Charting, graphing and timekeeping with OpenType specialist fonts

When QuarkXPress introduced colour Open Type transformations in 2016, there was just one font, Chartwell, that could take advantage of them. Chartwell was a neat trick: you type in numbers, and it turns them into graphs and charts. But Chartwell was expensive, and it only offered a few, fairly basic, chart types. Times have moved on: with more support, more font makers are making self-transforming icon fonts. But they’re hard to find (mainly because there’s no established word to describe them). It’s time to have another look, because there’s a lot more available now, and some of it is free.

Self-transforming fonts
Self-transforming fonts: Chartwell, Amazing Infographic, Spark and Clocko

Essentially, all of these fonts take advantage of the programming capabilities in OpenType. Fonts have been available for 20 years that offer you pie charts, but these depend on having one glyph for every different pie. These looked quite cool at the time, but they really only offered one colour fonts, and could only show 10%, 20%, 30% and so on, with just one thing. Self-transforming fonts are like going from candles to colour changing LED lights.

The fonts we’re going to look at are Chartwell version 2, Amazing Infographic, AtF Spark and Clocko. Amazing Infographic and Spark are available for free, Clocko for a few dollars, and Chartwell for $25 for a single style, and around the $300 mark for all eighteen styles. Chartwell, Amazing Infographic and Spark do charts and graphs, while Clocko does (you guessed it) clocks.

If you’re interested in how the trick is done, OpenType has a basic programming language built into it so that, when you type ‘if’ it can set the correct ligature (QuarkXPress can do this for non-OpenType fonts as well), or combine a letter and its accent. As OpenType has grown up, this has steadily advanced, so that there are now all kinds of tricks that can be done. These are designed to make creating and managing fonts and their variants easier and more consistent, but, as with anything, clever people quickly start finding other uses for them. Before you start reaching for the trial version of FontLab VI to make your own, you ought to know that creating self-transforming fonts require a fairly unique pairing of design and programming skills, and a lot of work.

But you don’t need to be able to create them to make use of them.

Use case

First, though, what’s the use case?

Let’s see. You’re doing a corporate report, and the PR team who wrote it want you to include lots of little bar and pie charts. They’ve helpfully sent you a hundred Excel charts to include, each with about five numbers in them. Now, you could copy and paste all these charts as native objects, reformat them all to match the corporate style and then paste them one by one anchored in the text, but, first, this is a lot of work, and, second, you can just bet that they’re going to come back at the last minute and want to change half the numbers, or, worse, decide that the bars should be pies, the pies lines, and the lines circles.

Now, I have to say that, when I first bought Chartwell, I was doing exactly that, and it was a fairly simple business decision to pay the $300 and save myself a couple of days work, which, within the total project price, was a win for me, and a win for my customer.

Chartwell

The original Chartwell could do a few things, but version 2, which has now been repackaged into a co-ordinate series and a volume/area series, does areas, lines, rings, roses, radars, bubbles, scatters, and floating lines. You can’t delete your copy of Excel yet, but almost anything that will actually look clean and good in a corporate report can be achieved with Chartwell.

In use, it’s very easy:

Chartwell numbers only

You just type in the numbers, put a + between them, and then turn the Open Type feature ‘discretionary ligatures’ to on. The one annoying thing about Chartwell is that the charts come out quite small, so you have to blow them up. To use different colours, you have to have the QuarkXPress preference Project: General: Allow OpenType Transformations on Mixed Colour Text turned on.

Chartwell font in use

If you add particular prefixes, such as A=, you get gridlines. What you get depends on which font variant you’re using, but the instructions are clear and comprehensive, though I find I have to look them up again every time for anything complicated.

This is all well and good, and if you’ve got a job coming up that will pay for them, it’s an easy purchase to make.

Amazing Infographic

On the other hand, if you just want to play around, or you’ve got those kind of clients who demand everything but are never willing to pay for it, then investing $300 might seem a bit of a stretch. In that case—or if you just like having different options—then you should definitely take a look at Amazing Infographic. This font does bar charts, circle charts, pie charts and people icons. The syntax is a little different. For the examples at the top, you would type in @c@c099% @b@b6262% @p@p8787%. Like Chartwell, you can change the colours, and, unlike Chartwell, you can put numbers in charts, regularly coloured or reversed out. Your corporate clients might be more demanding on having exactly the type of chart they want, but, for a bit of fun, a newsletter, or pitching to the client what you could really do if they only had the budget, Amazing Infographic will do the things you’re most likely to want, and for free.

AtF Spark

AtF Spark is made for creating sparklines, which are those in-line charts which you see in the financial pages of newspapers, and anywhere else people can think of putting them. Spark is also free. To quote Edward Tufte, who popularised them, “A sparkline is a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution.” The Spark font does bars, rows of dots, or dot lines. Again, the format is slightly different. For the examples at the top, you would type: {10,20,30,40,50,60,70,80,90,100} 4,1,5,6,1,5,4,2,3,4,2,5,4,2,5,7,3,5,8,7,7,7,8,9}, and you select a different variant from the six Spark fonts. Unlike Chartwell, AtF Spark has been exactly sized to fit on the line, and works (as it were) ‘out of the box’.

Clocko

For a change of pace, Clocko makes clocks. At only $5, I bought it because I just couldn’t resist it, even though I didn’t actually have a commercial use for it at the time (and still don’t). In interface terms, it could teach all of the others something about user-friendliness. All you do is type in the time, like 12:23, and then set the font to Clocko. If you make an error, it just displays the numbers you typed. If you put a letter of the alphabet in front, you get different frames for the clock. In the examples at the top, I typed x12:23 y14:22 z1:32. As with the others, you can alter the colours, though this is not as useful (or attractive) as it is in regular charts.

What’s next?

So far as I know, these are the only infographic type fonts which use OpenType transformations (I would be very interested in hearing about any others). There are a lot more fonts out there which use the transformations the way they were designed. But more will be along. Over the last year, the OpenType specification has gone through another round of expansion, and we’ll be seeing ever more possibilities. Right now, available colour fonts and variable fonts are at the strictly novelty stage, but we’re going to be seeing some genuinely useful examples appearing over the next twelve months.

Perhaps as importantly, the latest iteration of FontLab, which is arguably the most significant font design tool, makes the business of designing harmonious, well-balanced and well-kerned fonts, and manipulating them with OpenType substitutions, dramatically quicker than it was previously—although long-term users are complaining that it looks and feels different.

The other thing to keep an eye on is font-licensing. There are still, regrettably, amateur designers putting out fonts marked as ‘for personal use only’. Some websites tell you about this before you download them, but, with others, you have to check the license carefully when you get them. My rule is: if I can’t use it for every project, then it doesn’t get space on my system. Mercifully, we are seeing more fonts issued under the SIL font license, which protects the font name (so we don’t have a thousand unofficial variations on the same font), but allows derivative versions and modifications.

 

Martin Turner is the author of Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress 2016, Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress 2017, and presenter on the video series Desk Top Publishing with QuarkXPress.

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