Which font style is better to start designing fonts?

gotnov's picture

This summer I will have free time, and I'm very interested in starting myself in type design. I'm a graphic design student, and our typography teacher doesn't teach us to build type, just how to use it correctly.

So I'm wondering which font style is the easiest to start. I thought a script (maybe brush) would be easier because it doesn't matter if its a bit "incorrect" or some curves are not very good.

What do you guys recommend to me?

oldnick's picture

Are you going to learn anything valuable by doing sloppy work? Scripts are not easy: try starting out with a simple sans.

gotnov's picture

I just want to play with it and get a "not-so-bad" result so I don't get frustrated. It will be my first time and I want it to be fun :P

blank's picture

Start with something that doesn’t even have curves. Stay away from things that seem simple—scripts seem simple because they don’t kern and look like handwriting, until you realize that not kerning makes spacing harder and handwriting isn’t necessarily going to make a good font.

Nick Shinn's picture


A geometric sans, that will require you to come to grips with standardized values for stem widths, overshoots, and sidebearings--especially the relative sidebearings of "I", "O" and "V".

eliason's picture

I remember hearing somebody saying that, counterintuitively, a seriffed font is easier than a sans as a first font, and I think there might be something to that.

victorz's picture

Try doing something geometric, scripts are harder to produce than what they look like... and who said type design was easy anyway?
Just have fun. :)

1985's picture

Alternatively, try a monoline/skeleton/stroke/router* design, then you can use bezier curves freely but you don't have to worry about weight/stress. You can quickly see then where the glyphs become congested and what you would have to do to correct this for more legible results. You can draw an alphabet like this very quickly and it is very easy to iterate as you only make changes to the skeleton, rather than editing outlines. It will also highlight the necessity for differing thickness in verticals and horizontals, as Nick points out, but IMHO it's good to see it go wrong for yourself! Good luck, enjoy.

* Attempt to make the terminology accessible.


Yeah I have heard likewise. I guess it is because all those serifs provide some distraction from the quality of outlines.

1985's picture

This evening I got hold of The Stroke after spending all day drawing with a pencil and filling in the outlines. I wish I had read this sooner, or at least witnessed the illustrations. Writing in this manner must be a very informative, rewarding and rapid way to begin with letters, thus, without too much expectation, an appropriate technique for anyone starting out. I'll keep reading.

blank's picture

I remember hearing somebody saying that, counterintuitively, a seriffed font is easier than a sans as a first font, and I think there might be something to that.

I’ve noticed that advice tends to be given by people who don’t actually design type. The same people who insist that type looks warmer if it’s drawn by hand before digitizing it, as if that magically changes the math behind bezier curves.

1985's picture

Easy tiger!

John Hudson's picture

Start with a revival. Find some typeface in an old specimen book -- it doesn't matter if its already available in digital form, because this is just a learning exercise, not something you are going to release --, and make a version of it from scratch. Don't scan and trace the design: reproduce it from looking at it carefully, and making a minimum number of measurements. You can make adaptations and modifications to the design as you go, or try to be as faithful as possible if you prefer. You will learn a huge amount about letters and type from looking very closely at how something has been made, and this will do you more good than trying to invent something at this stage.

.00's picture

Start with something you have a personal interest in. Type design is a tedious craft. If you are not in love with what you are working on it can be a very long row to hoe.

Thomas Phinney's picture

I'll vote for both "revival" and doing something you really like a lot.



rubenDmarkes's picture

Actually (just answering James) I've had some experiences designing type and lettering (well, not professionally, but anyway) and I've more than once got the feedback that the version I had drawn by hand was much more interesting and pretty than the traced/vectorial one. And it did take me a while to really see the difference. I found out that when looking at the one done by hand I actually immediately “saw” the vectorial version of it; which is fine, but means I wasn't really paying much attention to what was actually there. I've also come to discover that I would design two quite different characters if given a shot at both media designing the same idea. I think you don't get much “time” to “think” while drawing by hand, which _may_ introduce “you” (a more complete “you”, one that takes into account the unconscious and subconscious “you”) into the equation more than if you just take it to the béziers. Anyway, both methods are fine, gotnov. Any method is fine.

What I would suggest – if you would grant me the honour of asking me – would actually be that you don't stick too much to any one style. Play around with it. Start with sans lowercase and then add slab serifs, for instance. See what works and what doesn't. Or start with one typeface/character/glyph that you really like and roll with it. Or yes, do start at what you think would be more difficult, maybe a script, yes, maybe an italic, maybe a totally geometric typeface. Start with numbers. Take a very close look at all the typefaces that you think look great. Take a close look at the ones you believe to suck, too, of course. This is very important: search, look, see, watch. Try all methods available: drawing by hand, going straight to the béziers, using a brush, a potato stamp, whatever, just make sure you keep going back to all of them to really see the differences. Print examples, scan examples.
But the most important advice would be, I think: don't ask anyone anything! :P Relax, enjoy all styles, take it all in and “just do it” and keep doing it. Go on, do it. Do it. Go!

But that's all only if you were to grant me the honour of asking me and really wanting to know my answer (if you were thus misguided that you'd actually listen to me).

Queneau's picture


This seems to be right up your alley, if you're going for the geometric option, that is.

Queneau's picture

Sorry the link doesn't work, I don't know why, try copy/paste...

dezcom's picture

Start with something that is you no matter how complex it may be. If you love it, you will do it. If you do it, you will learn from it. Find out if you enjoy the work instead of looking for the easiest thing. It isn't about the success of your first attempt, it is about attempting your first experience in type design.

Christopher Slye's picture

I think a lot of new designers make a mistake starting with a sans serif (geometric or otherwise). I think such styles are very demanding, and reveal inexperience more easily. I pretty much agree with John Hudson; particularly, I think new designers are better off "throwing out" their first design. Maybe one is fortunate and produces something really great, but it seems better to go in with low expectations with an eye toward trial-and-error. (I think a lot of new designers who release their "first" design are, in fact, dismissing one or more previous, bad, abandoned attempts -- but that's pure speculation on my part.)

One very early experiment I did was an old metal script design by Zapf. It was very forgiving, because it was so irregular.

NapoleJon's picture

The way I learned to design type was by starting with calligraphy. I'm also a graphic design student and I'm now in my 4th and last year and I can tell you that it was extremely helpful. Frank Blokland taught us in our first year. I've got maybe 30 A2 sized bankpost sheets filled with calligraphy. It's a bit of a grind, but when I look back at it, it was really helpful in understanding the basic shapes of type. Frank Blokland was a student of Gerrit Noordzij who you may know. He wrote "The Stroke". I'd just buy that book and start writing with a broad tip pen yourself. I could start explaining what I have learned, but the book explains it a lot better then I can.

blank's picture

…particularly, I think new designers are better off "throwing out" their first design.

That’s excellent advice. I ended up treated my first year of type design as throwaways. Font design students should treat their early fonts the same way they treat sophomore year design projects: a learning experience best left out of sight.

sim's picture

I personally start with a Sans typeface (ITC Migration). It was my first typeface ever. However I worked as a graphic designer for more than 25 years before to start this adventure and I had a passion for typography. This was a good start. So, I decide to choose a sans typeface simply because I loved those one. I didn't know where I went. But my choice was a good one for me. I learned a lots and I made many mistakes before I released it (4 years after). Some people told me it was not the easiest way to start, today I agree, since I release "Harfang”, my first serif one. I would say, as Chris wrote previously “Start with something that is you no matter how complex it may be. If you love it, you will do it.” Take your time, don't be too anxious. Ask for advice from other typeface designer, read some book on typeface subject, do calligraphy and keep your passion.

gotnov's picture

Wow guys, thank you for all of your kind answers.

I'll read carefully every one of them and decide how to start this summer.

I think the geometric sans convinces me for my first attempt, to get used with type design program I will choose (I still have to look for one) and to do the basics of type. Then if I succeed (which I hope to :P) I will try with something more of my taste.

So once again, thanks!

1985's picture

Love conquers all!

marcox's picture

The "skeleton" method mentioned by 1985 in his first post is detailed in this book:


elms's picture

Gerrit Noordzij on drawing: http://vimeo.com/10521941

I tried this technique with my students instead of the outline and buildup technique and the results were amazing. There is a greater sense of form. The definition of the letterform on the page stands out against the ground.

rubenDmarkes's picture

Interestingly, I've done what Mr. Gerrit recomends on that video once or twice and I can't help but agree with the concept of what he's saying, although at the time I didn't really think it through. I do remember the results were very interesting. I think that's another good idea for gotnov. In fact, any way of “writing” the characters instead of “drawing” them will help towards a fundamental understanding of typography (it sure has helped me). [Which doesn't/shouldn't take away anything from more geometrical/constructive(?) ways of designing characters, which are also interesting and helpful.]
To that effect, I'd also recommend Mr. Briem's site.

Nick Shinn's picture

@elms: ...There is a greater sense of form.

Perhaps this looks better initially, but IMHO it's better to start by learning the underlying structure/form of fonts (rather than that of hand-made lettering or writing), even if the results aren't immediately so attractive. And even if the students don't like it.

After all, the medium that is being taught is a piece of font editing software: truth to materials!

elms's picture


elms's picture

it's better to start by learning the underlying structure/form of fonts (rather than that of hand-made lettering or writing)

It appears that this is what this exercise does. It seems the most important thing is observation (a visual study of the structure). Secondly espousing the letterform with your tool.

Gerrit Noordzij says something very important in the video. He says “the outline is simply the trace the shape has in common with the background”.

I guess different strokes for different folks ;)

elms's picture

I think the most important thing is to have a sensibility to form … and this comes through observation and attention to details.

blank's picture

On a related note, there’s a great deal to be learned from just tracing classic designs for the sake of doing it. Buy Tshichold’s Treasury of Alphabets and Letting or some similar book, trace the alphabets, space them, kern them, and move on to the next one. This way you get to just focus on the tools without the distraction of being creative. To make it really useful buy the Font RMX tools from Tim Ahrens and use the harmonizer to balance the curves after you draw the letters so that you have a sort of digital tutor who can give you some instant feedback about how to make the outlines flow better. If I could start over I would do it this way instead of spending a lot of time stumbling through my own botched early fonts.

Nick Shinn's picture

...the most important thing is to have a sensibility to form...

And that is why I recommend the geometric sans as being the doorway to the form of the digital font.
It reduces the notions of sidebearings, alignment zones, and stem widths to their most basic and most easily understandable and manageable forms. These modular distances are the fundaments of font construction, and will accommodate almost any genre of type.

For instance, serifs complicate sidebearings by providing two inter-glyph distances: that between serifs and that between stems (not to mention between optical centres).

Tomi from Suomi's picture

I started on my own. Made a huge amount of mistakes, and tried too much. But got around eventially.

You should not start with sans to learn about basic spacing, and also you should not start with serif to learn about form. Do your own mistakes.

First, do what you feel is what you want to make, and then start digging into type design conventions. There are plenty. You can go and see the Hague graduates brilliant typefaces. They all look like sisters and brothers. I personally like them, but it is hard to choose any single one to use.

All advice above is relevant, and I especially like that Blondina; she has a good way of thinking. But the main thing is practice. It took me six years to get my first font published, and I'm still learning today.

Good luck!

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Why not try to solve a problem with your typeface? That’s how I approach most design projects anyhow. If I need something that will work for — say — headlines in a publication, I might start out with a basic idea of what I’m looking for (tone, construction, weight). Once I’ve got some letters I’ll try them on the page, in context, to see how well they preform. Along the way you’ll discover all sorts of issues that needs to be adressed: ink spread, collisions, bad spacing, inconsistensies and so on.

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