Prototypo-portrait

Yannick Mathey and Louis-Rémi Babé — (ByteFoundry)

Founders of the open-source online typeface editor Prototypo.

The Prototypo project is already on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

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Hello Louis-Rémi Babé and Yannick Mathey, how are you?

It’s a very intense moment for us: we built a usable product in four months and a crowd-funding campaign in a month (the video, the description, some gifs, the rewards and their logistic as well as a healthy dose of communication). Now we feel excited to finally see all of our efforts go public, and we’re anxious to see how effective the campaign will be. If it fails we’d have to go back creating corporate websites, which is a lot less exciting.

Can you introduce yourselves?

Yannick Mathey, interactive designer and freelance web designer in Lyon. During my last year at ESAD Strasbourg I stepped into the worlds of typography and development. I had a full year to finish my final year project and I took this opportunity to learn the basics of type design and code. The result is the alpha version of Prototypo that is demonstrated in this video.

Louis-Rémi Babé, I’ve been developing websites for three years now but my true passion is to create complete applications and solve intricate algorithmic problems. I’m only satisfied when I do something on the web that has never been done before (needless to say this doesn’t happen very often). I’ve contributed to some popular open-source projects in the past and now I’m the main developer of Prototypo.

What is Prototypo?

Prototypo is an online application that allows to transform a font in a multitude of variants using just sliders. It provides enough sliders to create iconic type designs or much more experimental and surprising shapes. In a few clicks, it’s possible to produce the foundations of a unique typeface and export it to a font file that can be used directly or refined in a traditional type design software.

What motivated you to create Prototypo? Is it a way to make type design more accessible and more playful?

YM: The idea comes from a personal observation: as a graphic designer working everyday with typography, it’s natural to have the desire to draw one yourself, at some point. But if you try to create a body text font you quickly realize that it’s a lot of work, and there’s a high chance you will give up before the end. If you have never studied type design, there are many essential details and optical corrections that you’ll overlook. Prototypo was imagined exactly for that: providing the foundations to get started quickly and easily on an idea, then creating a prototype that can be “manually” tweaked with classical type edition tools.

LRB: Yannick created Prototypo alone but what motivated me to join the project was this ability it gave to non-designers like me to start creating fonts, have fun doing it and get hooked.

Prototypo wants to be an open-source project. Can you tell us more about that?

We wanted to make this project open-source because we believe in the benefits of sharing knowledge. Moreover, it allows other passionates, not just type designers, to improve Prototypo, build new features and create new basic font models. The idea is the more glyph template we have, the larger the possibilities of creation will be.

You have developed your own coding language, is it right?

We didn’t exactly create a new language. We started with SVG (the vector-graphics language of the web) and we replaced drawing coordinates with mathematical formulas made of the parameters manipulated by the user. SVG is a language meant for computers and for the web, not for type designers, so we added some features. First we made it possible to define relations between points in an outline (for example, “this point must be at the intersection of those two segments”). Then we made it possible to reuse serifs and accents across glyphs. And on top of that, we added many little helpers every-time we realized we wasted too much time doing the same thing over and over again.

At the end we have a language that will still look familiar to those who know SVG and JavaScript, but which will make it much easier for non-developers to start creating parametric glyphs. At least this is what we are aiming for.

Can you tell us more about how you work together?

As a graphic designer, working with Louis-Rémi is a joy: he is what I would call a magician of code. I have some knowledge in JavaScript so I am able to create new features myself but Louis-Rémi is really helpful to review my code, optimize it and keep it clear. I think our collaboration works out very well because we’re not only a duo of designer and developer but also a team that shares common knowledge and is able to share tasks and communicate. We really work hand in hand.

At the beginning Yannick and I had well defined roles: he created the parametric glyphs, and I created and improved the language he used to do that. Then we started to work on the user interface, which is an area where he was able to help me writing code. I quickly realized that he was good at getting things done: when I spend hours thinking about every possible implication of a single line of code, he just goes ahead and makes it possible to invert the colors of the drawing, for example. His coding style isn’t very academic, one might say, but he has really helped shipping features to our users, and this is what matters. The third phase of our collaboration was the creation of the crowd-funding campaign: Yannick had the responsibility of designing the images and animations we would use, and I had to write the texts. This time, we had to think and debate about the message and the content. Working at Yannick’s place helps a lot since we have a lot of time, during lunch or while drinking a beer after work, to talk casually about this.

In the long term what is the potential of such an app? Do you think Prototypo will change the type design industry?

What is certain is that Prototypo doesn’t aim at making professional type designers obsolete. An experimented creative will always produce a work of better quality than a computer that automates a process.

What we really want to do with Prototypo is to offer tools suited for a large number of type design enthusiasts: a hobbyist or beginner will enjoy playing with different parameters to create a font. It might be imperfect and of poor taste, but it will be his or her own. What we hope is that those users will make their first steps into the world of type design and learn by doing. Graphic designers who have a basic understanding of it will be able to quickly prototype a design and refine it later with the advanced functionalities.
What we’re particularly interested in are what can be called the new generation of type designers. In the recent years, a new kind of software appeared and designers started to work with more and more generative tools. The growing number of super family is a clear proof that multiple-master, superpolator and the likes are here to last.

What those tools do is that by giving two or more extremes of a glyph (the thinnest and the thickest for example), they will allow to produce glyphs of all intermediaries shapes. But designers still have two produce all of the extremes, and the outcome isn’t always predictable. In Prototypo, the approach is to build a glyph with all those variations in mind, and draw it with code. The process is the same but you simply trade paper and ink for variables and an interface able to provide instantaneous feedback. Our language already allows that: a large number of glyphs haven’t been first drawn in Fontlab but directly in a text editor, with code.

You just launched Prototypo on Kickstarter. What will happen in the coming months?

The coming month will be decisive, but if the campaign succeeds we will spend the coming months finishing Prototypo 1.0. It’s the most enjoyable project we’ve ever worked on, and we have a lot of ideas to make it more useful. In its current state, Prototypo allows to generate basic glyphs in a few clicks. But we want to offer more glyph, glyph alternates, and more importantly offer the features of a classical glyph editor: drawing your own shapes, adding, deleting and modifying points. We also have exciting idea of what we want to do after shipping Prototypo 1.0: we want to explore other alphabets, other ways of drawing glyphs and tools to make life of web designers easier.

If the campaign fails, we hope to have created enough interest to get people to step in and continue development as a side project.

The last word…

We’re still at the beginning of our adventure, but we truly believe it is possible to make Prototypo a tool accessible to a large number of users, hobbyists and professionals, and helpful for them. If you believe this too, you should support the project by backing its campaign.

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>   prototypo on kickstarter

>   prototypo.io

Interview : Dennis Moya & Tiffany Baehler – 03-04.14
Images: ©Prototypo and ligature.ch with the beta version of prototypo.

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