Drawing Outlines: Illustrator vs. FontLab

oribendor's picture

I have almost no experience with Illustrator at all, but I understand many typeface desginers use it for drawing outlines, so I wonder what its advantages over, say, FontLab -- merely as a tool for drawing outlines -- are.

Can it do things FontLab can't? Does it offer better algorithms for transforming outlines than FontLab does? Is it just simpler to use? Please share your thoughts!


ebensorkin's picture

I think it depends on what environment you think better in. Some people like to do things in pencil first & then go to fontlab instead.

I would encourage you to try them for yourself ( the pencil too) and see what helps you think about what your doing best.

dan_reynolds's picture

If you are already comfortable working in FontLab, I'd stay in FL. It save time and steps. I stopped drawing letters in Illustrator a few months ago. Now, when I go back into it to edit old files, I get mad that it isn't FontLab!

oribendor's picture

Thanks, Eben, but I wanted to learn about the differences between Illustrator and FontLab merely as tools for drawing outlines, regardless of whether you turn directly to the computer, start with pencil sketches or simply digitize an existing typeface.

Is it only a matter of interface (menus ordered differently, different keys used for the same actions, etc.), or is there something deeper to it?

oribendor's picture

Thanks, Dan, I guess that pretty much fully answers my question.

david h's picture

This is all about preferences. You don't have to learn Illustrator/work with Illustrator.

ebensorkin's picture

*BUT* Some people who have learned how to think in vectors in illustrator find that they think & work best in Illustrator. For them it's useful to work in that environment. It is comfortable. Illustrtor lets you zoom in & out more easily / flexibly. It has some UI advantages which are real.

Like Dan, I am used to fontlab now. Now when I work in illustrator - even for Illustration - it irritates me that the vector editing behavior is not more like Fontlab. I am used to fontlab now. But it might be the reverse for someone else. I used to like Illutrator better.

From a practical point of view, if you are going to make alot of fonts - or work on one serious one - you might want to just wrap your head around Fontlab because it will save you time in the long run ( no conversion process) and you can place the points where they need to go from the beginning instead of having to figure out where the orthodox placement of points for your shape should be afterwards. Optimal point placement is different in Fonts than in illustration - it's more restrictive.

Do you know what I am talking about?

On the other hand If you do understand this theory then you could use that knowlege in Illustrator too. So...

Dan, when you used illustrator were you saavy to point placement theory already or were you using 'optomize' on your outline after you imported it or what? What was your experience like?

dan_reynolds's picture

>Dan, when you used illustrator were you saavy to point placement theory already or were you using ‘optomize’ on your outline after you imported it or what? What was your experience like?

No, not at all. But until February I was still making Fonts with Fontographer, whose point placement isn't completely accurate anyway (although you can fidget with the numbers until you get it right, even though I never did).

Right after switching to FontLab, I starting setting up Illustrator to work with FL. Here are the instructions on how to do that. I worked that way for a month, but then I realized that no amount of optimization would be quicker than working directly in FontLab all the time.

crossgrove's picture

I've noticed that people get used to one or the other program for outline work and then stick with it out of familiarity. The preference usually is based on that, rather than actual features. I personally don't want to go through conversion hoops from AI to FL when I can draw my outlines with all the guides, metrics, etc. available in each glyph window. Saves time, especially since I need to edit the outlines in FL anyway. I can't do much proofing with a collection of outlines that don't have spacing, alignment, or keyboard accessibility, and once I get proofing, there will be changes. If for some reason type design programs didn't have outline editing tools, I might consider using Illustrator, but FL (and Fontographer) is quite robust for outline work, and the new version will be even better.

Illustrator's outline editing tools are slightly different from those in FL. Specifically, nice shortcuts like double-clicking points to change them from corner to smooth aren't the same. Because I'm not used to drawing letters in AI, I prefer to do type drawing in a type design program. When I need to make clip art or other less structured outlines I use AI.

To answer your questions directly: AI doesn't offer any advantage in drawing letters, especially when you need to make type out of the letters. Illustrator isn't simpler to use or more powerful. It's all personal habits.

oribendor's picture

BTW, Eben, I've recently found out that at least in Windows FL lets you zoom in and out really easily. Just hold down the ALT key and scroll the mouse wheel up and down.

dux's picture

It's quite simple for me. Fontlab's vector drawing tools are far superior.

sim's picture

To answer your questions simply, I'd say that Illustrator is a vector drawing program mostly used for logo, technical objects, charts and so on. It's a ideal companion for a page layout software. I worked with Illustrator since the first version (Illustrator 88) and he always has his place on my computer. However I'm forced to admit that Fontlab do a better job if you want to draw letters. It's a ideal companion to a type designer.

TBiddy's picture

Wow, looks like I'm the only one here with a differing opinion. Since I'm not nearly on the same professional level as many who post on this site, I prefer Illustrator to actually draw glyphs. I like to see all the glyphs together and how they relate to each other. Its easier for me to see that in Illustrator.

I also work by drawing my letters first with pencil, scanning, then tracing...so Illustrator I think is better for that. I'm more comfortable with the bezier drawing tools in AI than in FontLab...I still find FontLab's bezier tools to be more difficult to use. This is not to say I might not change my mind eventually.

However, I only do "basic sketches" in Illustrator. By far I use FL more than AI. FontLab's editing tools can hand Illustrator's @$$ to it on a silver platter. When using FontLab for glyph editing, you quickly see the major limitations of Illustrator's vector editing capabilities.

So in short I use Illustrator for basic glyph sketches, FontLab for all editing.

twardoch's picture

Zoom: use the Z and X keys, Option+mouse wheel, Cmd+space for marquee zoom and Cmd+1 to Cmd+6.

The biggest conceptual different between FontLab and Illustrator is that FontLab always imposes the integer-coordinate grid. Since the final fonts must have outline points on integer coordinates, this gives you full WYSIWYG but sometimes does not give you full flexibility. In Illustrator, you can use fractional coordinates which demands more self-control: you may end up with drawing some superfine design features that will be in the end impossible to incorporate them into the final font since they all will have to be rounded to integers anyway. But the final decision is of course the user's and depends on your preferences.


Nick Shinn's picture

>FontLab always imposes the integer-coordinate grid

That's brilliant. It certainly imposes rigour on one's details.

Overall, FontLab is superior. However, for "Bezier sketching", I still prefer to use Fontographer, primarily for one feature: "click on handle snaps to extrema", which FontLab lacks. I also like Fog's "insert point and drag", and its "expand stroke" feature works better than FL's (including FL's "make parallels").

Another thing I find frustrating about FL is the way when you delete a point and the adjacent point is the blue "end path", then the path goes straight and you lose your curve: is there a way to avoid that?

dezcom's picture

"...Another thing I find frustrating about FL is the way when you delete a point and the adjacent point is the blue “end path”,..."

I stumbled on that once by using the "control-click" pop-up but I never remember which thing changes the end path. I think you have to choose another point to be end-path first. Sorry Nick, I am such a brain-dead old fart that I can't remember squat anymore.


William Berkson's picture

In fontlab if you right click a node in the outline on the PC--or I assume control click on the Mac--it gives you the option of 'make node first'. So if you want to change the end-of-path point, right click or control-click another node, and make that other node first. Then you won't lose the curve when you modify.

Mark Simonson's picture

Nick, the simplest work around is to do "Make node first" (from the contextual pop-up) to a node somewhere else on the path not adjacent to the node you want to delete. After you delete the node, you can do "Make node first" on the original first node to restore the node order if you need to.

One caveat: Changing the order of the nodes will mess up any links you may have set up. The solution is to temporarily convert them to hints while performing the above procedure.


Back on topic:

I used to use Illustrator to do all my drawing when I was using Fontographer because I didn't like the drawing tools in Fontographer. Getting art from Illustrator to Fontographer was very simple. Working the same way with FontLab is not as simple and for years this kept me from switching to FontLab. Then I learned to draw directly in FontLab and this became an irrelevant issue. Not only that, I now am able to work much more quickly and efficiently and wish I'd figured this out sooner.

One reason I did like working in Illustrator was the one Terry brought up, about being able to work with glyphs side by side, in context. You can get most of this functionality by keeping a metrics preview window open while you work. Having a second screen is especially helpful if you work this way. The new version of FontLab should be even better in this regard since it allows you to see other glyphs next to the one you're working on in the glyph window (or something like that). This was actually a feature I suggested which was picked up by Yuri on Typophile a while back. I'm not sure exactly how it works as I haven't been privy to the beta versions, but I'm looking forward to it.

dezcom's picture

William and Mark,
Thanks! That was exactly what I was trying oh, so badly to explain.


Nick Shinn's picture

Bill, Mark, thanks for the tip!
Bit of a workaround, though, so I'm still preferring Fog for "sketching".


Here's another problem:
In Fog's metrics, you can advance or retreat a glyph in the glyph string by "command-[" and "command-]", but in FL only the backwards version works. Is it possible to go forwards?

Mark Simonson's picture

Reportedly, the delete-node problem will work more sensibly in FLS5.

In Fog’s metrics, you can advance or retreat a glyph in the glyph string by “command-[” and “command-]”, but in FL only the backwards version works. Is it possible to go forwards?

Not sure what you mean. It works correctly for me (i.e., as in FOG)--I can go backwards or forwards in the metrics window.

Nick Shinn's picture

>Not sure what you mean.

Start with "aaa" in the metrics window, and advance the centre glyph to b, to get "aba", then "aca" and so on.

William Berkson's picture

p. 410 Fontlab manual:

"Insert" Changes current glyph to next glyph in the font
"Delete" Changes currrent glyph to previous glyph.

I didn't know about it either.

Mark Simonson's picture

Start with “aaa” in the metrics window, and advance the centre glyph to b, to get “aba”, then “aca” and so on.

That's what I'm doing, using command-[ and command-], and it works just fine. You have to click on the glyph to select it first. And this doesn't work right for you?

William Berkson's picture

Whoops, forgot that there are separate manuals for PC and Mac. The insert & delete keys work on a PC.

Nick Shinn's picture

>And this doesn’t work right for you?

Only for going backwards. "Command - ]" does nothing.

Mark Simonson's picture

Strange. Does command-] work when you are in the glyph window (to switch to the next glyph)?

hrant's picture

Have you asked FontLab directly? They're very good that way.


Mark Simonson's picture

Could it be that you somehow re-assigned command-] to some other command? It's possible to do this with the Customize window.

.00's picture

Why not use the comma and period keys to advance and retreat in the glyph window? One key is better than two. No? Just like the z key for zoom in and x key for zoom out. I've been surprised how many FontLab users I've met that didn't know about z and x.

Mark Simonson's picture

Thanks, James. I didn't know about either of those. As usual, when I already have one way of doing something, I tend not to look for alternatives.

Unfortunately, it doesn't help Nick since the comma-period trick doesn't work in the Metrics window (you get commas and periods instead).

.00's picture

The command-] and command-[ work fine in the metrics window here as well, although I'll admit I never use those commands, I usually have lots of strings of text that I work with via text files in the metrics window.

Christian Robertson's picture

The two reasons I still use Illustrator: Option Drag and the "Reshape Tool". The reshape tool works a lot like Fontlab's interpolation command, but the interface is much cleaner, though I do miss the FontLab interpolation's numeric control. I think the ideal interpolation tool would be an Illustrator style reshape tool that responded to arrow key/shift arrow key adjustments.

The only other consideration is that I'm so used to Illustrator style editing that I'm much faster that way. I imagine that if I were to spend more time drawing from scratch in FontLab I would find new ways of doing things. I do have to do quite a bit of cleaning my rough Illustrator curves, because FontLab's tools are much more precise, and I just can't do without FontLab's eraser tool.

TBiddy's picture

I think Illustrator's Pathfinder tools are a lot easier to use than FontLab's. I spent much too long trying to figure out how to make an "O" in FontLab.

Mark Simonson's picture

You don't need a pathfinder tool to do that: Just make the inside path go the opposite direction as the outside path.

Syndicate content Syndicate content