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    Building type for under $300, Part 1
    Tuesday, April 29, 2008
    I blabbed on the other week about people without access to $3000 of computer hardware and software being able to get started for $300 instead, going the open source route. But is it really possible? Sure FontForge is there, but what about all the other steps before build stage? Scanning, cleaning-up scans, tracing the resulting bitmap and then cleaning up those traces? I’m on vacation, so let’s have a really quick try. Just a few characters. Just for fun. Just open source.

    For quite a while I have been considering making a titling typeface based on the site’s logo. Should’t be too hard, it’s just a cropped and tweaked version of Didot after all. I set a through z in Photoshop on my Mac, cropped and printed the result to get closer to a real-world example, starting as many of us do, on paper. Then into Ubuntu 8.04 I went. There are some screenshots below in a needlessly silly Flash widget thingy below to illustrate my efforts.

    So, scanning. Well, the standard solution is XSane, and most desktop-centric distributions of Linux have it installed; Ubuntu is no different. The software was pretty straightforward to use, no great surprises, and a very large range of scanners are supported without the need for manufacturer’s proprietary drivers.

    Next, that scan needs a little general cleaning up, and I had foolishly let some of those characters touch in the setting. Into The GIMP to fix things up. I despise The GIMP. I am sure it is very good, but having used Photoshop now for about half of my whole life (since version 2.5), trying to get my head around a different way of working is painful. The GIMP is powerful, but really, why do I need to tell it to specifically float a selection in order to move it. Bunch of crap. It does the job, but it isn’t pretty. I guess if your annual income is $12,000, you’d push past annoyances like that though. I saved the edit as a TIFF and move onto the next stage. It is time to trace.

    Inkscape is a vector editor that uses SVG as its native format. How very web 3.0. It is also the quiet star of the open source graphics world. I used to be a Macromedia Freehand man, but as that application, and the investment in my license for it, slowly died through Adobe’s takeover, I was left with a problem. I couldn’t afford Illustrator, even at the knock-down price it is available to for Freehand owners, so I needed to check alternatives. After playing with demos of various cheap Mac packages, I came across Inkscape. It is a very very capable vector editor, doing much what you would expect it to do if you’re coming from either of the two main players. But while Inkscape may feature remarkably powerful capabilities, it has problems too. Don’t think you’re going to use it as a cheap page layout option as Freehand was so adept at, as is type handling is pretty ropey, and its colour models need heavy work. But we are here to trace a bitmap, and edit those curves. It did so with aplomb. The trace was reasonable considering the very low res scan (as with any tracing algorithm, the higher the resolution of the image, the better you will be able to control the final quality), and the editing tools were comfy like old slippers. It likes SVG, so let’s save it off as such.

    Next, a quick build, and that means FontForge, the ugly ducking of all software on the planet. Now, that needs an article all of its own.

    Copyright ©1999-2009 David John Earls and Yves Peters, with all rights reserved.