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.


dberlow's picture

"Read it and weep…"
Why is that? I mean, I have no problem with Corel draw, but zooming beyond 1:1 with the upm, i.e where each pixel of the source em is more than 1 pixel on the screen, is like using a magnifying glass to see inside the underlying molecules of a steel punch. Why go there? Really, what do you use zooming for beyond 1:1? I'm curious...

William Berkson's picture

>convert segments from curve to line when you delete some points

This happens when start points are involved, and is a bug in FontLab. You can avoid it by moving the start point, which only takes a couple of clicks. It would be better if they fixed it, but it is not a big problem.

But in any case it sounds like Corel Draw acts more like Fontographer and Fontlab in drawing, and not Illustrator--which is what the original question is about.

But the other essential feature of FontLab for me is having a preview panel so you can see your glyph next to others in the font as you draw and modify it. In the film of Fred Goudy drawing type, you see he draws between two other letters, and I bet that one way or another designers have been doing this since Jenson. I don't see how you can design a font without that.

I suppose you have a way to line up letters and do the same thing in a drawing-only program, but it sounds cumbersome to me.

And as James notes, if you want to use Multiple Master technology, just forget about a drawing-only program.

.00's picture


I have never tried the marble you mention, so I have no comparison to offer. I have tried a number of the Kensington trackballs over the years, and I prefer the Orbit. It is very easy to maneuver with very tiny finger and wrist actions.


William Berkson's picture

James, just checking on the internet, they seem to be pretty much the same thing, as they both have optical controls and are at the same price.

Jongseong'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.)

I am certainly not a pro, but I might as well vent my frustration here about what I have to deal with. Because I am currently serving in the army, there's only one machine I have access to during the week that I can use for font design. It's an ancient laptop from when Windows XP was first introduced, which is pretty much dedicated to Fontlab and music playing. I do most of my work with the touchpad and keyboard built into the laptop, on the 1024x768 resolution screen. It's a huge improvement when I get home on the weekends and can work on my home computer, which comes with a mouse and a slightly bigger screen, but I must confess I can't get myself to do much font design work on the weekends.

That said, I do 100% of my work in Fontlab; I draw directly on screen, although I get ideas from doodling on paper (mostly at work) with pen and pencil. Another caveat: I've never completed a font, and the half a dozen fonts I have in production have mostly not progressed beyond the drawing stage. So I can only judge Fontlab's drawing capabilities.

I find Fontlab's drawing tools far easier to work with than Illustrator's, and I first used the latter at least 9 years ago. For this reason, I have used Fontlab to create outlines for simple lettering work that I could then import to Illustrator.

Thomas Phinney's picture

I work pretty much entirely in FontLab, plus some AFDKO tools. I'm lucky to have Miguel doing downstream production stuff (the "heavy lifting" I think of it as).

I think that the strong majority of serious font production today uses FontLab for at least some stages of the work.



oldnick's picture

“Read it and weep…”
Why is that?

Dennis, you appeared to find the claim of 400,000% zoom ludicrous, so I was merely backing up my statement with visual proof. I agree with you that it may be excessive for drawing glyphs. My real gripe is that FontLab's zoom capabilities are a little stingy, e.g.:

Above is the maximum zoom level available from Fontlab; below is the same glyph in DTL Fontmaster Bezier Master, two levels short of maximum...

With FL, it isn't readily apparent that the lower node in the DTL example isn't smooth, while that fact was apparent with DTL and was corrected. Moral of the story: Fontlab, we'd like more zoom, please.

Tim Ahrens's picture

Nick, have you ever calculated (or empirically tested) from which printing resolution/size the kink becomes apparent? I dare say that the fact that the node is not smooth is invisible when printed.

Apart from that, the node in your example seems to be unnecessary. You should keep the number of nodes a low as possible in order to keep the contour smooth.

The fact that FL sometimes does not recognise or even produces unsmooth nodes has nothing to do with zoom levels. Moral of my story: Fontlab, keep smooth nodes smooth at all times, please. Meaning, for instance, that when constraining the angle of the BCP by holding shift this should not be constrained to the previous angle of that BCP but the angle of the opposite BCP/line segment.

Nick Shinn's picture

the node in your example seems to be unnecessary.

There are some good reasons to put a node at the middle of an "s" curve.
It does give a little bit better control of the shape, and I believe there is also some rendering/hinting/whatever technical-thingy benefit.

TBiddy's picture

convert segments from curve to line when you delete some points

Sweet lord, that annoys the sh!t out of me too!

I like Illustrator's Bezier tool WAAAAAAY better than FontLab's— BUT vector editing in Illustrator just plain sucks. I would prefer to use FontLab exclusively, but I think FontLab's Pathfinder-esque features are very counterintuitive and don't work very well. They both have their flaws.

TBiddy's picture

Above is the maximum zoom level available from Fontlab; below is the same glyph in DTL Fontmaster Bezier Master, two levels short of maximum…

A problem I'm also encountering working on a heavily detailed display face. I've got to guess where the point is sometimes.

crossgrove's picture

Wait: In FL you can zoom far past the point where one pixel represents one unit in FL. Therefore, your monitor can show you with great precision exactly where a point is. You can use the arrow keys to move it single units, and you can watch it move. What's inadequate about that?

William Berkson's picture


My experience is like Carl's. If you go to View/Zoom the closest zoom seems to be 1 unit = 4 pixels. I usually just do keyboard +, which gives me the zoom tool, and I seem to get as close as I need to with that.

Tim Ahrens's picture

convert segments from curve to line when you delete some points

This happens when you select and delete the first (blue) node. This can be avoided by deleting the node by left-right clicking. No idea if something comparable can be done on the mac.

FL's node deletion is in fact very poor, improving this is on top of my wish list for future versions.

dezcom's picture

Control-click on the Mac.


Mark Simonson's picture

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

I have one, but I don't use it for drawing fonts much. I know that Jean François Porchez uses one almost exclusively.

I used to do most of my drawing in Illustrator back when I used Fontographer. I was more comfortable with the tools in Illustrator and Fontographer had an easy way to import art using copy and paste.

A couple years ago I switched completely over to using FontLab. I think the drawing tools work great for drawing letters (with a mouse). I don't use the pen tool, though. It's a little wonky. Or maybe I just haven't figured it out. Mainly I place nodes using the corner tool--connect the dot fashion. After this, I convert the nodes and lines to curves and smooth points as needed. I also use the rectangle and oval tools to lay down basic shapes and then tweak them as needed.

In some cases, I sketch letters on paper first. But I don't do tight sketches. The main purpose of the sketch is to capture the gesture and proportions of the letter. It is much faster to clean up in the computer than on paper.

No matter what software or input device I use, my most reliable tools are my hands and eyes.

TBiddy's picture

I don’t use the pen tool, though. It’s a little wonky...After this, I convert the nodes and lines to curves and smooth points as needed.

I agree. And the second sentence there is why I'm not terribly thrilled about using FontLab's drawing tools exclusively. I should be able to define my curves and lines as I'm drawing. Sometimes I think the line/curve conversion stuff wastes so much time.

About zooming...I have zoomed in as far as possible in FontLab, and trust ain't enough sometimes. In my case, I'm not editing vectors drawn directly into FontLab. I'm editing handdrawn ink that was converted to vectors, which means— a lot more points. Is there a feature in preferences I'm missing?

twardoch's picture

As far as I can tell, FontLab Studio 5 is used for drawing at Adobe, Ascender, Bitstream, Elsner+Flake, Linotype, Monotype, P22, Lucas Fonts, Porchez Typofonderie, Tiro Typeworks and many other professional font foundries. Some of these foundries use other tools such as Adobe FDK, Microsoft VOLT or Microsoft VTT to complement the font production process. Hoefler & Frere-Jones and The Font Bureau use both Fontographer and FontLab Studio. URW++ uses DTL FontMaster.


erinww's picture

Hi there,

I am about ready to generate my font via FontLab. Am I able to to just drop the eps file into FontLab? Is there a way to not include Illustrator? Can I just go right into drawing my font from FontLab?

erinww's picture

well, lol, to answer my own question after reading a lot of these posts, I know I can just draw my font straight from FontLab- thanks guys!

erinww's picture

Hi again,

Is there a way to cut and paste/export a an illustrator file (this is what I used to design the font) into FontLab 5 without buying ScanFont?

blank's picture

Download the FontLab manual and start reading.

dezcom's picture

You can copy and paste one glyph at a time but be sure you scale your AI file large enough.

Mark Simonson's picture

An explanation I posted in an old thread:

"Scale your Illustrator art so that 1 point corresponds to 1 em unit (i.e., if your target cap height is 700 em units, make your caps in Illustrator 700 points tall). Move the Illustrator ruler zero point to the origin point of the character art you want to copy. Copy from Illustrator, paste in FL. Simple."

The thing you want to avoid is scaling your paths after you paste them into FontLab, especially scaling up. Make sure they are the right scale in Illustrator before copying.

If you have lots of glyphs to move, ScanFont will be a lot faster.

BlackHoodieGS's picture

I first want to thank everyone for their information, this forum was exactly what I was searching for. I am not currently a "type design professional", but that is the direction I would like to steer my career towards.
A little unnecessary history, I have been sketching fonts since elementary school and only in the recent years have I consciously started to pursue typography as a viable part of my career. So much so, that for birthdays and anniversaries I request books on font/character design and history rather than the assumed flowers and jewelry. So, any suggestions for your favorite references would be great.

onto my post...

Nick, have you ever calculated (or empirically tested) from which printing resolution/size the kink becomes apparent? I dare say that the fact that the node is not smooth is invisible when printed.

I am a production manager and in-house designer for a custom sign company working with large-scale graphics. So, even though magazine and web based design will never require that level of detailed attention to each node and bezier curve I do respect and want to thank the type designers who are aware of it. When you escape the parameters of points and scale to feet/meters that node is no longer invisible.

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