Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Font-maker, Font-maker, Make Me a Font

One of my long-term gripes about the Deseret Alphabet is that we seem to be stuck with the letter-forms created in the mid-19th century. Even worse, almost everybody simply recreates the exact glyphs from the font used to print the four books in the 1860’s. Now, the Church commissioned the best font it could afford, but given the state of American typography at the time, the result is somewhat infelicitous.

There are two big gripes with the “standard” shapes of the Deseret Alphabet letters.

Gripe One: There are no ascenders and descenders. It turns out that we don’t really read by looking at word shapes but by actually recognizing letters—but ascenders and descenders are probably a big part of how we distinguish letters when reading. In any event, TYPING IN SOMETHING THAT LOOKS LIKE ALL CAPS FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME IS RATHER TIRING FOR LATIN-TRAINED READERS.

Gripe Two: The lower-case letters are just smaller versions of the upper-case letters.

Back in the 1990’s, I did two Deseret Alphabet fonts. One (whose glyphs eventually became part of Apple Symbols) uses the exact glyphs from the 1860’s, and the other (which is available if you download Apple’s font tools) was created via an involved process using Metafont and still uses the basic shapes as before.

And as for the real typographers out there, the Hermann Zapfs and Jonathan Hoeflers and their colleagues, there is little interest in making a good-looking Deseret Alphabet font.

A colleague of mine had an excellent idea. Sit a calligrapher down (he suggested my wife), and have them copy the Deseret Alphabet over and over with a steel pen. As they do this repeatedly, they’ll start to change the glyphs in a natural sort of way, and eventually we might have something that actually looks organic. This, after all, is just a compressed version of what happened with the Latin script we all know and love.

My wife, however, does not have the time, and I don’t have any other calligraphers handy, so this past spring I did the next best thing and took the bull by the horns myself.

I’m no artist by any means, but over the years I have developed a certain level of skill in creating glyphs in Font Lab Studio using bits and pieces of other glyphs. I thought I’d try the same here. I therefore started with a freely-available font, Computer Modern Unicode, with as huge a repertoire as I could find. The more glyphs there are with pieces I can use, the better for me. In particular, given the genealogy of the Deseret Alphabet, a full suite of Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic glyphs would probably supply me with everything I needed and look reasonably organic.

The results with CMU weren’t entirely satisfactory, so I tried again with a different font, this time DejaVu Sans. The results were somewhat better this time, but still not quite what I’d like. (It’s the font I used for the PDF of Isaac Asimovs short story “Youth.”) I made a third effort, therefore, with DejaVu Serif, and that seems to be the best of the bunch. It’s not 100% of the way there, however. My wife caught my proofing something I set with it and asked me what alphabet that was. When I said it was the DA, she said, “Oh, I should have known. The letters don’t look like they belong together.”

A couple of months ago, someone on the Deseret Alphabet group over at Yahoo! expressed an interest in seeing the Proclamation on the Family in the Deseret Alphabet, so I whipped up something and put it online. It’s available here.

The general reaction has been fairly positive, so it would be nice to make the font more freely available. Unfortunately, for various complicated reasons, I can’t do that right now. I can, however, describe the steps I used.

I therefore whipped up a quick spreadsheet with all the letters in the basic Deseret Alphabet in both Apple Symbols and the DejaVu Serif-derivative, and some notes as to how I made it. This is also online as a PDF. And while I was at it, I added a waterfall sheet illustrating the font.

Now if only I can finish proofing the book I set with this puppy…