Using stylistic variants in the Gabriola font

A contribution from John Hudson, designer of the Gabriola font.

The Gabriola font uses OpenType Layout technologies, including multiple stylistic sets and contextual variant letter shapes and ornamentation. In order to be able to access these, you need to use the font in a software program that provides access to these layout features. For the average Windows users, such programs are currently limited to design and illustration applications such as Adobe’s Creative Suite. But in 2010, Microsoft will be releasing new versions of MS Word and Publisher that will provide access to the advanced features of the Gabriola font.

Some contextual variation of letter forms occurs even in the most basic style of the font when used in supporting software (the illustrations here were made in Adobe InDesign). Notice the two different forms of m in this word:

the word 'murmur' in the Gabriola font

The second m has a simplified left vertical stroke to avoid collision with the overhang of the r and enable better spacing of this sequence of letters. This is just one example of the basic level of contextual behaviour in the font.

In addition to the default style, there are seven additional stylistic sets of increasing elaboration. The construction of the letters in the Gabriola font follows an expansion stroke model, the same kind of expansion stroke that our many of parents’ or grandparents’ generation learned to write with a pointed, split nib pen. But the shapes of the letters in Gabriola are not those commonly associated with this kind of construction, and this gave me a lot of playful freedom in importing influences from various historical styles in the stylistic sets, while at the same time preserving the underlying style of the font. I ended up, in my own thinking about the design, assigning these styles Italian names based on those historical influences.


The sets work in pairs. In each pair there is a more formal (formata) and a less formal or cursive (corsiva) style. You can also think of these in terms of more roman or more italic, although only the shapes of some letters change, not their slant. The alto styles have longer extenders (which are also substituted contextually in some of the later stylistic sets). Stylistic set 4 is my personal favourite, and this is the one I use most often. This and stylistic set 5 are based on the shapes of renaissance Italian chancery (cancellaresca) writing, and also incorporate contextual finial flourishes at the beginning and ends of lines of text. Stylistic sets 6 and 7, the rondo styles, are the most elaborate and are powered by a huge amount of contextual substitution lookups in the font layout tables. Not only are the long, flourished extenders—reminiscent of 17th and 18th century split nib ‘round hand’ calligraphy—all carefully controlled contextually to produce nice sequences of shapes, but the end-of-line ornaments are dynamically inserted into the text and change depending on what letters precede them.

In these more elaborate styles, the ornamentation of a word will vary depending on where it occurs in a line:

examples of ornamentation in the Gabriola font

If the rondo stylistic sets are active while you are typing, all these contextual changes will be happening live on screen as you type: the text will be constantly changing its appearance until you stop typing. At first, it’s a bit disconcerting for some English language users, but if you think about it this kind of dynamic text shaping is normal and expected when using a computer in languages such as Arabic or Hindi.

Example of the Gabriola font, showing stylistic variants and ornamentation

With some care and sensitivity, different stylistic sets can be combined in the same sentence or even, as at the end of this last illustration, in the same word.