04 November 2006

[design] In-House: Fonts, Fonts, Fonts and Collecting For Output

This in-house designer lesson-of-the-week (more or less) is brought to you by the majesty of digital fonts and the fact that they are, in actuality, application files. It's supported by what is sometimes the sheer complexity of the actual digital design proposition.

Fonts on your computer are, in a way, not merely data files. They are produced by people–companies, individuals, consortiums, or what have you–and copyright pertains naturally, even in our currently messed-up, subject-to-politics legal system (I'm not against copyrights, mind...that's all for another program actually. Excuse the digression). As such, the original creator retains all rights to the font files, but you, the user have the right to use them to create layout and documents within reasonable limits.

Being commercial digital software, all the other limits and rights also pertain: you can't give them away, if you provide them to another then it must be within the context of a specific use, you can't sell them as your own, and you can't get a commerically-available font from another user free and use them in your own for-profit projects without risking copyright infringmement.

Yes, all that good stuff.

The Application Told You So!

Moreover, the leading layout and aggregator applications are designed with this in mind.

InDesign calles it "Package"; QuarkXPress calls it "Collect for Output..."; both options can be found in the respective application's File dropdowns. What they do is gather all the files used in production–the layout document file, supporting pictures, color profiles, and germanely, fonts, and deposit them (and plain-text report about the process) in a folder of your specification.

This is a very sophisticated and valuable function. There was a time, back in the days of Mac System 7 and OS 8 and before, when Quark was King and PageMaker was still in the game, when the digital designerista had to manually collect the graphics and fonts they used to design the layout manually (that is, finding them in the disk and copying them into the output folder that was destined for the service bureau). As far as my limited awareness of the history of electronic layout goes, font collection was kind of late to the the game, not showing up in QuarkXPress until version 4 (or maybe 4.01), in the mid-late 90's.

Since Adobe and Quark are both major shareholders in the idea of digital rights, each layout application flashes a big ol' warning sign your direction when you collect or package. Here's what InDesign CS2 tells you:

And here's QuarkXPress 6.5 harshing your vibe:

The differences in approaches are intriguing; Indy gives you the full monty (at least as succinctly as possible), QXP is a little less informative. And while, in QXP, if you don't care for the fonty restrictions you can go on without them, Indy wouldn't think to go on without those fonts (Indy wouldn't think of leaving his buddies behind!).

The upshot of all the legalese is this (as I understand it; IANA Copyright/digital rights L):
  1. You're about to copy software you have rights to, but do not own copyright for.
  2. It is your remit to to understand copyright law and license rights as they apply here. Just like the traffic code, ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
  3. All else being equal you do, however, have the right to pack up a copy of the font files you used for this particular job only with the document file to send to the service bureau.
  4. The service bureau may use the font you supply, but only for the purposes of print production of this job and nothing else.
  5. There may be unusual circumstances that mean that, despite the previous two allowances, your service bureau is not authorized to use the fonts you send (we certainly can't think of them).
It's The Chewy Center

So what's the point, after all that legal blah-de-blah? Simply this: fonts are not integral to the digital file a layout artist composes. They are an include.

If I came up with a brilliant layout (If? Sorry, when...) e.g. in QuarkXPress, and gave you a copy of the .qxd file and nothing else, you'd open this up on your workstation and, if you don't have the fonts I do, you'll get the layout-file equivalent of a dog's breakfast.

Lets, for the sake of argument, assume a text layout with no graphics at all. If QXP does not find the fonts the document file tells it it's supposed to be linked to, you'll get a host of dialog boxes that encourage you to link to the proper files (or, if QXP 6.5 and later doesn't find the fonts in disk it'll ask you if you want to purchase them and then whisk you off to the appropriate retail website). If you decide to forge ahead (hey, I said forge! Like metal type! Funnay joak!) anyway the layout will be populated with defonts (what I call default fonts when I'm in a hurry). Type selection is a concious choice meant to support the overall message the design sends.

The layout collapses in a heap of embarrassment and tries to hide out as a Word doc. Not pretty.

But what if you seem to have those fonts anyway? So far so good; you diligently relink (swearing bad mojo upon the layouter who sent you the fontless layout file) and–bingo!–you have the layout as the artist intended it be seen.

Or do you?

The fact is that similarly named fonts from different founders may have differences in metrics (kerning, letterspacing and the like) that range from the subtle to the amazing. So, the text is imported and looks right but now it's not flowing properly, H&Js aren't working out, and in really irritating cases, the copy actually needs to be refit. If your correspondent is sufficiently patient and generous to refit the copy on thier end and send you back the result, it's going to be all When Worlds Collide again and the errors can pile up.

You Can Turn Off that Damn Theremin Now

The previous tale of typographical horror is just hypothetical, now. But it illustrates the reason why layouters have to be aware of what relationships fonts have to thier documents and why they have to be aware of copyright and why we collect for output.

Generally speaking, common-sense best-practices instilled as almost-ritual in graphic arts (and drummed unrelentingly into design school students heads) make the habit of checking and conforming with them almost subliminal. I hardly have a birds-eye view of the field but here at the Times we hear very little about such problems being a huge issue.

But if there are a set of commandments for layout artists, two of them must be: Thou shalt package and preflight, and Thou shalt be aware of copyright.

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