Type's Late Bloomer

Most of today's typefaces come in two major font formats: TrueType and PostScript Type 1. Both formats have limitations, which is why Adobe and Microsoft joined forces in 1997 to introduce the OpenType format. OpenType holds promise for graphic designers concerned with well-crafted typography and cross-platform issues, but the format has languished in obscurity -- until now. Two developments from Adobe may raise its profile and give designers the means to a beautiful end.

Problems of the Past

On the Mac, each English-language TrueType and Type 1 font is limited to 256 encoded characters. (Apple's defunct GX technology, now reborn as AAT, is the exception, but it's not yet supported by third-party applications.) That doesn't leave much space for nonessentials. Refinements such as small caps, swashes (ornate versions of letters), and ligatures (letters that join for a more graceful look) are often shunted into separate fonts and can be tricky to use.

In addition, neither TrueType nor Type 1 fonts are cross-platform, which causes problems when files travel between the Mac and Windows worlds. Compatibility is further compromised by each platform's unique character set; for example, the Windows character set includes three basic fractions that the Mac character set doesn't have. If a colleague sends you a Windows file with those fractions, your Mac may not be able to translate the characters correctly.

Present Solutions

OpenType solves both the typographic and platform problems. It's based on Unicode, a multibyte character-encoding standard. One OpenType font can contain more than 65,000 characters, leaving plenty of room for swashes, ligatures, and other flourishes in the base font.

Unicode is also platform-independent, so the same OpenType font can work on both Mac and Windows. OpenType even makes font management easier, because a single font file combines the typeface's outline, metric, and bitmap data.

But the publishing industry can be slow to change, even when it's beneficial. Few type foundries have released OpenType fonts. Adobe has been the most prolific, though only about one-tenth of its vast type library is available as OpenType. However, in a presentation at Typecon 2001, Thomas Phinney, Adobe's program manager for Western fonts, revealed big changes ahead that could raise OpenType's profile.

The Future Is Now

"We produced our last Type 1 font two years ago," Phinney says. "The next step is to convert the entire Adobe type library to OpenType. We'll release the first portion late this year and finish by the first half of 2002." That translates to more than 2000 OpenType fonts.

Although OpenType fonts work as well as Type 1 and TrueType fonts in almost all publishing applications, only a few applications take advantage of OpenType's unique capabilities. Not surprisingly, the majority of these applications are from Adobe, and even its support has been limited. But Phinney says that an application he coyly refers to as a "future release of InDesign" will significantly expand OpenType support.

The current 1.5 version of InDesign can produce standard OpenType ligatures, small caps, proportional old style figures, and alternate uppercase characters. The unnamed future release (which appeared to be pretty far along) will pile on the refinements, allowing you to apply OpenType swashes, superscripts, subscripts, contextual alternates, contextual ligatures, discretionary ligatures, ordinals, as well as four types of numbers: tabular lining, proportional oldstyle, tabular oldstyle (great for annual report tables), and proportional lining.

A list of features is dry stuff, but seeing them in action demonstrates the technology's potential. After opening the unnamed version of InDesign, Phinney turned off some OpenType defaults then typed a phrase using Caflisch Script Pro, a typeface he said "could theoretically ship with a future version of InDesign."

It's nice but not extraordinary. Next, he went to the character palette flyout, restored the defaults from an OpenType submenu, and typed the line again.

The contextual alternates and contextual ligatures of this example appeared on the fly. "This is complex stuff," Phinney said. "InDesign can look at the whole context of the word, and one letter might change depending on something three or four letters away." The program will also occasionally apply more unusual typography. Note, for example, the differences between the double g's in "biggest" and "flogged."

Everything Old Is New Again

When publishing moved to the desktop, many professionals mourned the decline of traditional typesetting. OpenType and the future version of InDesign are poised to restore that seemingly lost art.

Terri Stone is an unabashed type fan and a Macworld senior editor.

Expanded OpenType support will ship in a future version of InDesign.Sentence displayed with OpenType defaults turned off.With OpenType defaults on, flourishes abound.
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