Workplace Sans

As I may have mentioned elsewhere, I stumbled into type design by semi-accident and have been trying to teach myself the basics ever since. Workplace Sans is the font that got me into the whole mess. :)

Website: http://www.altsan.org/creative/fonts/workplace/index.html
Sample PDF (1.1 MB): http://www.altsan.org/creative/fonts/workplace/Type-Workplace.pdf

This warrants a rather lengthy explanation, so here goes...

Workplace Sans is a font for computer UIs (that is, program window text). I knocked together the first version back around 2003; not because I had any real interest at the time in creating fonts for their own sake, but because I needed it for my software interface design work. I was designing UIs for a niche operating system (OS/2) that used a system-specific bitmap font called "WarpSans" for window text. I preferred to do my concept drawings under Windows but WarpSans doesn't exist in Windows (and the font format is an obscure one not supported on any other OS). So I picked up TypeTool and set to work designing an outline font which would rasterize on-screen to look like WarpSans.

At the time I knew nothing about letter or type design. I didn't really know where to find any information either, so I basically made things up as I went along. I also had no ability to hint my font, so I had to obtain the pixel precision I wanted by contorting the actual outlines (it helped that I only needed one specific point size). I periodically put builds up on my website; I got a small amount of feedback, but not much.

Then something unusual happened. A trend started in OS/2 software development to publish software that ditched the native OS font rendering in favour of FreeType. This has various advantages, including the ability to antialias text. However, the FreeType library doesn't support the OS/2 bitmap font format, and so any program using it for rendering could not display WarpSans. That meant that these programs wouldn't match the visual look of the system... unless a TrueType replacement for WarpSans was made available. Lo and behold, somebody realized that Workplace Sans was out there, and free, so they started telling people to get and install my font along with their application. Software that requires my Workplace Sans font now includes the OS/2 ports of Firefox, OpenOffice.org, the QT libraries, and some others.

Anyway, this was a mixed blessing from my point of view. It was good in that my work was getting tons of exposure. It was less good in that its flaws were also getting tons of exposure. Also, with FreeType, the font is anti-aliased by default, which shows up its weirdness a bit more; on the other hand, it also meant that I didn't need to be so obsessive about how the font rasterized in black-and-white pixels, so I was free to make the design a bit more regular. So I began a long process of trying to learn about proper type design so I could turn Workplace into something I wouldn't be embarrassed about.

My website includes an illustrated history of the evolution of Workplace Sans over the last nine years. It might be good for a laugh or two.

Anyway, about the font itself. Yes, it's quite homely. It's supposed to be utilitarian rather than attractive. I was constrained to a large extent by the design of its bitmap model. Its major aim is to conserve space without sacrificing too much legibility. It's mostly intended for control labels, menu items, and so on - not for large bodies of text. However, it actually doesn't do too badly in paragraphs when printed, especially at 8-10pt size.

It is meant for 9pt display at the default OS/2 screen resolution of 120dpi - this is equivalent to 11pt under 96dpi, which is what Windows XP mostly seems to use. No idea what it looks like on a Mac.

Supported characters include Latin-1 and -2, various other Latin diacriticals used in Baltic countries, Cyrillic, Greek, and various miscellaneous symbols. The "Light" weight also includes Hebrew and Japanese Halfwidth. (The Cyrillic and Hebrew sets have been vetted by native speakers, but not by native type designers. The Japanese characters are still rather crude.)

The name "Workplace Sans", besides evoking "Warp Sans", derives from the name of the OS/2 desktop environment, the Workplace Shell.

Now that's all said... I'm curious to know what knowledgeable people actually think of it.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

rest assured, Hrant will hate it

altsan's picture

I'm not especially fond of it myself, if truth be told. As my first ever typeface, it's hardly a surprise if it's less than stellar. Of the three fonts that I've designed over the past few years for computer UI text, this is IMHO the weakest.

But I've got people relying on it now, so I keep trying to polish it into something halfway respectable...

At one point I tried creating a less blocky-looking counterpart, more in the grotesque style, called Workplace Gothic. It was never really finished. However, I've just dusted it off and am starting to put it through a serious overhaul. Maybe it'll be fit for the light of day eventually.

J. Tillman's picture

Here's a question. Are the ligatures shown in the sample PDF designed for use in text, or special to the operating system? I agree with your statement that Workplace Sans is a special use font. I downloaded it and I'm thinking about it.

eliason's picture

Bowls of the ball-and-stick letters (b/d/g/p/q) look too narrow compared to the other letters with counters.

altsan's picture

@J. Tillman: Which ligatures in particular?

@eliason: In running text, or just taken by themselves? I don't have a great deal of scope to widen them and still stay true to the original model; in fact, I seem to recall trying them fractionally wider at one point, but that caused them to rasterize too wide at 9 point. (No ability to do manual hinting, alas.)

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