It’s such an easy thing to overlook, tucked away under the Type submenu, within a laundry list of other palettes found in both InDesign and Illustrator in Windows. Even I forget about it and I helped put those palettes together more than ten years ago when I designed those products’ interfaces at Adobe Systems.
I’m speaking of the Glyphs palette, one of the primary gateways to the capabilities of OpenType. As anyone who has used this palette knows, it gives you complete access to the modern typo-graphic theater: the dramatic start cap, sublime ligature pairing-even happy, accidental new glyph discoveries when you forget that you left alternate styles with swashes turned on. For graphic designers, it should be the best thing about their creative software; but even though OpenType has been available for 12 years, it seems many designers still aren’t using it.
I wasn’t involved in the development of OpenType while I was at Adobe, but I remember the turmoil at Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft across a variety of technological fronts—especially when it came to fonts. Apple and Microsoft were pushing Adobe’s buttons by promoting TrueType’s virtues. So when a type group product manager walked into my office one day in the mid-’90s and informed me that we had joined forces with Microsoft to create a new font format called OpenType that would serve as a replacement to Type 1 and TrueType, I expected to see Babe floating by my 10th-floor window, smiling as if nothing were wrong with a talking, flying pig.
Since then, the process of educating designers about OpenType has been a slow one. Thomas Phinney, one of Adobe’s font and global type product managers, and a type designer himself, has been instrumental in pushing OpenType’s adoption by users. “OpenType fonts are inherently single-file, cross-platform fonts,” he explains. “They allow font developers to put more language support into a single font, and integrate advanced typographic features with variant glyphs.” In simpler terms, OpenType is really the all-you-can-eat buffet of type: You may not use all of its typographic elements, but you can use every feature designed into a particular font at will.
OpenType is the result of the high-tech sector’s fear of losing control over a market or technology, which often breeds interesting collaborations. OpenType is one such collaboration and has apparently emerged from that chaotic period to become the winner in the font format and feature wars. But do designers know there was a winner? More important, do they realize how rich the format is and what an amazing typographic world lies behind that green o icon?
Salt Lake City–based designer Cameron Moll is clearly someone with an appreciation for elegant type. “For me,” he says, “typography is the essence of visual communication.” And yet, when I asked him if he uses software specifically because it supports OpenType features, he tells me, “I certainly don’t use Illustrator specifically because of OpenType, but rather I just expect it to work well with OpenType. The sad thing is,” he adds, “only upon replying to your questions do I now see an OpenType palette in Illustrator!”
The folks at font and image seller Veer would not be surprised to hear his response. Like Adobe, they are constantly trying to teach the design community about OpenType’s advanced features. Says Jon Parker, Veer’s director of brand communication, “I think there are two camps [of designers]: those who are unaware and those who are dedicated converts.” And getting such converts in the first place, he points out, can depend on one OpenType-compatible typeface gaining popularity. “Bickham Script was probably the first face to really illustrate the power of OpenType,” he says. “It was so massively popular. If a designer has somehow avoided using Bickham in their career, it might take another new face to attract their attention. They see all those beautiful swashes in use and just have to have it. Then they figure out how to use it.
” Parker relays one of his customer service representatives’ most common experiences: “About three out of five type-related calls are people asking how to get ‘all those extra characters and swashes.’ Then we walk them through the Glyphs palette and they’re overjoyed. However, I don’t know if that’s a result of a lack of type knowledge or a lack of application knowledge.”
Indeed, part of OpenType’s problem with how little the design community understands it stems from creative software’s inherent flaw: so many features, so little pixel space to expose them all. For Mac users, it gets worse. In consumer-level software like the iLife and the iWork suite, advanced typographic features are even more hidden, if they are turned on by default. (They can be found by simply opening the Font palette and going to the gear icon at bottom left. In that menu is access to the Typography palette. Voilà!)
The other part of the problem is the difficulty in promoting OpenType to potential type customers, especially online inside a web browser. Grant Hutchison, in charge of Interface Considerations and Type Development at Veer, explains, “Our previewing tools can show the entire glyph complement, but we can’t supply the users with a means to select their own characters for a custom sample [online].” He continues: “The complexity of the OpenType format does not lend itself to a simple or consistent means to access features and characters. This is also the problem in all design applications, even across the various parts of Adobe Creative Suite.”
So how can OpenType believers get the rest of the design community on board? “For years,” says Phinney, “I focused on evangelism to other font developers and to our own applications. Only in the past year or two have I really switched gears to try to get the word out to end users.” Phinney will continue blogging about OpenType, as well as speaking at conferences and universities to educate graphic designers.
Parker feels they should embrace that message. “It’s a new age for type,” he says. “The potential of OpenType is being realized by type designers. Through a highly connected and supportive online community, they can respond to graphic designers’ hunger for new designs, and the growing interest in reviving historical styles. We may never see another lasting mainstream phenomenon like Helvetica, but the parade of typographic fashion is as vital as ever.”