Variable fonts: big news from TYPO Labs 2017

TYPO Labs 2017, a conference exploring the current and future state of font technology, took place earlier this month in Berlin. This year the buzz was all about variable fonts and a big announcement from Google.

The big highlight of TYPO Labs 2017 was when Dominik Röttsches of Google announced that the Chrome browser is adding support for variable fonts in an advanced version of Google Chrome Canary. You can download this experimental version of Chrome today and run it alongside your regular version of Chrome. Eventually many of the features in this version, like support for variable fonts, may find their way into an official release.


How to install Chrome Canary

To enable support for variable font rendering in Chrome Canary:

Go to the flags setting page at chrome://flags

Scroll down the page to the “Experimental Web Platform Features” section and enable that feature

Head over to Axis Praxis and start playing with variable fonts. A number of public demos, including a couple from Monotype, are available to try.


What does Google Chrome support mean for the future of variable fonts?

This announcement from Google brings us even closer to making variable fonts a reality. Now that browsers like Chrome Canary are starting to support variable font rendering and CSS4 will provide support for specifying font variations, the time is rapidly approaching where you will see variable fonts used on the web.

Prior to Google’s announcement, the only browser that supported variable fonts was the nightly build of Webkit, which is Mac only. The excitement of Chrome Canary support is that it brings variable fonts functionality to every platform Chrome ships.

JavaScript will drive the use of variable fonts for responsive design and typographically exciting content. One theme that came out of TYPO Labs 2017 is that fonts and apps will increasingly go together. Variable fonts will enable apps to create text layouts that were impossible in the past. But this is only possible when the browser and the variable font and the JavaScript work together. That time is now here (or just about).

A progress report from TYPO Labs 2017

Variable fonts were introduced at ATypI in September 2016 and are now part of the OpenType 1.8 specification. TYPO Labs 2017 was an opportunity to see how work on variable fonts has progressed since this announcement and what the state of the art is.


Dan Rhatigan, Senior Manager of Adobe Type, set the stage with a progress report on variable fonts that challenged the audience to look beyond the technology to new ways to use it. Jean-Baptiste Levée from Production Type reinforced the point that while the technology may be great, it is how it will be used and how it will affect design that is all that really matters.

A general consensus developed that the first and most exciting applications for variable fonts will be on the web. Akiem Helmling & Bas Jacobs from Underware gave an amusing talk on the possibilities. Considering type designers as the astronauts in the typographic universe, OpenType Variable Fonts could be regarded as the new spaceship created and kindly provided by the industry. 

John Hudson of Tiro Typeworks showed how variable fonts might be used to improve specific aspects of micro-typographic layout in the near future. But more down to earth, there seemed to be little consensus on business plans as expressed by the panel on “Business opportunities and challenges in bringing variable OpenType fonts to the market”.

TYPO Labs 2017 showed a lot of progress happening with variable fonts. Peter Constable and Rob McKaughan from Microsoft described plans for adding support for variable fonts in Windows products and how variable fonts can be used in ways that interact with the human visual system to improve readability.

Monotype’s own Bob Taylor and Tom Rickner described new tools and techniques to create variable fonts from legacy families. The success of these techniques will determine cost and, ultimately, availability of large numbers of variable fonts.

 

Laurence Penney showed a demo of his Axis Praxis website where you can drag and drop a variable font and see how it performs. With the big announcement from Google, it will now be much easier to experiment with variable fonts on Axis Praxis. 

We are already looking forward to TYPO Labs 2018 to see what new and innovative applications are using variable fonts. In the meantime, we’ll be reporting on notable updates as they develop. Follow @Monotype on Twitter for the latest news.

Additional resources