18 April 2005

[design tools] Travels With FontForge

The following is a post I made to the Yahoo! Graphic Designers Resource Group

A while back, I asked a question about font composing programs. Not too far down the road I want to produce my own fonts and wanted to find that program that would help me do it.

I got a few good suggestions, but in the main, I was surprised at how little there actually seems to be available. Fontographer and FontLab were suggestion (thanks, guys!) and I checked them out, Fontographer is the grand old program of the two, and is still available, but apparently still works (for the Macintosh) in OS9, which means Classic Enviro if your running OS X. FontLab is a very very capable program that has more than the features that I want.

The obstacle here is price. Prosperity may or may not be just down the road for me, I dunno, but with Fontographer at $349 and FontLab at $549 I won't be going there just yet.

The search began for alternatives. It's astounding how very little there is out there for those who want to create type. FontLab has a lighter-weight app called "TypeTool" which I've tried out. It's a very capable little program that will produce TrueType and PS Type 1 but doesn't have at least one crucial deal breaker for me-I want to make drawings and import them to trace off. TypeTool does not do this. But, at $99, it runs well, looks good under OS X, and seems good for the beginner. My survey of it found that it wasn't terribly intuitive and if you want to get beginning help on the demo version...well, good luck. There's no online help at all.

So I ventured out onto the web again in hopes of finding an alternative. Like I said, there's not much. It took a while to locate, but I seem to have stumbled onto something.

Once upon at time, George Williams wrote a utility called PfaEdit. It has been updated and called "FontForge", and is available at
http://fontforge.sourceforge.net. It has much to speak for it. There are considerable ups and considerable downs.

Upsides: Cost (it's free). Versions available for Wintel, Sun, and OSX, both source (so you can compile it yourself if your sufficiently geeky) and compiled binary. You can generate PS Type 1, Type 3, TrueType for Win and Mac, SVG, OpenType. More range than I need right now actually. Interface very close to what I've seen of Fontographer, with familiar tools to create beziƩrs and all that. Also-imports graphics for tracing-sweet!

Downsides...well, here we go. It's neither OS X nor Win native. It's an application designed to run under X Windows, the unix gui windowing system. This means you have to let your inner geek out to implement it, or, if you have none, get one. For Windows this means you have to install an open-source gem called 'cygwin' (Google for this). OS X users have a bit of an easier go of it; if you installed all the OS X you've got the Developer Tools and that means you have X11 for Mac. If you run OpenOffice.org (as I do) you've already used it. So far as I've had the experience, X starts up automatically when you launch an X Window application.

Not only that, but you have to grok...at least a little...your file system. I have no experience with this under Windows, but I do know unix enough to get around the file system and I know OS X. Fontforge installs in one of the unix directories, though, that aren't displayed in the Finder window...you either have to navigate there in Terminal and do "open ." or get your TinkerTool on. I then created an alias and put it where I could easily find it.

Since the icon for a unix executable is so dreary I made a graphic for the alias. Gill sans, maj F next to min f, little drop shadow on a white background square. Looks cute down there in the dock. Anyway.

More geekery required. Once the app is launched I try to import a PNG from the tutorial and it don't go. Says it can't load dynamic library and that the file is bad. I find that you can import bmp's but not anything else unless you also install a few libraries-that handle tiffs, pngs, and jpegs, amongst others. MacOS versions of these are obtained through the Fink project, so I get Fink, download, install (wake up out there!) and download and install the libraries.

Still can't import the PNGs. Humph.

Subscribe to the developers mailing list. Correspond with the app's author, who says that ff doesn't look where it's supposed to for these libraries and you have to set an environment variable to make ff look in the right place...or recompile ff with a patch. I go for the simple solution, which is the environment variable.

So, now it's working. Got my inner geek out to play (never was much of a coder but can hold my own in some geekery situations), and I'm ready to learn the app and compose some really killer fonts.

I'll be coming out with the next Gill Sans any. day. now.

1 comment:

roopshali@rediffmail.com said...

I downloaded fontforge a few months ago, but could nor use it till now because of its geeky side.
How can laymen like us get out of this?