FontForge history redux, or, What on Earth happened to FontForge?

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I close my eyes
Only for a moment and the moment's gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes with curiosity

Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

(Aa aa aa)
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Oh, ho, ho

Now don't hang on
Nothin' lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won't another minute buy

-- Kansas - Dust in the Wind

Like all good things, FontForge's original developer's involvment came to an end. George Williams' last commit to the project was on May 4, 2012, commit 1206527816193a37990dfeb4be351d8f882f7a56. Since then, plenty of small bugs have been fixed, but due to the size of the codebase and the difficulty of figuring out how to contribute for new developers few new features have been added.

FontForge, is, of course, still a completely capable font editor, even though it is in some respects being left behind by new font technology like color fonts.

FontForge was developed almost entirely by George Williams, for 12 years starting in the year 2000. George Williams is a retired proprietary software developer (from NaviSoft) who had a keen interest in font development, and he created over 30 typefaces in his lifetime, the most complete of which was Ambrosia.

The problems Williams experienced while making his own typefaces in Fontographer caused him to write FontForge, but as he writes in his history of the project, "I quickly discovered I was better at designing a font editor than I was at designing fonts, so I gave up on them too.".

FontForge is one of the most unique programs still in use on modern Linux distributions. While most other applications have long since moved on to graphics toolkits like Gtk or Qt, FontForge remains using a "direct-to-X11" toolkit that Williams wrote himself just for this project called gdraw.

FontForge has been used to create many free software typefaces. On October 4, 2007, Spiro drawing mode was added in commit 6e42c07, resulting in Raph Levien's excellent programming typeface, Inconsolata.

Before Williams left the project, he added a Python mode, which makes headless mode actually feasible. This resulted in FontAnvil, by Matthew Skala, a FontForge-based build system he used to create Tsukurimashou.

Khaled Hosny, a well known XeTeX developer and member of the Egyptian Linux User Group, also took interest in FontForge, and worked with Williams on it for a few years before his departure. After it became clear Williams was abandoning the project, he created his own fork, Sorts Mill. I still haven't figured out quite how to build it, but I can see it is many commits ahead of FontForge and is likely a much more stable build. When I figure out the build I'll write a page about that (and perhaps create an Arch PKGBUILD).

Hosny also used FontForge to create his KacstOne font, which is packaged as a libre Arabic font in Ubuntu.

After Williams retired from his retirement project to take on a new retirement project: running, Dave Crossland took over the FontForge "brand".

Crossland is well known to some for his work on the GNOME typeface Cantarell, which he designed in 2009 while studying Typeface Design at the University of Reading. Unlike the quite heretical typeface Ubuntu, which was commissioned by Canonical and designed in proprietary software like FontLabe Studio and Microsoft Visual TrueType, Cantarell was designed from the beginning using only the free software FontForge.

According to an interview George Williams gave at the Libre Graphics Meeting of 2007, Crossland approached him even then to complain about the widget toolkit, which for Williams was at the time one of his frequently answered questions: he doesn't care that it looks different and it would be too tedious to change to a new graphical toolkit at this late date.

Crossland, however, being an avid user of FontForge, took a different view: he figured he could just find someone to reimplement it in Gtk or Qt, and is still looking some 8 years later.

After Williams departed, according to Crossland himself, two camps emerged. Crossland wanted to polish FontForge and make it suitable for new users, so find someone to change the graphical toolkit and add new useful features. However, Khaled Hosny and Barry Schwartz held that FontForge was far too difficult to maintain in its current 460,000+ line state, and refused to add new features until a refactor and cleanup was done.

This difference of opinion created the split between Sorts Mill and FontForge, a brand Crossland controlled due to his foresight in registering an organization for it on Github, a Twitter account, and control over the domain (I assume he also got tenative approval from Williams, who at this point had mostly lost interest in FontForge to focus on greener pastures).

Unfortunately, Crossland isn't much of a C programmer, so his main work for FontForge is helping new users figure it out through the Github bug tracker (which is in practice used more like a forum) and try to pay people to add new features. He also attempts to attract new users to the project by giving the project's website a complete redesign, while sacrificing all the history that went into it.

My main motivation for creating is Crossland's new website was much more than just a modernization of the CSS (had I been tasked with such a modernization I would have taken the files in doc/html and applied Bootstrap to them), but it threw away all the old text and rewrote it, destroying any reference to the original author and a lot of the documentation itself.

If you have any FontForge or pfaedit history to add, please feel free to contact me (put pfaedit in the subject).

Webmaster: Fredrick Brennan <>

Every page on except this one was written by the original author of FontForge, George Williams. I only serve as a historian and archivist of sorts.