What's your motivation to start designing a new typeface?

Bald Condensed's picture

I've started a series of articles on Unzipped about type design. These are intended to be an introduction, to explain to novices what type design is. In the first episode, I dwell a little on the motivation of designers to start on a new typeface.

Peter Bilak reacted in an e-mail, and this comment had me particularly intrigued:

“(...) to explore other motivations for designing type. I am sure there is more than craft/technology versus art. (...) I am wondering myself what are the motivations to create type, besides the two obvious ones: problem solving, and urge to express oneself artistically. I used peculiarities of language as inspiration for making Eureka and Greta. A new Typotheque project embraces entire typographic history as a single source of inspiration, so the result is poly-historical. But again, these are personal stands, and I am wondering what else can serve as inspiration; these are the issues I discuss with my students when they are starting their type projects."

So I thought it would be interesting to post his question here and listen what other motivations might be a reason to start on a new type design.

ill sans's picture

Except for the obvious reasons Peter Bilak stated, I think all reasons to do anything spring from an interest. And once past the point of passive interest, it's only a small step for curiousity and a self challenging attitude to get you started. It's also the best way to learn about something. For the professionals out there, hunger & the need to get food on the table might also be a good motivation ;-)

ill sans's picture

Not very insightful, I know, but it's late here & I'm only in the self challenging fase myself, so what the hell do I know? ;-)

dsb's picture

I am not a type designer, but as a graphic designer one of the reasons I am constantly looking for new typefaces is because as they are put out in the world and used they get associations attached to them. This of course can work for us in reinforcing the meaning
that we are trying to communicate. But because of this, we will also always be looking for a new way, to express a new idea.


hrant's picture

Besides the "two obvious ones" (which they are) there's a distinct third one in non-Latin type design: politics (if in the loose sense). Certainly not every non-Latin type designer thinks in those terms - in fact some try hard not to! But whenever you see something like Nour&Patria, or even something like a Hellenicized Latin (Carter's Skia; Michail Semoglu's work) you can safely assume there's some "culture-clash" undercurrent at work there.

And then there's the "ideological" motivation, which is not as rare as one might suspect. Think of the 20th century's penchant for making type "rational" = sans. But think also of Legato, which embodies what Evert (and I as well to a good extent) thinks type should be, irrespective of sales, personal expression, etc.


ebensorkin's picture

I suppose two kinds of things:

- Making the world of type more varied, more expressive, more complex, more compelling. In a word: Richer.
- Making the type better for the reader. More 'ergonomic'.

Of the two I think the second is the most important.

Kristian M's picture

A serious control issue!

Alessandro Segalini's picture

The concept of "classic" not as an object but as a relation.
Indeed, it’s not the apple (Newton’s, but you may associate it to the computer tool as well) or the magic moment that matters much, it’s the work before and after. Big thoughts are fun to romanticize, but it’s many small insights coming together that bring big ideas into the world.
It’s no accident that type designers study type.
Part of the challenge of innovation is coming up with the problem to solve, not just its solution ; according to Dyson “it’s very important to be idle... people who keeps themself busy all the time are generally not creative.”
A typeface is like a fact, and a fact is like a sack——it won’t stand up till you’ve put something in it. So, evolution in type design probably means only that what’s on top is fit for the current environment, not that it’s “better.”

dberlow's picture

I thought there were two different motives. One is to make a type that looks new in any old environment in which it can be used, and the other is to make a type that looks old in any new environment in which it needs to be used. I'm not sure that ever changes, but I'd lke to hear more.

ill sans's picture

I get the idea some people are confusing motivation with intent... The intent in itself can be mentioned as a motiovation perhaps, but all intentions of how the font will be used or in which environment are basically examples of intentions, not motivations in my view. It's about the choice of an environment (design) & an appropriate fontstyle (text, display, script,...). This originates from either a given job or a personal desire to create, but then the motivations are respectively "problem solving" and "the urge to express oneself artistically" as Peter Bilak stated.

ill sans's picture

@ Kris > best answer yet!

HaleyFiege's picture

"A serious control issue!"

Haha yes.

hrant's picture

Kris, nice! You do have to love type. And not just to make it. I remember once on the ATypI list somebody was wondering why anybody would/should join that organization. My answer was: if love type. Some people didn't like that at all, strangely.

> it’s very important to be idle

In fact my own best ideas come when I'm walking my dog.


ill sans's picture

Long trainrides are also very inspiring (especially in the morning when you're still desperately trying to wake up before you get to work). Bedtime is also great for wandering off.
Always keep a notebook at hand!

ebensorkin's picture

Kris. That's great! Both the idea & the execution.

cerulean's picture

Almost all of the typefaces I have started (I have yet to see when I will finish one to my satisfaction) have come about by making custom type for some particular thing, and then later thinking "perhaps I could make a whole face from that."

Bilak says "problem solving" but I would add "puzzle solving" and stress that they are different things. The former is in service of a need, a use; the latter is compulsive play. The initial concept of a typeface is an open-ended puzzle that begs to be solved just "because it's there".

kris's picture


1) A client asks for it
2) A niche needs to be filled
3) Jumping on the bandwagon of popular styles (money)
4) A serif needs a sans, or a sans needs a serif
5) Something (drawing, letterform, old metal typeface) is just so **** cool it needs to be made into a typeface
6) An existing typeface is almost there, either conceptually or aesthetically, but not quite.
7) Love


ill sans's picture

I hate to repeat myself, but isn't the "open-ended puzzle" basically the desire to create something (the other obvious motivation)?

wormwood's picture

Arrogance and vanity. Possibly.

And sex is often suggested as our motivation for everything. Design a typeface and get laid? Can't see it myself, but then I've never never been to a type conference. Do type designers get groupies?

Sorry. Not very helpful, I know.

kris's picture

"Arrogance and vanity. Possibly."

You have to be kidding! Type designers, like other loads of other people, can indeed be arrogant, but this is hardly a high-flying-gather-around-groupies-let-me-snort-coke-off-your-tits-while-watch-myself-in-the-mirror-flexing-my-muscles occupation.

What is there to be arrogant about? My little letters! Ha!


hrant's picture

Kris, wanting to make something without anybody's
help does have an element of egomania about it.

Sex: naming fonts after women is tellingly common...


crossgrove's picture

Kris, can you please not broadcast my lifestyle to the whole world? There are enough starry-eyed students wanting to claw their way to stardom in the type world without you giving them a free peek inside my limo. ;)

kris's picture

"Kris, wanting to make something without anybody’s
help does have an element of egomania about it."

True, but I always need help, & I have a few who's help is absolutely necessary. I would also argue that 90% of released typefaces these days should've had someone else's help, an editor at least.

"Kris, can you please not broadcast my lifestyle to the whole world?"

Sorry bro! BTW, did you get that invite to Paris's release party? I'll get you in otherwise.


wormwood's picture

"What is there to be arrogant about?"

Thinking your new typeface will be a worthwile addition to the world of typography.

And obviously I don't mean just you Kris per se. I think your fonts are great. But then so must you, if only a little bit, even before they come into existence. I know I do and I've only ever completed one crappy square sans.

And vanity. Well, there must be at least a small ego boost if the royalty cheques increase. It would be foolish to deny it, it is within us all, come, set it free and join us, the dark side awaits you... ahem... ok... I'll stop now.

I only really posted my first comment because I thought it may provoke a reaction. Hook, line and sinker ;-p

hrant's picture

> 90% of released typefaces these days should’ve had someone else’s help

But do they?


wormwood's picture

"I would also argue that 90% of released typefaces these days should’ve had someone else’s help, an editor at least."

That's a lot of type designers who were arrogant enough to think they could do it alone.

wormwood's picture

A typeface is an immortal extension of the type designers ego.

Or do something worthwhile instead.

kris's picture

"Thinking your new typeface will be a worthwile addition to the world of typography."

Is this arrogance or reality? Surely it is more arrogant to think that we have exhausted the limits of typeface design!

"And obviously I don’t mean just you Kris per se. …"

Well, perhaps. But my old man always told me that "if you're going to do something, you might as well do it properly".

"And vanity. Well, there must be at least a small ego boost if the royalty cheques increase."

Perhaps more of a sense of relief that the bills can be paid.

"> 90% of released typefaces these days should’ve had someone else’s help
But do they?"

If they have, then they are getting the wrong help!

"A typeface is an immortal extension of the type designers ego."


Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Arrogance and vanity. Possibly.

Hmmm. You, know, George Orwell once wrote down what he considered the four motivations for writing, and numero uno on his list was...

"1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen -- in short, with the whole top crust of humanity."

He goes on to list the other motives: aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose... in that order. And then he adds,

"It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time."

(Taken from "Why I Write," first published in 1946.)

metalfoot's picture

Because I wanted to. And it is coming along. Hopefully within a month or so I will have something for you all to pick to pieces on the Critique forum.

paul d hunt's picture

cuz i wanted something and it wasn't available digitally, so i had to make it.

Christian Robertson's picture

When I was in design school, I noticed that designers took great pride in memorizing the names of types and type designers. I thought, what better way to become a famous designer than to design type!

As for motivation to design a new face — a new idea is enough for me. You can't think about type too much without coming up with new ideas. When you have a new idea, you can't help but draw it.

Now, the motivations behind finishing a face: that's what I want to understand.

Alessandro Segalini's picture

Ha ha, "cuz i wanted something" is great.

ill sans's picture

> Now, the motivations behind finishing a face: that’s what I want to understand.

Me too... Without the help I -as well as 90% of the type designers out there apparantly- should get, I usually can't be bothered after having drawn it. The whole kerning part is so dreadful to me that I just can't get past the drawing point. But -as always- the most effective solutions are also the most simple ones. My solution to my problem: limiting myself to monospaced & connected script typefaces.

As for vanity: who here doesn't like to see their own letters on screen when typing?

Last but not least: arrogance: it's just an extent of vanity.
None of us who would be here sharing our ideas if we weren't. The modest don't broadcast their ideas & designs.

Quincunx's picture

I guess I just like drawing letters. I enjoy doing it, and I always have. Doesn't matter if it's built-up letters like in custom lettering, a typeface, just plain writing something by hand or even something close to calligraphy.

Since I never finished any of my attempts to design a typeface, I don't do it to get famous or that I want other people to use my fonts. Maybe in the future, when I have gained more experience in designing type, I might. But it's not my main motivation; it's more the drawing and next to that the digitizing of letters I like the most.

hrant's picture

> who here doesn’t like to see their own letters on screen when typing?

This is actually a very interesting paradox, and one that some desginers never experience; some of them have even reacted a bit violently when I've suggested it myself: when you use a font, in a way you're violating it. Not because of some virginity envy, but because a font is really an abstract thing that's qualitatively greater than any instance of its usage.

On the other hand, even though I do occasionally feel the above, I do also generally feel very good when I hit some keystrokes in a new font! And that's in fact the norm with type designers as far as I can tell.

> The modest don’t broadcast their ideas & designs.

Generally true, but not always. Think of Evert Bloemsma.
He was extremely modest, but intent on spreading his ideas,
via both discussion and design - just not as forcefully as some... :-)


Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Now, the motivations behind finishing a face: that’s what I want to understand.

:-D Nice, Christian!

Cesar Puertas's picture

Because I believe in self-teaching. There's nothing like learning to make a typeface by actually making a new typeface! Another reason could be the feeling of self-challenge. At least in my country (Colombia) people feel very scared about designing and drawing type. It's like the calculus of graphic design. I've always loved challenges and the feeling of doing something difficult is —for me—, very motivating.

César Puertas
diseñador (tipo)gráfico

ill sans's picture

> Generally true, but not always. Think of Evert Bloemsma.
He was extremely modest, but intent on spreading his ideas,
via both discussion and design - just not as forcefully as some… :-)

Well, to give you another paradox, I strongly believe modesty & pride can go hand in hand. It's a question of being able to objectively judge yourself which -I know- sounds like a complete contradiction. I can only speak for myself when I say I'm probably my best (or worse, depends on how you interprete it) criticist & I'm sure there are more people out there like me. Being your own judge has the adventage that you can take everything into account which is something an outsider can't do. You know where you're coming from, where you wanted to go (and your limits as to how far you can go at a certain point) & where you ended up & how you got there. So even a modest person can be openly proud when he has achieved something in his own best potential. This obviously often gets confused with arrogance, but for that I refer to a previous post of mine in this thread ;-)

hrant's picture

You make some good points, but I have to disagree about the "you can take everything into account which is something an outsider can’t do" bit: humans have trouble seeing clearly when it's something very close to them. It's not possible to be an "ideal" self-critic; an outsider can't be an ideal one either... Which is why you need both!


ill sans's picture

> It’s not possible to be an “ideal” self-critic

Maybe... All I know is that I'm the hardest one to please when it comes to my designs, but maybe that's because I'm just hanging with the wrong crowd? ;-p
I have to admit though that I can never immediately judge my own work. Time is the final judge & if something survives its test (which at least takes more than a few months if not years in my case), I think it's pretty safe to say you've done a good job. Usually I'm displeased with something after a while, but that's because people evolve. And even in all my malcontent with a certain design, I can still tell if it's the best I could do at the time.
Even my therapist (yes, I'm a mental case, didn't you notice? ;-p ) says I should try to be a little less hard on myself. She's obviously speaking in general terms, but I for one know it applies best to my work. I consider my work as something holy (yes, I am aware of how corny that sounds) & in that view I try my hardest to be a good "believer" & I consider self-flagellation part of that ;-)

William Berkson's picture

We humans are social animals, and we all desire the positive regard of others. This factor of 'ego' or pride is an important motivator, and can take positive and negative forms.

The positive form of pride is that the person is aware of his or her gifts, and wants to use them to benefit others, and enjoy the process of doing the work. And they will enjoy the honor that comes from their contribution.

Einstein put it beautifully when he wrote: "The most important motive for work in the school and in life is the pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community."

The negative form of pride is arrogance, when one tries to build one's self up by not listening to others, tearing them down and dominating them.


Tom, I think you are confusing criticism of one's own work and running one's self down as a person. On the latter many are their own worst enemies, yes, and that is no good.

But on criticism of one's own work, that it is rarely the case. First of all most people will be totally indifferent to your work, which is the worst criticism. Second, those with greater or even equal experience and expertise will see things you don't.

I completely agree with Kris on the benefit of an outside editor, particularly when you are starting out. I certainly have followed that principle, and have recommended it to others. And I am delighted to see that with that with that additional input Kris is going 'from strength to strength' as a type designer.

Nick Shinn's picture

Many mysteries rub shoulders in the shape of speech.
I guess that would come under "problem solving"!

Randy's picture

To me, the motivation the start and the stumbling block to finish a typeface are one and the same: the micro/macro nature of type design. There's nothing like exporting your little collection of micro creations and feasting your eyes on a big fat macro paragraph of text for the first time. Exporting for the 1000th time to compare some rediculous detail is no where near as intoxicating as: [cue caveman voice] "I have make font from nothing!"

There's loads of other reasons, but for me, this was the hook.

Hiroshige's picture


[Eduardo Recife's Downcome and Times New Roman]


ill sans's picture

Having a good name you don't want to let go to waste, but no font to give it to could be a good motivation ;-)

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