( Introduction )

Designing typefaces is a time-consuming process. It can take years for a professional font to be finished. Modern solutions for designing typefaces often offer a visual editor. It enables the designer to create very precise letterforms. The disadvantage of these editors is that global differences are hard to apply. To adjust the appearance of the font, every single letter has to be changed manually. A possible solution for this problem is the use of special markup-languages which are capable of creating changeable fonts. The disadvantage of this approach is the missing visual editor. In this work different approaches are made to combine the benefits of an markup-language and a visual editor which allows the creation of simple typefaces that are changeable via parameters. My research is based on the Dexer Sinister Font MTDBT2F and I created this websit for a type theorie assignment of Sam de Groot at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in 2014

The first signs of a mathematical way of creating fonts are going back to the 15th Century. At that time typographers tried to explain letters with geometrical forms. As Luca Pacioli`s Typeface of the 16. century. His description were often resumed and modified.

In the 19th Century "Plaque Découpée Universelle" was introduced in Paris. The letters were constructed with a pen and a template. One template was including all the letters. And those are just some important examples. The upcoming digitalisation of typography let the oportunities increase. A very important Example using the digitalisation of typography is the Meta Font or the Multiplemaster.

Today we are using a series of Bézier curves where the last point of one curve coincides with the starting point of the next curve and call them “a Bézier spline”. In computer graphics splines are popular curves because of the simplicity of their construction, their ease and accuracy of evaluation, and their capacity to approximate complex shapes through curve fitting and interactive curve design.

In mathematics, a curve is, generally speaking, an object similar to a line but which is not required to be straight. This entails that a line is a special case of curve, namely a curve with null curvature. More interesting is that defining a curve as a geometric object in the time before computers was also a nontrivial task.

It was needed to fixate a sketch for the planks of a boat or the wing of a plane. Where you needed to achieve a certain kind of accuracy if you wanted to do a second curve of the same kind. A common procedure to “write down” a curve was to define points that would be on the curve and then fixate them with nails and framing squares. Afterwards thin wooden strips would be placed in between the nails in a way that the inner force of the spline would create the desired curve.

Source: Christoph Knoth, Master Thesis Computed Type, 2011

The development of type design has been heavily influenced by pre-digital type setting technologys as letterpress and opto-mechanical photocomposition. Until at one point type became more and more independent from material matter. The time when letters could be easily stored, manipulated and arranged inside a computer, changed not only the world of graphic design, but it more or less changed the way how everybody communicates, works and creates. And it did not only change the visual image of the world but also its all driving structure.

Because the output that shapes this new time is still dependent on the limitations of the technology, recapitulating the development from the very early computer graphics to the rise of global collaborative font design will reveal the strong and weak ideas of digital type design and may help to find new ideas to change it again.

Source: In search of a comprehensive type design theory (Text) by Peter Bilak

( Examples )

In this examle paragraph I am focussing at the evolution of programmed typesetting. In 1990 The first typeface called Beowolf was created by Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland. The letter shapes changed during printing. Beowolf was also the first font in the digital font library FontFont.

The Letter Spirit project is an attempt to find out more about the creative act of artistic letter-design, it was release in 1995. The aim is to model how the 26 lowercase letters of the roman alphabet can be rendered in many diff erent but internally coherent styles. Starting with one or more seed letters representing the beginnings of a style, the program will attempt to create the rest of the alphabet in such a way that all 26 letters share that same style, or spirit. In 2002 the Swiss design studio Norm published a similar attempt with their program Sign-generator.

In 2004 we saw a more calligraphic approach to font design by Jürg Lehni and François Rappo where a little program called Calligrapher will allow the application of different pens to the bone structure of a font.

Type Generator form 2006 is designed and conceptualized by Remo Caminada and Ludovic Varone and programmed by Patrick Vuarnoz. It is a program that is able to generate letter forms in real time. Because the characters are defi ned by mathematical formulas a lot of diff erent parameters can be adjusted and then will change the whole alphabet or just one letter. Afterwards the typeface can be exported as a vector path and used in other programs.

Typism is a web-based font editor, released in 2009. It is a public site where anyone can create a font for others to use and to study, to modify and to copy.

Computed Type was introduced in 2011 by Christoph Knoth. In his masterwork at the ECAL in lausanne he tried to understand and combine the logic of the machine and type design lead to unlimited type faces and unforeseen lucky mistakes.

2013 The Swiss based Studio Maximage released their Font called „Programme“ by Optimo. Insted of releasing the whole programe, Maximage have choosen some nice results out of the Program. The Font was created in the ECAL 2008 during an assignment with the toppic of Programmed Fonts and was first shown in the Book called „Typeface as program“

Metapolator is a recent (2013) web-based parametric font editor. It provides a GUI for designing with Metafont, a program and language for semi-algorithmic specification of fonts. Metapolator was created out of the need to create large type families efficiently.

Source: Typeface as Program by Francois Rappo, released at écal


( The Program )

The name Metafont is built out of two words called Meta and Font. Meta: Meta means in Greek "after". With the time, the meaning of the word has changed to "from a higher position".

Fonts is a description for signs and symbols of a sign family. The size, spacing style and more informations are contained. So we can call the Metafont, as a Font which describes a Font. Donald E. Knuth invented Metafont next to TEX. TEX is used to design Documents with a better character. And Metafont was invented as a programming language to define and generate new Typefaces and Symbols.

MetaFont is a programming language which also interprets its own language at the same time, it first provides a vocabulary and then decodes its syntax back to the native binary machine language of 1s and 0s. MetaFont was originally intended as a helper application for TeX, the computer typesetting system he created to facilitate high-quality typography directly by authors. Donald Knuth, a Stanford professor and author of the multi-volume computer science book „The Art of Computer Programming“, was dismayed on receiving galley proofs for the second edition of his book. The publisher had just switched from traditional hot metal typesetting to a digital system and the typographic quality was far worse than the original 1971 edition. Knuth figured that setting letters on a page was simply a matter of ink or no-ink, on or off, 1 or 0, and therefore a perfect problem for the computer. He planned on spending a six-month sabbatical writing a typesetting program and produced the near-ubiquitous computer typesetting program, TeX. MetaFont was designed from the start as TeX’s manual assistant and faithful servant, producing as required the high-quality fonts at whatever size and shape on command.

It allows you to create hundreds of related fonts easily and with a minimum of work from the human creator. Metafont is actually a single command-line application. In short, it has no graphical interface. It must be called from a command line or by a helper program.

This program is an interpreter. It takes a series of instructions as input, and executes them one at a time, as it receives them. In other words, Metafont is also a programming language.

The Signs and symbols are described by mathematical equations. Some parameters can affect the equations. That means the look of a sign can be easily changed with less effort. At the end of a document, metafont will compile a Bitmap in the right resolution and size.

Unlike more common outline font formats, a Metafont font is primarily made up of strokes with finite-width "pens", along with filled regions. Thus, rather than describing the outline of the glyph directly, a Metafont file describes the pen paths. Some simpler Metafont fonts, such as the calligraphic mathematics fonts in the Computer Modern family, use a single pen stroke with a relatively large pen to define each visual "stroke" of the glyphs. More complex fonts such as the Roman text fonts in the Computer Modern family use a small pen to trace around the outline of the visual "strokes", which are then filled; the result is much like an outline font, but with slightly softened corners defined by the pen shape.

Since the font shapes are defined by equations rather than directly coded numbers, it is possible to treat parameters such as aspect ratio, font slant, stroke width, serif size, and so forth as input parameters in each glyph definition. Thus, by changing the value of one of these parameters at one location in the Metafont file, one can produce a consistent change throughout the entire font. Computer Modern Roman illustrates many uses of this feature; a typical TeX installation includes a number of versions of the font in sizes from 5pt to 17pt, with the stroke widths the same in all sizes and aspect ratios widening in the smaller sizes for increased legibility. In addition, the Computer Modern typewriter and sans-serif fonts are defined using essentially the same Metafont file as the Roman font, but with different global parameters.

Curves in Metafont are defined as cubic splines rather than quadratic, for greater versatility with similarly simple arithmetic.

Metafont can render any kind of graphical output, not just glyphs. However, Meta Post with its PostScript output is preferred for advanced illustrations. Metafont is most commonly invoked without a direct request from the user. DVI Files can only contain references to typefaces, rather than the sets of raster or vector glyphs that other formats like PostScript allow. Consequently the glyphs in the typefaces need to be accessed whenever a request is made to view, print or convert a DVI file. Most TeX distributions are configured so that any fonts not currently available at the required resolution are generated by calls to Metafont. The fonts are then stored for later reuse.

Metafont can also be run interactively, and has commands for displaying on the screen the images it produces. Knuth has said that he uses Metafont as a kind of desk calculator for solving complicated equations, though he now uses MetaPost for mathematical illustrations.

Source: The Metafont Book by Donald E. Knuth, The art of Computer Programming by Donald E. Kunth

( Donald E. Knuth )

Donald Ervin Knuth was born on January 10, 1938. He has been called the "father" of the analysis of algorythms. He contributed to the development of the rigorous analysis of the computational complexity of algorithms and systematized formal mathematical techniques for it. In the process he also popularized the asymptotic notation. In addition to fundamental contributions in several branches of theoretical computer science, Knuth is the creator of the TeX computer typesetting system, the related Metafont font definition language and rendering system, and the Computer Modern family of typefaces.

Source: The art of Computer Programming by Donald E. Kunth


( The Program )

This means Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-font and it is a typeface designed by Dexter Sinister in 2010, and derived using MetaFont, the now-thirty year old computer typography system programmed by Donald E. Knuth in 1979.

MTDBT2F is named about a text called „The Unfinished“ from 2009 published by The New Yorker, it is a piece about the american writer David Foster Wallace following his death six months earlier. In which he explains that his work is neither primarily “realism” nor “metafiction,” but rather, “if it’s anything, it’s meta-the-difference-between-the-two.”

Meta-The-Difference-Between-The-Two-Font picked up where MetaFont of Donald E. Knuth left off. The only real difference between the two is that the new version was re-scripted in contemporary code to run on current computers. When typefaces are reduced to on/off bits of information, the typographic norms established by metal type are no longer bound to material necessity, they can be ignored and modified, and this is what Knuth did. With the advent and proliferation of PostScript in the early 1980s, typefaces became device independent, freed from their association with particular composing machines and their controlling companies. But next to this nominal language difference, MTDBT2F remained to MetaFont’s founding principles, not least its parameters borrowed from Knuth’s Computer Modern font, which include “superness,” “curliness,” and so on.

MTDBT2F is so more-or-less, the same as MetaFont, abiding the obvious fact that it swallows its predecessor. Although the result may look the same, it clearly can’t be, because in addition to the “productive“ software, the new version embeds its “intellectual” backstory, a story which is not merely supplementary but absolutely essential. MTDBT2F is a tool to generate countless PostScript fonts, sure, but it is at least equally a tool to think around and about MetaFont.

Parameters to work with:


(a kind of bold) along the X-axis.

Slant (more or less italic) up the Y.

Superness (a kind of chutzpah) off into the Z beyond.

CURLINESS for the time being, but we do have to account for a fourth factor.

Pen, best conceived as a digital “nib” that determines the line’s fundamental shape and angle at any given point.

Source: Dot Dot Dot Magazine/ A note on the type, letter and spirit

( Dexter Sinister )

is the collaborative effort of David Reinfurt (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States, 1971) and Stuart Bailey (York, England, 1973) based in New York. David studied at the University of North Carolina and Yale, and currently teaches at Columbia University and Rhode Island School of Design. Stuart studied at the University of Reading, and Werkplaats Typografie, and is currently involved in multiple and diverse projects at Parsons School of Design and Pasadena Art Center.

Dexter Sinister was primarily set up as a fully-functioning print workshop for Manifesta 6 school, a temporary art school on the island of Cyprus which was to take place in fall 2006. The workshop was intended to model a "Just-In-Time" economy of print production, running counter to the contemporary assembly-line realities of large-scale publishing. This involves avoiding waste by working on-demand, utilizing local cheap machinery, considering alternate distribution strategies, and collapsing distinctions of editing, design, production and distribution into one efficient activity. The workshop designed and produced a number of materials in advance, which demonstrated the proposed working model, including a book "Notes For and Art School", and a school badge based on heraldic tradition. In spring 2006, the entire school project was cancelled for ostensibly political reasons.

In summer 2006 Dexter Sinister established a workshop and occasional bookstore founded on the same principles in a basement of the Lover East Side in New York City. at 38 Ludlow Street.

The nameing Dexter Sinister comes from the latin language. "Dexter" (Latin for "right") means to the right from the viewpoint of the bearer of the arms, to the left of that of the viewer. "Sinister" (Latin for "left") means to the left from the viewpoint of the bearer, to the right of that of the viewer. The dexter side is considered the side of greatest honour.

Source: Philagrafika2010 and Center for Advanced Visual Studies (Cambridge)

( Defining Shapes )

The first signs of earth were the prints of human foot steps. The first signs consciously created by man were probably written with the index finger or a stick in the sand, then later carved in wax, wood and stone which would finally preserve the traces for centuries.

The foot would leave a complete shape with one print, making it the ancestor of today’s often used outline approach. The finger however, would create a thick line that would follow its movement making it the forerunner of the calligraphic approach. Later shapes would also be drawn from the outside what took more time but would also give new stylistic possibilities. So from the very beginning both approaches would coexist as calligraphy and punchcutting coexisted.

Also found objects like stones would be used to create shapes and are today known as the mosaics or grid approach.

Calligraphic or Sketh Approach

Originated from linear-drawing, writing and calligraphy where different kinds of pens (pointed, broad-nib, ...) get applied to a skeleton resulting in diff erent kind of characters depending on the pen. Like Illustrator, Metafont, Caligrapher or Kalliculator.

Outline Approach

Originated from the drawing of letters rather then the writing of them, different kinds of tools allow to change the outline of each glyph. Sometimes referred to as “sculpting”2 this approach has not changed much since its introduction in Fontographer. Like FontLab, Ikarus, Spiro Curves and Arap.

Mosaic or Grid Approach

A grid defines where diff erent kind of strokes or parts can go. Originally used to cover surfaces with tiles and called a mosaic many grids have been refi ned and adapted to better suit the construction principles of fonts. Like all the Pixelfonts, Fontstruct or the DutchLettermodeller.

Inter and Extrapolation

A software tries to analyze already existing glyphs and inter- and extrapolates between their maxima. It works best to interpolate in between diff erent weights and widths of the same font but it can also be used to interpolate in between diff erent fonts. Most of the time it produces an unforeseen and more experimental new font. Today it is mostly used to interpolated in between outlines but one can also imagine it to be used to interpolate in between skeletons. Like the Multiple Master Fonts, Superpolator or GenoTyp.

Source: Christoph Knoth, Master Thesis Computed Type, 2011

( Combining Shapes )

The combination of shapes is an approach that can already be observed with the use of counter punches in the early metal type design. Its scope can be advanced by looking at Oswald Cooper’s work from 1936, which involved applying 15 serifs to stems of similar weight to test their influence in letter design or Matthew Carter’s work for the Walker Art Center.

But the process of combining shapes is not only important in the design process but can also be used in the type setting program. With the use of different OpenType features it can provide alternate letters or ligatures. This is especially important for Arabic typefaces or lots of typefaces that try to simulate handwriting.

Placing Shapes by Hand

After drawing a shape you can drag it around, save it somewhere and reuse it for the next shape. It is a function that most people used to and that is probably the most “natural”. For programming reasons it is usually not possible to nest shapes in an infi nite number. Some things, like the placing of accents for diacritics, are often automated. Like Font Lab, Font Constructor or Fontstruct.

Automated Shape Placing

Metafont allows diff erent kind of parametrical components to be used in a font. What is not only useful for accents but also comes in handy for Kanji characters.

In 2008 at the ECAL in Lausanne, David Keshavjee and Julien Tavelli wrote a script for FontLab to generate diff erent basic shapes with a freely chosen contrast. After which the script could assemble those components to form a font. Every position where those parts had to be placed was hand coded.

Self Organizing Shapes

The method that Changyuhan Hu introduced with his PhD-thesis “Synthesis of Parametrisable Fonts by Shape Components” at the EPFL in Lausanne in 1998 offers a flexible font description. Characters are derived by an assembly of structure elements. The underlying model is a neu idea because it captures the fundamental model of type design. And it takes care that the font gets a high consistency.

Source: Christoph Knoth, Master Thesis Computed Type, 2011

New Material

( Interview )

Interview with the Type Designer Christoph Knoth

What do you think about the Dexter Sinister font MTDBT2F?

CK/ The dexter sinister meta font is quite interesting in the way they use it for their publications. But from the technical point of view just a skeleton with a pen applied with very limited parameters.

What was your motivation to start with creating a programmed Typeface?

CK/ I was just bored by type design in general. The idea that you have to devote yourself month to create a simple type face just did not seem worth it. I had heard about Donald Knuth who created MetaFont a language and interpreter to describe shapes. It is very powerful but also in a way quite limited and hard to approach.

Did you have an inspiring example?

CK/ When I started my master at ECAL François Rappo told me about a lot of half-baked examples that had been done in that area of parametric type. So before I started another failed attempt I wanted to study what had been done in the field. So that afterwards I could say what are the good and bad parts of each approach and use it for my own program. Out of this came my thesis Computed Type.

With what kind of Program did you work?

CK/ As a main programming language I used Python accompanied by the following packages, libraries and wrappers: wxPython, Numpy, Matplotlib, RoboFab, FontTools, ufo2fdk and Adobe FDK.

The opportunities of creating online Fonts (like metaflop.com) are growing up, do you think that in some years all the graphic artists are creating their own Fonts mit some programs?

CK/ In the 90s Adobe published Multiple Master and integrated it in InDesign. So for some so called MM Fonts you could decide how thick and how contrasted you wanted to have them and InDesign would then interpolated between the masters. But rumors say that people felt quite lost with it because they were looking for a "Regular" and a "Black" and did not want to spend hours figuring out which is the right one for their needs. Especially when you consider that back in those days screens and printers people had at home were quite bad.

What is your goal with your "Computed Type"?

CK/ Creating a tool that saves work, that creates new shapes and to learn something.

Dexter Sinister never sold the program, would you like to sell your Program to the public?

CK/ I actually plan to make it open source and give it to nice people.

Interview with the Type Designer Stuart Bailey

What was your motivation to create/generate the "Meta the difference between the two font"?

SB/ We'd been vaguely interested in Knuth's Metafont for a while and had probably spoken about trying to recover and use it at some point. we often talk of work in terms of being 'specific' rather than 'tentative' -- a very positive quality for us, even though it would be hard for us to explain what this actually means. so the idea of somehow being able to use Metafont would be a way to make a piece of work that would carry a sort of extra, embedded interest or story, as well as simply serving as a typeface like any other. we often try to do this in our work, responding to more or less regular commissions in a straightforward way, but using them as an excuse to pursue another interest. anyway, in loose conversation we'd made some throwaway comment, as you know from the text, about Foster Wallace's meta-the-difference-between-realist-and-metafiction, and this caused some kind of lightbulb to come on. then we were asked to do a project at the Queens Museum in New York, which we used to pursue the project, and ended up making vinyl signage for the entire museum in MTDBT2F. and this in turn -- again typically -- led to our writing Note on the Type in order to "caption" the project in an accompanying book for the exhibition that was the original excuse for our being invited. and this led to another thing, and another.

You were using the TEX program including Metafont and created several fonts out of it, some other typedesigner are building theit own type generators, did you think about also doing an own generator?

SB/ We have no real ambition to produce or release a generator. i mean, we -- David, not me -- had to make some kind of generator of course in order to generate the fonts, but it's never been part of the idea to do anything more with it -- not that that can't change, given the right circumstances. simply put, we were never interested in generating new fonts for their own sake. we're far more the sort of people who could happily get by with 5 fonts and don't really see the need for much more than that. for us, the typeface is far more an excuse to think and write around it. but of course it comes in useful now and then -- again, not least for its specificity. it's now "our" thing, for a while, and absolves us from having to choose other typefaces and get on with more pressing things.

What do you think about the Future and online Programms like metaflop or Fontgenerator?

SB/ As for the Future and etc., it's not something i know about or am particularly interested in, as the last answer probably suggests. i don't really see the point of customization of stuff like typefaces. i mean, it's "nice" -- hard to get upset about -- but to me a bit futile.

Create and download your customized font online at Metaflop


A new software to create individual fonts for free


In october 2013, Prototypo will be released as open source





Short introduction in Christoph Knoths Computed Type program


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