Variable fonts: Big revolutions come in small packages

Gradient graphic with the words Variable fonts. Monotype at Adobe MAX.

By Carl Unger

Posted on 09-22-2020

Printing methods have evolved quite a bit over time, from hand-set type to complex hot-metal casters, from phototypesetting technology to today’s digital design programs. But throughout that evolution, and even as type designers push the aesthetic limits of their craft, our conception of the font itself has remained fairly static: a distinct weight, style, and size of a typeface, grouped within a typeface family.

Today, however, the design world is on the cusp of a revolution: variable fonts.

Variable fonts will transform the way we see and use type. They will make type more functional, easier to manage, and lead us further into our digital future. The very concept of fonts as we know it could change — permanently. Who knows? A hundred years from now, design schools and historians may note the adoption of variable fonts as an inflection point in the evolution of design, communication, and typography.

That’s a big claim. Can a new kind of font truly have such an impact on our world?

The soon-to-be old days

Before we look ahead, let’s take a step back.

In a traditional font family, each font is an individual file. If you’re using Adrian Frutiger’s Univers family of 59 fonts, for example, that means you have to purchase, install, and track 59 individual files. That’s manageable, of course, but not without thoughtful organization and possibly some additional software to help you keep things straight. In some cases, you may even be inclined to purchase just a handful of fonts from a large family, only to realize down the line that, lo and behold, you actually do need Univers 49 Light Ultra Condensed.

Put differently, managing dozens of fonts requires significant effort and attention. There’s also a good chance Univers isn’t the only font family you’ve licensed, so, in reality, we’re talking about hundreds or even thousands of individual font files.

Large font families have practical shortcomings, too. Fonts are a drag on web performance. When you use multiple fonts on a web page — say, three or four versions of Univers — each font file has to be downloaded when the site loads. This may only take fractions of a second, but it’s enough to make a website feel sluggish. So as much as we may love the way a website looks when it uses a robust assortment of fonts, loading all those fonts can really disrupt the user’s experience. And for all that robust typographic depth, you may still end up having to settle for a font that isn’t quite perfect — slightly too thin or slightly too heavy, for example.

All this is to say, the traditional concept of a typeface as the sum of distinct, individual parts is out of step with the modern world. Designers are using more typefaces than ever before, and the public is consuming most of those designers’ work not only online but on an enormous range of devices (and with little patience for lagging).

Sounds like a situation primed for a revolution, no?

Sentient acrobats of the typographic world

The simplest definition of a variable font is that it’s a single font file containing a breadth of styles, often a complete font family or sub-family. Let’s say, again, that you’re working with Univers. The Univers Next Variable family turns those 59 individual font files into two — one each for upright and italic — that contain every family member from Light Condensed to Extrablack Extended. Not only is this easier to manage, but the reduction in file quantity helps improve web performance. With variable fonts, you can deploy several versions of the upright Univers Next, for example, with a single server call and download.

You’ll still find all the Univers styles you know and love waiting for you in your font menu (there you are, Univers 49 Light Ultra Condensed!), even though you’ve only installed two font files. But here’s where the fun begins: Variable fonts don’t limit designers to just those styles.

Variable fonts exist on a continuum that makes the gaps between those styles accessible to designers. Variables can include weight, width, italic/slant, and optical sizing, meaning you can fine-tune your typography with previously unthinkable precision. Variable fonts will make a big difference for small type and type on the web, where the ability to refine type in minute detail will make digital content more and more legible.

But variability is not limited to strictly typographic elements. Many type designers are experimenting with decorative elements, such as the degree of shine on a bubbly display typeface or the emotion a font conveys. Some designers are even merging variable fonts with other technologies to create typefaces that can interact with their environments.

The possibilities of variable fonts are truly infinite. Never before have designers gazed into a future that holds so much possibility. So, can a new kind of font truly transform the way we communicate, create, and interact with our world? We’re about to find out.

Monotype Creative Type Director Charles Nix will explore these possibilities in an Adobe MAX session titled “Acrobatic, Sentient, Shape-Shifting Typography with Variable Fonts.” Charles will share exciting examples of variable fonts already in use; demonstrate how new variable font technology will enable designers to create with exciting, engaging, and effective typography; and discuss how variable fonts and digital transformation are revolutionizing brands. Register today and attend live at 3pm EDT on October 21.

Topics: Adobe MAX, Events, Insights & Inspiration, Creative Cloud, Typography,