Why A Better OpenType User Interface Matters

Friday evening, September 19th. We are in Barcelona at the annual ATypI conference. The last session of the day is winding down – Building the perfect what?, an excellent panel discussion moderated by industry veteran and award-winning typeface developer David Berlow. For the past 45 minutes a cross section of type specialists have expounded on the amazing capabilities current font technologies offer: letterer and type designer Martina Flor; type designer, Arabic specialist and legibility researcher Nadine Chahine; Principal Product Manager at Adobe Caleb Belohlavek; Senior Fontography Product Manager at Microsoft Simon Daniels, and Google Fonts’ David Kuettel. I noticed that over the course of the presentation my left knee started shaking, just like it did during Thomas Phinney’s panel Free Fonts: Threat or Menace? in Amsterdam last year. Indeed, the one where I shouted “Bullshit!” at the panelists and took a stand for the type designers. As David Berlow invites questions from the audience, I bite the bullet and ask the question that has been building in my mind during the panel discussion:

OpenType was introduced in 2000. It is now 2014. How is it possible that for the past 14 years type designers and foundries have been developing the most incredible feature-rich OpenType fonts, yet users are still unable to properly access and exploit these fascinating typographic possibilities because the font menus in apps with typesetting capabilities have barely evolved? And how is it possible that Adobe – undoubtedly the market leader in graphic design apps – despite its claims of a seamless integration of the different components in its Creative Suite, does not have a type interface that is consistent throughout its apps? There still is no Glyphs palette in Photoshop, Illustrator still does not support Stylistic Sets, and InDesign users need to dig three levels deep in fold-out menus to find the OpenType features. When will the software developers finally catch up?

Judging by the applause and the cheers, I am not the only one wondering. One of those sharing my concerns is Nadine Chahine. In the heat of the moment during the panel’s Q&A, she comes up with the idea to write an open letter to Adobe and start a Twitter campaign to inform and sensitive the general public. Her proposal is met with unanimous approval from the audience. Afterwards David Berlow grabs me, grinning from ear to ear: “Nobody will ever believe we didn’t plan this!” When Nadine and I finally announce the details of the campaign at the end of the conference on Sunday, the enthusiastic reaction from attendees reflects the level of support the type business has for this initiative. Without really realizing it, we have started something.


The official ATypI 2014 troll in action.
Photo by Henrique Nardi.

So, what exactly is the problem we are trying to solve, and how did we get there? To understand this we have to go back to the late 19th century. Although no one could have guessed back then, the invention of the typewriter would have a dramatic influence on how we set type today. In the cold metal days the interaction with type was straightforward – the typesetter had a visual overview of all the available characters or “sorts” as they were laid out in a compartmentalized open drawer. This all changed in the 1880s with the invention of Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype line caster and Tolbert Lanston’s Monotype keyboard and caster which revolutionized typesetting. The speed of typesetting increased tremendously, partly thanks to a new type of user interface consisting of a keyboard featuring 90 keys and 120 keys respectively. The rapid and widespread adoption of the typewriter in the office environment however made the manufacturers of early personal computers copy its more limited keyboard of a mere 40-odd keys instead. This reduced typesetting to its crudest, most basic form, creating what I like to call the keyhole effect. Most users are unaware of the sophisticated typesetting possibilities of today’s personal computers because they have to interact with fonts through a keyboard offering a minimal subset of the character set. It is as if they are looking at their fonts through a keyhole. The best way to solve this problem is with type menus, yet this is exactly where every single app – not just Adobe’s – is severely lacking.

The inadequate font menus in apps are the result of a textbook chicken-and-egg situation that is perfectly illustrated with two examples.


The “Building The Perfect What?” panel (ATypI, Barcelona). From left to right: Martina Flor, Nadine Chahine, Caleb Belohlavek, Simon Daniels, David Kuettel, and moderator David Berlow.
Photo by Henrique Nardi.

I was told that at TypeCon Seattle back in 2007 an Adobe rep gave a talk as part of a panel. When it was time for questions, a member of the audience asked why the OpenType user interface in Adobe’s CS apps is so convoluted and incomplete, and why is there no uniformity across Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. The Adobe rep’s response was that people just don’t care enough, adding that if there were enough users making the request the functions would be added. Apparently this elicited loud boos from the audience, with some even throwing their programs on stage.

Yet the reason why people don’t appear to care enough about typographic features is that they are unaware of them, exactly because they cannot be properly addressed in the apps as a result of the poor UI – the very existence of the problem means most people don’t realize the problem exists. When we discussed the open letter and petition prior to publishing, Jonathan Hoefler recounted the following personal experience.

Last year, I did a presentation to AIGA/NY, to an audience of editorial art directors, agency creatives, and in-house design teams from cultural institutions. Not only was it a good cross-section of disciplines (print, web, mobile, etc.) but also a good sample of engagements: there were creative directors and brand managers in attendance, along with their design teams who do all of the hands-on work.

During the Q&A, I got an interesting question from someone who uses Gotham, who wondered if we’d ever thought about building a special version of the font that would use just the alternate ‘a’, not all the other forms invoked by the stylistic alternates option. I mentioned that we usually handle this with Stylistic Sets, one of my favorite OpenType features, one that was thoughtfully included in InDesign (though so far, not in Illustrator.) I got a blank look in response. “Just curious,” I said to the assembled, who numbered about five hundred. “Can I see a show of hands, for who here uses stylistic sets?” Not a single hand went up. Not one. “Who here uses InDesign?” All hands.

It makes no sense for the developers at Adobe to wait for requests from end users because these users don’t yet know what’s possible with the technology. In the words of Hoefler “It’s like expecting patients to ask for accelerating the development of substituted phenoxathiin inhibitors containing no nitrogen: what is this? what’s it good for? supporting this comes at the expense of what?” It is the job of people with tight connections to the type world to advocate for these solutions on behalf of type users. Our open letter and petition tackle both problems head on: on the one hand, we are informing and sensitizing the general audience about the state of type UI; on the other hand we are gathering as many signatures as possible so that developers can no longer ignore this issue.


The Character windows and fold out menus in Adobe CS4.

Our open letter is but the first step. Now we need to gather suggestions and gather a team of specialists to conceptualize a universal typographic user interface. Gerry Leonidas summarized it perfectly:

“Prototyping the proposed interface will need to be done in an app-agnostic way, and from a document designer perspective.”

What can you do to help finally fix this situation? Sign the petition (don’t forget to confirm your signature by clicking the link in the confirmation e-mail), then use the hashtag #AdobeTypeUI to join the discussion on Twitter, where key Adobe people like general manager for Adobe Typekit Matthew J. Rechs, lead product designer for Photoshop Tim Riot, and Senior Director, Design Product Management and User Experience at Adobe Michael Ninness have already reached out. And if you have intimate knowledge of OpenType features and brilliant ideas about what an improved type UI should look like, get sketching! Follow Tim Brown’s lead and post your mockups/ideas on Dribbble tagged with the official campaign hashtag, #AdobeTypeUI.

by Yves Peters

Update [Oct. 27, 2014]: See also type designer Kris Sowersby’s Towards an Ideal OpenType User Interface.

Update [Nov. 4, 2014]: Read Zara Vasquez-Evens’ Thoughts on an improved OpenType UI, from a UI designer and user of fonts.