We get requests from time to time by young designers wondering where one begins when they want to design their own font. I could suggest that they leave this to the professionals, but that would be a missed opportunity, since it was specifically because I picked up a pencil and drew the type around me that I developed a sense for how different typefaces do what they do, and how type genres relate to one another. So inasmuch as learning to talk about type anatomy and dabbling in type design offers insight into using type well, I’m including this in our series on using type.
There are plenty of different approaches to type design. Some designers do very tight drawings on paper, others sketch just enough to get the main ideas worked out. Some, from this point (myself included) skip the step of digitizing hand work and compose directly on screen in a font editor. Some draw only on screen (I discourage a beginner from following this method, by the way). Figuring out what your shapes should look like, knowing which to begin with, drawing them, fitting them, testing and adjusting them to work properly in whatever context is required for target output is largely what type design is. And by necessity, the process varies with the requirements of each design.
To the graphic designers interested in type design who are now reading this: If you want to design type as a hobby, or for a one-off project, great! (And if you want to take it further, great!) It’s never been easier to start drawing type. I would recommend beginning with something simple you can complete in a few days’ or weeks’ time, just to get the hang of the entire process. Certain constraints and genres of type naturally lend themselves well to a quick project, such as a pixel-based design, or a constructivist face. I recommend FontStruct for someone who just wants to jump in and start making something: Arrange “bricks” on a modular grid, fill out your character set, and download your font.
For designs that don’t work on a modular grid, you’ll need a font editor that allows you to draw and space your own vector shapes. These include Glyphs app, RoboFont Editor, Fontlab, Fontographer, and the open source editor FontForge, among others.
An alternative to drawing your own vector shapes is to autotrace work you’ve scanned using a relatively inexpensive program called ScanFont. (There are others.) Depending on the level of quality you’re pursuing, the nature of the design, and your means of reproduction, this might be precisely the solution you’re looking for.
Follow this advice and chances are your first typeface will be a great learning experience (and honestly, I wouldn’t expect much more from it beyond that.) Good luck, remember to move on, and let us know how it goes!
Also, reach out to members of the type community, online and in person. They’re generally very helpful since every one of them has been where you are now. Once you’ve completed your first face, process stories like Tal Leming’s reflection of his new sans, Balto, will be even more meaningful to you.
Using Type continues here Thursday.