Model based, synthetic and parametric
Type Generation Systems
The evolution of technology to create new alphabets.

N. Fabian by Nicholas Fabian

Our typographic ancestors, the Sumerians, Egyptians and Akkadians documented their life, religion, culture and commerce using hieroglyphics, pictograms and ideograms. All this historical activity had taken place over a 2000 year period, way before the first alphabet was invented by Phoenician scribes. Then, around 1400 BC in the city of Ugarit, the first alphabet was born. That is really where the story began.

Probably, one of the first example of model based alphabetic character device was an Etruscan writing tablet from Marsiliana, located in the valley of the Albegna River, what is now Italy. The small ivory writing tablet is from the late 7th century BC. When in use, the tablet's recessed surface was covered with a thin layer of wax and the characters were scribed into the wax with a pointed stylus. Unquestionably, the find is a wonderful archeological treasure and it certainly became a great museum exhibit. But, what is most interesting about the artifact is that on its upper border is engraved a model alphabet for the scribe to follow.

Model characters
Model characters on Etruscan writing tablet dated 700 BC, found around Marsiliana, Italy. (Characters are read from right to left.) This tablet is a historic precursor to all hand-held symbolic graphic communication devices.

In historical terms, handwriting is the original parametric character generator system because every human being creates a customized variation of the original model.

The advancement to "Artificial Writing"

After hand crafting characters for nearly five thousand years, mankind was ready to embrace a system of technology assisted written communication. The era of pre-processed character shapes, type and printing finally had arrived. In China, it emerged between the ninth and eleventh centuries, and in the west, Gutenberg set a historic milestone in 1455 by publishing his 42 line Bible.

With the introduction of commercial typesetting and printing, the desire to communicate in a personalized form, using the new technology of type, became economically unattainable for all but the wealthy eccentrics and idle socialites of western society. It took another 450 years and the invention of microcomputers to enable people to communicate in a personalized way using type.

 [Upper class]
Private publishing provided a socially acceptable amusement to the
story-land existence of the wealthy and the privileged class
in post Renaissance times.

Historical documents in Avignon, France dated from 1444 indicate that a Polish silversmith from Prague was involved in "artificial writing" using alphabets of steel. Change and uncertainty almost always generates fear, and at the beginning of the industrial revolution the Luddites certainly had confirmed this social theory. Today, for similar psychological reasons many people call synthetic fonts, "artificial alphabets," and attempt to give them a negative connotation. The fact is that many well known fonts today have been synthetically generated through the magic of optical, electro-optical or digital interpolation. Some original designs, and most intermediate weights and styles of others, had never seen a designer bent over the drafting table burning the midnight oil to deliver master drawings to the punch-cutter. In most cases, if the armchair critics were not informed of the characters' technical origin, they would never be able to tell them apart from the original hand-crafted Jenson, Caslon, Baskerville or Bodoni fonts. This observation only confirms the deep suspicions of many people of how little armchair experts know about type design and typography.

The yearning for Order: Geometrically constructed characters.

 [Letter prportions]
Character proportions. Geofroy Tory in 1529 noted the proportions of letters to the human body in "Champs Fleury". It was a kind of typographical phrenology.

Early practitioners of type design attempted to find special relationships between the shape and dimension of the letters and the shape and proportions of the human body. In a way, it was a kind of typographical phrenology. During the creative explorations of the renaissance period, an entire school of thought evolved for the design of "Geometrically Constructed Letterforms." Some of the advocates of this movement were Nicollo Niccoli, the Florentine humanist (1420); Felice Feliciano, Veronese calligrapher, printer, scholar (1463); Luca Pacioli (1509); Francesco Torniello (1517); Albrecht Durer (1523); Geofroy Tory (1529) who noted the proportions of letters to human body in "Champs Fleury," Palatino (cc. 1550); Wolgang Fugger in his Handwriting Manual (1553), and of course, the French Academics of Louis XIV.


Metafont was the first computerized synthetic type generation system. The software was designed during 1977-1979 by Donald E. Knuth, a Professor of Computer Science and Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. Metafont is a declarative algebraic programming language specifically developed for type design. Each character is defined as a sub-program. In its optimum form, it is a parameters driven type design software, meaning, the various characteristics of the image (weight, width, cap-height, x-height, etc.) can be specified prior to font generation. Metafont, is most useful for the generation of an entire family of related fonts. Professor Knuth's book "TEX and METAFONT" published in 1979, was set entirely using typefaces created with Metafont. In 1983, Hermann Zapf, the internationally renowned type designer used Metafont to produce the "Euler" type family for the American Mathematical Society. Metafont is a "batch processing" oriented software, and by not having a Windows or Mac style graphic interface, working with Metafont remains essentially a programming task, which most people find too difficult to master. Of course, it doesn't have to remain that way.

Metafont code
About fourty percent of the Metafont programming code to generate
the upper-case character "B". (Not a particularly favored method
of designing type by most designers.)

What is missing from Metefont is an interactive pre-processor to accept and validate all the required parameters for font generation and pass the values on to Metafont for batch processing. This could be accomplished with a reasonable modest programming effort.² Hopefully, in the near future some bright post graduate student will build the software bridge to open up Metafont's exciting potential and nudge the updated software into the waiting arms of a multi-platform community of Mac, Windows, and Linux users. With the giant strides Linux is making towards user acceptance near the new millennium, the foundation is already set for the typographic resurrection of Metafont.

FontChameleon: The Magic Begins

FC logo

Ares Software Corporation was founded in August,1990. The company's goal was to create value added software which enhanced existing font libraries and simplified the daily work of graphic designers, typographers and micro computer users in general. Ernie Brock, Harold Grey and their team of dedicated programmers produced some of the most creative typographic software in the history of computers, including the legendary FontStudio, FontMonger, FontHopper, FontMinder, FontFiddler, and the most unique software of them all, FontChameleon. But, when Adobe Systems purchased Ares, all competing Ares products were discontinued on June 6, 1997. A most unfortunate event in the history of creative typography.

FontChameleon is a parametric controlled font generator software which uses a patented "difference descriptor" technology to generate new fonts from existing reference models, based on user input parameters. Between 1990 and 1997 Ares produced three major versions of FontChameleon with increasingly more sophisticated software and more and more "flexible" fonts.

FontChameleon 1.01 contains 26 preset "flexible" fonts, but the set does not include italics. (1993) Essentially, this version was a working "proof-of-concept" prototype to test market reaction to the idea. The most serious shortcoming of the software was the lack of ability to produce true italics.

FontChameleon 1.5 contains 47 preset "flexible" fonts, italics are included. Also knows as the 1.5 "starter kit". During a special promotion in 1994, the price was reduced from $55 to $29.95. With this version, true italics could be generated and more "slider controls" were added to modify length of ascenders, descenders, cap and numeric heights. An upgraded version of 1.5 contained 136 "flexible fonts."

FontChameleon 1.5 Professional was released in 1994 with 220 preset "flexible" fonts, including italics. This release was a massive expansion of available base fonts which covered most classic serif and sans serif font families from Berkeley Old Style to Ares Sans 46, which was a synthetic reincarnation of Frutiger. In 1994 it was advertised for $149.95. What a small price to pay for an independent digital type foundry!

These flexible fonts, called font descriptors average only around 4K of space. Every time a new font is needed in an application, a fully functional TrueType or Postscript Type 1 font can be generated in a matter of seconds. When a font is created in FontChameleon, it is a fully-hinted font with quality second to none.¹ FontChameleon fonts have unparalleled flexibility. Design parameters of a font are changed using slider bars which universally modify all the characters in any of the fonts in the font descriptor list. Slider bars control the weight, length of ascenders, depth of descenders, width (condense/extend amount), cap height, number height, x-height, slant and tracking. Even two different fonts can be blended together to create a new font, which leads to potentially millions of useful font variations.

FC Sliders
FontChameleon screen display showing multiple slider controls.

FontChameleon lets you build PostScript Type 1 or TrueType fonts which can be used on a variety of different computer systems including Macintosh, Windows and 0S/2 Warp. Font descriptors created in FontChameleon are interchangeable between the Windows and Macintosh versions of the program. By building the fonts in FontChameleon, the Macintosh and Windows version of the font are identical -- there are no differences in character metrics or line endings.

During its brief life-span, FontChameleon gave us a privileged view into typographic creativity and set one of the building blocks for parametric type generation technology of the future. It certainly deserves all the accolade because it became an important icon of typographic history. Because FontChameleon provides typographic design choices with ease and economy, it is important that such tools are made available to the profession.³ To an entire new generation of creative young graphic designers all over the world, FontChameleon is fast becoming a legend — for the second time.

ElseWare: How HP Printers really got smart

ElseWare Co., was funded by Ben Bauermeister and Clyde McQueen in 1990; both were former employees of Aldus. On December 21, 1995 Hewlett-Packard had acquired the Seattle-based company that specialized in software development for printing and publishing. Previous to the purchase, ElseWare had created for HP FontSmart, a product that provide users with 110 fonts and easy-to-use font-management technology for HP's LaserJet 5L, 5P and 5Si printers in an innovative highly compressed format. FontSmart is an open-ended technology with many opportunities for future enhancements.

HP's Infinifont is a parametric font generation system which is really an advanced reincarnation of ElseWare's FontWorks' "synthetic" TrueType font generation engine that ran only on Windows 3.1.

PANOSE, another original ElseWare product, is a widely accepted font-classification system which provides the input to Infinifont's real-time synthetic font generation for PANOSE and Infinifont aware documents. The more detail data supplied to the Infinifont engine by PANOSE, the more accurately the system is able to replicate the targeted font's character shapes and font metrics.

Debra Adams, one of ElseWare's employees had proposed another unique synthetic font generation system from user supplied parameters using only the characters "hopv", which is a very astute insight into the mechanics of type design. The fact is that any competent type designer can derive from one single lower case letter ("b", "d" or "h") all the characters of a font. Either of these single characters provide stroke weight, ascender height, x-height, height-to-width ratio, style, and slant information. All other character values can be derived from those. Of course, the more information is given initially, the greater the likeness that the finished font will match the original design. Which is the very essence of PANOSE.

TrueType and Type 1 font manipulation software by Type Solutions.

Sampo Kaasila¹¹ from Type Solutions, between 1992-93 produced three different font manipulation packages. With Incubator, using TrueType or Type 1 fonts as input, the operator could modify the font weight, width, contrast, x-height, descenders and tracking and produce any intermediate font.

  • Incubator (1992-93)
  • Incubator Pro ($129.95 for v2.01) 1993.
  • Incubator GX for multi-axis (1-2-3) GX fonts was released in1993 for $695.00.

With the "ExactMatch" feature the operator could create custom (Adobe) font metric files (.afm) for the new fonts. This technique allowed the review of ads and pages of text with various fonts, without any changes to the kerning or line-breaks, which helped to evaluate and optimize the design process. For ad agencies and graphic design studios such features were invaluable. The user interface had a choice of "Standard" or "Advanced Mode" to control parameter limits, included options to import existing .afm files, "Undo" buttons for the typographic parameters, and a well written user manual.

For reasons known only to Kaasila and his marketing manager, none of the three software products had survived the perils of the marketplace. He either did not generate sufficient market interest in his products, priced himself right out of the market, or some large company with typographic interests bought everything from him just to remove the products from existence. It would not be the first time that such thing had occurred in the history of typography. Based on the presumption of Kaasila's software engineering competence I can not accept the idea that he would design and write a lemon, three different times, in succession. No, that would be almost too absurd to contemplate. Perhaps some day, the real story will be told. Kaasila's Incubator software did what even FontChameleon could not do. Which is, to use TrueType and PostScript fonts as input to a parametric font generation system. It is most unfortunate that a creative and useful typographic software tool disappeared into oblivion.

(On December 2, 1998 Bitstream bought Type Solutions, Inc. for $600,000 US. As part of the deal, Sampo Kaasila, founder and President of Type Solutions, joined Bitstream's as Director of Research and Development, Type Solutions.)

LiveType & ParamTT

A synthetic type generation system designed and produced by Dr. Ariel Shamir and Dr. Ari Rappoport from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For over a decade they have been focusing on leading edge typographic research, including dynamic variable fonts. Both their synthetic type generation system and the simplified auto hinting package they developed have great commercial potential if marketed correctly. The greatest danger to the typographic community is that the results of their research will be purchased and shelved by some multinational typographic corporation.

LiveType characters (glyphs) are constructed of mathematically defined subset components, each of which can be manipulated individually or in groups to achieve predefined design objectives. Glyph features, constraints and parameters can be adjusted, added or removed. As an example, classic bracketed serifs could be changed to square serifs or the serifs might be removed altogether to produce a sans serif character. Changing one single character is one thing, but extending the same rule to every character in the font with a single keystroke, is something else!

ParamTT is a the complementary font design tool to create and manipulate LiveType characters. The tremendous power of LiveType/ParamTT system is that it is designed to recognize and extract features from existing TrueType fonts and also lets the user create LiveType glyphs from scratch. (In that respect it is much closer to Incubator Pro than to FontChameleon.) When all that power in LiveType is put into the hands of creative typographers, the results could be truly magnificent!

If the LiveType production system becomes commercially available, it will be the greatest advancement in typographic design tools since the demise of Incubator Pro and FontChameleon. Make sure you get a copy for yourself before it is purchased and shut down by one of the 800 pound typographic gorillas.

Click on the LiveType link to see an animated display.

ParamTT is the control system of LiveType. Click on the link for more information.

Also explore the magic of Dynamic Typography.

The Coueignoux system

The Letter b Parts Table
(Left) The building of letters from model character parts. (Right) Section of Parts Table.

In the Coueignoux system, custom software combines predefined graphic component parts to form finished characters. This concept was the basis of his doctoral thesis "Generation of Roman Printed Fonts" in 1975 at MIT. In addition to synthetic type generation, Dr. Philippe J. M. Coueignoux also did original research on Perspective Mapping of Planar Surfaces, Texture Mapping, Anti-Aliasing, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), and other advanced graphic subjects.

Stroke Based Technology

Because such large number of characters are present in Oriental languages, (15,000 and more) western style outline font technology is not suitable for Japanese, Chinese and Korean fonts. Conventional outline fonts become too large and too expensive for practical commercial applications. Fontworks of Japan resolved this problem by developing GaijiMaster, a software that uses stroke-based font technology, a font technology specifically created for Oriental fonts.

Oriental character
Oriental characters are often made up of similar strokes with a different arrangement.

To anyone who examines Kanji characters it becomes clear that there are many common graphic elements, parts which occur over and over again, so the obvious solution was to recombine these reoccurring primitives into new characters. Essentially, first a "primitives" parts library is built with around 50 "foundation characters" and some 150 "stroke parts." The finished glyphs are created by uniquely combining foundation characters and stroke parts into a linguistically meaningful arrangement.

The font data comes in a standard 'SNFT' wrapper along with AAT (Apple Advanced Typography) tables. To the end user the font looks just like any other font. For more information, contact: Fontworks

METAPOST Experimental

An experimental system made for programmers. It is made up of METAPOST , GAWK and a Type 1 assembler. After the source code is written, first, METAPOST compiles the font source code and writes each glyph to a separate EPS file. Second, GAWK processes the resulting EPS files and creates an AFM file and an input file for the Type 1 assembler. Finally, the GAWK files are translated by the Type 1 assembler into a PFB file.

A paper featuring this customized METAPOST parametric type generation system was presented at EuroTEX99 by Boguslaw Jackowski, Janusz M. Nowacki, Piotr Strzelczyk, and it won the “Best Paper Award” at the convention. A PDF copy of the paper is available at From the historical point of view, it is interesting to note that the paper contains a number of very astute references to METAFONT and highlights several of METAFONT’s programming shortcomings, warts, fudging, many imbedded “magic numbers”, and surprising “numerical instabilities.” Another, this time pleasant, surprise is the introduction and parameterization of “Antykwa Póltawskiego,” (“Póltawski’s Antique”) an elegant typeface, designed in the ’twenties by the Polish typographer, Adam Póltawski. Some of the characters (g,w,y) have delightful idiosyncratic shapes.

Polish font
The construction of the lobes of “Antykwa Póltawskiego”.
The job is done by the macro lc_lobes which calculates
both inner and outer edge appropriately oriented.

Being presented on a Unix platform with a programmers interface eliminates all Windows and Mac users from testing or experimenting with the system, which is probably 99 percent of the world’s computer users. In spite of its techno-type orientation, it is an interesting experiment which once again points out the global need for an easy to use and robust graphic interface Parametric Type Generation System. The field is wide open to all contenders.

(extended Parametric Type Generation system): The road ahead.

The ePTGs system is designed around a well researched historical knowledge base. Starting from Egyptian hyrogliphics, to Sumerian, Akkadian and Ugarit cuneiform and periodic lineal scripts, Etruscan, Greek, Roman Inscriptional, Roman lineal, Roman Rustica, various Uncials, Carolingian, Gutenberg Black Letter, Jenson, Aldus-Griffo, Garamond, Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni, etc., all the way to modern serif and sans serif model alphabets. This extended Parametric Type Generation system uses the typographic knowledge base which operates on pre-defined digital models that maintain default values for all parameters. "Difference descriptors" provide the necessary compact format to store massive amounts of typographic knowledge accumulated over the past five thousand years of human history.

Another feature of the ePTGs system is a feature extraction subsystem which can perform, among several other functions, "centerline feature extraction" from existing fonts. By extracting the imaginary "center-lines" of characters in existing fonts, the derived lineal data skeletons can be "re-dressed" with different character features from the existing typographic knowledge base. This function is conceptually similar to the use of "induction tables" for logic rules generation in AI (Artificial Intelligence) based Expert Systems. As a unique design space exploration tool, ePTGs is unmatched in the annals of typographic history.

While using the software the operator interactively selects a historical period, style, and overall character proportions, cap height, x-height, ascender and descender heights, weight of vertical and horizontal strokes, stress angle, serif style from the parts library (if it is a serif type), and the complete character set, or an entire family of fonts, is generated in a matter of seconds or minutes, all kerned, fully hinted and ready for use. The ePTGs system can generate fonts that are either very similar to existing classic fonts, or unique fonts which are created from customized components or the blending of two or more existing reference fonts.

Being an interactive system based on default values, the display screen is split into two panels. A parameter values entry panel on the right, and a model contour generator on the left, which displays a selected character at its current state of generation. As the various parameter values entered the contour display module is constantly updated, which creates a real-time closed loop system between the operator and ePTGs. Using this instant feed-back, many design alternatives can be explored that otherwise could never even be considered for lack of available time.

Commercial production of this system would be a significant step toward creating a modern design tool for professional typographers, casual academic researchers, and all curious lay people interested in typography.

If we look at the larger historical picture, we see that the Phoenicians gave us the first alphabet, the Chinese in the East and Gutenberg in West introduced movable type, and the development of microcomputers allowed the use of prepackaged typefaces by the public. Now, the extended Parametric Type Generation system will bring to the world the discipline of classic typefaces combined with unlimited variations and true personal choice. Initially, some people might be dazzled by all the creative freedom available in the system, but, children growing up will undoubtably embrace the magic as a natural part of their typographic heritage.

It is an open question who might take up the torch and carry the project to the finish line. Whoever they might be, there is a place reserved for them in the annals of typographic history.

The End

¹ For screen display and low resolution printing, FontChameleon fonts consistently outperform both Fontographer 4.1 and FontLab's 3.x "auto-hinted" fonts, by a wide margin. Whoever designed the hinting algorithm used in FontChameleon deserves the gratitude of typographers all over the world. The first time I generated a serif font and used it in a word processor in 12 point size, I could hardly believe my eyes! Yes, it looked that good on the screen. Truly it was, auto hinting extra-ordinaire!

² As compared to the monumental original effort put in by Professor Knuth and his graduate students. Anyone who has read "TeX and METAFONT" knows too well that completing the Metafont project was no cake-walk even for a world renowned computer expert the caliber of Donald Knuth. The description of his struggles trying to find the mathematical algorithm to correctly describe the character "S" is both amusing and very sobering. It is another confirmation of an ancient folk wisdom, which states that, "There is no free lunch."

³ Font Chameleon will not make a professional typographer out of an amateur, but what it will do is provide design choices to the typographer, and do it with economy and speed. It opens up the range of creative options that otherwise could never be explored.

¹¹ Yes, the very same person who designed and programmed the original version of the TrueType rasterizer at Apple in two years minus one week.

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