What on Earth Possessed me…


By my life, this is my lady’s hand, these be her
very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus she makes her
great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.

Her C’s, her U’s and her T’s: why that?

—Twelfth Night, II, v – Shakespeare

I have always been interested in calligraphy, especially the eccentricities of the swash and black letter capitals.

My father was deeply concerned with Renaissance printing, being a textual bibliographer of Shakespeare. His major focus was in the errors printers were likely to make, nevertheless I grew up in an environment where the long-s and other archaic devices appeared. My father used to brag that a great aunt of his still used the long-s in her hand-written notes.

Why that indeed. Some questions may have no answers.

In the early ’80s I was working at JPL and I met my first bitmap display. The primary use of this display was to make movies of a simulated fly-by of Olympus Mons (on Mars). I used it to design my first bitmap font.

In the late ’80s I bought my first computer, a Mac II. And with it a bought a little program called Fontastic which allowed people to design their own ‘FONT’ resources (mac bitmap fonts).

Then a friend, Godfrey DiGiorgi, recommended that I buy a copy of Fontographer and design PostScript fonts. I was leery initially. How could a rasterizer match the quality of a hand crafted bitmap? But eventually I succumbed to the attractions of the cubic spline.

In the meantime I had studied calligraphy, and once I had Fontographer began designing fonts based on various (latin) calligraphic hands.

In the early ’90s I was working at a little web start-up company, called NaviSoft, which was almost immediately bought by AOL. My product was an html-editor (best known as AOLpress). As I was working to convert it to handle Unicode I became concerned about the lack of Unicode fonts. I began working on my own Unicode font (just the alphabetics and symbols, I knew there was no way I’d be able to deal with all the CJK characters). I designed a font based on Caslon’s work with Bold and Italic variants. And then I started working on monospaced and sans-serif families (I called the sans-serif design “Caliban” as a play on Arial).

Aldus (the makers of Fontographer) had been bought by MacroMedia, and MacroMedia seemed to have no interest in continuing Fontographer. So development on Fontographer ceased. It did not support OpenType, and its unicode support was minimal. I began to write little programs to decode Type1 fonts and fix them up in various ways.

AOL did not really know what to do with AOLpress. AOLpress had been designed with web designers in mind, not with Steve Case’s mother (which was AOL’s target audience). So development on AOLpress ceased and the Unicode/CSS version never was completed. I continued to work on my fonts however and continued to be dissatisfied with Fontographer. In 1998 my AOL options matured and I was able to retire.

I wanted to try to become a primatologist and had made arrangements to spend 4 months in Madagascar as a field assistant to Chia Tan studying the Greater Bamboo lemur (Hapalemur simus). Sadly I found that I was not really cut out for that life. I had a hard time recognizing individual animals, and found that after a few months the leaches were more annoying than I had expected.

So I gave up on that.

Instead I set about working on an improved version of my html editor, and started by writing my own Unicode based widget set for it (this was before pango was out). When the widget set was usable I decided to write a small application to test it, and something to display the splines of a postscript font seemed just the thing. Having done that I figured I might as well allow people to edit those splines and save it back. And so was born the first version of PfaEdit.

Somehow the html-editor never got written.

I quickly discovered I was better at designing a font editor than I was at designing fonts, so I gave up on them too.

After a couple months of work I had something which worked, or so I thought, and I posted it to the web (my friend, Dan Kenan, very kindly gave me some space on his server, aptly named bibliofile) on 7 November of 2000. Within a month I had received my first bug report, and presumably had my first user.

I continued working on PfaEdit, adding support for pfb fonts and then in December for truetype and bdf fonts. I learned about sourceforge and moved PfaEdit there in April of 2001.

In April of 2001 I added support for type2 fonts embedded in an sfnt wrapper (opentype fonts, but not the advanced typographic tables). In July of 2001 MinGyoon (from Korea) asked me if PfaEdit could support CID keyed fonts so I learned about those and added support for them in August.

Valek Filippov suggested that I make PfaEdit be internationalizable, so I provided a mechanism and he provided a Russian translation of the user interface in June of 2001. On December of 2005 I gave up on my own system and switched to GNU gettext.



Initial version



Valek Filippov

June 2001


Kanou Hiroki

August 2002


Pierre Hanser

September 2002


Claudio Beccari

February 2003


Walter Echarri

October 2004


Clytie Siddall

July 2006


Apostolos Syropoulos

August 2006

Simplified Chinese

Lee Chenhwa

October 2006


Philipp Poll

October 2006


Michal Nowakowski

October 2006

Traditional Chinese

Wei-Lun Chao

August 2007

I started working on support for simple aspects of the OpenType GSUB and GPOS tables in April of 2001 and finished the process (ignoring bugs of course) with the contextual chaining lookups in August of 2003. Similarly I started adding support for the various equivalent Apple Advanced Typography tables (primarily ‘morx’) at about the same time.

In an early attempt to get PfaEdit to generate instructions to grid-fit truetype fonts, I set about to write a truetype instruction simulator so that I could debug the generated code. It didn’t work very well on real fonts. Then, in early 2001, I discovered freetype and found that freetype already did this (and did it right). At first I examined their code to try and figure out what was wrong with mine, but eventually I gave that up and simply used freetype as an instruction simulator. As things got more complicated (with David Turner’s permission, and many suggestions from Werner LEMBERG), I eventually wrote a visual front end for freetype’s built-in debugger. For a while this lived in a separate program called mensis, but in March of 2003 I integrated it into PfaEdit.

Many people urged me to provide a scripting interface to PfaEdit. At first I could not understand the point – font design needs a graphical interface after all. But I was only looking at a small fraction of the tasks that could potentially be done with such an interface, and in January of 2002 PfaEdit gained the ability to run scripts.

In 2003 Yannis Haralambous invited me to talk at EuroTex. I fear I rather disappointed him in my choice of subject matter – I tried to do better the next year when Apostolos Syropoulos invited me to EuroTex 2004 (but I overreached myself then and made some incorrect assumptions). These conferences were the first time I had actually met any of my users and were quite stimulating, leading to many suggestions and requests. I learned about SVG fonts at EuroTex 2003 and implemented them soon thereafter.

Yannis was also working on a book, Fontes & codages in which FontForge figures. He spent a lot of time making suggestions and finding bugs. He encouraged me to support multi-master fonts and by February of 2004 I had done so. Then I started working on Apple’s distortable font technology (which has many similarities to Adobe’s multi-master, but is rather badly documented) and, with help from Apple, had them working in April of 2004. I then extended freetype’s support for multi-master fonts to support Apple’s distortable fonts.

In early 2004 people complained that the name “PfaEdit” no longer reflected the abilities of the program and requested that I change it. Various people suggested names (including me), but the one I liked the best, FontForge, came from David Turner of freetype. And in March of 2004 PfaEdit changed its name to FontForge.

At about the same time I wanted to provide a somewhat more complete ability to handle PostScript Type3 fonts (or SVG fonts). So I implemented a multi-layered editing mode which provided a rather clumsy interface to some of the facilities of vector graphics programs.

In 2005 a Korean company asked me to do something. We had some difficulty communicating (I don’t speak Korean), but eventually I figured out that they wanted to be able to group glyphs together. Prior to this FontForge handled encodings as an integral part of the font, which didn’t seem right, and it made implementing groups impossible. So I had to rewrite much of the internals of FontForge to redo encodings before I could even start on groups. This took longer than I had thought it would, and by the time I finished (in July of 2005) the Koreans seemed to have lost interest. Ah well.

I got interested in pdf files in October of 2005, and gave FontForge’s Print command the ability to print to a pdf file. Then I thought it would be kind of fun to be able to read a font out of a pdf file. I was a little worried about implementing this because I know that most fonts stored in pdf files are sub-sets, and only contain the glyphs actually used in the pdf file itself. I was convinced that I’d get lots of bug reports from people complaining that FontForge didn’t read the entire font. Nevertheless my sense of fun overcame my fear of silly bug reports and I implemented it.

And I did get bug reports complaining that FontForge did not read the fonts correctly.

And I don’t think I was able to convince some of the complainers that the fonts were incomplete in the pdf file. Ah well.

The X11 folk want to move away from the bdf format, so they came up with their own format (call opentype bitmap, with extension “otb”) which was essentially an sfnt wrapper around a series of bitmap strikes with no outline font. I implemented that back in July of 2003. But then in July of 2005 they wanted to preserve the BDF properties as well. So we worked out a new table (called ‘BDF ‘) to contain the properties from all the strikes in the font. Now it should be possible to make a round trip conversion of bdf->otb->bdf and not lose any information.

Many people complained about FontForge’s ability to edit quadratic splines. I had no experience editing quadratic splines before I wrote my original version, I just made it behave like the cubic spline editor (which seemed obvious). But doing the obvious makes it hard to create a font that uses some of the optimizations in the ttf file, and made instructing the font confusing. So between January and February of 2006 FontForge’s quadratic editing capabilities underwent an evolutionary change as people complained and I tried to fix things.

I have a testsuite for fontforge. Obviously. Originally it was very simple: a set of script files which did various actions. If FontForge didn’t crash, then I presumed it worked. That was about all I could test, and although that’s important, there are a few other things which might be examined. So I wrote a command to compare two fonts and see if they were equivalent. Originally this had been a separate command (called sfddiff), but if I integrated it into FontForge I could increase the abilities of the tests I wrote.

FontForge produced some rather naive type1 and type2 fonts which did not make good use of the PostScript concept of subroutines. In June of 2006 I did a substantial rewrite of the type2 output code and decreased the size of my output fonts considerably. My new comparison command was helpful in debugging. Nonetheless I introduced a number of bugs. Which got fixed, of course. But it made me leery of doing the same thing for type1 output. After all, Adobe doesn’t even produce type1 fonts any more, so surely I don’t need to optimize them. Michael Zedler said otherwise, and after great effort on his part induced me (in October 2006) to make better use of subroutines in Type1 output also. No bugs yet… (but it’s still October of 2006).

All of FontForge’s dialogs had a fixed layout. Which works fine if you’ve only got one language to support, but which looks really ugly (and worse can be totally illegible) when the dialog is translated into a different language and labels suddenly become longer (or shorter) and spill over into the textfield they identify. There has been a sudden burst of people willing to do translations recently. This mattered. So I stole the concept of boxes from gtk and implemented them in my widget set (in August of 2006), allowing a dialog to do its own layout to match the size of the things in it.

The pace of change seems to have slowed recently (Oct 2006) as all of the large tasks have either been done or proved insurmountable. As more people use the program they find more bugs and I have less time to do development. In the last few years there have also been large internal changes which (I hope) are practically invisible to users and cosmetic changes which make the dialogs look nicer and more comprehensible but which aren’t functional.

My interface to GSUB/GPOS was not well thought out. I stored things in FontForge at the feature level, while OpenType wants things done at the lookup level. I thought lookups added an unnecessary level of complexity and ignored them. But people complained (they always do) that once a font had been read in to FontForge and saved out again it wouldn’t work any more. And that was because I had lost the ordering imposed by the lookups. So in early 2007 I had to redo much of the internals of fontforge as it related to OpenType. I also changed the Metrics View so it would handle all OpenType lookup types (rather than just kerning).

And people didn’t like my scripting language. Why hadn’t I used python? (Well because I didn’t know python and was lazy about learning more stuff that I didn’t think would be useful to me). Various people told me that they just couldn’t use FontForge because it didn’t support python. So I added python support. Then I discovered that my build machine has such an old version of python that it doesn’t provide libpython – and I can’t upgrade my machine any more because all the distros require booting from CD now (and my machine can’t).

In May of 2007 I went to the Libre Graphics Meeting in Montreal, and as I listened to the Inkscape talk on how they handled plugins, I realized that I could do that too. So I extended the python interface to support python plugins and menu items. Dave Crossland, as is his wont, had many requests, and had me update the old Display dialog to support all the OpenType lookups (just as I’d done for the Metrics View) and then merge that into the Print dialog too. Dave also felt that FontForge should be able to store a font directly on the Open Font Library website. Well, they had no API for this, so I had to sit down and figure out http all over again and see what bits of the user API I needed to walk through.

In June I started working on Adobe’s feature files (I could support them now that I was handling lookups properly), and found to my shock that

  1. The syntax as presented by Adobe wasn’t complete (could not represent all of opentype)

  2. Some of the syntax that was presented hadn’t been implemented by Adobe yet and was marked “Subject to change”

  3. There was no easy way to represent the “Everything else” class (class 0) of a class set without enumerating every glyph by hand (which could not be translated into a class 0.

  4. There was no way to distinguish a contextual class based lookup from a contextual coverage-table based lookup.

  5. … on and on …

I had assumed that feature files were a stable useful format and found to my distaste that they were not. I implemented the bits that Adobe hadn’t implemented, and extended them a bit so I could represent more of OpenType (and told Adobe what my extensions were, but was told they didn’t like them). Grump. Well I wanted something to store as much of OpenType as I could, and I wasn’t going to wait for Adobe to come up with something (which they still haven’t).

Apostolos gave me the spec for the new ‘MATH’ table. But that spec had MicroSoft Confidential printed all over it and I wasn’t about to touch it. Apostolos got annoyed at my ignoring it, so in July he had Sergey from MS send me a copy of the spec that no longer said “Confidential” on every page. Then I implemented the new ‘MATH’ table.

I’d never had a good Embolden function. I’d tried various approaches and none worked well. This year I decided to try a very simple idea: Use expand stroke and then squash the glyph together so it was the same height it had been before. That basically worked. Still a few oddities, but basically functional.

In July Michal Nowakowski gave me a patch which vastly improved the truetype auto instructor. I told him I’d only accept it if he would support it. After some initial grumbling he did so – and then proceeded to make it even better! Then about a week later Alexej Kryukov said he wanted to make the autoinstructor support diagonal stems, and the two of them started working together on this.

At the Libre Graphics Meeting Dave demoed Raph Levien’s spiro splines and encouraged me to integrate them into fontforge. But Raph released under GPL and wasn’t willing to change, and I released under BSD and wasn’t willing to change. I got permission from Raph to repackage his spiro routines into a small shared library (libspiro) which could be released separately from FontForge but to which FontForge could link. And we had Raph’s spiros in FontForge.

I realized that no only could I stick python into fontforge, but if I did a little more work, I could stick fontforge into python. So I wrapped up most of fontforge into a shared library that python could load. Dave Crossland had been complaining (again) about the FontForge widget set. When was I going to move to gtk? (well, I’d tried gtk back in 2004, and found it hard to use, and bits of it ugly – and less functional than my own widget set in the ways that mattered to me, so I had given up on it). Dave offered to fund development of a gtk fontforge UI, but only if I’d switch to GPL. I dislike GPL, it seems so restrictive to me, so I said I wouldn’t. Then I realized that I could rework my library until it was independent of widget set, and allow Dave to write a UI to sit on top of it, not bound by the fontforge license. So I reworked the internals of fontforge to make them extensible, stripped the UI out of libfontforge. And started to work on a gtk based fontforge of my own.

Dave Crossland was complaining on the Open Font Library mailing list about how much information was lost when a font was released. Guidelines. Names of lookups. Cubic splines used for generating the quadratics of TrueType. And about the need for providing sources. Well, providing sources of fonts can be difficult, and not always useful if the tools to generate the fonts aren’t also available. However there is no reason why much of that information can’t be stored in the font itself. I already had a table that FontForge would create called (‘PfEd’, left over from PfaEdit days) which stored per-glyph comments, and other things. I could simply extend that table to store guidelines and other things. And document it so that others could use it, of course – but I’d already done that.

And that brings us up to Jan 2008, I guess the pace of change sped up a bit this year as opposed to last.

Alexey and others complained that they wanted multiple layers of splines. More than just the Foreground, Background, Guidelines layers that FontForge came with. One common request was to have both a cubic (PostScript) and a quadratic (TrueType) layer and be able to generate fonts from both. So in March of 2008 FontForge grew multiple layer support.

Later in March I added support for the OpenType ‘BASE’ and Apple ‘bsln’ tables. And to amuse myself I added the ablity to have gradient fills in Type3 (and svg) fonts.

In June I was thinking of the embolden command I did the year before, and realized that that was essentially the same idea as was needed for generating Small Caps glyphs from Capital letters. And then some of those algorithms could be used to create condensed and extended glyphs. And then I sat down and wrote a generic “glyph change” dialog – years ago I had had a “MetaFont” command which was supposed to allow the user to embolden fonts for condense them or … Unfortunately my MetaFont never worked very well (And some users complained that It didn’t read Knuth’s mf files. Sigh. No, it metamorphosed fonts in its own way, not Knuth’s), so it got removed. Now it was basically working in a new form – but I know better than to call it MetaFont now.

Alexey then stepped in and rewrote much of the code. I did not handle diagonal stems well when creating small caps, and that was just what he was doing with the autohinter. So he greatly improved the output.

I was also intregued by italics. Converting a font to italics involves so many different things – the font is slanted, compressed, serifs change, letter forms change, … I studied existing fonts to see what I could learn and asked various real typographers. The consensus I heard from them was that I could never make a good italic font from a roman one mechanically and should not bother to try – it would just lead to people making bad italic fonts. Good advice, but I didn’t follow it. I thought it was a neat challenge. And it was something Ikarus had done, so I wanted to do it too.

In July a friend of mine, who is a mac user, said she wouldn’t even consider looking at fontforge on her mac unless it behaved more like a mac application. So I figured out how to build a mac Application, and how to respond to apple events (like having someone double click on a font file, or drop a font file on fontforge’s icon). I figured out how to start up X so that the user didn’t have to. I made pretty (well, I think they are pretty) icons for font files. I even changed the menus to use the command key on the mac and to show the mac cloverleaf icon.

My friend still (November) has not looked at fontforge. Ah well.

Dave Crossland had hired someone to integrate cairo into fontforge. But the result never got back to me. In a moment of foolish boredom I decided I could do that too. So I studied cairo, and it really didn’t seem that hard. But it was slow – at least on my 10 year old x86 machine which doesn’t support XRender. Cairo gave two things I cared about, anti-aliased splines in the glyph view, and anti-aliased text everywhere. Well I needed cairo in the glyph view, but pango would also provide fuzzy text and was lighter weight and would also support complex scripts (which fontforge’s own widget set did not do). So I could turn off cairo everywhere but the glyph view but still get fuzzy text from pango. And speed things up. Then Khaled Hosny suggested that I implement pango. Hurumph. And I had wanted to surprise people. Oh well. Implement Pango I did.

A group in Japan created the “Unofficial mingw fontforge page”. A very nice piece of work. It included a set of X resources which provided another, nice look to the UI. A theme. And then other people started writing themes – and started complaining about and finding old bugs in fontforge’s resource reading code – it had never been exercised before I guess.

I have received many suggestions from many people, too many to enumerate here, and FontForge is the better for their requests. Often I have reacted badly to these suggestions (because they always mean more work for me), and I apologize for that, but mostly I wish to thank those who have helped make FontForge what it is today.

Currently, probably the biggest complaint about FontForge is the choice of widget set. No one likes my widgets (except me). Unfortunately for the rest of the world I don’t like the two choices of widget set available to me (gtk and qt). I will get started working on converting to one and then run into some problem I can’t work around easily and give up and go back to my own. Well in 2008 I still don’t like gtk, but I have the fontview working in it. A start but probably not something I will continue.