TypographyHow to

How to design your own typeface

Jamie Clarke of Type Worship explains how to get started in creating your own typography.

After many years as a graphic designer and type enthusiast, I decided to channel some of my passion into my own lettering and typography projects. After a while it seemed a natural evolution to try my hand at designing a typeface.

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Much has been written about type design; especially on the history, drawing and technical complexities of creating typefaces (I've linked to some excellent resources at the bottom of this article). But where exactly do you begin? If you're a designer or illustrator new to this discipline, what are the first practical steps, the common software and early considerations to get you going?

I had found some useful pieces of information but they were scattered across many sources and many were dated by technology. Undoubtedly the methodologies practiced are as unique and individual as the designers practising them. In any event, I had found it difficult to piece together the steps to get me from A-B before jumping into C-Z.

Sharing insights

To get started on the right path, this summer I enrolled in the short Type Design (TDi) course at Reading University, which also runs the world-renowned MA in Typeface Design that has produced many successful alumni. I learned an incredible amount and can highly recommend it.

I thought it might be helpful to share some of the insights and practical methods I learnt during the two intensive weeks. This article can never be comprehensive, but hopefully it will provide some building blocks to get you started and define your own process.

01. Start with a brief

Type specs and drawings from Reading University: 'a' by Lisa Timpe, 'k' by Louisa-Helen Fröhlich and Bengali character by Tim Holloway

Designing a typeface can be a long journey so it's prudent to have a clear vision of its purpose. You might begin with something purely self-expressive. However, the usual practice is to create a typeface in response to a brief.

Developing your own brief will inevitably require research and reflection. How will it be used: is it for a specific project or personal use only? Is there a problem you might solve? How might your typeface fit into a landscape alongside similar designs? What makes it unique?

The options are vast. Typefaces have been created, for example, specifically for academic texts, to provide better number systems for engineering documents or as a one-off for public lettering. Only when you know what your typeface will actually be used for can you really get started on the design.

02. Fundamental choices

There are a number of early choices you need to consider. Will it be a serif or sans serif typeface? Will it be based on a writing implement or be more geometric? Will your design be a text face, comfortable at small sizes and suitable for long documents, or will it be a display face with an imaginative style, that works better a larger size?

Tip: It was suggested on the course that designing a sans serif typeface can be more challenging for beginners, because the features that provide these typefaces with their identity are much more subtle.

03. Early pitfalls

A couple of early pitfalls to avoid:

  • You might decide to start by digitizing your own handwriting, which can be a useful practice exercise. However, because handwriting is so individual, without much refinement your typeface could be restricted to personal use.
  • Don’t base your design on an existing typeface’s outlines. 'Helvetica with wings' is not going to produce a better typeface or help you develop your skills as a type designer. This should go without saying, but I'm told that typefaces like these are regularly submitted to foundries (unsuccessfully).

04. Use your hands

Much is written on how to draw letterforms, but even if you are a Bezier curve master, I'd advocate defining your letterforms by hand in the first instance. Articulating certain shapes via computer when establishing your design can be awkward and time consuming.

Try to create graceful shapes on paper for the first few characters before refining them digitally. Further characters can then be constructed on screen by matching key features, such as terminal endings and stroke widths. See over 100 type designer's drawings in Typography Sketchbooks.

Tip: The hand naturally draws smoother, more accurate curves in a concave arc pivoted by the arm and wrist. To take advantage of this, keep turning your paper rather than adjusting your position or drawing against this pivot point.

05. Which characters to start with

It can help to design certain characters first

Designing certain characters first can help set the style of your typeface and may be used to bring the other characters into harmony. Often called 'control characters', in a lowercase Latin typeface these would be the n and o, and in the uppercase, H and O are often used. On the Reading University course, we steadily added to these, building the word 'adhesion', which is used for testing the type's basic proportions (though initially, it was 'adhecion' leaving the tricky s for later).

06. Moving to your computer

There are a variety of ways to get your drawings onto the computer. Some advocate tracing programs, however I prefer manually tracing my drawings because I want full control over where the points on my curves go.

Most software requires a well-defined drawing to work with effectively, so when you’re happy with a sketched character, try outlining it with a fine tipped pen (to get a shape edge) and then fill in the shape with a marker.

Tip: You can then take a snap with your phone’s camera (these days most are of high enough quality), and send it to your computer.

07. Choosing your software

Type specs from graduate of the MA programme: clockwise from top left, Prakashan by Alessia Mazzarella, Téras by Sebastian Losch, and Aronde by Stéphane Passerat

Like myself, many designers from a graphic design background will naturally opt straight for Adobe Illustrator to start drawing their type. For drawing individual letterforms and experimenting, this is fine. However, it soon becomes obvious that this is simply not the right tool for creating a typeface. From the outset you will benefit from working in an environment that gets you thinking about letter spacing and word creation.

The software choice has opened up in the last few years on the Mac. The current industry standard seems to be FontLab Studio (Mac and Windows), but new software like Glyphs and Robofont are gaining more traction with type designers. The programs aren’t cheap, but Glyphs does have a 'Mini' version on the Mac App Store, with some functionality removed that beginners are unlikely to miss. Both also offer a 30-day free trail. The other obvious advantage of these packages is that you can export your work in progress as a font.

08. Using the software

I was using Glyphs, as recommended on the course. The interface is good and there are handy videos online, but like any software, it takes a little time to become familiar with. 

Once you've imported your image, the drawing interface is pretty close to Illustrator, however I found the control of Bezier curve points and handles much more accurate in Glyphs.

Tip: where possible, place your points on the extremities of the letterform curves (top, bottom, left, right) for greater control. See more digitization tips here on TypeCooker.

09. Text view mode

Once you have drawn a few letters, you can start typing words using the text view mode. Here again is one of the major advantages of this software: you can edit your shapes in the same text view to start harmonizing the characters together in words.

You can then begin making adjustments to the letter spacing, looking at the rhythm of the counters and refining the overall proportions, like the x-height, weight and width of your typeface etc.

10. Looking at words

Glyphs: Modifying your shapes within a text view

As Matthew Carter is oft quoted: "Type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters". With this in mind, aim to start looking at your design from a line and paragraph level as early as possible.

Once you've created a few characters, you can enter them into Adhesion Text, an online tool that uses a simple dictionary look-up to provide you with the words you can make so far. 

Create a simple InDesign document with some text frames and paste these words into them. I set each text frame to a different font size for comparison (the sizes will depend on what your typeface is to be used for). Finally, export your typeface and select it within your document to see it in action.

Tip: Font management programs such as Font Book, FontExplorer can help activate your fonts for use with InDesign. On a Mac, exporting your typeface straight into /Library/Application Support/Adobe/Fonts/ means that you can hit the export button and flick between the programs to instantly see the effect on a paragraph and line level (the only works inside Adobe products).

Tip: While you’re still in the early stages of your design, before you’ve settled on any spacing, you can use InDesign’s built-in kerning tool to optically space your letters, maybe with some extra tracking, for a quick and dirty impression. However, this is total sacrilege when using a well-spaced, well-kerned typeface since you always want to use the in-built spacing.

11. Study other typefaces

To create a credible typeface, you need to study other good examples.
Looking at them in a critical way, from a contextual or historical perspective, will help you understand why certain design choices in these and your own typeface have a particular effect. Look at how the system of shapes work together consistently while forging an identity.

This is the subject of an entirely different article and again, there are plenty of good books to help you on the right path with this, however, the advice I was given, is to look at both typefaces that are in a similar style to your own, and those text typefaces that are generally accepted to be good examples.

12. Scale it down

It's important to review your typeface at different sizes in your test document. Depending on your brief, readability might be critical at smaller sizes, or you might be concerned with how your display text reads at a distance.

A change of scale can be troublesome. Looking at how your shapes behave at a variety of sizes, and learning what design decisions affect them takes practice.

13. Get it on paper

Seeing your typeface in print gives a different perspective

Printing your progress and seeing it away from the confines of pixels and backlighting will help you view it from a different perspective. To me, it seems much easier to spot issues with misshaped characters, the rhythm of counters, and the modulation of strokes etc, when pinned to a wall.

It's also easier to make notes and sketches for adjustment. Another benefit of printing is that when making thousands of micro adjustments over a long development period, a printout can help you track your progress so you can see how far you’ve come.

14. It’s not just a-z

My printed work being critiqued by course director Gerry Leonidas

Your typeface might comprise of a limited set of characters because it's for a particular project, personal use or if it's a very decorative design.
However if your aim is for it to be used by other designers, for a variety of projects, then it needs to be flexible and have a broad character set. This would generally include small capitals, diacritic signs (accents), and a choice of numerals, ligatures and more.

15. Styles, weights and widths

A good breadth of weights can often negate that small detail you spent days labouring over. When a designer is choosing a particular typeface, she is likely going to need a palette of options to design with.

Does your typeface have a true italic, not just a slanted roman? Would your typeface suit a condensed version? This goes back to your brief and use cases for your typeface. See Lucas de Groot’s TheSans for an example of an font family.

16. Consider global usage

So you've created something that you're quite proud of. Did you start with a Latin typeface? What about the 250 million readers of Cyrillic in Eastern Europe and central Asia? Or the 220 million Devanagari readers in India and Nepal?

There is a growing market for non-Latin typefaces and some scripts are woefully underserviced. A common question that I also asked myself is: "Can a non-speaker design a good script for a language they do not read?" The answer is emphatically yes. It takes a lot of research, learning about the script's history and culture, meeting native speakers and exploring historical examples, but a large number of excellent typefaces have been designed this way throughout history.

17. Put it to the test

Well-used Gujarati metal type

One you’ve crafted something you're happy with, you'll want to start seeing how it performs at a range of tasks suited to the original brief. Try using your font on some previous design projects, replacing the original typeface. Create some specific artwork that will put it under pressure or perhaps ask a designer friend to test it out and give you some feedback.

18. Further reading

The focus of this article is deliberately narrow and simply highlights the most useful methods I’ve learned. To further develop your knowledge of this exciting field there are some excellent resources to help you.

Words and Pictures: Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke is a designer and entrepreneur. He was a founder of the digital agency Thin Martian and was previously head of design at Microsoft, UK. He runs the blog Type Worship, and writes for the typography magazine, 8 Faces.

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