At long last, Ken Barber’s Studio Lettering is available to the public. I wrote the OpenType features for these fonts, so I thought that I’d give a quick behind the scenes tour. If you are interested, Ken and I will be explaining more of the overall logic in detail at the next ATypI conference.
This Took Forever
Ken and I started talking seriously about the features when I was still working at House. I think the first time we sat down and started sketching out the desired behavior was right after the Ed Benguiat collection was released in late 2004. We kicked ideas around for the next couple of years while Ken worked on the drawing. In 2005 we presented some of our initial work at ATypI in Helsinki. From that point on, Ken would call me from time to time to talk about ideas he had while drawing and I made small experiments to check the viability of the ideas. The development of the final features didn’t begin until late last year when Ken and Ben Kiel came down to the Type Supply World Headquarters to officially get the ball rolling. I worked on the features steadily up until the middle of last week. Yes, we were making changes up until the last minute. Big changes in some cases.
Alternates for Alternates of Alternates
The features in in Swing are by far the most complex features I have ever written. That font uses most of the tricks that I’ve developed over the years: meta classes, triggers, fixer lookups, rotation schemes and so on. A couple of weeks ago, Ken called me and asked how a certain alternate glyph was being inserted. I replied that I honestly had no idea. I explained to him that these features are a lot like Plinko on the Price is Right. The text comes in, bangs around various algorithms and comes out at the end. Where it ends up is dependent on a long list of variables. I know how the individual algorithms work, but the overall thing? No idea.
The algorithm that inserts the size alternates was written from the ground up at least five times. The very first version implemented a rather complicated pseudo-random pattern insertion scheme that Ken and I cooked up. We had this wild idea that we could swap entire glyph runs with alternate patterns and create something that was nearly indistinguishable from lettering produced by an organic life form. The code for this was bonkers, but it worked really well in our initial tests. However, as we got deeper into developing these features the pattern complexity started to backfire. It was too complicated to predict what would come out of the various cycles of the algorithm. This caused problems when inserting positional forms and ligatures. Also, it made my head hurt really bad. I rewrote and rewrote until we got to a point that gave us a more controlled randomness. We really crashed into the edge of the OpenType universe and I have the scars to prove it.
The other fonts have lots of nifty features as well. All of them have lots of language specific alternates, initial and terminal forms, lots of ligatures and alternates for alternates of alternates.
Ben did a heroic job of corralling Ken’s late night glyph stampedes, wrestling the kerning into a usable form and dealing with my surly rants when I realized that I would have to rewrite features to accommodate the latest alternate Estonian alternates. We owe Ben a trophy.
Ken Barber, Living Legend
I can’t talk about these fonts without pointing out how great they are. Set aside the OpenType features (seriously, turn the features off) and these things still look perfect. I spent many hours on this project flipping through the various glyphs and marveling at how well drawn everything was. The third alternate German d that in all likelihood no one will ever see? Not a point out of place and not a curve unperfected. The fit and finish in these fonts is phenomenal. Ken is working on a level that few people ever attain and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
PS: Jokes for Lettering Nerds
For the last few months, people at House kept mentioning “the photos of Ken.” I had no idea what they were talking about and my inquiries were always met with, “We’ll email them to you.” I finally saw them yesterday and one in particular amuses me to no end. Ken is a student of lettering history and he loves to pay tribute to the masters here and there. Well, one of the photos is direct homage to the great Mortimer Leach. It replicates the portrait of Mr. Leach that is displayed in the forward of his outstanding Lettering for Advertising.
Bravo Mr. Barber, bravo.