Designing a Typeface: A Beginner’s Guide to Typography Week 5

Week 5

Over the past few weeks, we have touched upon some of the fundamental aspects of typeface design, along with a brief look at some of the type design tools available. To conclude, here are some final points to consider.

1. Read, read, read

If you’re really keen to develop an understanding of typeface design, be prepared to learn from those with experience. What has in the past been a fairly enigmatic discipline, typeface design has become a more open and transparent activity with many people having a go at creating their own designs and sharing their knowledge. Scour books and investigate the many discussion threads in typography forums such those at Specialist libraries are few, but places such as the St. Bride Library in London house an enormous collection of books, type specimens, and print artifacts. However, if this is not an option, the reading and references provided below should get you off to a good start.

The St Bride Institute

The St Bride Institute, London, an invaluable resource for those wanting to research typography and the graphic arts

Book from St. Bride Library

Just one of the many gems housed at the St. Bride Library

2. Draw, or at least doodle, regularly

You don’t have to have great handwriting or be an accomplished calligrapher. However, drawing does enable the immediate conveying of ideas as well as the development of sensitivity as to how shapes and forms interact in relation to each other. Use whatever you have available, be it scraps of paper, napkins or old packaging. Ideally, have a notebook or journal that you can keep with you and work in as soon as inspiration strikes. A graphics tablet can be a good investment too, as this allows for greater freedom and control than a mouse.

Drawing a typeface using two pencils

Designing a typeface by using two pencils to form a single nib

3. Start with the basics

Take time to develop sensitivity towards letter shapes. When designing letters don’t just consider the main form of the letter shapes as stand alone designs. Instead, consider also the spacial relationship between other letters as well as the spaces inside of the letters (the counters and apertures).


4. Never steal someone else’s design

Tweaking someone else’s design in an attempt to pass it off as your own is unethical, and, if it breaches copyright law, it’s illegal, and there are many observant type aficionados who are quick to spot a plagiarised font.

5. Enjoy it!

Leave the stress to the professionals and simply have fun learning about letters as you play with the possibilities. Good luck.


The following are some of the key terms that pertain to typeface design and typography.

Aperture An opening of negative space within a letter such as that within the letter ‘U’ or that within the lower half of the letter ‘e’

Ascender The part of a letter that extends above the x-height. Examples of letters with ascenders include ‘b’, ‘d’ and ‘h’

Baseline The invisible line on which type sits

Body Type Type that forms a main body of text. (As opposed to a ‘display’ face)

Counter A closed space, or partially closed space within a glyph such as that within the letter ‘d’ or the number 8

Cursive Letters that join together in as in scripted handwriting

Descender The part of a letter that extends below the baseline. Examples of letters with ascenders include ‘p’ and ‘q’

Diacritics Appearing either above or below a letter, diacritical marks indicate a change in pronunciation. Examples of diacritical marks include the acute (é) and a circumflex (ê)

Display Type Type that is generally of a large size. Often this can be easily read at a distance or used in headings.

Fount (archaic UK) Font (US) The physical means by which a typeface is applied or rendered. This normally takes the form of either a digital or metal set of letters and glyphs. Example: Gill Sans Light 10pt

Glyph A symbol or character

Hinting Part of the type design process whereby type is lined up against a pixel grid

Italic A slopingtype based upon cursive handwriting.

Kerning The adjustment of space between two letters

Legibility “a measure of a type’s ability to be read under normal reading conditions.” (White, 2004)

Ligatures A glyph that is formed by joining two or more glyphs

Majuscules Capital or uppercase letters

Minuscules Lowercase letters

Multiple mastering a technological facility that allows for the creation of a variety of font weights from one master

Opentype is a font file format that works across platforms. It generally has the suffix .otf

Pica (Pc) Consisting of 12 points, a pica is typographic measure expressed.

Point (Pt) A single unit of a measure of type. There a 12 points to a pica.

Readability “a measure of the type’s ability to attract and hold a reader’s interest. Increasing readability often causes a reduction in legibility…” (White, 2004)

Serif A small stroke or addition to the end of letter or glyph stroke. These come in a variety of shapes and styles such as hairline, slab, bracketed and wedge.

Sans Serif Type that lacks the addition of serifs.

Sidebearings This term refers to the spaces either side of a glyph.

Swash An added flourish or embellishment such as a lengthened tail or exaggerated, decorative serif.

An example of swash

True Type Font or .ttf is a forerunner of the Opentype format.

Tracking The adjustment of space between multiple letters or tracts of text.

Typeface The design of a set of an alphabet, numbers, punctuation, etc.

An example of tail

Tail A descending, often extended stroke the generally runs from left to right such as that of the letter ‘Q’

Terminal The end of a stroke without a serif. Example of a stylised version is the ball terminal (below)

stylised version of ball terminal

Weight Refers to the relative density and stroke widths of a given typeface, such as thin, regular, bold, extra bold, etc.

Various weights of Adrian Frutiger’s Univers

Above: Various weights of Adrian Frutiger’s ‘Univers’

X-Height The height of a given lowercase ‘x’

Type Anatomy

 Type Anatomy

References and Further Reading


Bringhurst, R., The Elements of Typographic Style

A seminal typographic text, Bringhurst’s book is a thorough and expansive wealth of typographic information and is ideal for both the beginner as well as the advanced practitioner.

Cheng, K., Designing Type

Cheng’s book is an incredibly useful reference. This is not a ‘how to book’ but is a great reference for understanding the structure and systems of type. Highly illustrated throughout.

Earls, D., Design Typefaces

Harvey, M., Lettering Design

Jury, J., About Face: Reviving the Rules of Typography

Lawson, A., Anatomy of a Typeface

Tracy, W., Letters of Credit

White, A., Thinking in Type: The Practical Philosophy of Typography

Willen, B. & Stralis, N. Lettering & Type: Creating Letters & Designing Typefaces. (pp100-115 ‘Letterform Analysis’)


Font is a free, online magazine produced by Fontshop

Baseline Magazine


Blokland, E van. Value of Type

Briem, G., Notes on Type Design

De Gregorio, J.P. Vector Drawing

De Gregorio, J.P. Vector Drawing Mistakes

Shaw, P., Ten Simple Rules for Researching Letterforms

Stössinger, N. Sketching Out of My Comfort Zone: A Type Design Experiment

On drawing Type by

Type Anatomy. A very good reference from

Type Anatomy. Another good reference from

Forums and discussions – “Typedrawers is a forum where fellow typophiles can gather to discuss typography.”

Educational Games

Kerntype is a kerning game and is a great way to hone your sensitivity to spacing type by eye.

Shape Type is another great game for improving typographic sensitivity. With this game the object is to pull the node handles of a misshapen glyph into a position that you believe closely matches that of the correct, original design. Your efforts are compared to the original and your work is scored.

Specialist Study

Type & Media at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague

Typeface Design at the University of Reading

Previous articles of the series:

Beginner’s Guide to Typography Week 1

Beginner’s Guide to Typography Week 2

Beginner’s Guide to Typography Week 3

Beginner’s Guide to Typography Week 4

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