So What Are You Thinking When You Decide to Design a New Typeface?

Steve Tiano's picture

To the tune of an old, old Genesis song: "I can't draw, I can't paint. Only thing about me is the books that I make."

So what I'm saying is, I'd never think to design a new typeface. And I wonder what might go thru the mind of someone getting up one morning and thinking, "Hey, I think I'll get started creating a new typeface today." In simple terms, I'm sure there's some kind of a desire to create letterforms that are clear to the reader, easy for eyes to follow, and appear somehow new--having some unique aspect to their appearance. But I'm only guessing.

I've been considering that and just why one turns to designing type, as opposed to anything else, for a few days straight now. It's largely why I signed onto Typophile--and glad I am that I did.

Anyhow, anyone care to oblige a newcomer with their take?

Quincunx's picture

Well, I'm not in to designing type for too long yet, so my motivations are mainly that I just like (and always have) to draw lettershapes. So at this point I'm not really concerned with what people think of it. Or markets or potential usage. Well I am of course, but I'm not selling it anyway. My interest in typefaces was mostly sparked with general interest in typography itself.
I don't know, I just really enjoy grabbing a piece of paper or my moleskine and doodle away with letterforms that have popped up. At the moment I'm more working on lettering than complete typefaces. Very bad answer to your question. I think some of the more hardcore type designers might give you better insight. ;)

Oh, and welcome to Typophile. :)

Antonio Cavedoni's picture

I just started designing typefaces too, but here are some potental motivations that come to mind:

  • to revive an old typeface: you see something around you on street signs or in an old book and you think to yourself “wow, that is beautiful, I would like to have it in digital”. Revivalism is much more complicated than that, of course; sometimes you just want to explore more the tastes and letterforms of a certain period or a certain designer, and doing your own version of someone else’s typeface helps retracing the steps he went through and the decisions he had to make;
  • for a specific purpose: there are many situations that call for new typefaces. Think about advances in technology like fonts for computer or PDA screen, pixel fonts for mobile phones, etc. that call for new letterforms, or think about different versions of an existing typeface for new setting: maybe one of your clients uses a specific typeface for all its corporate image but they notice that when they use that font in posters or in very large settings it doesn’t quite work. Then you need to draw a new weight or optical size or whatever…;
  • to scratch a technical itch: what happens if I take Bodoni and remove the serifs? Oh, I see…;
  • I know some type designers that often start with an æstetic research, trying new curves or shapes and see what they like…;

Of course these are just a few ideas, but I hope you get the point. I felt as you do when I was getting interested in typography and then later in type design, I wondered where do these people got the inspiration to do what they did, but then studying the history of type design helped me see things a bit clearer.

Now: from there to actually know how to create meaningful work, that is something that is still a mystery to me too.

Quincunx's picture

Your first point is very good indeed, one of the first typefaces I did was a trace of a forgotten woodtype I found somewhere. (I only put it on the crit board this year). I did a couple of things before that, but the woodtype digitization was my first face with a larger charmap. It seemed like a nice first step into typedesign. For the most part to learn the techical side like FontLab and bezier curves and such.

Steve Tiano's picture

Thanks for the insight. I never thought of revival when I was considering why folks might wan to design typefaces. And I should have thought about new venues for books, as I was asked twice recently what I thought about designing books for cell phones.

Thomas Phinney's picture

All the above reasons are good, although "for a specific purpose" or "for a specific client" seems to yield the best results.

Nowadays, I often think "I've never tried my hand at (style of typeface) before. It seems challenging, maybe I should try something like that next."



metalfoot's picture

For me, it's simply the thrill of the "I've never done this before..."

aluminum's picture

My first typefaces were also revivals.

Other than that, I think it's mainly doodling. "Hey...that looks cool...that could be a font!"

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Welcome, Steve! There is a thread from a couple of months ago that asks a similar question: What's your motivation to start designing a new typeface?

Quincunx's picture

Oh my, you are right. I completely forgot that thread, eventhough I posted in it.

crossgrove's picture

I think immediately of how rich and famous I will become. Then I wake up. Ha! Ha!

[weeps silently into pillow]

Steve Tiano's picture

Thanks for the welcome, Ricardo. And for the link. I will check it out.

Quincunx's picture

> I think immediately of how rich and famous I will become. Then I wake up. Ha! Ha!

Well, I just saw your Beorcana typeface mentioned by Unger in his presentation on ESAD Personal Views. So it doesn't go entirely unnoticed either... ;)

Steve Tiano's picture

Okay, first my thanks to Ricardo—again—for pointing me to the earlier thread. There I found a link to An Intro to Type Design. I've already read both and asked Unzipper when "the second and third episodes ... on the [type designer as] the craftsman and the technician respectively" will appear.

After that I went to Amazon and located a boatload of books on designing type, typefaces, and fonts. Too many looked worthwhile to buy any yet, so I started by ordering half a boatload of them from my public library.

I cannot quite put my finger on why the interest at all, and why just now. But I find myself considering trying my hand at designing a typeface family purely as a creative exercise. I suppose it could make me a better book designer/typesetter/page compositor/typographer, etc. (I am never 100% sure what to call myself.) That said there are difficulties, and I definitely feel the need to expand some on all I'm saying here on my blog.

I repeat: I do not draw or paint. Never felt I could.

Still, I've decided that the the best reasons, as I have gleaned from the earlier thread, why one bothers to try to design a typeface, are:

as [new typefaces] 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 …

I take this to mean that branding may take place. I’m reminded of a certain bakery brand that’s sold in NY—I think I’ve seen it in other parts of the country, too, but it originates here (on Long Island). I don’t know that the typeface that their name is written in was created for them originally, but it is definitely identifiable as theirs. I first learned this when I noticed an auto body shop that I pass regularly had a sign that looked so familiar to me and yet I couldn’t place why that it really bothered me. I stopped my car and stared for awhile. Driving away, I had an aha moment when I realized it was the same typeface as the bakery brand used.

making the type better for the reader

As a book designer and layout artist that’s my number one objective: to bring the author’s work to readers clearly and in a way that is easy on their eyes. I want to encourage them to read the book completely and with maximum comprehesion.

… arrogance and vanity. Possibly.

All the above goes to my simplified take, if you will, on why I might want to try my hand at designing a typeface family. My reasons are not necessarily good ones; they obviously are not the only reasons to take on such a project. That said, I move on to figuring just what this entails.

My list of physical tasks to do may not be complete. I may be unaware of any number of steps. And my steps could be out of a correct order. Please let me know what I m missing and where I ve gone wrong.

First a question. I use the word draw below, for want of any other better term. It sounds to easy: Draw a letterform. Is that done in a piece of software such as Adobe Illustrator and then get brought into a piece of software such as Font Pro, either one character t a time or as a whole alphabet?

Okay, two questions. When does one think about kerning tables? After all letterforms are drawn, I presume? And then letters are paired off in every combination to see how they look best, after which one uses software to build the kerning tables?

Please excuse the ignorance of these questions. As soon as I get my hands on the books I ve ordered, I can begin to do some research of my own. But I m too pumped with curiosity to just sit and wait for books to arise; hence I ask here. Maybe I will decide it s all too much work for someone who does not draw.

That said, here s my list ...

1. Draw the upper-case alphabet, including text numbers and punctuation.
2. Draw the lower-case alphabet, including symbols asterisks, dagger, double daggers, etc.
3. Decide what ligatures to include typically, fl, ff, ffl, fi. As these are off the top of my head only, what others should there be?
4. Draw numbers for use in settings where they need to align on a decimal point i.e., tables, fractions, equations. I forget how this class of numbers is referred to.
5. Repeat above steps for italic, bold, bold italic, small caps, subscript, and superscript.

Goes without saying my list is way simplified. But did I get the gist of it?

Antonio Cavedoni's picture

Steve: I say go for it. As cliché as it may sound, regardless of the result the journey alone is more than worth it for someone working in book design and dealing with type every day. It will make you question what it is exactly that you like in a typeface and better understand why certain things are drawn in a certain way. I’m not saying this from the ivory tower of a million accomplishments, I’m saying this from someone who used to be in your position just about eight months ago. If anything else, you will have a completely different viewpoint on typefaces and on the work that stands behind them (or lack thereof in some poor cases).

As for the process I don’t think there is “a better way”. I’m very bad at hand-drawing so every once in a while I doodle a bit on my notebook then if something catches my inerest I reproduce it on the computer. I don’t usually scan stuff and trace it because my drawings are quite poor at the moment so tracing them wouldn’t help in any way. I found I get better results if I draw the letterforms on-screen, although of course I’m also working on improving my drawing skills as they are essential to understand how letterforms are built. I also draw on paper when I am unsure about contrast in certain glyphs, sometimes.

As for the order of glyphs to design, I was watching a lecture by Erik Spiekermann yesterday where he stated that the basic “feel” of a text typeface is in the letters that are used most, which are a n e and s. After you’ve drawn the n, you can easily go from there to h m l i and u with a bit of tweaking, and that helps you get a feel for what your typeface will look like, what the x-height will be, how much contrast you’re going to put between the strokes, etc.

I find that it’s easier for me to start with these base glyphs to build some momentum, start typing little words and checking out how they look, and then I can move on to draw all the rest of the lowercase, uppercase, numerals, diacritics… but that’s just the way I usually do things. Claudio Piccinini, a type designer friend of mine, once said to me he often starts from the numerals to get a feel for a typeface and then proceeds from there.

Good luck!

Quincunx's picture

To start, I'm not a very experienced type designer myself, but here's my two cents.

A 1: I usually draw letterforms by hand, on a piece of paper. After that I scan and bring it to a piece of software, like Illustrator or directly into the font software, like FontLab Studio. And I then trace the scans to get the vectors. That is usally done one character at a time. But you can start off directly on the computer, however for me drawing it by hand is more natural and faster. You can try different approaches very easily. As Antonio already mentioned (and Erik Spiekermann obviously) starting with letters like a, n, e and s can be helpful, because those have the general shapes most letters are made of.

A 2: Kerning is usually done at the later stages. Kerning is done in the font software itself, again like FontLab or something, and it usually builds the kerning tables as well.

And it looks like your list is quite complete, although it does make it look easy. ;) It also looks like you want to design a very elaborate typeface, maybe try something simpeler first, like one weight with numerals and punctuation/diacritics? But then again, you could also just go for it!

Antonio Cavedoni's picture

Very important: don’t bother starting with kerning until you have finalised the spacing. It’s usually something you do in the font editor as well, after having drawn the outlines although Walter Tracy in Letters of Credit says that it’s a good idea if the letterforms are not exactly final because you may want to tweak them to improve fit. After doing all the spacing you can move on to kerning.

Steve Tiano's picture

Thank you, Quincunx and Vervosus. (By the way, Quincunx, are you an astrologer, too? I ask because a quincunx is, of course, a 150° aspect between two planets (counting the Moon and Sun as "planets"). But I digress ...

It's not my intention to create a particularly elaborate font, just one that is complete enough to lay out any of the books I've ever worked on, a number of which had heavy math and equations in them.

Okay, so at best I might sketch on graph paper. But if I do this—first off, it'll be a long-term project, in between work—I'll then draw in Illustrator. (By "vectors" you do mean from inside a vector drawing program like Illy, yes?)

Hell, diacritics—forgot about them. Oy, this'll be a really long-term labor of love, because I really haven't the slightest idea about how to create spacing, for instance.

I better get hold of the books I ordered from the library, start reading, and make some decisions about what to buy.

Quincunx's picture

Hehe, no, I got the name from Charles Palliser's book 'Quincunx'. But the other meanings of it I found also interesting. (The mathematical things, the arrangement of items like a 5 on a dice, etc.)

On topic:
Yes, graph paper should work.
With 'vectors' I mean from a vector program like Illy indeed. But FontLab and other font-applications also use vectors. Béziers! ;)

Spacing is created in font-software by means of the 'sidebearings'. Basically two lines, one on each side of a glyph. You can change the distance of these lines to the glyphs. The space between these lines is considered part of the glyph, basically white space on both sides of a letter. So an 'a' might have a right sidebearing of 25 (space between the letter itself and the line), and an 'e' might have a left sidebearing of 44, making the spacing between these characters 69 units.
After this spacing, these spaces can be optically adjusted with kerning.

Hm, that might be pretty badly explained. But it's late here.

Steve Tiano's picture

Thanks for the answer, Quincunx. It would appear that I'm getting a little of what I've started to read.

Okay, last two questions of the night. First ... So when you're working with these side bearings, are there any "rules of thumb" for hw to decide on how much space surrounds a glyph; or is it done strictly by sight and what looks good to the designer?

And finally ... are there any newsgroups for beginning typeface designers?

Merci and bon soir.

dberlow's picture

" “rules of thumb” for how to decide on how much space surrounds a glyph"

Sure. There is to be less space between two "n's" than there is inside one n. H too. Get these two right,. Make the space on the left side of "D and p" visually equal to the same space in H and n respectively. Set the D's right, (round) side so it looks balanced between two H's. Transferr that round side bearing from "D" to both sides of the "O" (and "p" to "o"). Now balance V and v between H's and O's, (n's and o's) and you have three of the four major sidebearing types, (misc. being the other). Fiddle as required.

"And finally ... are there any newsgroups for beginning typeface designers?"

I think this is it.


Quincunx's picture

Tips on how to set the sidebearings are also in 'Designing Type' by Karen Cheng, on page 220. Which is taken from 'Letters of Credit: A View of Type Design' by Walter Tracy. A clear list with visual explanation, which is very handy. It handles the things David commented above this post, basically, only then the whole alphabet.

Antonio Cavedoni's picture

Steve: regarding spacing there is also the article Basic Character Spacing in Type Design by Mark Jamra which you can download in PDF from the TypeCulture Web site.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Steve, if your browser allows you to use the search function, you will find plenty of links to how-tos on typeface design. (Alternately, you can search on Google and type "in Typophile" after your keywords.)

Also, if you haven't heard of these sites, here are some links:

Type, handwriting, and lettering (Gunnlaugur Briem's site)

type basics workshop (on Underware's site)

Hope these are helpful!

James Grieshaber's picture

This is a broad question. Or maybe I think it is, because there are so many considerations when designing a typeface. But I think foremost, I have to have an idea to do something unique or better than it has been done in the past. There is so much work involved in creating a commercial font that it doesn't seem worth while to me to do something mundane or useless.... although I do have that opinion of my fonts sometimes. I have so many started fonts that I think are ugly, useless, novel, or just look like something else I have seen before. So they just sit on my hard drive forever.

Goran Soderstrom's picture

For me it’s a mix of a strange drug/addiction and a "want-to-know-how-it-ends-up-finished-desire". At least when it comes to my own creations.

I also have a mysterious feeling that I sometime might be able to do something very original that will mess around with the heads of the people who claims there is no need for new typefaces.

And finally. It’s so unbelievable interesting to see a new typeface grow from an idea into a full working font that can be used for communcation and help other express themselves.

Welcome to Typophile.

Steve Tiano's picture

First, a question: Are my posts here too long. I'm trying to be concise, but obviously not keeping them short. Anyway, I apologize for that. I must admit to being really excited by this.

My thanks to those of you who've answered in this latest flurry.

I begin to see what a monumental task this whole biz of creating a complete typeface family is. The beauty of it is that I'm getting interested enough in it at the same time that I have no interest in working as a professional type designer. I like making books. So I have no pressing issues re: time—unlike with my book design and production work.

That raises another question that is apropos of nothing: How many of you typeface designers also work in page design—specifically in publishing, making book pages? How about advertising? How many of you are promarily page designers who also design type? Or does it pretty much turn out the other way around?

Quincunx, it may be correct that Typophile is the place for beginning typeface designers. I certainly can't imagine anywhere more helpful than you folks here. But it's all so interesting to me at this stage that I want to read more online. That's why I've ordered a bunch of books from the public library, so I can narrow it down to a handful of books to buy. And it's most gratifying to see that the first or second book that caught my eye and that I ordered is the Karen Cheng book, Designing Type. I've also just downloaded the Jamra article.

Ricardo, believe me, throughout the last few days of asking questions and reading answers, I've been googling all manner of type design issues. I haven't, however, gotten as far as the coupla sites you mentioned. I'll be looking at them after I get done with some work on some booklets and their covers that I'm laing out for a publisher out west.

James, I'm just beginning to appreciate how broad the initial question I asked is, as well as just how many directions I've headed off in with my follow-ups. I agree that one of the difficulties almot certainly is the task of creating something unique and worthwhile. That is part of the appeal to me. But I must also admit that I'm likely to be something of a pleasure traveller, and not someone looking to create a whole roster of commercially available fonts.

FInally, I've been looking into Fontlab. It's an expensive proposition direct from the maker, $699. And yet when I search for it on sites like MacWorld's comparison shopping area, or, or even a specific mail-order house like MacMall, I can't find anything called FontLab. SSo does anyone know if there's anyplace sells it for less than full retail?

As always, thanks very much.

Steve TIano

Quincunx's picture

I don't find your posts too long.
Creating a typeface usually is a very monumental task indeed. Some of the better typefaces out there have been designed over the course of several years. You don't need to spent several years per sé to create a good typeface, but it does take a lot of time.
But of course it all depends how much time you want to spend on it, and how well you want to execute your design. The things I have done in type design usually took me 2 or 3 months.

> How many of you typeface designers also work in page design—specifically in publishing, making book pages?

To answer your question; I am mostly working on graphic design, and also books/book pages. I'm experimenting with type design purely because it interests me. I've always been interested in typography itself, and from there I got interested in the letters and typefaces themselves.

And I would just try some things, doodle a bit, draw a couple of alphabets. Worry about being very unique and worthwhile later. At least that is what I was/am doing. You need some sort of introduction to the whole design process first. When you somewhat mastered that, you can always try to design something really unique.

And about FontLab, that is indeed quite expensive. I don't know if anyone sells it below that retail price. There are alternatives though. The developer of FontLab Studio also releases TypeTool, which is basically FontLab's little brother. That costs US $99. And Fontographer, also from FontLab Ltd. $349, and even Open Source software like FontForge, which is basically free. Which one of those is the better choice, I don't know. Others might have more experience comparing them.

Steve Tiano's picture

Hmmm ... I'll have to take a look at FontForge. I don't mind trying open source stuff. On the other hand, I'm stubborn about using "little brother" software like TypeTool, when the industrial strength stuff exists. I'd hate to get to a point where it wasn't enough—which sounds silly even to me, as I haven't done a thing yet. But I'll have to look at both of them closely.

FontLab's just not an option right now, given its price, as I still need to replace my PowerBook which died last winter. It sounds to me like your direction into type design is not so far off from mine, book designer/layout artist who's getting more and more interested in typography.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

...I haven’t, however, gotten as far as the coupla sites you mentioned. I’ll be looking at them after I get done with some work...

Briem's site is great and has plenty of good advice.

How many of you typeface designers also work in page design—specifically in publishing, making book pages? How about advertising? How many of you are promarily page designers who also design type?

I don't think I can call myself a typeface designer -- my training is in graphic design, but I've always had a thing for type. I have a few unfinished typefaces on my hard drive, which I work on when I can. (The only thing I've finished so far is not a design of my own, but a digitization of Ward Sutton's hand lettering, which he used in his Sutton Impact strip. But I digress.) My work these days is design and production for direct mail and advertising agencies, multilingual DTP, and medical publishing. In another life I did layout for magazines and schoolbooks. I would like to get into book design at some point -- interiors and/or covers.

Steve Tiano's picture

Getting into book design--any combination of interiors and covers is easier said than done. Then again, it's prob'ly all a matter of cultivating contacts and leveraging experience you already have. I'm about half again as busy as I thought I'd ever be when I started to freelance—I'd taken it on, to start with, on a moonlighting basis intending to earn enough money to periodically upgrade computer equipment. A technojunkie, I was newly married and they might have seemed like just very expensive toys otherwise. And now, 15 years later, I'm about half as busy as I'd like to be--which is to say, I'd prefer to always have two books going and two waiting in the wings. And not at $4 per page!

And I digressed. I think what I need is to "go to school." So as soon as I get the word that my boatload of books has started arriving, I'll be diving in. And I guess what I need to do is add FontLab Studio 5 to my wishlist, along with the 17" MacBook Pro that I need to replace my deceased PowerBook with. I need to be able to work away from my studio.

I'll be in touch.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Thanks for your thoughts on book design work, Steve -- much appreciated.

As for designing typefaces, I think you can tell from some of the posts on this and another of your threads that it can be an all-consuming passion. Oh, and you might enjoy this interview with Font Bureau's Cyrus Highsmith. He gave a talk at the Type Directors Club recently and compared designing a typeface to making a kit of parts, an analogy I like.

William Berkson's picture

>I’m stubborn about using “little brother” software like TypeTool, when the industrial strength stuff exists. I’d hate to get to a point where it wasn’t enough

If you get seriously into type design, FontLab is probably in your future. I see on the FontLab site that if you buy Type Tool first, then upgrade to FontLab when and if you need to, you only lose about $10 compared to buying FontLab up front.

Steve Tiano's picture

Well, I've about decided to gove FontForge a try. It's hard to turn down open-source pricing. And given how little I know, scant investigation that I've done it reveals tools that seem to be able to do about all I can imagine needing to do so far. Anyone think I'd be wasting my time starting out with FontForge?

William Berkson's picture

>Anyone think I’d be wasting my time starting out with FontForge?

I don't know FontForge, but given that there is a learning curve for any of the programs, yes, I feel you risk wasting time by going with it. My impression is that some software people use it, but not the design community.

Steve Tiano's picture

Is that true? Would most of you agree that I should forget about FonForge for anything serious?

Quincunx's picture

Well, I haven't used FontForge, so I can't comment on that. But I wanted to mention it, since it is Open Source.
But I guess William is right in a sense. It would be a waste of time if you start learning one app, and that you have to start over again when you get another.
I don't know exactly what the difference is between TypeTool and FontLab when it comes to functionality, but I think the GUI is quite similar. If you eventually want to go to FontLab, but haven't got the money now, I guess TypeTool should be a logical first step.

Maybe if you ask a software specific question on the 'Build' board, you might get answers from people other than me (read: people with more expertise). Or maybe on 'General'. I don't know... it seems that the software-connaisseurs aren't reading this thread. ;)

Steve Tiano's picture

Will do. Thank you.

Gary Long's picture

As a book designer/typesetter I'm always trying to find the perfect typeface to match the subject matter and tone of the manuscript. The idea that there might be a "universal" text typeface suitable for setting anything is always alluring. Most typefaces have some characteristic, no doubt wisely, that gives them just enough personality to render them unsuitable for every single purpose. Or they lack something that would be needed. Sometimes the roman is very all-encompassisng, as far as suitable uses, but the italic has too much personality.

So my motivation to design a text typeface came from the conceit that I could create one containing every feature I ever wanted in one, while at the same time not containing anything I disliked about any of the typefaces I've ever used. A typeface that could be use for anything. Obviously an impossible goal, but that's what got me started.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Steve, you can download a TypeTool demo here...

...and a FontLab demo here.

FontLab has a steeper learning curve than TypeTool, but as stated above, the interfaces are supposed to be similar.

Stefan Seifert's picture

this Genesis song for me is not OLD at all..;-)

..and there is in fact more earth than sea..

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