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Bas Jacobs and Akiem Helmling of Type Network foundry partner Underware wow the TYPO Labs audience with their high-concept experiments. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

TYPO Labs 2018: How far can we go?

As variable fonts continue to mature, the well-regarded Berlin conference has already started looking beyond pure font technology, forging connections with the world of web design and crossing over into virtual reality.

Overhead photo of the crowd registering on the opening day of TYPO Labs 2018.
TYPO Labs has seen its attendance increase by roughly a hundred people for two years in a row, reaching almost four hundred registrations this time around. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

For the third consecutive year, TYPO International Design Talks organized the type and technology conference TYPO Labs in Berlin. The immersive three-day event is growing at a steady clip: its audience almost doubled in size to 280 last year, and this year’s edition was attended by 380 students and professionals—type designers, font technicians, type-foundry people, representatives of major browsers and operating systems, and others involved in the creation, rendering, and commercialization of digital typefaces. Several European graduate programs in type design were also represented by sizeable contingents. With attendance steadily increasing, the location needed to change to a bigger venue this year. It was nice to see that TYPO Labs hasn’t lost its taste for the peculiar; the previous edition’s silent green Kulturquartier—Wedding’s former crematorium—was traded for the Besondere Orte Umweltforum, housed in a renovated late-nineteenth-century church with a rich history.

Marina Chaccur at TYPO Labs 2018.
Type Network’s Marina Chaccur comoderated the event with Pablo Gámez. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

Once again, the organization ran like clockwork. Every morning, videos of the talks from the previous day were published on YouTube in the dedicated TYPO Labs 2018 playlist. TYPO Talks remains committed to sharing the videos, thanks to Google’s generous support, with people who could not attend.

A broader scope

Min-Joo Ham presenting at TYPO Labs 2018.
Min-Joo-Ham gave an outstanding, well-received talk. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

A look at TYPO Labs’ programming over the past three years suggests that the organizers continue to make an effort to even out the conference lineup’s gender imbalance. The first edition had three female speakers out of twenty-nine: Nina Stössinger, who also comoderated the event with me, appeared on the main stage; Amélie Bonnet spoke on the small stage; and Julia Sysmäläinen gave a workshop. Last year saw some improvement, with seven women among forty-one speakers. This year’s event ramped up the ratio to more than one to four. I hope this trend continues, with an added emphasis on racial diversity—only six out of over forty speakers were not white.

Elika Etemad presenting at TYPO Labs 2018.
Elika Etemad of the CSS Working Group urged type designers not to mess up their font metrics, because that can wreak havoc with the line-height and vertical-align properties in CSS. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.
Laurence Penney presenting at TYPO Labs 2018
Laurence Penney. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

In general, TYPO Labs’ focus seems to be expanding, shifting away from pure font technology to include its implementation. A number of presentations looked at how fonts—specifically variable fonts—can be applied on the web. Notable was the talk by the CSS Working Group, which had its face-to-face meeting in Berlin during the two days leading up to TYPO Labs. Laurence Penney and Jason Pamental again proved to be admirable evangelists for what variable fonts can bring to web design. In Beyond the bubble: Talking to web designers about variable fonts, Penney posited that web designers and CSS experts are the new typesetters, providing a bridge between font makers and end users. He emphasized that typographic possibilities are expanding, little by little, with every addition to the CSS spec.

Jason Pamental presenting at TYPO Labs 2018
Jason Pamental. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

Pamental’s Variable Fonts and the Future of Typography explored how we can design for this new medium without sacrificing our history. Penney and Pamental both also gave workshops: Penney on hacking variable fonts, and Pamental on responsive type and typography, with a primer on variable fonts and modern digital typography.

Tools and Shapes panel discussion at TYPO Labs 2018.
The Tools and Shapes panel discussion, moderated by Gerry Leonidas (sitting on the side of the stage), included (from left to right) Fred Smeijers, Malou Verlomme, and Verena Gerlach. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

Traditionalists and futurists

Last year’s TYPO Labs was all about collaboration, in particular between type designers and font technicians. Although this edition still focused on those collaborations, a clear division appeared to emerge for the first time. Gerry Leonidas’ Giving form to Variable Fonts keynote questioned the economic sense of producing huge type families and the average user’s ability to grasp the complexities of variable font technology, but didn’t address typesetting that is shifting toward programmable fluidity. During the Tools and Shapes panel discussion with Malou Verlomme, Verena Gerlach, and Fred Smeijers, moderated by Leonidas, Gerlach urged the old guard to hand the reins over to the new generation. The breach between traditionalists and futurists, though, is defined less by age than by mindset. Some of the most innovative thinkers pioneering the newest font technologies, like David Berlow and Petr van Blokland, are part of the so-called old guard. Instead of getting lost in historical research—which is still vital—they have embraced the extraordinary potential of programmatic (type) design in screen-based and analog media. See Berlow’s efforts in advancing OpenType font variants and Van Blokland’s Designdesign.space.

Creation and implementation

Sol Matas presenting at TYPO Labs 2018.
Besides introducing the TYPO Labs attendees to HT LetterSpacer, Sol Matas offered a workshop to help users get acquainted with the software. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

It has quickly become a tradition to announce the latest developments in type design apps, web browsers, and operating systems at TYPO Labs. This year, the audience was introduced to new versions of Glyphs, RoboFont, and FontLab. Sol Matas showed how HT LetterSpacer can speed up the design process by automating letterspacing. Just van Rossum is developing a handy tool for displaying all font data in spreadsheets for easy comparison. Lasse Fister presented technical font-quality assurance with Font Bakery, and Hin-Tak Leung revealed that Microsoft Font Validator has been updated and ported to Mac OS X and Linux.

Ulrike Rausch presenting at TYPO Labs 2018.
Dang! Another meticulously scripted OpenType feature ignored by a design app. Why even bother? Because Ulrike Rausch cares passionately about authentic-looking handwriting fonts. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

Switching from the production side to the user side, representatives from Google and Microsoft explained how they implement variable fonts and improve their handling and rendering. Notably, Peter Constable invited input on the new axis proposals in Microsoft’s OpenType design-variation axis tags GitHub repository. Ulrike Rausch showed us the other side of the coin, when carefully crafted OpenType features fail in the design apps we all use. Her entertaining Boon and Bane of OpenType Features revealed major flaws that made me—one of the initiators of the Adobe Typography Customer Advisory Board—sink in my seat with embarrassement.

Fonts without borders

Sahar Afshar and José Miguel Solé Bruning presenting at TYPO Labs 2018.
Sahar Afshar and José Miguel Solé Bruning demonstrated amazing experiments with custom code for altering the length of kashidas, both individually and at the paragraph level. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

Again this year, a portion of the program was dedicated to the various scripts in use worldwide. Talks considered everything from the challenges of faithfully representing complex scripts to downloading and rendering fonts with prohibitively large character sets. In the latter category, Rod Sheeter and Garret Rieger explored possible CSS-based strategies for tackling Korean on Google Fonts. The more than ten thousand characters and large file sizes of Korean fonts present a unique challenge. Chopping them up into a few big segments of frequently used characters and many smaller segments gave the best results, a solution that can also be applied to Japanese and Chinese. In the former category, John Hudson’s Constrained. Unconstrained. Variable. described the development of a high-functioning user-interface font for Microsoft supporting ten major South-Asian scripts. The team’s achievement was something to be proud of, but Hudson was also embarrassed by the many compromises they were forced to make. The design brief was “a functional travesty,” and all they could hope for was to fail elegantly. On the subject of elegance, Sahar Afshar and José Miguel Solé Bruning’s outstanding talk On Expanding Connections (AKA Making it Fit) demonstrated how variable-font technology can be used to form organic kashidas (elongations), the basic elements used to justify Arabic script. In another superb presentation, Connecting Scripts: Building bridges between Latin and Hangul, Min-Joo-Ham gave an accessible introduction to Hangul and offered sensible, innovative strategies for creating Hangul companions for Latin designs (and vice versa).

Ksenya Samarskaya presenting at TYPO Labs 2018.
Ksenya Samarskaya effortlessly held the audience captive with her typographic voyage through extended reality. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

A brand new topic at TYPO Labs was type crossing over into the virtual world. Four talks addressed text in virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality, examining how type behaves in these environments. Vivek Vadakkuppattu’s Creating Successful AR/VR Experiences with Text approached the subject from a commercial angle, but it was Ksenya Samarskaya who won me over with Type in the Expanded Field, a fascinating trip exploring the history, current state, and potential of type in extended reality.

OpenType variants get schooled

Two schools presented excellent work with variable fonts. The Next Big Thing in Type? showed the results of UMPRUM’s variable-font research, which took place during the 2017 Winter semester: twelve student typefaces, created in ninety-eight days, with complete character sets and high-quality diacritics, for a total of 153 masters and 42,970 glyphs, complying with current standards. Besides the usual axes like weight and width, the students’ fonts also explored unexpected variants: outline, stencil gap, diacritics position, corner settings, level of visual effects, and dynamic outline animation. The UMPRUM project questioned what impact variable fonts have, and concluded with fun animations using the typefaces. How to let students step into the unknown universe of VF recounted Verena Gerlach and Maciej Połczyński’s four-and-a-half-day workshop, where students of the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information technology translated typical Polish cultural and architectural artefacts into OTvar type designs. While smaller in scope, the project was no less ambitious; the students started with more complex masters, and then had to figure out how to hide node points or entire elements in simpler masters to create their animations.

The next level

Luc(as) de Groot presenting at TYPO Labs 2018.
Luc(as) de Groot blew the attendees’ minds with dizzying multidimensional design spaces. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

TYPO Labs concluded with a fantastic double whammy. First, Type Network foundry partner Underware’s Export future provided a follow-up to last year’s presentation. Akiem Helmling and Bas Jacobs did not shy away from the big questions. After examining the very concept of time, they bombarded the audience with mind-blowing concepts like OWL, the One Word Language that uses supersemic glyphs to communicate with just one word set in Duos, and radical, mind-boggling concepts for describing glyph shapes. They invited us to start thinking today about how fonts will be designed in the future, introducing the idea of the “previval” which is elaborated in their Font Fiction booklet and website (set in Zeitung and Dolly.) Helmling and Jacobs left our heads spinning, but before we could catch our collective breaths, Luc(as) de Groot took us on a rollercoaster ride with Interpolation and Curve Technicalities. In his usual irreverent, breakneck style, De Groot once again managed to give a highly entertaining talk on the most technical and geeky aspects of type design. This time, he started by comparing which splines—TrueType quadratic curves or PostScriptBézier curves?—are better suited for drawing type. He then extended Thesis’ classic anisotropic interpolation theory, applying it to variable fonts to improve progressions along the interpolation axes, and tested how far he could go with multidimensional masters. De Groot ended with Floris, his OpenType variant with thirty-two masters in multiple dimensions.

Fist with TYPE tattooed on the four fingers.
Ludwig Übele loves type. We love type (tattoos), too. Image courtesy of Norman Posselt/Monotype.

This was another great edition of TYPO Labs. The conference offers just the right mix of technical, creative, and investigative topics to attract a diverse audience of people who produce—and use—digital type. TYPO Labs has consistently kept its finger on the pulse of the newest developments, turning it into a vital player on the conference circuit. In their closing remarks, the organizers announced their plans to further open up the event to the world of web design and CSS. This expansion makes future iterations of the conference all the more promising.

Bald Condensed, né Yves Peters, is a Belgian-based rock drummer known for his astute observations on the impact of letterforms in the contemporary culture-sphere. A prolific writer on typography, he has a singular knack for identifying the most obscure typefaces known to humankind.