foundries and designers) to create something that’s going to change the way we see type—literally. They’re called variable fonts, and Dan Rhatigan took the time to tell us everything we needed to know about them.

Variable fonts are a way of taking many, many, many styles within a typeface family—from very lightweight to very bold weight, from wide to skinny—and packaging them all up into one small file,” he explains. You’re not just saving space, you’re also getting access to all of the possible weights and sizes on the spectrum of a font. That includes more than the names you would choose from a font menu like bold or light. But how does it work?

Basically, “it’s a more complicated and sophisticated version of a font file. But it’s still just a font file and will behave on any operating system that can support it,” says Rhatigan. Variable fonts are based in formulas like any other font file. “In terms of how it knows what it can do, that’s where the applications will come in and be able to register, ‘oh, these are all possibilities within one file,’ rather than having to specify a different file to get a different style.”

Variable fonts

Example of how Variable Fonts, a developing font technology, can work. Source: Erik van Blokland

He explained it to me like this: the same mechanism that allows a webpage to read flow when you zoom in and out in a browser window can manipulate a font’s style when it gets built into the CSS. So if you take a phone or tablet, and you turn it from vertical to horizontal, “the same device detection that allows it to register that the device orientation is changing could allow the font file to switch to, say, a more condensed style for the vertical orientation, or a more expanded style for the horizontal.”

Variable fonts are still in the early days of conception, but that isn’t stopping people from experimenting and pushing the boundaries here and now. David Jonathan Ross from DJR Foundry and the Dutch type foundry Underware have both been testing experiments. The Big Four have also been getting input on the technical side from designers and typographers around the world. Erik van Blokland from LettError has contributed a lot of the math that has made dynamic fonts more flexible. Friends from Monotype who helped develop TrueType GX in the 90s and Dalton Maag from Typekit have also been have helping make variable fonts the best they can be. “It’s encouraging to me that people aren’t holding their cards close to themselves, and that they’re trying to engage in a dialog as we all come to understand what will be possible and what we can make possible for people who use these fonts.”

The header of LettError's website, demonstrating dynamic fonts.

The header of LettError’s website, demonstrating dynamic fonts.

A few days before chatting with Dan Rhatigan, I had a conversation with Paula Scher. She made the comment about how she prefers when design leads the software, rather than the software leading the design. Is it possible that variable fonts could be a shortcoming by giving designers too many options to work with? “Variable fonts will be a very flexible tool. My hope is that…it will encourage designers to think very deeply about what they can do with that. I would hate to see people saying things like, ‘Oh, I can have any weight,’ and then begin using weights that don’t make sense just because [they’re available],” he says.

As for other possible drawbacks, “[it’s] an added responsibility for type designers,” says Rhatigan. Variable fonts will require type designers to be more methodical, since every possible weight will be available to developers. “You can’t make a weight and then clean it up.”

“Variable fonts are not the solution for all kinds of fonts. Not everyone will have to make [or use them]. They’re a good solution for packaging up large font families that would otherwise come with a lot of different styles within them.”

Variable fonts

Draplin image: Leah Nash. Hische: Helena Price. Lupton: Michelle Qureshi. Scher: Ian Roberts.