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RICKNER

Tom Rickner with his wooden letterpress in his office at 100state.

Anyone who has agonized over whether their Powerpoint presentation looks better with Times New Roman, Cambria or a sensible sans-serif owes a small debt of thanks to Tom Rickner.

Rickner is a Madison resident who can often be found working at the downtown coworking space 100state. He's also a maven of fonts, a computer scientist who has been helping shape the world of digital typography for the better part of three decades. 

Currently, Rickner is a remote font production manager with the well-known Massachusetts typeface design company Monotype. Most recently, he's helped orchestrate the company's massive Google's "Noto" project — an ambitious effort to build one of the most expansive libraries of digital typography ever imagined.

But even before taking on leviathan projects like Noto, Rickner had been quietly playing an influential role in the industry.

"He's been an unsung hero in the business," said Steve Matteson, a lead designer with Monotype and a longtime friend and colleague of Rickner's. "He's got a balance that very few people have in this business of walking between the left and right sides of the brain." 

While working at Apple in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rickner worked as a lead typographer with the team that first introduced TrueType, the font system that's been packaged with almost all Windows and Apple computers over the past 25 years.

Rickner said he didn't realize the significance of the work he was doing with TrueType fonts at the time.

"When I think about it after the fact, it's bigger than I realized," he chuckled.

Rickner's role with the project was to implement the code needed to display the core fonts featured as part of that first TrueType package. He played a pivotal role in implementing "font hinting" — an innovation seen as one of the defining traits of Truetype.

Previously, computer fonts were "bitmapped" — in other words, their characters would begin looking pixelated and "low-resolution" if you tried to make them bigger. Through hinting, TrueType changed that. Instead of looking funky, hinted characters looked smooth after rendering in a larger size.

According to Rickner, advances like hinting, plus the higher resolutions available on computers today, have changed the game for digital typography.

"Typography has improved as we've gotten better resolution to represent the subtleties of typefaces," said Rickner. "You can't see the pixels. It looks almost as good as print. That's a dramatic change from over the last three decades."

Rickner eventually left Apple to pursue freelance work before landing a job at Monotype in 1994. Then, in 2004, he decided to strike it out on his own, co-founding a company called Ascender. It was through that company that Rickner struck up a relationship with Google. The Silicon Valley tech giant awarded the startup a contract to design fonts for Android during the mobile operating system's early development phase.

Later, after Ascender had been acquired by Monotype, Google came back to Rickner and his associates with another project in mind: an initiative to get rid of "tofu."

Tofu is the nickname Google gave to the small rectangular blocks (□□□) that appear on computers when someone tries to render a character that's not included in a given font. The issue often rears its head for obscure symbols, like a cuneiform glyph or an elusive emoji.

What Google asked of Monotype was to design a font family that could represent those hundreds of different languages and thousands of different characters, to get rid of tofu once and for all.

Rickner said it's been a long and winding road developing the Noto font with the Monotype team. He's been working behind the scenes on the project for the past five years, performing a wide range of jobs from being present at Google during the meetings to troubleshooting issues with the tools designers use. Most of his work has been on the programming side of the project— an area where he's built up a solid base of expertise.

"Many of these scripts require quite complicated sets of rules," said Rickner. "Indian scripts like Devagnari and Gujarati require these complicated processes to be stored in the font."

This October, Google announced the initial release of Noto, which is now available as a free download on Github. That said, the Noto Project will seemingly be a never-ending project — new symbols and glyphs are constantly emerging, and on top of that, there are still boldfaced and other stylized versions of characters to tackle. In other words, Rickner will be keeping busy with the project for years to come.

In the meantime, he has other things on his plate. For one thing, he's working with new technology known as "variable fonts" modeled after groundwork he did as an Apple consultant in the early '90s. The feature, initially floated by Rickner as an "interesting and different" way of approaching font design, automatically generates new fonts using traits from other fonts as an input.

Rickner's "TrueType GX" project failed to take off, and the idea remained dormant for 25 years. But recently, companies like Adobe and Microsoft revisited Rickner's work, as integrated those principles into their latest version of their OpenType font system.

Rickner said he's excited by the possibilities that the tool could open up.

"Google Noto is cool," he acknowledged. "But I think this is even more interesting to me."

At the crux of what Rickner has contributed to his field, from Noto to TrueType GX, is a passion for type he discovered as a college student toying around on physical printing presses. Even now, in his small office space in 100state, he has a small letterpress on hand to tinker with — a nice reminder of those early days, as well as a neat connection to the history of typography.

Plus, he said, he likes to take a break from coding once in a while.

"It's a good way to step away from the computer and actually make something," he laughed.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.