Robothon 2009: opening and morning talks
I just got to Den Haag for the Robothon 2009 conference, and will be writing down my impressions and rundowns of the event and talks (which will be inevitably biased by my personal take on software and design issues). The programme is loaded with type hacking heavyweights — Just van Rossum, Erik van Blokland, Tal Leming, Frederik Berlaen, Miguel Sousa from Adobe, Yanone, Georg Seifert, Yuri Yarmola from FontLab, Tim Ahrens and Frank Blokland will show the super typo-tinkering things they’ve been cooking.
I sort of parachuted into this tight gathering of type ninjas and enthusiasts, and there’s loads of smiles around; i spotted Jonathan Hoefler and couldn’t help thinking about going over and quip “Hey, you’re that guy from the Helvetica movie!” — a thought quickly discarded as i feel like a small alien in the middle of this type-savant, Macbook-wielding crowd.
At the registration, the organisers handed some beautiful UFO2 t-shirts and snazzy oversized badges. Spirits are high and people really seemed to be excited and running into each other; i was happy to have my strangerness feeling weathered down by Gustavo Ferreira, who came up and started a wonderful conversation — hearing Portuguese (especially sunny Brazilian) in Northern Europe made my day already! Looking through the Type&Media exhibition , i stumbled upon his great work with the Quantica font, made for screen use; i’ve always been terrified of anything that has to do with hinting, and his work looked really, really impressive — it’s a fun and revealing sight to find a printed version of hinted and rasterised fonts.
After wandering around and making some acquaintances with great people (fun how common ground in our type passion brings people together), i spotted Jos Buivenga from Exljbris and couldn’t help going over and pestering him with some questions regarding his stance on the font business — he’s the awesome type designer who rocked the blogosphere and designersphere after releasing many of his beautiful fonts free of charge in his website. His business model definitely works (he’s selling hundreds of copies of Museo), despite it challenging a rather strong taboo inside the professional type design field (that fonts are refined work meant to be sold), especially when one takes into account that he comes from the ‘traditional’ typography side. He’s incredibly nice and gracious, and we went together into the conference room to see Erik van Blokland’s opening talk.
I can’t help feeling butterflies in my stomach sitting in a conference with Jos Buivenga, and having the charming Vera Efstafieva (whose beautiful cyrillic calligraphy blog i’m addicted to) sitting right in front of me.
Erik van Blokland welcomed the crowd with a great presentation on the logistics and housekeeping details of the conference, how to access the KABK wireless and where all the fun will be had — there’s apparently a party at Petr van Blokland’s later tonight!
We were afterwards presented with the statistics on the masochistic tendencies of Robothon attendees through the event’s history. The lovely Dutch ‘droge humor’ (dry humour) was present all over Erik’s talk. He was careful to remind the audience that “this is an art school: before you sit down make, sure the paint is dry”. After the introduction, Erik went on to present Robofab.
Erik van Blokland: Getting started with Robofab
Erik started by asking ‘Why make new tools?’, given that ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions work fine. The role of new tools would be to make things easy, reduce distractions and hassle. It’s also about making new things possible and not falling into compromises. Finally, it’s about ‘mak[ing] the damn thing work for you’.
Robofab is, in Erik’s words, “glue”; it’s about sharing data between applications using the UFO file format — setting up your workflow for type design. For example, using the ‘Python mojo’ to create and manipulate OTF, UFO, FEA (metrics) and FDK (Adobe’s font devkit format) by jumping around different applications (FontLab, AFDKO, TTX FontTools, Super/Prepolator, MetricsMachine, TypeMyType and FontForge) and gluing their strengths together. Erik then announced the UFO to FDK bridge, which means one can now output OTF files from UFO through ADFKO.
Robofab is available for Mac systems, and works alongside FontLab Studio. (before the talk, Gustavo Ferreira told me that there’s a FontForge port which isnt ready yet; i’ll have to take a look into this). Robofab works tightly with the UFO format — which you don’t have to be a coder to grasp — and (sadly IMO) depends largely on interaction with FontLab Studio.
Robofab is also a hammer, sporting a Python object API with standard objects and methods; this means that we can use Robofab outside FontLab (not sure i got this right). Erik then proceeded to describe Robofab’s API and some basic usage, going on to demonstrate FontLab’s Python macro console. Erik has a great, relaxed and friendly style in explaining the basics of Python coding; i’m not a FontLab user, but he’s making font-coding look a lot of fun — which is quite rare when you stop to think about it.
Erik went over the basics of RoboFab, showing its methods to access glyph properties like names, spacing, kerning, UFO properties, and how to query and manipulate those via Python. Robofab also allows for the creation of dialogs (through Tal Leming’s dialogKit). This great tool will come up later in the conference — not so great that i can’t use it in my GNU/Linux system, but hey, remarkable nonetheless.
Miguel Sousa: Adobe Font Development Kit for OpenType — intro and new features
Miguel Sousa from Adobe Systems stepped up to show how AFDKO works. It’s a rather low-level tool for tweaking and setting OpenType features. It’s not a font editor, but rather a framework for dealing with those pesky OpenType particularities.
I didn’t pay a lot of attention to his introduction as i’m still pretty slow with writing; Miguel showed what the AFDKO workflow looks like, and demo’ed some of its commands. AFDKO is apparently only accesible via a command-line interface (he’s using a bash terminal) or FontLab macros. The whole of AFDKO seems to revolve around text files describing a font’s OpenType properties (kerning, features, etc.). I’m not so into the intricacies of the tools — i learned not to depend on Adobe or any proprietary tools, but that is a story for another post — so i can’t really make a lot out of the technical details. AFDKO involves a rather specific file structure and syntax for its style and properties files, which kind of brings up the contrast between Adobe’s sleek and user-friendly GUI tools like Photoshop, and this kind of specialist tool with a minimal interface.
AFDKO is an exhaustive framework to access and work with the most obscure details of OpenType hacking, full of cryptic 4-letter table names and strange scripting conventions. Again, i’m definitely biased, but i’m wondering if i’m the only one in the room that finds all these quasi-secret OpenType manipulation techniques too cryptic. Miguel’s slides are also rather dry and incredibly technical, but it’s clearly a powerful tool for those who would dare to dip their feet in this specialist field of font fine-tuning — which, unlike the mainstream Adobe apps we’re used to, is made a lot more involved by the lack of a straightforward UI. The names for the AFDKO’s smaller tools — sfntdiff, stemHist, tx, spot — sound a lot more like traditional GNU tools than the neat, shrink-wrapped and shiny apps that Adobe has gotten us used to. In the end i’m left wondering if this is a kind of intentional obscurity.