Please rotate device

Variable typefaces and what they mean for design

Tools for design

For brands and comms, getting noticed is step number one. Bespoke fonts and specially designed characters can make typography more ownable, and since 2016, Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, and Google have offered a remarkably easy way to achieve this: OpenType variable fonts.

Let’s rewind back to the early 60s. Typography was mostly accessible through letterpress, trusty Letraset sheets or just writing things down with a pen. All in all, typography was a physical, tactile thing. It was also time consuming.

Say your design has been approved with Helvetica, but your client wants a more refined look. It’s agreed the type will be made slightly thinner. You, however, only have a sheet of bold. Your options? Get your scalpel out, and start trimming.

Luckily, things have moved on, and tasks like changing the weight and shape of a font are now as easy as the tap of an index finger on a Magic Mouse. And that’s why variable typefaces are a brilliant tool for designers.

The main feature of this tool; Universal Sans from Family Type allows a designer to increase or decrease the thickness and width of letterforms to suit a desired requirement without having multiple weights installed. It’s quick, cost effective, and gives you much more freedom in the design process.

It’s when you see variable fonts in animation that you start to appreciate their intuitive, playful nature. Many great designers have started to explore the possibilities, including Kiel D. Mutschelknaus who created the Space Type Generator. The generator has a pre programmed selection of tools and functions that can be used by anyone, and it’s innovations like these are enabling designers and brands to produce custom content in a more cohesive, time efficient way.

Variable functionality isn’t limited to typography either. The same control principles can be applied to a wide range of visual content. Recently Pentagram designed the brand identity for Covariant, an AI company building software that allows robots to see, reason and act on the world around them. Pentagram uses variable functionality to create unique static and moving image assets for the brand via an app, which can produce an infinite number of visualisations within the parameters of the new identity.

As more and more variable fonts emerge, we see the beginnings of a very different world in the way designers use typography. It’s a new frontier to explore, and just as we’ve moved on from Letraset and calligraphy, there’s an opportunity to create something new, something unique, and something that can really set a brand apart, if we embrace these new tools.