What's a good face for a beginner to emulate?

blank's picture

I'm starting to teach myself to design typefaces and build letters, and I'm running into problems figuring out the best way to construct some letterforms. Is there a font that's easy for a beginner to emulate when learning to build letters? Also, is there a good book that explains the design of contemporary letterforms as opposed to those based on handwriting? I've got Cabarga's Bible, but I'm looking for something with more technical details in regards to the shapes of the letters themselves.

Reed Reibstein's picture

I give both of James' requests a hearty second! I, too, have been having troubles moving from pencil and paper sketches to vectors, even though I consider myself mildly facile with the pen tool. A big issue for me is how to maintain consistency in, for example, the width of horizontal and vertical strokes.

matthew_desmond's picture

You may want to pick up a calligraphy book. Seeing how the pen strokes create the different thicks and thins is essential in understanding all letterforms IMO. I like "The Art of Calligraphy, A practical guide to the skills and techniques" by David Harris. It goes through many different styles and has a wealth of historical information.

Are you trying to work on Serifed type or Sans?

When I was learning what letters were all about, I would just open Times or Helvetica to get a sense of where the thicks and thins should be and why.

Hope this helps a little.

Nick Shinn's picture

To understand metrics, sidebearings in particular, I recommend creating a simple geometric face (stroking paths, aka "Paths>Make Parallel Path" in FontLab), and studying how the sidebearings and overshoots are handled in Futura. Then the italic, to compare mechanically skewed shapes with typographic italicization.

blank's picture

“Are you trying to work on Serifed type or Sans?”

It's the sans faces that give me trouble. I can whip out a pen and draw serifed romans off the top of my head, but when I start trying to build sans letters out of strokes in illustrator my proportions get really gross.

I'll try studying the designs of Futura and Helvetica.

Choz Cunningham's picture

When I want a cold hard synopsis of a glyph, with a nod towards usability and consistency within the face, I find this reference book to be incredibly helpful over and over. And free.


For emulation/inspiration, I'd have to say open up fonts that you are passionate about, and contemplate what was done, try and guess why. Passionate means not just fonts you love, but successful ones you hate, too.

Choz Cunningham
!Exclamachine Type Foundry
The Snark

brampitoyo's picture

Karen Cheng's Designing Type might be a particularly good book for you to look at. It's literally filled with visual examples and guidelines – perfect for experimentation and self-study, in my opinion.

Dan Gayle's picture

Cheng's book is exactly what I was thinking. It shows multiple examples of every Roman letter u&lc and uses vector graphics to show specific parts of letters to look at.

That book doesn't fit its stated purpose, but it does exactly what you're asking for.

Except italics, unfortunately.

Si_Daniels's picture

Karen's book has its critics (Peter Bilak for example) but it was written to address the exact question your raise in your post. I don't think that anyone believes the approach she suggests is harmful, even if people have contrasting approaches.

Linda Cunningham's picture

(sigh) Yet another book to add to my "to read" pile. ;-)

Nick Shinn's picture

trying to build sans letters out of strokes in illustrator

You should migrate this to FontLab ASAP, so that you are working entirely in one program -- the synergy is better that way, the process more fluid than back-and-forthing between apps.

William Berkson's picture

Bilak's basic point in his review is that the book doesn't approach type design as a type designer would. Quite right. But it still contains a lot of good comparative information on letters, and I own it and find it helpful.

For a type designer's approach you can read what is IMHO overall the best book on type design, G. Briem's Notes on Type Design. It is not printed, which would be nice, but is on line--free :)

TBiddy's picture

James, as a newbie myself I second some of these sources as well. (I use Matthew's suggested title to help my with italics.) Having been in your position recently, there really is NO comprehensive book published on type design.

You're not really going to find one source that it is gonna be your bible. Get the Bringhurst book as well. I learned from Cabarga's book and Bringhurst. Once you get the basics down, I did what Choz suggested and cracked open some of my favorite fonts in FontLab to look at their digital construction. For me, drawing by hand didn't mean jack until I started digitizing.

William Berkson's picture

>open some of my favorite fonts in FontLab

I agree with Terry; crack open really great fonts like Adobe Garamond, Frutiger etc. in Font Lab--that's the only Bible of font design, to be studied over and over and over.

inarges's picture

I just took Rod Cavazos' type design class at CCA, for which I purchased Karen Cheng's book -- as a beginning type designer, but someone who has done graphic design for years, I loved the book -- it's not an encyclopedia, but I think it's a pretty thorough examination of the basics of serif and san serif forms. I found it very useful to get started with.

The book is also very attractive, and I'm happy to have it as part of my graphic design library. I don't think you have to be a type designer to appreciate it, just someone who is interested in type.

BTW, we used FontLab Studio 5 in the class.

Si_Daniels's picture

> don’t think you have to be a type designer to appreciate it, just someone who is interested in type.

Totally agree, I got copies for my team, none of whom is a type designer and gave a spare copy to our Creative Director who got a lot out of it too.

Karen, is invovled in TypeCon Seattle, so hopefully she'll be speaking or be part of the education forum. Another reason to book a trip to the emerald city.

Quincunx's picture

"...but when I start trying to build sans letters out of strokes in illustrator my proportions get really gross."

If you can draw your characters on paper, scanning and tracing those isnt a too big step? Get your stroke width and such as right as possible in your drawings, and clean them up later when you've traced them and when you're in FontLab/Illustrator.

If it's because you're not familiar with bezier-curves, then I suggest you so some general exersizes first to get the feeling of the tool. Like tracing a linedrawing of something, you know, things like that.
Letters are a difficult thing to do when you start... I've noticed that, eventhough I do know bezier-curves quite well. But when it comes to drawing glyps with it, they aren't too smooth. (yet! ;))

Reed Reibstein's picture

I just got Cabarga's Learn FontLab Fast in the mail, and, after a quick glance, it seems like it could be very useful. About a third of it deals explicitly with digitizing sketches and creating fonts on the screen. I haven't given it a lengthy look, but I'm certainly looking forward to going through the exercises to see if my bezier competency improves.

brampitoyo's picture

"I don’t think you have to be a type designer to appreciate it, just someone who is interested in type."

I second that. This book is particularly suited for a try-before-you-buy self-experiment, like if you're trying to figure out if you truly want to do type design.

Linda Cunningham's picture

I've just picked up Karen's book -- I can see it's a book I'm going to have to take in small doses, as there's just waaaaaay too much information to absorb.

blank's picture

I'll probably pick up Karen Chen's book and Cabarga's Fontlab book. Today I started working with new strokes copied from letters I drew by hand, it's going much better and I'm almost done with the English capitals. Tomorrow I'll start on the lowercase letters after I pick up a new C3 nib to replace the one I dropped down the drain today :(

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