Do font pros really use FontLab or Fontographer?

msa's picture

Do the pros making fonts these days for the big foundries really use FontLab (or, I suppose, Fontographer)?

I recently finished work on a font I needed for internal purposes, but for the sake of education, I decided to make the font as "complete", as I could; I implemented a full character set, went through the process of class-based metrics and kerning, etc., even though these features really weren't needed.

I designed the glyphs in Illustrator, and while that went fine, the process of creating an actual font using FontLab was incredibly tedious. I found the program to be unstable and buggy in numerous aspects, not the least of which was the "dissapearing metrics classes" I posted about last week (which others have apparently encountered as well).

To be honest, I'd love to make more fonts, but the prospect of having to wade through the FontLab jungle again for such a labor-intensive project is a deal-breaker.

So, to restate my question, would someone working on a complete typeface project (as in, multiple weights, styles, "Pro" character sets, etc.), like say, Myriad, or Caslon, or whatever, actually use FontLab? I can't imagine getting halfway through a project like that without killing myself. :)

If there's anything better out there, I'd *love* to know about it.


kris's picture

They use all sorts: Fontlab, Fontographer, Robofog and various other small task-specific apps. Python as well. Fontlab is easy once you get used to it. Quite powerful for the big jobs. Although I am too young for Fontographer, I am under the impression that a few developers use it predominantly. Whatever gets the job done, but definately not Illo!


oldnick's picture

I create outlines in CorelDraw v9 (all subsequent versions have problems, ranging from mildly annoying to really dismal), then I export outlines into Fontographer (because its import function is so much better than FontLab's cut-and-paste via AICB method). I do basic outline clean-up and metrics adjustments in Fontographer, then generate a PS Type 1 font. I then open the PS font in either DTL Fontmaster Light (if I require some serious fine-tuning of outlines, since DTL blows the socks off FontLab in terms of zoomability), or directly into FontLab (if I don't need the zoom). In FontLab, I check the integrity of extrema and tweak the curves, set bounding boxes, do kerning, and generate my final fonts for Opentype, Truetype and PC Postscript. Then, I used Type Tool 2 on Mac OS X to generate the Mac Postscript version (although sometimes TT2 bombs in OS X--for no stated reason--and I have to generate the font in TT2 in Mac Classic mode).

The DTL Fontmaster Suite has much to recommend it, and I would probably use it exclusively if not for the fact that it's hideously expensive, and the interface is really clunky. I could probably use FotnLab exclusively if (a) they would improve the import function; (b) add more zoom (I can zoom to 400,000% in CorelDraw); and (c) add more default settings (like license info, designer, designer contact info, copyright, etc).

Quincunx's picture

oldnick: I'm wondering what more you want to fill in, concerning designer/info/copyrights and such? There are several fields that can be filled in already?

On topic: I'm nothing of a pro typedesigner, but up till now I've exclusively used FL Studio 5 for making my typefaces.
There are some minor bugs, but I dont find them too bad. They don't really bother me that much, and then again, in future releases much of those issues will probably be dealt with. I find the interface pretty well designed, sometimes small things can get a bit annoying, but overall I can work fairly smoothly.

Stephen Coles's picture

Alex - what version of FontLab are you using?

.00's picture

If you develop drawings in Illustrator, importing them into FontLab via ScanFont is a snap. You can place the entire uppercase, lowercase, numbers and punctuation, properly scaled and in the correct cell with proper glyph names and unicode code points in about 2 or 3 seconds. Doesn't seem like a problem to me.

As to msa's complaint about FontLab: How many hours do you have working with the program? I work in FontLab 12 hours a day, everyday, and have no problems. Font making requires stamina, it sounds like you have just begun your training. Remember to breath.

gordon's picture

I remember reading somewhere that during the early days of desktop publishing, they would usually scan the sketches into photoshop, editing it using illustrator and then transfer the files to fontographer (I think...). Sounds traditional but I still believe its praticed nowadays.

Terminaldesign, I agree with you about the endurance thing in learning. But just a little off the record, 12 hours on FontLab a day?! I can't even stand sitting in front of the computer for 3 hours straight.

Miguel Sousa's picture

At Adobe we use FontLab for designing (drawing the outlines), and for some parts of the production process (making the font files).
Namely, we do basic hinting setup (alignment zones, standard stems), kerning (although we have our own macros to translate that data into the 'kern' feature), and basic naming for generating '.pfa' fonts. These are then processed with the AFDKO tools (Autohint and MakeOTF). For quality assurance we use the AFDKO's CheckOutlines and CompareFamily, among other tools and tests.
We use the Multiple Masters technology extensively.

dezcom's picture

I use FontLab Studio 5 on a Mac. It took a little while to get used to it and set it up in a way that I like but now it seems quite usable. I used to start drawing glyphs in Illy but found that to be a waste of time and needed too much cleanup. Now I just start drawing outlines straight away in FL5. I don't scan anything in, I just use my paper sketches as a notebook reminder if I need to and this is rare.
I think you have to comit to a work process and set of tools and just work it out by giving time to it. Whether your going through a multistep progression of tools like Nick or just keeping it simply one program, it is up to you. Type design is mostly solitary work so you are not bound by what suits others. Large foundries like Adobe might have more a collaborative process with some more common way of working needed perhaps.


.00's picture


If you cant stand three hours straight in front of a computer, type design may not be the thing for you.

Multiple Master technology is what we use here for everything. I dream in MM. Even a lettering project gets the MM treatment.


Thylacine's picture

Quote from Miguel Sousa: At Adobe we use FontLab for designing (drawing the outlines)...

Really? I don't work for Adobe, but I greatly prefer Adobe Illustrator's drawing tools over those in FontLab. I find it interesting that someone at Adobe feels otherwise. Maybe it's mostly a matter of what I"m used to.

blank's picture

I find it interesting that someone at Adobe feels otherwise.

Seems to me that they just like using specialized tools for specialized jobs. Illustrator is a great program, but it isn't a font design app.

Thylacine's picture

A specialized font creation app, yes, but (in my opinion) a clunky drawing application. Again, it's partly what I'm used to to, but to me Illustrator or FreeHand are the specialized tools that are best suited for drawing and manipulating vector shapes.

There are font-specific sorts of drawing functions in FontLab that are invaluable, but taking it all into consideration, it would take me at least twice as long and would be twice as hard to draw a font if I were limited only to FontLab's limited and awkward tools.

Really, I'm not trying to argue; I just find it interesting that some apparently prefer FontLab for the drawing part of designing a font. When I'm working on a font, I invariably have both FontLab running and a real drawing application.

kris's picture

I only use two tools for drawing: a pen and FontLab. I find outlines much easier to use in FL than anything else. Why people bother with Illustrator I have no idea.


William Berkson's picture

What Kris said.

And if you did a survey I bet you'd find 95% don't use Illustrator at all in their design process.

Stephen Coles's picture

95% of full-time type designers maybe. And I would guess more like 75%. But it's true that many pros prefer to work directly in their font editor.

Diner's picture

Just to weigh in on this discussion . . . The timing couldn't be more appropriate for me since I'm just now making the transition from my old work process to my new one . . .

I have drawn all my fonts in Illustrator 8.0 and done the import to FOG process for years and I can see moving forward continuing to draw my letters in Illustrator for the primary reason that the tool feels comfortable to me and I can draw very fast and freely. . .

That said, while I'm working through the conversion of the Filmotype library, my job is not creation but tracing and while I could blow quickly through this in Illustrator, I know the work benefits from being traced at scale on a 1000em grid so since I'm working on that as my primary goal, it makes perfect sense to draw in that manner right from the start.

I'm not terribly fast but I'm getting faster and will continue to do all my conversion tracings in FLAB Studio 5.

It remains to be see whether my chops with it will get to the point where it becomes my default drawing app as well. It makes sense that it should but my tastes are split at this point . . .

One thing I will point out working wih both systems is that I LOVE the way I can clearly see the outline forms when I'm drawing in FLAB, Illustrator has it's own screen rendering engine and sometimes depending on the level of zoom, the forms aren't quite what they should be and even perfectly drawn curves are indeed slighly flat depending on how zoomed in you get and print out differently as well . . .

Stuart :D

William Berkson's picture

>more like 75%

You may well be right, but here's some evidence: How often are there questions about Illustrator in this 'build' forum? Answer: rare. How often are there questions about FontLab? Answer: Constantly.

How many workshops and discussions, including in the corridors, about drawing in Illustrator are there are font conferences? None that I've seen or heard. How many about FontLab: lots.

Nick Shinn's picture

I prefer to work in one application.
I used to use Fontographer, and switched to FontLab a couple of years ago.
It took me a while to adapt to its drawing tools, as I was really comfortable in Fontographer.
I've always (almost 20 years!) disliked Illustrator's drawing tools.
BTW, Fontographer was the first vector-drawing application for the "personal computer", preceding Illustrator by two years.

I can't imagine drawing in a program other than Fog or Flab, without the metric guidelines, and without being able to instantly inspect characters in word formation in the metrics panel. Say I'm adjusting the ear of the "r" -- it has to work nicely with several other charatcers, so I type "raryrt" etc in the metrics panel, and then maybe do the same thing with an alternate version of the r. Then I fiddle with my ears till I get something that works perfectly.

Thylacine's picture

How many workshops and discussions, including in the corridors, about drawing in Illustrator are there are font conferences? None that I’ve seen or heard. How many about FontLab: lots.

Well, the answer to that is obvious. FontLab's drawing tools require contant non-intuitive workarounds and endless questions from people who have never had the pleasure of working with a real drawing application. Experienced Illustrator users require no such nonsense.

Really, I'm just kidding. Couldn't resist. All in fun! Insert smiley face here.

Seriously though, I'm am genuinely curious about the attraction to FontLab's drawing tools. With Illustrator (and to a lesser extent FreeHand and CorelDRAW) being the dominant vector drawing program, I assumed that most type designers would have started out using mainstream, dedicated vector drawing applications before they actually took up type design. Which brings up another question: once again, I assumed (and quite possibly mistakenly so) that most type designers started out as graphic designers and, at some point, moved to type design and took their tools with them. I wonder how many mostly full-time type designers first learned a mainstream drawing tool and then gave it up to draw fonts in favor of FontLab's or Fontographer's drawing tools.

For example, I've designed a half dozen or so commercial faces over the years, but it's always been completely secondary to an ongoing graphic design and art direction career. Maybe I haven't given FontLab's tools a fair shake (although, I've honestly tried), but they just don't do what I want them to in the way I want it to happen. Then again, I've been using Illustrator everyday since 1987 and know it inside and out, so I'm obviously looking at it from a skewed and biased perspective.

DTY's picture

Seriously though, I’m am genuinely curious about the attraction to FontLab’s drawing tools.

I'm not a real font professional, but I also do the whole process in FontLab. If I just want to make a drawing, Illustrator's drawing tools are nicer, but if I want to draw font outlines, I find it easier to use FontLab. Why? Because the outline ultimately has to conform to the constraints of font formats, like a 1000 em-unit grid, and I'd spend as much time cleaning up an imported Illustrator outline in FontLab as I would just drawing it in FontLab to start with. It's not that I think FL's drawing tools are so great for drawing, it's that they fit the constraints of the final result.

Then again, I've never been a graphic designer, so I'm probably not as good at using Illustrator as I could be.

Nick Shinn's picture

I assumed (and quite possibly mistakenly so) that most type designers started out as graphic designers and, at some point, moved to type design

I started as an art director, and my main digital tool was Quark XPress. But I've always used Illustrator and Photoshop. I believe there is quite a bit of variety in type designers' backgrounds, and wouldn't be willing to generalize at all.

Goran Soderstrom's picture

Really? I don’t work for Adobe, but I greatly prefer Adobe Illustrator’s drawing tools over those in FontLab. I find it interesting that someone at Adobe feels otherwise. Maybe it’s mostly a matter of what I”m used to.

Oh... Illustrators vector drawing tool is not half as good as the one in FontLab, believe me. After started using FontLab I do all my "illustrator-work" in FontLab rather than Illustrator. It makes so much more sense. Further on, you have fantastic tools in FontLab that Illustrator even don‘t come close. In my opinion FontLab is wonderful, I love it :)

Quincunx's picture

I use both at the moment. I have alot more experience using Illustrator's vector tool, but eventually I think I want to go entirely to FL. But I'm not good enough with the FL tools yet, and if I can do certain curves better in Illustrator, I usually do that. Because the result needs to have somekind of curve-quality, of course. ;)
But then again, I have trained myself in placing points in Illustrator in extrema, and such, so most of the times I don't have to tweak too much when getting the vectors into FL.

dezcom's picture

Illustrator curves collapse like a pricked balloon when a point is removed. Fontlab curves spring out with firmness. The difference between the two in type design is quite valuable.
I started drawing with the very first version of Illustrator. I am quite comfortable with it and still use it for everything except type design. It would take me 3 times longer to do just the glyph drawing in Illustrator as it does in FL5 and I have been using FontLab for only 2 years.


charles ellertson's picture

I guess I'm a font "professional," though only in the use of type, not drawing. When I have to draw up a special character, it is a nervous day. But I spend a lot of time working with metrical data and writing OT features. For this, I find FontLab difficult to use, and do much of the work outside FontLab. The Metrics panel is OK to see kern values, though it's resolution is not the best -- I suppose no screen-based panel could be much better.

I write off the AFM files for pairs, check values for some class-based kerning in the FontLab window, but do all the actual work in a text editor -- V-Edit which is a reasonably sophisticated one & also supports a columnar mode. There are probably better choices for text editors today.

I write the features in the text editor as well. When done, import into Fontlab & compile.

One plus is I always have a separate file of the features, so when I need to go back and add or modify one, it is pretty straightforward. Like today, when I'll have to add a kern between any number and any numerator for a font that supports unlimited fractions.


Quincunx's picture

Illustrator curves collapse like a pricked balloon when a point is removed. Fontlab curves spring out with firmness.

Yes, that is indeed a very large advantage FontLab has over Illustrator.

oldnick's picture

So, in answer to the original question, the consensus seems to be that individuals work in their comfort zones, and there's no single approach which works best for everyone.

I create my outlines in CorelDraw because I've been using it since v1, and its tools seem second nature to me now. I like the fact that I can use a single tool (the Shape Tool) to...

  • add or delete nodes;
  • make a node sharp, smooth or symmetrical;
  • change a line segment from straight to curve, and vice-versa;
  • rotate, scale or align nodes; and
  • add but not move or delete guidelines (essentially locking them during curve editing; guidelines can be added, moved and deleted with the Pick Tool).

FontLab's merge contours function is OK, but it's trim and intersect functions suck, and the smooth curve slider in CorelDraw v9 is, IMHO, unsurpassed by any other drawing program -- which is important, since its convert stroke to outline function tends to be a little promiscuous about adding nodes.

Other tools comes in handy for other tasks, too. When I kern monocase fonts, I only set kerning for the caps. I then export the metrics, open the AFM file in a text editor, copy and save the KPX info to another text file, then open that file in Excel as a space-delimited file (which puts the first and second characters in separate columns), then I copy and paste the kerning info back into the file twice. In the first copy, I run a macro that converts the second character to lowercase, and in the second copy, I convert both the first and second characters to lowercase. I then reverse the process, and end up with an AFM file with identical kerning for caps-caps, caps-lower and lower-lower, then import that into FontLab. This process may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it works for me...

dezcom's picture

"the consensus seems to be that individuals work in their comfort zones, and there’s no single approach which works best for everyone."



William Berkson's picture

>smooth curve slider in CorelDraw v9 is, IMHO, unsurpassed by any other drawing program

Is this similar to what FontLab does when you shift and click and hold on a node? In FontLab this keeps the handles fixed and slides the nodes along the tangent as you move the mouse. --An extremely useful function.

dberlow's picture

"(I can zoom to 400,000% in CorelDraw)"

MSA still 'ere?

That was all priceless and this sums up the executive summary:
"So, in answer to the original question, the consensus seems to be that individuals work in their comfort zones, and there’s no single approach which works best for everyone."

In more technically general terms, there is a range of tools from entirely interactive graphics (illustrator), to entirely text-based interfaces to contours and all the other data headed for tables that must be created and at some point produced into an output format.

And rejoice if FL makes you want to die, it means your font wants to live.

kris's picture

For text editing of .enc and .fea files TextMate really does the trick for me! I bought it the other day, and now wonder why it took me so long to get it…


aluminum's picture

As a long time Freehand user, I find Illustrator's bezier tools less than ideal. Even though I've never used FontLab, I'd be suprised if it DIDN'T have better bezier drawing functionality than Illustrator. ;o)

Lots of Freehand users are saddened by the prospect that Freehand is dead and at somepoint, will have to migrate to Illustrator. Maybe FontLab should capitalize on that and release a dedicated illustration app based on FontLab's tools. ;0)

William Berkson's picture

Darrel, as I remember Fontographer and Freehand were done by the same person, so as FontLab now owns Fontographer, it might not be so far fetched...

On the other hand, as Adobe owns Freehand, maybe they will integrate some its functionality into the next version of Illustrator.

On the other hand as FontLab owns Fontographer they may integrate some of its drawing methods into Fontlab.

On the other hand ...with a buying b buying c it's all so confusing :)

Erik Fleischer's picture

What peripherals do you pros (and pros-to-be) use? Do people who work directly in FL or Illustrator use a mouse to draw? (Please say you don't.) If you don't do the initial drawing with a pointing device of some sort, do you use a digitizing tablet? Scanner + import + cleanup? It'd be interesting to learn a little more about different work processes.

kris's picture

I just use a mouse & keyboard for digitising. Thought about a wacom, never got round to it. I'm waiting for touch-sensitive displays—that's the ticket for me.


William Berkson's picture

If I remember rightly both Mark Simonson and Nick Shinn use a wacom tablet.

My shoulder started hurting me with the mouse, so I got a track ball, which I like also because I have better control with it. And my shoulder stopped hurting.

dezcom's picture

I just use a mouse as I have since 1986.


david h's picture

"Shirah 25 started as a freehand study, discovered while experimenting with ink and a few new pen nibs. Later on, when designer David Hamuel decided to create a digital version, he drew it completely on a digitizing tablet, trying to keep the spirit of the ink and the nib"

kris's picture

he drew it completely on a digitizing tablet, trying to keep the spirit of the ink and the nib

How does that make a difference? Unless you have some sort of pressure-sensitve broad-nib tool aren't you just manipulating points & outlines like every other digital letterform?


Erik Fleischer's picture

Chris, the first time I ever saw a mouse was in 1988, while on vacation in Portugal -- I remember the occasion vividly because it looked so other-worldly to me.

Now I feel really incompetent. Drawing something accurately with a mouse -- translating an idea into a graphic on screen that actually resembles the original idea -- seems impossible to me. My hat's off to you guys.

david h's picture

I use* the Paint/Brush tool (Brush style/Options)

* not always, of course.

Goran Soderstrom's picture

Since digitising letter forms is not actually "drawing" it could be done with with either a mouse, a wacom or in worst case, the laptop computers "finger area" (sorry dont know the name of this). You could also use the arrows on the keyboard when digitising, they can control both the points and the handles that shapes the letters. But, it’s not the tool that is important, it’s the eyes of the person using them.

Erik Fleischer's picture

Since digitising letter forms is not actually “drawing” it could be done with with either a mouse (...)

Well, I didn't really imagine most people would produce calligraphic gestures with a mouse, but even the prospect of creating points and then manipulating bézier curves between them with a mouse to arrive at a more or less faithful outline of a glyph previously seen in the mind's eye (or sketched on paper) seems daunting. My eyes -- and my hands -- certainly need a lot of training.

dezcom's picture

It just takes time working with it. Playing a musical instument is a similar learning situation. Have you ever heard a child's first violin or trumpet lesson?
The thing you have to do is let go of the notion that it is like drawing on paper. Itis its own thing and can be learned if you allow yourself to accept it for what it is, not for what you long for it to be.


.00's picture

I use an Orbit trackball. I just love the thing.

Adam Twardoch made a lot fun of it when I pulled it out at the TDC Type Tech weekend last year.

William Berkson's picture

>Orbit trackball

James, do you know if that is better than the Logitech Marble I have? Is there more control or something?

david h's picture

Bill - try this Orbit :^)

Dirty glyph? Nothing cleans it up like Orbit.

Miguel Sousa's picture

> Really? I don’t work for Adobe, but I greatly prefer Adobe Illustrator’s drawing tools over those in FontLab. I find it interesting that someone at Adobe feels otherwise.

Really! And most of the reasons have already been mentioned above. I'll just add that, as I said, we use MM a lot. So going back and forth between FontLab and Illustrator would not only be nonsense but painful as well.
(And AFAIK, people here used to work with Fontographer before FontLab came along)

BTW, I often use Excel as well. For font production, not type design, of course. Really, not kidding. And I know that other font developers do it too.

dezcom's picture

I use Excel too. When generating classes, I want to be sure I have all the glyphs and diacritics exactly in the same order and all present. This is a snap in Excel. It also helps doing permutations of kern pairs where you can copy down and fill right progressions of glyphs.
I use a text editor for feature code because the one built into FontLab is so goofy and unpredictable as to be useless. I guess they are not too careful when they code the Mac version.


oldnick's picture

“(I can zoom to 400,000% in CorelDraw)”

Read it and weep...

And while we're at it...

Illustrator curves collapse like a pricked balloon when a point is removed. Fontlab curves spring out with firmness. The difference between the two in type design is quite valuable.

CorelDraw will preserve the curve even between control points separated by as much as 220° of arc; and, unlike FontLab, it doesn't (arbitrarily, it seems) convert segments from curve to line when you delete some points...even more valuable (at least to me).

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