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Digital Type Design Tools

This article was constructed from a posting by Charles A. Bigelow in Jun 1994 and a posting by Clive Bruton in Jan 1995.

How do the various digital type designing tools compare?

Charles A. Bigelow contributes:

Kris Holmes and I use Ikarus and IkarusM, on the Macintosh, for most of our work. We also use Fontographer from time to time. Both are good tools. We have not tried TypeDesigner. We have tried FontStudio, but don't use it.

IkarusM and Fontographer user interfaces are different (modulo the Mac interface). IkarusM displays all ``on-curve'' points, treating the curves as Hermite splines, which it converts to Beziers when making Type1 or Type3 fonts, and to quadratic B-splines when making TrueType fonts. On-curve points are helpful because they are intuitively more like what a naive user would expect---to change a curve, change a point on its contour. Fontographer uses bezier on-curve and off-curve control points. While these take a little more getting used-to, experienced users have no problems manipulating curves by moving around the off-curve control points.

Fontographer uses curve fitting of scanned input and/or mouse manipulation of points to get started on outlines. IkarusM uses graphics tablet input from drawn (or photographed) artwork or mouse manipulation to get started.

Both provide auto-hinting capabilities (IkarusM just included this in version 3.0), but I haven't compared the quality of hinting between the applications. Both provide automatic kerning capabilities, but again I haven't compared the quality carefully. IkarusM itself doesn't do kerning, but version 3.0 comes with Kernus, a separate auto-kerning system.

Fontographer has more ``goodies'' in terms of the the different kinds of output of fonts and screen fonts for different platforms (indeed, we prefer it for making BDF bitmaps for UNIX platforms), and in the ``finer points'' so to speak, of manipulating control points, whereas IkarusM has more internal accuracy of resolution and more geometric symmetry manipulation tools.

Fontographer has auto-tracing capability, for fitting outlines to scanned images, whereas IkarusM needs a separate program, LinusM to do that. However, LinusM adds several capabilities that Fontographer does not provide.

I have forgotten the current list price for Fontographer (sorry, but I'm sure a Fontographer user or someone from Altsys can provide it; is it around \$250 - \$300?). IkarusM + Kernus + LinusM is around \$900, but one should check with the URW office in Nashua, NH, to be certain of that figure and of what is included.

There are many other differences between the programs, and perhaps other users will want to point them out.

Which would I choose? Well, I have them both. Kris Holmes and I have produced over 75 typefaces with Ikarus, though some of those were with Ikarus on VAX or Sun. We are comfortable with Ikarus and feel that it provides the highest level of precision and control, which for our professional purposes is what we most value. Nevertheless, we find Fontographer to be very good tool and continually buy the updates and test it and use it for various things when we feel that it is superior to Ikarus in particular respects. The best thing would be to test them both, but unfortunately, one's preference for one or the other might not manifest itself until one has gained more experience.

Disclaimer: We pay the standard prices and purchase our copies of IkarusM and Fontographer and their upgrades, figuring that font tool developers deserve to be paid for their work, just like font designers. Bigelow & Holmes has font licensing arrangements with URW, the developers of Ikarus, but we are not paid by them.

What about FontStudio?

[Editors note: This seems like valuable information for the FAQ, which is why I've included it in a mostly wholesale fashion as Clive posted it. In general, I'm not a big fan of anonymous contributions, but in this case I've chosen to look the other way ;-). In particular, I've made no attempt to disambiguate the personal pronouns in this section!]

Clive Bruton contributes the following:

I will now do a mini compendium of all my comments as FontStudio's chief promoter, along with all the other people who support my view.

Sorry to those who are not credited, but others wish to remain anonymous.

The following snippets are not necessarily in chronological order, names have been changed to protect the guilty!

Is FontStudio Still Being Marketed?

Well it's one of those questions isn't it, it is certainly advertised in the UK and as far as I know still supported by Letraset UK, but as you have probably seen in comp.fonts there has been some debate over the relative merits of FontStudio vs Fontographer, my arguement suitably backed-up by ...., and there is certainly some doubt over its imediate future.

Personally I'd like to see it re-launched, if only because the market needs some stimulation in order to produce ground-breaking products, and one App/Vendor (Fontographer/Altsys) doesn't make for healthy competition, as we've seen with Quark getting fat and lazy over their upgrades for XPress with no perceived threat from PageMaker (that should change real soon).

However it (FS) retails in the UK for \$195.00 as opposed to Fontographers \$295.00, the current version is 2.0, as it has been for over two years, but then again there have been no bug fixes for it, no need!

I am sure that you could buy it in the US via Letraset directly, if you wanted to. As far as marketing goes, I have just received a software brochure from Camalot (UK software vendor) that partly showcases the full Letraset range, and FontStudio is in there with the rest.

If you can't get it in the States, I'm sure I can arrange for it to be shipped to you.

What About Bitmap Generation?

FontStudio's advantage is that they call the ATM API to get ATM-generated bitmaps. Fontographer generates their own---and the results are much heavier and more messy.

Yes, you're right, I did know, FS has 3 options on this, its own generation, which like Fontographers are rather heavy, ATM's which are just about perfect, and True Type, which from memory---since I only tried it a couple of times---tend to be a bit quirky.

FontStudio is Better [than Fontographer]?

Could you elaborate on that? Why do you suppose that FontStudio disappeared, and Fontographer is still around? Not being belligerent or challenging you, since I'm totally unfamiliar with FontStudio---but Altsys is not exactly a Goliath compared to Letraset, in terms of the size of the company or the depth of its pockets, and I'm curious why such a good product from a big font vendor disappeared.

I'll chime in here if that's OK. I'm very glad FontStudio came along; Fontographer was resting on its laurels until it got serious competition. Many people prefer FontStudio's drawing interface (which is like Illustrator's) to Fontographer's (which is, unsurprisingly, like Freehand's). There are other parts to the interface debate as well, like zoom factors, dialog complexity, and so forth, although much of it may be a matter of taste.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX was one of FontStudio's beta sites, and they used a lot of our advice, so it's not accidental that our designers still tend to use it until it's time to move the fonts over to the SPARCs. I use it when I'm playing with designs at home.

It looks like Letraset didn't know how to promote what it had. It's worth noting that they'yre divesting themselves of their other graphics apps, not just FontStudio. At any rate, the biggest hurdle was that Fontographer had a four-year head start, capturing the hearts of nearly everyone who was serious about making fonts. Nobody wants to relearn an app, so the competition has to be darned good to get people to switch. It has happened (witness XPress vs PageMaker) but it's not easy. Another problem was that Letraset didn't develop FontStudio, they bought it. They and the developers (now Ares, the FontMonger people) didn't get along well, and that led to a painfully slow upgrade process. Altsys got themselves in gear, and started adding features right & left, outdoing FontStudio on nearly every count (technically, not necessarily in terms of user experience).

I can only agree with what XXX has said above, plus...

Just some more background info on FontStudio/Letraset. Unfortunately Letraset never seemed to get the knack of selling software, some examples of this are, Letraset were originally the distributors of Adobe products in the UK - a job that is now carried out by Principal, they also had a full complement of other Mac software - which seems to have reverted to its authors or disappeared alltogether, it has recently released the first commercially available Plug-In for Illustrator, a derivative of LetraStudio, to allow the creation of pespective and envelope effects - who knows about this?

Back to the FontStudio/Fontographer debate, I have tried to use Fontographer, but as discussed above, the interface is just awful (as an aside, does anyone like FreeHand 4.0's interface?), FontStudios use of colour, pop-up menus, and general look and feel is completely at home alongside XPress and Illustrator, where as Fontographer, well... isn't!

All the buzzers and bells are there in Fontographer, but can you really take seriously a program that won't allow you to draught your own bitmaps! (Yeah I have heard about ATM, that's not the point).

Also, and I won't lay the blame solely at the door of Altsys, whenever I get asked to sort out a problem font, it's always been created with Fontographer. Now whether that is down to Altsys Fontographer (AF) trying to things that aren't exactly kosher (like using even/odd rule instead of winding), or the skill of the digitisers who did the work I've never been able to fathom, but it's usually fixed by importing into FontStudio (FS) and re-saving.

I hope that Ares do something with FS, otherwise sooner or later I am going to need a new program (I have found a minor screen draw problem when used with System 7.5, I've yet to try it on a PowerMac [anyone wants me to, I can send you results]), I have already looked around, and seem a lot more likely to buy Ikarus M than AF, it's really that bad.

I would also like to comment on XXX's point about XPress/PageMaker, I hope that Adobe can make a real killer of PM, and reverse that trend, XPress>PM that'll be the way to go!

Just to take Xpress' name in vain again (I don't hate the program, just the smug bastards that want to charge me \$190.00 to get a native version, and only a native version - Adobe has got the right attitude there!) "XPress" is to "Word for Windows", what "FontStudio" is to "Fontographer".

QED. Maybe not!

If all those in favour send me a *YAY* (addressed to typonaut@d-supp.demon.co.uk) and someone sends me e-addresses for Ares and Letraset, then I will forward them your support, who knows Altsys may even decide to pack the whole Fontographer game in, and Adobe can relaunch FontStudio!

Excerpted from The comp.fonts FAQ, Copyright © 1992-96 by Norman Walsh