Designing a Typeface: A Beginner’s Guide to Typography Week 1

Week 1

Typeface Design

A typeface “is the collection of thousands of years of collective human social, technological and economic history, combined with the passion, skill, experience and personal history of its lone creator.” (Earls, 2002)

Tim typeface design

An introduction typeface design

If you’re a fan of type and lettering and you’re up for a considerable, yet potentially rewarding design challenge, then you might consider designing a typeface. Then, should you want a further this challenge you might also consider ways of digitizing your work. There are a number of ways that you can approach this—some being far easier than others. Whatever approach you decide to take, a certain amount of patience and understanding will go a long way.

As an art form and as a technical, engineering process, typeface design has, in recent years grown exponentially. A process that has traditionally been the esoteric knowledge of the few, typeface design continues to grow and diversify. Opinions regarding the expanding growth of typeface designs have been met with conflicting views. The late, English lettering artist and typeface designer, Michael Harvey expressed his dislike for the “confusing variety of styles” that add to the `”over-crowded repertoire” of new typeface designs, the flourishing eccentricity and “crumbling’ standards of design. However, the argument about the choice or surplus of available fonts (depending upon your stance), is perhaps better summed up by Peter Bil’ak in his article We don’t need new fonts…”. In his piece Bil’ak states that “There are typefaces which haven’t been made yet and which we need. Type that reacts to our present reality rather than being constrained by past conventions…. It is time to think about why we design type, not just how we design it.”

Getting Started

Do your homework!

When you begin designing a typeface, the Internet, along with old or out of print books, can provide a good starting point for your research. Don’t feel obliged to sit at your desk during this process. Get yourself outside and look out for sources of potential inspiration and keep a visual record of the items that inspire you. Importantly, consider the function of the typefaces that interest you. What is it that you think the designer set out to do with the type? Is it purely decorative or does it serve a particular function such as assisting with way finding or traffic signs? With that in mind, if you’re thinking about designing a typeface consider what you want it to do? Perhaps you should keep in mind the maxim, “form follows function”.

Once you’ve established what the typeface is for, you can begin. The chances are if you’re new to typeface design, you’ll want to keep things simple. Typeface design can be a complex enough task without making it more difficult than it needs to be. Perhaps start with a simple display face. Depending upon the requirements of a brief, some designers spend months, even years perfecting a typeface, so it’s a task that can easily grow. When designing a typeface, some designers begin working with drawing letters, keeping sketchbooks and transferring these designs to the computer. Other designers work directly into a digital environment. For the latter, Fonstruct is an ideal place to begin, being an easy to use, free, online resource but we will address technological resources at a later point.

On finding inspiration, the French typeface designer Jean-Francois Porchez suggests we must stand on the shoulders of giants for inspiration and knowledge, stating that “Each new typeface cannot live without its predecessors – all of them form one large family and are connected and influenced by each other. If Claude Garamond cut a splendid type, then it’s because he studied Italian typefaces and tried his best to improve upon them…”

We will leave you this week with a couple of inspirational examples of typeface design:

designing a typeface

designing a typeface 2

designing a typeface 3

Walk around and record things. When you’re designing a typeface inspiration can come from anywhere.


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