Meet BirdFont 1.0, free type design app

Meet BirdFont 1.0, free type design app

Is FontForge all there is to type design on Linux? Not quite. Johan Mattsson released BirdFont 1.0, a new(er) free type design program for Linux, Windows, and Mac.

The project has been in the works for the last two years, with several dozens releases before v1.0 and, as a matter of fact, a few releases past v1.0 already. So you might like to think of BirdFont as a train that keeps on rolling.

Johan started BirdFont with the SVG Font spec in mind which, as SVG 2.0 progresses, is going out of fashion now (however much there ever was to it). He soon added generating TTF files, though, and keeps adding/improving design features ever since.

Today you can use BirdFont to create new typefaces from scratch or digitize existing type designs, manually create kerning pairs, and generate SVG and TTF files.

While the application is available under the terms of GPLv3+, unless you donate to the developer, you are supposed to create SIL OFL licensed fonts with free Windows and Mac builds only. Granted, a $1 large donation will already remove the restriction, and if you are a Linux user, you don't even have to bother.

Johan kindly agreed to reply a few questions about the project.

Initially you only targeted SVG Fonts. How and why did the project's goals and scope change over time?

The project started as a hobby and I wanted to learn a new programming language and write a small program with technologies that I was interested in. This meant that I focused on SVG fonts and compatibility with FLOSS applications like Inkscape and Libre Office.

Focus has shifted quite dramatically from technologies that I like to formats and programs that designers actually use. I have spent a lot of time making Birdfont compatible with proprietary applications like Adobe Illustrator and Microsoft Word. This a rather difficult task compared to generating fonts compatible with Open Source applications like Freetype.

Since Birdfont has an increasing number of users has the direction of the development become more influenced by the feedback I get. I spend most of the time fixing bugs that users report and implementing features that users need. I really appreciate the feedback I get but it has also meant that Birdfont has become less of a hobby project and more of a part time work that I do (even though I have no plans to quit my day job, yet).

Is that the reason you started getting thsi project funded?

That is a part of it, but I also belong to those who think of free as GNU rather than gratis. I donate small sums to support open source programs that I use and I think everyone should do that.

Did you hear much criticism regarding your choice to limit the output of the free version to SIL OFL licensed fonts? And, in a nutshell, what was your reasoning?

I have not received any e-mails with that kind of criticism, I guess 1 USD is an affordable price for most users and those who don't want to donate can still use the Linux version. The reasoning behind this limitation is simply that I don't have any problem working for free if those who are using BirdFont contribute to free software by releasing their work under the SIL OFL.

What are your goals today?

I have a list of some features that I want to implement here, but these are things that I would like to write rather than features that designers needs.

I have lately understood that users play an important role in the development of free software and I try to make the most of it.

How do you feel about web apps crawling into design process? There's e.g. free/libre Metapolator app rapidly growing now. Is this something you'd like to consider for BirdFont in the future? Or are you more comfortable with a desktop app?

I have thought about creating a web interface for BirdFont but I don't have time to write it right now, I have too many things to develop in the desktop and Android version first.

Metapolator is built on a very interesting idea but I believe type design is a complex task that can't be reduced to a few parameters. I have for example not implemented autokerning in BirdFont, not because I don't want kerning to be done automatically, but because I don't think a computer algorithm can replace the designers' decisions when it comes to spacing a font. I like to be proven wrong and I enthusiastically follow the development of such tools though.

People inevitably try to treat Birdfont as FontForge with UI that doesn't look so 1990s. What do you think is the actual most important difference?

I think the drawing canvas and the grid in particular is the major difference compared to FontForge. It is a bit unusual and reflects the way I prefer to draw glyphs rather than what I think most users already are comfortable with.

Do you have notable examples of typefaces designed with BirdFont?

I have seen surprisingly few examples on the web given that Birdfont has been downloaded ~70 000 times. I think people in general should publish their unfinished works and sketches, it would be inspiring to see fonts being developed.

You chose Vala as a programming language. 2+ years into the project, do you think it was a good choice in terms of portability and 3rd party contributions?

Vala not a very common language, but I did't think it would be that much of a barrier for programmers who already know a few languages. In terms of portability is it a great language. Birdfont already runs on many platforms and I am hacking on an Android port of the program as well.

A while ago Vala had a reputation of changing too rapidly, so apps required a particular version of the preprocessor to be built. Have things settled down yet? Is this a good time to get one's feet wet with Vala and contribute to BirdFont?

The "non null" support breaks now and then, but I send patches to the Vala developers, and the release cycle is short. Package maintainers have found out that it is possible to compile BirdFont without this option, and I think most users will find BirdFont in their favorite Linux distributions.

Do you still design typefaces?

I am not so much designing typefaces as I am learning how to do type design. But I will release a few fonts as soon as I am finished with the italics. The only typeface I have released was my embarrassing first attempt to create a fontm and I have redesigned large parts of it. I draw quite a lot glyphs in BirdFont, but I always tend to become distracted of small details that needs to be improved in the program.

BirdFont is currently at v1.3. You can download Windows and Mac installers, as well as the source code.

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  1. I think this type of licensing is very smart. $1 for a great app is perfectly reasonable. It’s time for GNU application developers to make money, and I do not believe that giving apps away for free makes people properly value them.

  2. Application really interesting, economic and multiplatform

  3. One of the best app I kept looking around until now. Just got it right away, as a graphic designer, and artist this is a great tool. Thank You. I just have a look at it, and, well, see you later.

  4. Thank you for such inspiring and eye opening news on this software. I didn’t know it existed but since I do now have already helped them translate the app to my native language (Brazilian Portuguese hehe). Cheers!

  5. Downloading, and try it now

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