Looking back, looking forward

Twenty five years ago I worked my first day at Adobe. It was quite exciting; there were about 75 people at the company, all crowded in a small building in East Palo Alto. Everyone knew everyone else, and each person handled many responsibilities.

My first responsibility was editing glyph outlines. We were busily converting fonts in various formats from various sources to Type 1 so they could be used on PostScript printers. Each outline needed manual attention, and we had a lot of characters to add. At the time PostScript was in tough competition with other “page description languages” and it was clear we were in a make-or-break situation. That was far from the last one for Adobe, so there’s been plenty of excitement since.

Adobe was growing pretty quickly even back then, so my second responsibility was hiring and training more font developers. We were using an in-house editing tool, an old-fashioned CAD program that ran on Sun workstations. It wasn’t exactly user-friendly, so we spent lots of time defining “best practices”, checking each other’s work, and cajoling tool enhancements from the computer scientists. Soon I was also asked to train our partners at Linotype as they began their own Type 1 production in New York and Germany.

product spec’s
PostScript’s success led some of its former competitors to stop development. One competitor – Imagen – had developed pretty cool font technology of their own. When the Imagen engineers saw they couldn’t keep working on it there, they headed elsewhere. Two of them founded F3 (Folio Font Format), which was acquired by Sun …and then ignored. A third, Sampo Kaasila, went to Apple and created TrueType. Before long we found ourselves in the “font wars” of the ’90s, and Adobe had to out-innovate its bigger rivals to stay alive. I got to advise on the quality of the Adobe Type Manager (the first on-screen font rasterizer), helped review the first edition of the Type 1 specification, and my team madly re-hinted fonts to make them work well at lower resolutions than we’d ever imagined.

smart fonts
Once again Adobe learned from painful experience and came through with much better products. But it soon became clear that the “font wars” rivalry was not going to lead to further innovation. As we approached the end of the ’90s Adobe and Microsoft learned that each was planning a next-generation font format, and we agreed to collaborate on OpenType. I defined many of the new layout features, and helped explain the benefits of the character/glyph model, Unicode, and larger/smarter fonts to a world that wasn’t sure Type 1 was all that broken. It was a long hard haul, but we had the right resources at the right time and managed to make OpenType the new default.

Over the years Adobe has gotten increasingly serious about fonts for more than Western Europe. We’ve designed a respectable set of Japanese families, added pan-European (Greek & Cyrillic) coverage to many of the Adobe Originals, and are working on some Arabic and Hebrew families we’re quite proud of. We have Chinese, Korean, Thai and Devanagari. And more languages will come. As a manager, I’m involved only second-hand – but I’m really impressed with the work the team is doing, and I enjoy learning something about each new language as we go.

next up
Each of the earlier phases has been fascinating and quite different from what came before – and I see no reason that should stop now. I’m passionately excited about the opportunities Adobe has to continue changing the ways people get and use fonts. The recent Typekit acquisition only hints at some of the things we’re planning, and frankly I can hardly wait. Wish me luck for the next 25!

12 Responses

  1. francis says:

    Congratulations David! 25 down, 25+ more to come!

  2. Congratulations, David! As someone who benefits greatly from your labors, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the great software and type work you have done over the last twenty-five years.

  3. William says:

    David, Congratulation!

  4. Feng Zhu says:

    David, congratulations. Whole world benifits from your efforts!

  5. Jack Kang says:

    What a wonderful journey! Congratulations, David.

  6. Congratulations, old bean!

  7. Henrik Birkvig says:

    Congratulations from Copenhagen!

  8. I rather like the idea of a 50-year career. Go for it! I hope Adobe lives up to your hopes for it in the next 25.

  9. Eileen Gunn says:

    Congratulations, David! You have my best wishes for the next 25, and the 25 after that. Cheers!

  10. Its a fabulous topic for your next lecture David. Keep faith into the fabulous world of type!

  11. Jim DeLaHunt says:

    Congratulations, David! You have been witness to an important phase in the long history of typography. I hope you find a way to record, in some form, more of what you’ve seen.

  12. Wesley Tanner says:

    Hang in there for all of us; and thank you for the years’ of hard work.

Comments are closed.

David Lemon

I fell in love with type in '77 and joined Adobe in '86. These days I manage the type development team. I like being at the intersection of art & technology, and am working to make good type easier for everyone.

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