After many years as a graphic designer and type enthusiast, I decided to try my hand at designing a typeface. Much has been written about type design, and there are plenty of great typography tutorials out there. But where exactly do you begin if you want to make your own font? If you're a designer or illustrator new to the discipline, what are the first practical steps, the common software and early considerations to get you going?
To get started on the right path, I enrolled in the short Type Design (TDi) course at Reading University, which I can highly recommend. I thought it might be helpful to share some of the insights and practical methods I learnt during the two intensive weeks to help you to make your own font.
01. Start with a brief
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 choices you need to make early on. 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. Start from scratch
You might decide to start by digitising your own handwriting. This can be a useful practice exercise, but because handwriting is so individual, without much refinement your typeface could be restricted to personal use.
You should also avoid basing your design on the outline of an existing typeface. '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
Even if you're a Bézier 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.
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. Start with 'control characters'
Designing certain characters first can help set the style of your typeface and bring the other characters into harmony. These are often called 'control characters'. In a lowercase Latin typeface they 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. Move to your computer
There are a variety of ways to get your drawings onto the computer. Some people 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, and send it to your computer.
07. Choose your software
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 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 trial. The other obvious advantage of these packages is that you can export your work-in-progress as a font.
08. Draw some letters
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 Bézier 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.
09. Move into text view mode
Once you have drawn a few letters, you can start typing words using the text view mode. One major advantage of Glyphs is that you can edit your shapes in the same text view to start harmonising 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 (if you're in need of a refresher, take a look at our glossary of typography rules and terms).
10. Test out some words
As type designer Matthew Carter is often 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.
Create a simple InDesign document with text frames and paste some 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: 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. When it comes to doing the job properly, take a look at out expert tips for kerning type.
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. Our article 5 ways type can define brands starts to unpack the different effects certain type features can have.
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
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 misshapen characters, the rhythm of counters, the modulation of strokes and so on, when printed out and 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. Add special characters
Your typeface might comprise 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), a choice of numerals, ligatures and more.
15. Explore different styles, weights and widths
When a designer is choosing a particular typeface, they are 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.
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 under-served. 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
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.
- I Love Typography: So you want to create a font – A good starting guide, if a little dated now
- Thinking with Type – Good resources for those interested in Type Design
- Typographica.org – A discussion on good reading lists
- Type Cooker – Type drawing exercises
- Typeface design – Final work from the University of Reading
- 8 Faces – Interviews with leading designers about typography and lettering
- Adhesion text – Dynamic text generator
- Diacritics Project – All you need for designing fonts with the right accents