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The Digital Eye: Creating Custom Type Faces

Type is more than just words floating on the surface of a design field. When used creatively, type can be a powerful visual element capable of expressing ideas. Your eye perceives character forms and your brain freely associates what it sees with what it knows. The words are translated into unique visual symbols that speak in a silent voice. The voice can have a gender or can convey a particular time in history. It might have an accent from another language or culture. It can be humorous, serious, fluid, mechanical, or any other description. It can have a specific tempo and pitch. How a word looks can communicate much more than how it reads.

Drawing typefaces can be a technically complex process. What are the practical steps, the tools and the software that you need to begin and what aesthetic considerations do you need to take into account? The methods and techniques practiced by type designers are as unique as the creative individuals practicing them, but there are a few common threads that should be considered when designing type.

Rules and Terminology

First of all learn the basic rules and parlance of typography and especially the anatomy of characters (see Figure 1). There are many factors that contribute to the readability and visual presence of type, such as the vertical and horizontal distances between characters, the stroke weight and angle, serif or san serif, width-height proportion etc., so it is essential that you familiarize yourself with the basic characteristics and terminology.

Designing a typeface can be challenging and require a lot of  thought and labor . It’s essential to start with a clear idea so that later you don’t have to backtrack to compensate for inconsistencies.  To understand the purpose of your type, ask yourself a few questions. Is it for a specific client or for personal use? How will it be used?  Where will it be published; in print, on signage or on the Web? What is unique about it?

Infinite Variables

Typographical variables are numerous, so consider how to limit your design options. What type of font is appropriate? Will it be serif or san serif, cursive, monotype  (like script ) or a fancy display font ? (Figure 2)

If you are designing your first typeface it is probably to your advantage to avoid designing a san serif font. The reason that sans serif typefaces challenge beginners is that the characteristics that make them unique can be more subtle.

Perhaps start by using your own handwriting and refining it into a font. 

Avoid designing a font based on an existing typeface's outlines. It’s tempting but it usually doesn’t work because it simply ends up looking like the original typeface with a few whistles and bells.

The Hand is Quicker

Drawing letterforms by hand at first is a much better approach than running for your copy of Adobe Illustrator and drawing with Bezier curves. Define your letterforms by hand at first (see Figure 3) and later you can refine them on a computer using software designed for that purpose. Sketching the initial characters by hand is far more efficient whereas creating the initial shapes with Bezier curves can be awkward and labor intensive.

Draw the flowing shapes of your font on paper for the first few characters then use the computer to refine them. Other characters can later be created using key elements like end caps, stroke widths and terminal edges.

Drawing with fluid circular movements of the wrist and arm produces smoother more precise curves. Hold the pencil loosely in your hand and turn the paper for better positioning. Keep your strokes loose at first and relax into the process. I find it helpful to draw on graph paper to keep the stroke widths and character proportions consistent.

As Matthew Carter, the famous English type designer once said: "Type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters". Bearing this quote in mind, start looking at your design from a line and paragraph level as early as possible.

Control Characters

Drawing certain characters first can assist in setting the style of your font and can be used as the basis for other characters. In type design these letters are called control characters. Begin with the lower case n whose shape reoccurs in many other letters such as h, i, m, r, u etc.,

Sketching Methods

Both of the following methods require a bit of practice so stay loose and if you first don’t succeed try again… and again… and again.

  • Two Pencils Technique: Tie two pencils together with a rubber band. Draw your characters with the two pencils maintaining the same angle when making the strokes. You’ll achieve a consistent stroke width that resembles the stroke of a wide nib pen (see Figure 4A).
  • Squiggle Method: Squiggling also simulates a broad nib pen. Position your paper so that it is straight in front of you and draw with natural angle of your lower arm (see Figure 4B). After you have achieved the basic structure of the letterform with squiggles, determine what parts of the strokes are thick and what parts are thin. Then, draw the outline, with a single pencil and add some detail (see Figure 4C).

Software

You are probably familiar with Adobe Illustrator, a mainstream vector-based graphics software and since you know how to use it you might be thinking that it’s the ideal program for type design. Illustrator is useful for experimenting with individual letterforms, but you should consider purchasing a dedicated type program that is more suitable for rendering complete typefaces. These programs present an interface that is conducive to precision character proportion, and letter and word spacing. They enable you to better utilize your control characters and give you the ability to export your work-in- progress as a font so that you can compare characters sets, in lines of type and paragraphs.

Three of the most popular type design programs (see Figure 5) include:

  • Fontlab Studio (www.fontlab.com) - a professional font editor for both Mac and Windows, which is the current state of the art software used almost every major type foundry.
  • Glyphs (http://glyphsapp.com) - a relatively new company.
  • RoboFont (http://doc.robofont.com). Both Glyphs and RoboFont and offer the same types of design features.

These programs are not cheap. Fontlab, for example costs around $650 dollars. Glyphs is less expensive at $266 and conveniently has a mini-version for the beginner for about $50. Gyphs and Robofont both offer a 30-day free trail.  The interfaces of these programs are relatively user-friendly and there are instructional videos and tutorials online but like any software, it takes a bit of trial and error to figure them out, especially if your new to type design.

Workflow

You’ll use your sketches as a reference as you develop the upper and lower case letters and the numbers of the font. In the program, you start by roughly drawing the straight outlines of your character by depositing nodes (see Figure 6). Smooth Bezier curves are added by dragging the node’s direction handles (see Figure 7).  You can precisely control the placement of nodes by typing numerical values in the control panel. There are also features that assure the accurate width of strokes, the smoothness of the Bezier curves and the alignment of paths and nodes.

The Glyphs website offers clear, detailed tutorials about how to create characters from the initial sketch through the export of the font. These tutorials will help you quickly master the software. You can export your work in progress at any time and utilize it as a font so that you can observe how the characters relate to each other under different typographical conditions.  After having created a complete set of characters, you can export your font into a specific format. This is where the process becomes pretty technical.

Accuracy with Minimum Effort

There are many facets to creating type that you will encounter as you learn the craft. Creating type can be a complex process that requires a great deal of precision and a good aesthetic sense. Fortunately the software enables extreme accuracy with minimum effort and the aesthetic sense comes from looking at type and observing the unique characteristics of individual fonts. That being said, it’s certainly worth downloading a 30-day trial version of Glyphs or RoboFont to begin experimenting with your very own unique typeface.