January 26, 2006

Gentium: An award-winning font joins the free software world

Author: Bruce Byfield

Gentium is something new in fonts. Its design is a mixture of the practical and aesthetically pleasing. It supports the diacritical marks needed to render a wide range of Latin and Greek characters, yet it is also designed for readability, compactness, and visual appeal. What is really unusual is that its designer, Victor Gaultney, has released it under a free licence and is developing it as a free and open source project.

Gaultney is a type designer for SIL International, a Christian academic organization whose concerns include literacy and the study and support of less-known languages worldwide. Gaultney did the original design of Gentium as a requirement for his Master of Arts in Typeface Design at the University of Reading, in the UK.

Gaultney's assignment was to develop two variants of a typeface. The result was Gentium and GentiumAlt, an alternative version with less angled diacritical marks that lie closer to the main letter forms.

Initially, Gaultney released Gentium as freeware. It was free to use, but not to modify. He received "some very tempting offers" to sell the font, but declined. He then realized, he says, that a licence modeled on those used in free and open source software (FOSS) would be more in keeping with his goals. Gaultney has done some programming himself and is familiar with FOSS. He says, "As someone working in an academic organization, I'm grateful for all those developers who have chosen to provide their work to the wider community, and have seen the free software model work well."

Thanks to Gaultney's rethinking, the current version of Gentium is released under the newly written SIL Open Font Licence. Released in November 2005, this licence is designed to address the concerns of font designers about how their work is used while allowing the same rights to distribute and produce derivative works as free software licences.

A global goal

"Gentium" is Latin for "belonging to all nations." The name reflects Gaultney's goal of developing a font that can be widely used in a variety of languages.

As a look at a desktop Character Map shows, many digital fonts, whether free or proprietary, have limited character sets. At best, support is limited to Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic characters. A surprising number of fonts do not even have complete support for these alphabets, much less others. Fonts are starting to be developed that support Unicode, the character encoding format that is intended to cover every character and diacritic in every language, but they are still relatively rare.

For groups like SIL International that are concerned with the preservation of lesser-known languages, this lack is a growing concern. It means that the users of such languages cannot use computers in their own language.

The result," Gaultney writes, "is that millions of people are shut out from the publishing community." The increasing use of computers may force languages already threatened with extinction to decline more rapidly. And with the loss of their languages -- or at least their written forms -- cultures may also disappear, lessening global diversity and leaving only a monoculture.

Gaultney believes that he can contribute to the search for solutions by designing Unicode-compliant fonts. "These ethnic groups -- nations --" he says, "need a typeface that supports all their special letters and is also suitable for broad text publishing. Gentium is an attempt to meet this need."

Gentium's design reflects this practical goal. Because some languages require as many as three levels of diacritics, Gentium has long ascenders (the upper strokes on letters such as "b" or "h"). Some diacritics have alternate forms for use in languages requiring multiple levels of diacritics. Different character sets, such as Latin and Greek, are designed so that they can be mixed with aesthetically pleasing results.

Mindful of how lesser-known languages might be used, Gaultney also tried to keep the strokes (the lines used to draw each letter) relatively uniform. That way, the font would remain readable when printed in less than ideal circumstances -- for example, on aging dot-matrix printers or with toner-saving options enabled.

Typographical concerns

A font designer since 1991, Gaultney was equally concerned to design a font that is attractive to the eye. Like Robert Slimbach, one of his main influences, he was determined to achieve a "balance of utility and beauty."

Gaultney's design considerations are summarized in the Gentium Type Specimen available on the project Web site. He began by reacting to an article by typographer Henry Carter, who wondered whether calligraphic elements such as low joins on letters like "m" and "n" could improve the readability of a font. Gaultney began experimenting with adapting calligraphic lettering to a digital font. As he worked, he found himself eliminating calligraphic elements one at a time. In the end, he decided on more regular strokes and serifs than a calligraphic brush would draw. While elements of calligraphy remain in the Roman or regular typeface, they are most obvious in the cursive italic typeface.

At the same time, Gaultney added other elements to improve readability, such as large x-heights (the height of a lower case "x" and other letters with ascenders), and open counters (the partially enclosed space in a letter, such as the inside of a "c").

The final design is a humanistic font (that is, one in the tradition of the early Renaissance typographers) that, while showing the influence of the designers whom Gaultney admires, stands on its own as an original design. In recognition of this achievement, in 2003 Gentium was awarded a Certificate of Excellence from the Association Typographique Internationale as one of the best designs of the previous five years.

Talking about the finished design, Gaultney writes, "Encouraging people to read requires getting their attention with something that looks attractive. Gentium attempts to attract readers through good design and spacing, but also by its calligraphic character. It tries to be a warm and friendly face without too many distracting elements."

Gaultney designed Gentium on a Mac, using FontLab and RoboFab, a Python library for font design. "I'd love to be able to use FontForge," he says, referring to a free software design tool, "But FontForge on the Mac leaves a bit to be desired. I am heavily dependent on the Python scripting capability which FontForge lacks."

Future development

Although usable now, Gentium remains a work in progress. Over the next few months, Gaultney hopes to add bold weights to the font, as well as additional Greek glyphs and Cyrillic script support. He also plans to make Gentium fully compliant with the Unicode 4.1 standard.

Once these basics are developed, the project will consider user requests, such as a matching sans serif font (one without the hooks at the tops and bottoms of strokes) and old style figures (Arabic numerals that do not share a common baseline). For now, Gaultney suggests that designers who need a matching sans serif consider the forthcoming Andika SIL, or use Lucida Sans with tighter tracking (less space between letters).

The designer has no current plans to support Hebrew characters, or to release the font in Type 1 (PostScript) file format. However, Gaultney urges those interested in such developments to contribute to the project, or at least provide a rationale for why the project should include them.

The ability of the project to meet such requests depends on the size of the community. Recently, designer Annie Olsen contributed a set of regular and italic capitals for use in phonetic transcriptions, but much work still remains to be done. "We've only recently opened up Gentium to others," Gaultney explains, "and so the collaboration community is only forming. But we have received at least three emails from folks who want to provide significant enhancements. The
challenge is now for us to manage and integrate those contributions."

Another consideration is how the FOSS community will receive the new SIL Open Font Licence. The licence was developed in consultation with members of the FOSS community, but has yet to receive widespread notice. Reactions from designers are also in the early stages. Already, though, Gaultney
says, "we have been pleasantly surprised to find that a couple of major computer software
companies have shown interest in the OFL that might not have considered a free license for
some of their fonts."

With its three aims of functionality, aesthetics, and user freedom, Gentium is clearly an ambitious project, though it remains incomplete, and its attempts to encourage user freedom are too new to assess. Still, in one area, Gentium has already had outstanding success: Even in incomplete form, it is one of the few free fonts to meet the highest standards of commercial type design. It adds a touch of elegance to the world of FOSS.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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