Variable fonts

Tuesday 17 September 2019

We’re all used to fonts coming in different weights (normal, bold), or sometimes different widths (normal, condensed, extended). Geometrically, there’s no reason that these variations need to be discrete. It’s a limitation of technology that we’ve been given a few specific weights or widths to choose from.

Over the years there have been a few attempts to make those variation dimensions continuous rather than discrete. Knuth’s Metafont was one, Adobe’s Multiple Master fonts were another. The latest is OpenType’s variable fonts.

In a variable font, the type designer not only decides on the shapes of the glyphs, but on the axes of variability. Weight and width are two obvious ones, but the choice is arbitrary.

One of the great things about variable fonts is that browsers have good support for them. You can use a variable font on a web page, and set the values of the variability dimensions using CSS.

Browser support also means you can play with the variability without any special tools. Nick Sherman’s is a gallery and playground of variable fonts. Each is displayed with sliders for its axes. You can drag the sliders and see the font change in real time in your browser.

Many of the fonts are gimmicky, either to show off the technology, or because exotic display faces are where variability can be used most broadly. But here are a few of my choices that demonstrate variability to its best advantage:

Antonia Variable includes an optical size axis. Optical size refers to the adjustments that have to be made to shapes to compensate for the size of the font. At tiny sizes, letters have to be wider, and features sturdier in order for type to remain legible, but also seem like the same family. It’s kind of like how babies have the same features as adults, but smaller and plumper.

Sample of Antonia Variable

Bradley DJR Variable, is another good example of an optical size axis.

Sample of Bradley DJR Variable

UT Morph is an ultra-geometric display face with two stark axes, positive and negative. This shows how variability can be used to control completely new aspects of a design.

Sample of UT Morph

Recursive has some really interesting axes that use variability in eye-opening ways without being cartoonish: proportion (how monospaced is it), expression (how swoopy is it), and italic (changes a few letter shapes).

Sample of Recursive

Variable fonts are still a new technology, but we’ll see them being used more and more. Don’t expect to see fonts stretching and squashing before your eyes though. Site designers will use variability to make some choices, and you won’t even realize variability was involved. Like all good typography, it won’t draw attention to itself.


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