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.

Making it easier

disc-ligYou may already be thinking: ‘this sounds like a good job for conditional styles’. Indeed it is. If you have thousands of these little charts to make, the idea of going through each one and changing the colours on the bars will not sound appealing. Conditional styles sort that out very easily. Create a character style for each bar, up the maximum number of bars you will be using for a coloured chart. We’ll call them ‘Chartwell 1’, ‘Chartwell 2’, etc for convenience here. Then create a Conditional style which applies ‘Chartwell 1’, ‘Chartwell 2’, and so on through character ‘+’. Apply it, and a coloured chart magically appears.

ConditionalYou can use conditional styles just as well to bunch pairs of values, for example when you are comparing different years, by adjusting the tracking in the character styles.

All the usual type features are available, and you can even apply drop shadows—though think carefully about this: embellishing charts usually gets in the way of the meaning, as opposed to clarifying it.

The Chartwell advantage

The advantages of doing things this way spring more and more to mind the more you have to do them. You can keep a consistent look. If head office come back with a change to the brand colours half-way through the job, you can change them all by adjusting the colour once. If (and when) the number-crunching people want to come round to your desk to ‘just make a few changes before it goes to print’, you can adjust your charts, or create new ones, without having to find the relevant file, open it, make the changes, adjust it, update in Quark, and then have the person say ‘oh, sorry, I didn’t mean that chart, it was the one on page 9…’

Pies, Roses and Radars

All this works fine for horizontal bars, vertical bars and line charts. However, if you take the Pie, Ring, Rose or Radar fonts and change the colours, Chartwell interprets each change of colour as a new chart. We’ll leave rose, ring and radar for now, as the principle will be the same, and they are less commonly used. You can, of course, use an incomplete pie chart to show proportion. At small size, this is often better, because a pie chart which you can’t easily read is of no use whatsoever. However, if you do want to do a complete pie chart, you will have to do the following.

Chartwell-pies

  1. Type in 100, followed by a space, then 100 minus your first number, then that number minus your second number, and so on
    If your numbers are 15, 40, 45, then you would type in 100, 85, 45 which are 100, 100-15, 100-15-40
  2. Colourise your numbers
  3. Turn on Discretionary Ligatures
  4. Adjust the tracking of the spaces so they overlap

Again, this is very easy to automate with character styles and conditional styles.

If all that sounds like too much of a workaround (the calculations are dead simple, but I know a lot of people baulk at any kind of calculation at all), then it’s probably worth knowing that you can buy the Chartwell Fonts separately, and thumbnail-sized pie charts aren’t very useful anyway.

Opening up Open Type

Open Type fonts have been with us since 1996, but the power of Open Type features is generally underused. I blame this mainly on the fact that there is no simple users’ guide to programming them. The kind of people who are good at designing elegant fonts and kerning them are not usually the kind of people who want to wrestle with a page of ‘lookup DLIG {‘  commands.

Like most things to do with programming, a little bit of cleverness goes a long way.

Pen font

Consider the irritation of pseudo-handwriting fonts. Here are a couple based on my own handwriting. The top one, which is reasonably elegant, is nice enough for a couple of lines of text, but any more than that and it becomes obvious that the letters are always identical. The second one, which is (deliberately) scrappy, has been programmed in Open Type to change the letters depending on where they are in the word and what’s next to them. As you can tell, I never received any prizes for my penmanship at school.

As far as I know, FF Chartwell is the only font currently doing clever things with charts. There are a handful of fonts out there, such as Scriptina Pro, which build in a vast array of swashes and ornamental forms, though just how useful these really are is a question seldom answered.

If the point of Open Type is to make fussy fonts fussier, it’s probably something to leave alone. But, as FF Chartwell proves, if you’re able to ask yourself the question ‘what would be really useful to me right now’, Open Type can turn something tedious, like working with large numbers of charts in a financial or technical report, into something which can be easily managed, especially using the power of Conditional Styles.

FF Chartwell is available from FontFont.com. All the examples were created in QuarkXPress 2015.

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.