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.

How to evaluate a typeface

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 17.34.56Ten years ago, there were two realistic (legal) choices for typography. Either buy font sets from Linotype, Monotype etc, or use the fonts that came with your software. Back in those days there were design applications worth buying purely for the included fonts. Of course, you could also surf the web for ‘free’ fonts, but these would either be illegal knock-offs, or amateurish affairs with disproportionate letterforms and bad kerning: maybe ok for a poster headline, but not something for serious typography.

How the world has changed. Skyfonts, Typekit, and others offer font subscriptions. FontFont and others often offer free weights of new fonts as a promotional tool. An increasing number of designers are releasing their fonts or some weights of their fonts for free to get themselves noticed. Some of these sets aren’t that useful: Ultralight with Bold Italic is hardly going to allow you to typeset much of a document. Others, most famously Museo by ExLjbris, which you now see more or less everywhere, are designed as super-families and genuinely useful weight sets are offered for free. After using Museo free weights for a branding project, I lashed out on the complete set of weights. Money well spent. Of course, you can still buy fonts the old way, but, even there, the prices have dropped in real terms and the variety is extraordinary.

To many designers, the lure of free fonts is almost irresistible. I’ve known people who have surfed the web for days to find what they want (quite possibly spending more in time than they saved in price).

One question, though. How do you know the fonts you’re buying, hiring or getting for free are any good? You can’t tell from the web-site preview. Almost anything looks good set at 72 point in one line of text.

In this article, we explore seven aspects of typeface evaluation. For QuarkXPress 2015 users, we also include a file that you can use to evaluate any font on your system. This all applies equally to paid-for fonts, subscription fonts and free fonts, though it’s harder to properly evaluate a font if you can’t print it until you’ve paid for it.

The criteria are:

  1. Legibility
  2. Colour, consistency and kerning
  3. Efficiency
  4. Completeness
  5. Compatibility
  6. Legality
  7. Hidden costs

Continue reading “How to evaluate a typeface”

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.

Charts on the fly: FF Chartwell opens new doors

Chartwell

FF Chartwell is a pi font with a difference, enabling users to create on-the-fly bar, line and other charts without having to go back to Excel or Illustrator every time the numbers change. It’s marketed as requiring Open Type Stylistic Sets, which QuarkXPress 2015 doesn’t currently support. However, what isn’t in the marketing blurb is that all of the Stylistic Sets features are available as Discretionary Ligatures—which QuarkXPress 2015 does support. For Quark users, Chartwell is ready to go.

Could Chartwell be useful to you? In this article we unpack what it does, look at the power of on-the-fly charting more generally, and consider the longer-term impact of Open Type new features.

The scenario

So, you’re working on a long document with lots of numbers. It could be an Annual Report, a Public Health Report, or anything where you want the reader to take in a lot of information relatively painlessly. The number crunching people have given you a pile of Excel documents with charts in them, all of them formatted differently. You’re about to start diligently recreating them to export as EPS files, when a thought strikes you: are these the final numbers? You make a phone call. “Oh,” says the chief number cruncher, “the numbers are changing all the time. We thought we’d give you these just so you can get started. All of the charts will change a bit—we’ll send you the new spreadsheets when they’re ready.”

You silently grind your teeth and decide not to explain how tedious and difficult it is making brand-compliant charts in Excel, and how much work it is to recreate all of them and export them one by one in Illustrator.

Instead, you reach for FF Chartwell—a FontFont collection of charting fonts which are going to save the day.

How it works

FF Chartwell is a set of seven fonts which produce horizontal bar charts, vertical bar charts, line charts, pie charts, ring charts, rose charts and radar charts. At the moment the bar and line charts work perfectly in Quark, but a little trickery is needed if you want to use the pie charts in colour (and you may ask what the benefit of an all black pie chart is). More on that later.

Verticals and linesFor now, we’ll look at vertical bar charts, which are going to be the most useful kind anyway.

 

  1. First, type in your numbers as percentages, separated by a ‘+’: 12+75+18+92.
  2. Then, change the font to Chartwell Vertical Bars.
  3. Finally, turn on ‘Discretionary Ligatures’ in the Open Type features. This is in the Measurements palette, though, as we’ll see shortly, setting it as a Character Style can do more for you.

The magic comes when you turn on ‘Discretionary Ligatures’, because that’s when your numbers turn into perfectly drawn bar charts.

If you turn off Discretionary Ligatures, you can then change the colours.

The result is an attractive bar chart which you can include in text, and, crucially, which you can edit without having to go back to Excel. It will be colour compliant with your colour scheme, and you can control its proportions and spacing using the horizontal width control in the characters section of the measurements palette, and the usual tracking controls.

Once you’re happy with the colours, there’s no reason to be turning discretionary ligatures on and off to edit the numbers. Instead, go to the Story Editor, where they appear as numbers.

Simple.

Continue reading “Charts on the fly: FF Chartwell opens new doors”

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.