Kenneth Ormandy

This is random

Published over 2 years ago • 1 min read

The word random took on a new meaning in the 2000s.

Everyone I knew labelled things as random. Almost as often, my dad pointed out that what was being called “random," was not random at all. It was just slightly unexpected.

As Paul Hiebert wrote in 2011 for The Awl, the dictionary definition suggests something random is:

without pattern or objective; it’s perfectly unbiased. To judge by the pop-culture usages cited above, however, the word has shifted away from its traditional usage, and now means:

a) Inconsequential
b) Rare, strange, curated
c) Exciting, absurd, capricious
d) Unexpected, arbitrary, silly
e) Outcast, distasteful, unknown
f) Unlikely, unfeasible, impossible
g) Incongruous fun

The meaning of words change over time, and while I don’t have strong feelings on how “random” is used in everyday conversation, I do have an opinion when it’s used in technical documentation for fonts, like the OpenType Layout Tag Registry.

The registry defines all possible OpenType feature tags for fonts, including a rand “Randomize” feature tag. It’s intended to allow fonts to “emulate the irregularity and variety of handwritten text.”

In the same way ligatures should be enabled for fonts by default in up-to-date rendering environments for fonts, the registry suggests that the randomize feature should be enabled too. It should be available for type designers to implement, and end users shouldn’t need to know or think about it.

In practice, anyone writing about this feature notes this feature isn’t actually supported anywhere that fonts are used. For example:

The OpenType Specification also describes a “Randomize” feature, in my opinion a misnomer, which implements this flipping technology in a more reliable and desirable way. It’s actually not random at all, but instead cyclical … no shipping applications support the feature as described.
—John Butler, Eccentrifuge

You can still produce a valid font file that has the rand OpenType feature code, but it simply won’t do anything for an end user of the font.

At least, that’s what I thought fairly recently. I’m not yet sure when this changed, but Chrome and Firefox now both appear to support the rand feature—and interestingly, they don’t seem to agree on the definition of the word “random” either.

I’ll show you what I mean, with a more visual example, in my next message.

Until then,

Kenneth Ormandy

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