What does it take to be a type designer? In an attempt to find out, we asked a selection of designers doing today's most compelling typography to offer their tips for getting the most out of type in your work. Our contributors include some of the best-known font houses and agencies, along with some exciting up-and-comers.
Their answers cover the two sides that constitute typography: design with type, or the choice and use of letterforms; and design of type - the nitty-gritty of how characters are formed, and the details that can transform their meaning and legibility. We hoped that some of our contributors would offer direct tips that you can integrate into your work straight away, and several obliged, with Mark Simonson showing you how to set up old-school type effects in Illustrator and David Luscombe offering his insights into using type as background textures. Nick Shinn, meanwhile, offers valuable advice on how to follow accessibility guidelines without compromising the overall reading experience.
Others offer a more cerebral perspective: Kris Sowersby and the Kapitza partnership both press fresh ways of viewing your type upon you, while Marc Peter reminds us to always be ready for ideas to strike. Beyond individual hints, however, what really comes through the 20 tips is a sense of connection, both with other designers and with the legacy earlier designers have left us. Si Daniels explains the importance of local links, while Veronika Burian shows you a creative way of learning from the classic designs of the past. Timothy Donaldson and Dino dos Santos look to the future, making explicit what our collective of type experts each hint at in their own way: learn from the past and take inspiration from the present and your contemporaries to shape the type of the future.
1 Study the originals
Everybody working with type should learn how our letterforms came to life. The basic skeleton of the Latin alphabet hasn't changed much since the first printed type, and the shapes we know today evolved from handwriting with a broad-nib pen. There have been many developments and changes, of course, but the intrinsic structure remains the same.
One good practice is to draw alphabets with a brush, cap-height about 100mm, sculpting the shapes with black-and-white gouache. To set up basic proportions, use 'H', 'h', 'e', 'o', 'p' and 'v': the rest of the alphabet can be derived from them. Ideally, cover the four most distinctive categories - oldstyle serif, modern serif, Grotesk Sans and Humanist Sans. London's St Bride's Institute has marvellous specimens that could serve as good models.
Type Designer, Dalton Maag and Type Together
2 Be heard without shouting
In light of the 1999 Disabilities Discrimination Act, you may be called upon to oblige a client with legibility standards calling for, say, a minimum 14pt text size. Don't despair, because there are ways to avoid the visual equivalent of shouting at your audience for the benefit of the few who are hard of hearing.
First, choose a font that's small on the body, like something from Emigre. Second, choose a book typeface with a small x-height, generously proportioned extenders, and fine details, such as Perpetua or Jeremy Tankard's Kingfisher.
Third, if they tell you research has proven it's got to be a sans for maximum legibility, point them to the RNIB website, which doesn't discriminate against serifs.
Type Designer, ShinnType
3 Look back, look forward
Be a radical conservative - or, if you must, a conservative radical. Conservative: know how we ended up with an alphabet instead of a pictographic or syllabic system, and why letterforms look the way they do. Have a go at authentically making some of these letters yourself; not drawing but through actually writing. Radical: ignore history, and explore all the visual possibilities for letterforms that you can invent. Irreverently write/draw/paint/ sculpt them in a sketch book every day.
4 Be playful with type
Computers are wonderful aids to the design process, but they should only be viewed as tools to achieve your ideas. Picking your font, point size and leading are tasks ingrained as default operations when beginning a piece of work. Letters are essentially objects in space, so why not break out of the confines of a software-restricted situation? Scan handmade lettering, or play with the scale of words. Letters and words have linguistic meaning, but their forms also make psychological suggestions beyond their literal value. The illustrative execution of lettering in the right situation can help communicate your client's message more effectively.
Designer, Research Studios
5 Let your type breathe
When designing web graphics, it can be helpful to open up the tracking slightly if you're using small type in an image. This can make the type more legible regardless of whether it is all caps or lower case.
Associate Designer, P22
6 Use your local design community
Build a relationship with the local type designers in your community. Off-the-shelf retail fonts work well for most projects, and there's even a place for some of the freebies you find on the web or homebrewed FontLab concoctions. But when the need arises for something special or fresh, nothing compares to having a capable, flexible and talented type designer on-call. Tricky issues around embedding permissions, special character modifications and redistribution rights can be taken care of with a phone call. Try doing that with a big company based in Germany or San Jose.
Program Manager, Microsoft Typography
7 Follow your instincts
Matthew Carter once said about type design: "If it looks right, it is right." This has been my guiding principle for years now. It is a difficult mantra to practise: getting something to look right is notoriously difficult, and usually a matter of personal taste, experience and opinion. But it sure beats rigid adherence to an -ism!
Director, KLIM Typographic Design; Type Director, The Letterheads
8 Read me first
Look closely at the text and derive the design from the content. Ask yourself questions like: what does the text communicate? What is the main message? What is the structure of the text? Is there a hierarchy, with more or less important sections? Which sections of the text are connected? What mood does the text bring across? Then try and visualise those with your typographic design.
9 Get a solid foundation
Learn about the nomenclature and history of typography - for example, the differences between old-style and modern type, or the advantages to using a text face as opposed to a display type. Check out Elements of Typographic Style or, better yet, Stop Stealing Sheep by Erik Spiekermann. Avoid novelty faces that aren't rooted in conventional type to some degree: House Industries' Ed Gothic has a more lively feeling than with the more staid ITC Franklin Gothic, yet shares similar typographic sensibilities.
Type Director, House Industries
10 Let the grid guide you
The use of a grid system advocates simplicity and clarity in all areas of design. From typography to architecture, the grid has been employed as a system of control, making it easier to give surface/space a rational and dynamic organisation. The typeface Baksheesh has been designed according to an intricate grid, helping to rationalise the letterforms into a system that can be translated across the various styles. The flexibility of the grid also allows for optical adjustments to be made: for example, stroke thinning at junctions and baseline/x-height overshoot for enhanced definition throughout.
Typographer, Hamburger Fonts
11 Balance your font choices
If you're going to use more than one typeface, make sure they're not going to bite each other. There must be some kind of balance between them, some sort of yin yang. So if you use two fonts that scream for the reader's attention, or you use two different serifs, most of the time your design will get messy and the reader won't read anything. This also counts for styles: bold plus underline equals overkill.
12 Make it or break it
Typefaces can make or break your designs. They often set the style and atmosphere of your project for a large part. So it's important that you take enough time finding just the right typefaces that exactly fit the message you want to communicate. If you have a lot of projects that need to be done quickly, make sure you've got a wide selection of good fonts in your font directory, and refresh the contents of that folder every now and then. Throw away the old ones you've used too often and fill up the gaps with some fresh ones.
Type Designer, Fontoville
13 Turn type into an image
Compile a number of line-art images into a font or dingbat for any kind of texture or background interest, where you just need something to add a little interest to an image. Also, if you use a lot of logos all the time, recompiling them as a font will help keep tabs on them. You can simply make a font copy for other designers working on the same projects. You must remember this font is for your eyes only, though, and made to aid your workflow. MySqema, available for free at www.fontmonster.com, is a good example of lots of photo tracings compiled into a font for texture work.
14 Speed up your type design
Try to learn how to use a macro language in your favourite font editor. There's Python for FontLab, for example. This will increase your productivity hugely. A macro language will speed up most of your repetitive operations, and is very useful for debugging a font. Most of the best font designers we know rely heavily on their own scripts.
Design and illustration collective
15 Link the past to the present
Connect history and technology. History reveals some of the greatest typographers and calligraphers, and in their work it is possible to find the path that leads us to new typefaces. That's why redesigning history is a step towards designing the future. It also provides a new technological approach to typography, turning it into a major creative and cultural source.
Dino dos Santos
16 Make an old-school outline effect
Set some text in Illustrator 9 and select it using the arrow cursor. Set both the fill and outline to None. In the Appearance palette, add a new fill. This also adds an empty stroke. Set these to any colours you like. In the Stroke palette, make the stroke thicker and set its corner attribute to Rounded. In the Appearance palette, drag the stroke to below the fill, putting the stroke under the fill in the stacking order. In the Appearance palette, add a new, thicker stroke. Make sure it appears below the first stroke. By varying the thickness and colours of the two strokes, many different outline effects are possible. You can add more strokes for more effects.
17 Make a custom shadow effect
This trick requires Illustrator 10. Start from the double-stroke we created in Tip 16 and select the lower stroke in the Appearance palette. Choose Effect> Distort & Transform>Transform. In the dialog box that appears, set Move to Horizontal: 0.5 pt and Vertical: -0.5 pt. Also set Copies to greater than 0: the higher the number, the deeper the drop-shadow. The amount of offset (and therefore number of copies) depends on your target output resolution. For on-screen use, 0.5pt works well. Smaller offsets and higher numbers of copies are needed for higher resolution. Also, using a rounded corner on strokes helps.
Graphic Designer and Illustrator
18 Keep your eyes open
I've yet to meet a designer who does not walk around with a digital camera, ready to photograph a bit of inspiration. I have a huge collection of images taken over the years while walking, travelling or flying... The example pictured above was taken in London. I try to keep visually 'fit' by guessing which fonts were used in logotypes and signage. What can I say? Once a geek...
19 Be original, buy fonts
I give the opportunity to customers to purchase original fonts wherever possible. A recent example is the font Foundry Sterling, which I used to create a unique identity, logotype, literature and website for a new customer. Foundry Sterling is produced by FoundryTypes in Charlotte Street, central London: lovely people also create wonderful fonts. I may not agree with the current licensing methodology, but if everyone made an effort, we could get to some kind of standard practice that makes it easier to buy than steal. iTunes for fonts, anyone?
Creative Director, on-IDLE
20 Embrace the past, present and future
Type design is just a combination of:
Knowledge and appreciation of what was
Tradition is a set of well-established working rules and procedures that triumphed over time and diverse socio-technical contexts. Learn to love the past.
Knowledge of what is
Hands-on experience, intuition and a good-eye are essential. Design is based on logical heuristic canons that you already know. Trust your eyes and your instinct. Perhaps the most important quality of any kind of creative practitioner is the ability to dauntlessly write off his work. Most of the times, the value of a work lies not in the work per se but in the process. So, learn to delete - but don't forget to save.
And insight of what will be
Learn to live now and you will build a great future. Learn to appreciate what was and change will smoothly glide in.
In the end, as Pelle Ehn put it: "Tradition and transcendence - that is the dialectical foundation of design."
Graphic and Type Designer