Why and how to use Opentype

February 26, 2014 , In: Tutorials

When you license a font, how much thought do you give to the format of the file? As long as it works on your computer, chances are it’s not all that much. This means that you’re probably missing out on tonnes of awesome possibilities and incredible font features which could be pushing your design to another level.

In the past, the files which made up a font were limited to 256 characters, but thanks to new technology developed by tech giants Microsoft & Adobe, OpenType fonts use Unicode, allowing one file to support over 65,000 characters. They are also compatible with both Mac and Windows computers, making life simpler for everyone.

So, what does OpenType do with support for over 65,000 characters? Well, it opens up a whole new world of choices for designers to play with, from stylistic alternatives to ligatures. It introduces solutions to many of the problems which have been historically inherent in type design, such as “avoiding unsightly collisions of letterforms, substituting glyphs that work better in certain contexts and making it easy to access features such as old style numerals, small caps and so on.”

Think of OpenType as the smartphone of font file formats, while the older formats are like carrying a phone, an mp3 player, a satnav, a camera, a book, a pen and paper and a game boy separately.

The OpenType Options of Al Fresco

Thanks to top type talent Laura Worthington, we’ve got some pretty pictures to show you exactly what we mean.

Al Fresco in itself is a beautiful font with striking curves and extremely evocative composition. This is the font as it comes, with no OpenType features enabled.

Perhaps the most important and impressive aspects of an OpenType font are the contextual alternates. When they are enabled, the font is programmed by the designed to substitute specific glyphs depending on the context. As you can see, our word, Al Fresco, has substituted three different characters, based on the position in the word and the other letters around it. This allows fonts to be balanced as the designer intended, without taking control of the end product from the user.

This variation of our word has used swashes to great effect. A ‘swash’ in design refers to an ornamental letter, usually a capital (but not always), which can be used as an alternate glyph. As you can see, these characters are decorative and serve to accentuate the beautiful curves and playful nature of the font.

Here we can see a few examples of the stylistic alternates available with Al Fresco. These are perfect for tweaking and customising the look of the letter to suit exactly what you’re going for, and to add a little bit of differentiation between each users’ unique take on working with the font.

Titling alternates are very similar to stylistic alternates, in that they offer a further variation on the standard characters, designed with titles in mind. They incorporate styles and spacing which lean themselves towards being displayed slightly larger than the rest of the text. We’ve used the word ‘holiday’ as it shows this feature off nicely.

Stylistic sets are a predefined set of alternates which are applied across a selection of text. Based on the context and the specific letter sets present in the text, a stylistic set will apply alternates to a predefined set of characters. You can see this being used here to great effect.

How to Use OpenType Features

As you can see, OpenType opens up a myriad of options for designers, and means that not everything designed with a font has to look the same as the rest. Making good use of the ligatures, swashes, and alternates can provide you with so many opportunities to really create something spectacular.

What’s even more awesome about OpenType is how easy it is to access these features. Any Adobe product especially will have tonnes of functionality for OpenType, so if you use Illustrator or InDesign, the choices are just a click or two away. Photoshop has many of the same functions but curiously lacks a glyph panel, some oversight on Adobe’s part which has never been rectified.

Here’s how to get to the OpenType options in most Adobe programs. On the main menu bar, open up the ‘Window’ drop-down.

Then select the ‘Character’ option. This will open up the Character menu window. Clicking the dropdown in the top right corner of this window will bring up another menu, and from there you can choose ‘OpenType’.

This shows you all the OpenType options you have. The most useful option, accessible in Illustrator and InDesign, is the glyph panel, which allows you to see all the possible glyphs you have available.

As you can see, this gives you access to the alternatives, as well as the swashes and any ornaments, really allowing you to use your favourite font to its true potential and really say something with style.

OpenType is important to everyone in the world of design, from the font creators, through the type foundries who sell them, to the end users. With OpenType, gone are the days of the single letterform, and designers live in the glorious world where OpenType technology and passionate font creators allow them to choose between 3, 4, or even 5 different letterform styles to choose for each character setting.

For me, I see OpenType as making just about anything possible in my designs. It lets me create typefaces that more closely represent the true nature of custom lettering and give my customers a vast array of options – a toolkit, if you will – to employ in their designs, which allows them to customize the typeface to better suit the particular goals of the design project they’re using it in. And, perhaps, even more importantly, it allows my customers to simply have more fun as a designer – they may explore all of the possibilities within the design and command more control of the outcome as well.” – Laura Worthington

Good fonts and talented designers have always been a match made in heaven, but with OpenType, a designer can take even the most mundane words and turn them into something beautiful, unique, and worth looking at. Here’s a small selection of our own fonts with useful OpenType alternates ›