December 20, 2006

Portrait: Raph Levien, font-designer and free software contributor

Author: Bruce Byfield

Raph Levien sees himself as one of a small but growing collection of people working to reconcile the free software and typographic communities. Most font designers, Levien says, "have a real suspicion of the free software ethic. It's only in the last year or two that we've seen some bridges being built between these two worlds."

Levien himself moves comfortably in both worlds. On the one hand, Levien has been contributing to free software projects ever since 1994, when his interest in the cypherpunk movement drew him into the early development of the GIMP at the University of California at Berkeley. Since then, he has contributed to a number of projects, including libart, Gtk+, and Gill and Gdome for the GNOME project. Many of his contributions are to projects that center on design. In addition, Levien is employed by Ghostscript and holds several patents, including one for Even Toned Screening, a set of halftoning algorithms for inkjet printers. He is also working on a doctoral dissertation involving improved font rendering that he expects to result in another patent and the release of more free software tools.

On the other hand, Levien developed a love of typography at an early age. His father, Jack R. Levien, is well-known as a producer of miniature books, and Levien claims that he learned his alphabet from his father's collection of font specimens -- "A for Albertus, B for Bodoni," he jokes. By the age of 15 he was designing his first fonts for dot-matrix printers, efforts that he now calls primitive.

With this mixed background, Levien dismisses the idea of any division between the collaborative work-methods in free software and font design, which to many appears to be a solo act of creativity. "To me, there's a lot of commonality," he says. "There's a lot of creativity in designing free software, and that's what appeals to me most." Like many free software contributors, however, he expresses a preference for small, specific projects, rather than what he considers the large corporation style of "code dumps" like

Levien's more recent typefaces are licensed under the SIL Open Font License, at least partly to show his support for the growing community that he calls the free font movement. Many of these designs, such as Museums Caps, LeBe, and ATF Bodoni, are developed from tracings of humanist designs -- that is, either classic typefaces from the Renaissance or ones inspired by them in the last century. "I've always been fascinated by the achievements of the classical font designers," he says, particularly when he compares the design tools available to them with modern digital ones.

Levien's fonts are available in a FontForge format, from which users can make their own modifications or generate their own PostScript or TrueType exports for use. However, Levien considers them works in progress. He expresses dissatisfaction with their spacing, and some of them lack numerals, or in the case of LeBe Book, even basic punctuation such as the semicolon. Yet, despite their unfinished state, many of them are suitable for body text or basic book design.

Just now, Levien is devoting most of his efforts to Inconsolata, which he intends as a high-quality monospaced font. Although he prefers not to criticize individual typefaces, Levien says that "what exists in commercial and free monospaced fonts is very poor compared with what is possible." While development is ongoing, he describes Inconsolata as "on the cusp of a full release," and hopes to see it included soon in the major GNU/Linux distributions.

Contributions from others have been "very modest so far," but Levien remains optimistic about free font development. "I just got a collection of glyphs for Inconsolata a couple of days ago," he says. "One of the things I'm expecting is to get glyphs that fill out the international character ranges, because it seems just about every font that goes into widespread use and has a license that encourages free contributions has that happen. If the font is decent, it's probably going to get a pretty complete Cyrillic and Greek and even Vietnamese complement."

In fact, Levien describes support for a broad range of Unicode tables as typical of the free font movement. "One question," he says, "That's worth asking is: If you do free software, what can you achieve that you really can't achieve using the proprietary model? And one of those is having full-resource indy designers develop these character sets.

"Another thing I'm hopeful about is people taking the fonts apart and putting them back together in new ways. For the most part, proprietary fonts don't allow you to do that in their license. We haven't really seen much of that yet."

Levien admits that the free font movement is not entirely new. In particular, he acknowledges the work that Donald E. Knuth has done in encouraging the development of fonts for use with Tex. The trouble is, Levien suggests, Knuth's efforts, through nobody's fault, suffered from a lack of infrastructure. Supporters of Tex had to invent their own font-rendering technology, but their efforts were at least partly negated by the rise of the PostScript standard. Now, however, Levien believes that, although the development of free fonts is in its earliest days, free software has the standardized infrastructure in place to move reliably beyond utility and produce high-quality typefaces.

"If free software is going to grow to the next stage, you have to pay attention to quality," Levien says. "I'm kind of excited to be part of something like that."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.

Our new Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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