Making Your First Font—A Little Guidance

Last time on Using Type, I opened the subject of designing your own fonts. Whether or not you pursue type design, as a hobby or professionally, starting the process of creating a typeface on your own can offer insight into how type works, how to use it well, (and certainly) how much trouble type designers go to to make truly great type. In bringing up the subject last time, I left most of the particulars up to you, but if you’d like a little more direction than that, here it is. By the way, this is just how I approach type design, there is no singular ‘right’ way to go about it.

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Mess around a lot first.

Get your ideas in front of you on paper. Your hands will provide special abilities as well as impose specific constraints that the computer won’t. Keep it analog during the exploratory phase. There’s no need to seek out special materials. Whatever you’ve got will do. When you’ve got a concept you feel like pursuing, tighten up your work a bit, and move on to the computer (unless of course you’re producing purely analog type).

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If your design is modular in nature, (something to produce in FontStruct or some pixel-based font editor), get right to it. You’ll likely be able to see and test your work right in front of you and probably don’t need my help getting going. Otherwise, there are a number of considerations left to touch on.

Is this type or lettering?

What’s the difference, you ask? Designing type is making a cohesive set of interchangeable letterforms (or characters) that work in every possible combination. (Or at least all the most probable ones.) In lettering, the forms only have to work in a single, specified order. Because the constraints on lettering are less rigid, lettering can do things that type—generally speaking—can’t, such as stray from its baseline or fill some arbitrary shape or dimension. You should experiment with lettering too, but this piece is about designing type.

Start small; Test as you go.

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Start with whatever will be used most. If you’re creating a text face, I’d recommend you begin with and spend most of your time on the lowercase. If it’s an all-caps display face, start there. The first thing I do is choose a word or short phrase that includes a good representative sample of the characters, and also one that demonstrates well the overall feel of the face, and get started creating just those characters. Make sure the concept is working well with these before moving on. Begin with your control characters: in the case of a Roman uppercase, that’s H and O. (Lowercase is similarly n and o.)

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This is where I recommend you slow down and take your time. Getting the spacing of the straight-sided and round characters solidified gives you the standard by which you space and fit the rest of the characters as you draw them. Remember to export new font files often, print out test files and check your prints.

Keep your alphabets separated.

The capitals, lowercase, and figures (numbers) are all separate things. When drawing the characters in your typeface, fit and space caps with caps, lowercase with lowercase, figures with figures. Then kern like with like, and then kern caps to lowercase, etc.. My own philosophy on kerning: treat it as a last resort. Many spacing problems can be resolved with proper fitting and spacing.

Seek professional help.

Attend workshops, read books, participate in forums such as Typophile’s and TypeDrawers’. Send your favorite type designer a letter. They love letters.

That’s it for today. Using Type continues here Thursday. Special thanks to Gnosis by Gábor Kóthay for labeling the series up top.

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