Robothon 2012, RoboHint, and the Gerrit Noordzij Prize

Written by Dan Reynolds on April 6, 2012

Most of the Robothon 2012 presentations were streamed live and archived online. This article, therefore, isn’t an event summary, since the conference’s main content is still watchable. Rather, this is an attempt to explain things one might miss as a virtual attendee.

What is Robothon?

Robothon is a font technology conference that takes place every three years at the Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten (Royal Academy of Art) in The Hague, the same school that organizes the Type and Media masters degree course in typeface design. Type design education at KABK is particularly influenced by Gerrit Noordzij, the Dutch designer who taught at the school for decades. This year’s Robothon even included a short presentation about Noordzij and Type and Media, for those who might be unfamiliar with them. In recent years, the Academy has organized a Gerrit Noordzij Prize and, since 2006, Robothon conferences coincided with awarding the prize.

By just watching the conference videos, one misses Robothon’s laid-back feeling. The main activities only lasted for two days, and although the program started early each morning, presentations ended early, too. The schedule included several long breaks, giving attendees the opportunity to discuss the applications, ideas, and scripts presented during the lectures.

Organized by Erik van Blokland and Paul van der Laan, the lion’s share of Robothon work was undertaken by the current Type and Media class. These students dedicated about a month of their short (about ten months’) time at KABK to work on Robothon and the Gerrit Noordzij Prize festivities. This included the design of an exhibition and catalog to honor the previous prize winner, Wim Crouwel.


My favorite Robothon presentation was Petr van Blokland’s Building a TrueType Hinting Tool. It seems to me to be a general consensus, based on reactions in The Hague and online, that this was the highlight of the conference. Petr’s ideas also point directly at the kind of designer that Robothon is aimed at. For instance, during his talk, Petr asks the rhetorical question: why is auto-spacing considered not OK, but auto-hinting is? Why should a designer surrender the way work appears onscreen? Controlling the rendering of a typeface is a much better tactic than surrendering to a mechanism one did not create.

Robothon primarily speaks to an audience convinced that spacing and kerning are part of the design process. While there were attendees present that rely on services like iKern, the more popular solution is to tackle kerning oneself via class kerning in FontLab, Glyphs, or Metrics Machine. Writing scripts to speed up the process is a great timesaver; but relying on an “auto” tool is a step too far.

Since 2009, with the broader adoption of webfonts, TrueType hinting has risen in our parlance. More graphic designers, type designers, and web designers talk about it now than ever before. Unfortunately, most industry discussion of hinting seems to take one of three paths at the moment. The font maker may:

  1. develop one’s own TrueType hints in FontLab, or in Microsoft’s VTT application. While some font developers see these as the ideal solutions, many designers claim to not have the resources or knowledge to undertake this step for themselves.
  2. make use of an auto hinting tool. These tools generally take a TTF file, analyze its settings, generate hints, and write these into the font. Auto-hinting tools may be part of a font development application, or be a proprietary resource of a single company, or take another form, such as ttfautohint or the FontSquirrel web font generator. Depending on the amount of preparation, as well as the quality of the “auto” programming, widely varied results may be achieved.
  3. choose to not hint one’s fonts at all. Here, one either hopes for the best, or is certain that the font will be used only (or primarily) in an environment or a size where hinting isn’t necessary. Certainly, things seem to get a little better on this front, if one considers improvements in rendering like the Retina display iPad, DirectWrite in Windows 8, or MacOS ignoring TT hints by default.

All of these solutions present a problem — one that Petr wants to solve. In these scenarios, TT hints are applied via a process that typically begins after the design of a typeface is finished. Except for TT hints added to FontLab’s VFB files, these hints are instructions that are written into final TTF files, not into design source files. TrueType hints are attached to points on TrueType outlines; if one edits a glyph’s design further in a font editor, one will lose the hints. This is bad.

Microsoft’s VTT — the current heavy-hitter among hinting tools — uses a vocabulary that is separate from what a designer uses while drawing glyphs in a font editor. While RoboHint has not yet been released, it seems from Petr’s presentation that the still-in-progress application (or RoboFont add-on) will allow you to add hints to source files in a way that is more malleable; your application should convert what you do into the hinting instruction language. This conversion should take place in the background. Should one make changes to the glyph later, the application should re-hint the glyph on the fly. You still have to define hints yourself, of course, but your font editor should understand what they are, and be able to adapt them to reflect your changes to glyph outlines. This would make hinting part of the design process, rather than a production step. Fonts could be TT-hinted from the design of the very first glyph onward.

If you care about the way that your typeface rasterizes, it should be important to you to determine how hints are placed. This kind of application-sensitive decision-making should be the same as every other decision, like what your stem thicknesses are in the first place, or how wide your letters should be, how much contrast they should have, and how much space comes between each pair of letters.

UFO Recap

At the beginning of the Robothon conference, Tal Leming was proclaimed “Benevolent Dictator of the UFO for life”. You can see this at the end of Erik van Blokland’s “the State of RoboFab” presentation. This article is a good opportunity to touch on the UFO format again: UFO — and the RoboFab Python library, another Tal and Erik collaboration — were the foundation for most of the ideas presented during Robothon. It is difficult to imagine font development today without their work.

What will one do with a library of VFB files if something were to happen to FontLab Studio? What happens to all digital data as technology and software move on? Sure, font files exported from FontLab — TTFs and OTFs, etc — should be openable by future font drawing applications, just like files from older apps are. However, your native work files may not be readable by future programs, as FontLab Studio’s VFB-format is proprietary, and currently only supported by FontLab products. This could mean having to accept the loss of outlines you saved in other layers, not to mention placed images, or guidelines. What if one wants to be able to access these in 10–20 years? If you are part of a company with a library of dozens, or thousands, of fonts to manage, you may need to be able to reopen older projects in years to come. Surely OpenType and webfonts won’t be the last format shifts for which legacy typefaces will need to be converted.

The UFO format tries to solve this problem. Tal discusses the evolution of UFO in his presentation on the recently published UFO3 format. The format stores your font in a human-readable manner, rather than in binary code. Already, FontLab Studio supports UFOs with the help of the RoboFab script libraries. But, because they are not native to FontLab, users have to actively install these tools themselves. Glyphs has UFO support built into the application. With RoboFont, work files are UFO files.

Although the UFO format was first introduced in 2004, I first began to take serious notice of it in 2009, at the previous Robothon conference. All of the presentations from Robothon 2009 may be downloaded as video podcasts from iTunes. While I had already used a small bit of the UFO-based applications Metrics Machine and Superpolator, seeing presentations on Tal’s Area 51 and ufo2fdk resources, as well as apps like RoundingUFO from Frederik Berlaen, finally woke me up. Using the UFO format opens up a whole new ecosystem of font development possibilities. Already at that conference there was talk of the “missing UFO font editor” — whoever would program this would enable an entire circuit of design and PostScript-based OTF font production on OS X, bypassing FontLab Studio altogether (Glyphs had not yet been publicly released). That “missing UFO font editor” came to market in 2011: RoboFont.

Don’t Stop Here

As I come to a close, I’m already worried about having cherry-picked my way through the conference. My best advice to readers is to work your way through the online Robothon 2012 talks on your own. If Robothon 2009’s media is any guide, these will probably stay online for quite some time. Several of the videos are good references to return to later, if you are looking for a specific way to bring scripting into your workflow, or if you want to work with a specific tool, like Superpolator or Speedpunk (video not yet available). The PostScript hinting information presented by Miguel Sousa is always relevant to font production, whether it is just to get your designs looking right onscreen in PDFs or Adobe Applications, or to use as a step on the way to auto TrueType hinting. Finally, for those considering whether or not to switch from FontLab to Glyphs, there is a 50-minute Glyphs demo that you can check out, too.

The Gerrit Noordzij Prize 2012

Gerrit Noordzij Prize winners receive their exhibitions at the end of their three-year tenures. This year, the prize was passed on from Wim Crouwel to Karel Martens, the renowned Dutch book designer. Previous winners include Tobias Frere-Jones, Erik Spiekermann, Fred Smeijers, and Gerrit Noordzij himself. The award ceremony took place immediately following the end of Robothon’s second day of program. On the day afterward, the Gerrit Noordzij Prize festivities went on to include an afternoon lecture series of its own, whose speakers included Jost Hochuli. Jost traveled all the way from St. Gallen, Switzerland to rock the house with his lecture on the roots of Swiss Typography, which he read in perfect English.

Photos by Tânia Raposo. More on her Flickr »

Dan Reynolds is a failed spirit, living in Berlin, but at least he finally has a dog. Occasionally, he designs typefaces (even one or two good ones), but he more often writes minor copy for typefoundries and font-retail websites. In 2015, he finally started working on the dissertation he planned in 2011; it is due in Spring 2018. Wish him luck! He really needs it.


  1. Colin M. Ford says:

    Great write up, Dan, and wonderful photos, Tânia!

  2. Chris W says:

    As the conference is at the other end of the planet to me it’s good to be able to see this online.

  3. Domu says:

    Very insightful, great article.

    It would be great to read an analysis of the new 450 google fonts.
    Haven’t read anything serious about it yet.


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