Typeface Design Tips From 13 Professional Designers
Considering the availability, affordability, and quality of font design software, more and more people are trying their hand at creating their own typefaces. The result is an abundance of custom designs, some more successful than others.
But what makes a successful typeface design?
We asked some of the world’s best designers, hand letterers, and general font enthusiasts to tell us more about their creative process and to offer a few ‘top tips’ for any budding typeface designers.
At the end of this article, we’ve also created a free step-by-step guide taking you through the journey of creating a new typeface. But first, here’s some advice from the pros…
“If you’re completely new to fonts, try looking at your own handwriting and spotting the quirks in how you write. Do you normally join up your letters? How do your letters interact with each other? Do you do it that way every time? Once I started to think like that, I began to understand handwriting a lot more. I noticed I’d miss out the dot on my ‘i’, and I wrote capital ‘E’ like a euro sign. I’d never really sat back and considered that development in my handwriting. You can tell a lot about someone by how they write, and no two people write the same.
“If you’re stuck on where to begin, draw a grid on some paper and lay out your font using your normal handwriting. The process of taking your handwriting from pen to digital will teach you loads. The least fun part (for me anyway) is kerning, and you might mess this up a fair bit first time, but it’s so rewarding spending time perfecting something and seeing it all come together.
“Don’t be afraid of asking for feedback, getting people to test what you’ve made out, and finally putting it out there. The internet’s an amazing resource and can be super rewarding. Good luck!”
Get Inspired. Read. Experiment. Kern. Submit.
- Get Inspired
Look closely at all the types you come across, analyse them, try to find what makes them unique. When creating a new typeface I try to look at trends and movements; a bit like the fashion industry. I find a couple of existing fonts that resemble what I have in mind for references.
For me what really worked was to get my hands on books that were more about doing than theorizing typography, like this one: Designing Type by Karen Cheng.
There are a couple of font-editing programmes that you can try for free for 30 days like Robofont or Glyphs. Download them, experiment with them. If you are more comfortable with Illustrator, create your basic glyphs there and copy/paste them in your font software to tweak them.
This is kind of crucial. This has probably happened to you: You see a new typeface from an independent designer that you find pretty nice. You install it and then take it for a test drive in one of your latest design pieces and it is unusable because it is kerned so badly. This part, kerning (which might take some time), can make or break your glorious new font. Get a list of the most used Kerning pairs and kern away! I use the following trick for testing out my font once it’s pretty complete: I go to a big news site and I switch the body text font for mine (in the CSS). That way you can quickly see if something is off.
One thing that really helps getting a feel for where you stand with your font is to submit it to myfonts.com. While the goal of these submissions is to put it for sale on their site, if they don’t accept it, they reply back with a detailed and thorough assessment of your font. This is really helpful!”
“There are many things you can do to make a great typeface. First of all, you have to make a great story behind it by thinking about the usage is going to have. For example, whether it is a design font for a comic or a font for a punk label; that’s what I mean. You must have some research that can support your design. At this stage, the actual design comes second — you have to read a lot before you start to do anything, because sometimes even the smallest mistake can turn your entire job upside down and, believe me, it’s madness.
“You have to be focused when you make a font. In my opinion, before you publish anything you need to check the font in your own projects and how it works there. The more time and focus you have when you design a font, the less problems you will have later.
“After the design process you have to make it into a font… now this is the hard part. I don’t like to do maths and check everything because I am more anarchic as a designer. That’s why I don’t like this process. So, first off you choose the program to make the font (fontlab is great for me but there is a lot of others also) and then just enjoy it. It’s going to take a lot of time and it’s going to be hard. Keep doing it and after a while it will become easier. After a lot of coffees and a lot of endless nights (and after you pray for mercy) the font will be ready!!!”
4. MANAV DHIMAN
“An important part of typeface design is to understand that each letter has its own personality. After you decide what kind of a typeface you want to design (serif, sans-serif, slab serif, etc.), you need to think about what makes an “A” an “A”, a “y” a “y”. What I mean by that is that you should try to capture the essence of a letter through the style you are using for your typeface.
“My professor in college used to stress on the emotional part of things; for example, “the treeness of a tree”, “the waterness of water”, “the snakeness of a snake”, etc. Basically, understanding what makes something, something. So, asking yourself what makes “Y”, “Y” will not only help you a great deal when you are designing your typeface’s individual letters, but it will help you make your typeface, your typeface.
“Maybe the most important tip is to have fun. A lot of people forget why they started designing in the first place when they get frustrated with a project. Remember, it’s all supposed to be fun!”
“A good tip for creating a good typeface? Draw freehand; use your hands before using any software. Do not try to create a typeface only on your graphic tablet, but take a sheet, create a grid, depending on the character you want to create (sans-serif, serif, script, etc.).
“Try creating the first of the forms on paper and then improve them and perfect them digitally. If you want to use a good program to create fonts, personally, I recommend Glyphs.”
“Always start on paper and plan out what you want each letter form to look like. Start by writing the whole alphabet down and go through each letter making rough sketches for each. This will help speed up the process later down the line. Once you’re happy that you have at least one good idea for each letter it’s time to move forward and start refining it to make sure everything works well together.
“Making sure the letters work well together is the key.”
“When starting a typography project, always sketch your ideas and do a couple of layout studies until you’re happy (writing the words inside shapes works for me). Get accustomed to the basic font types before creating your own style, especially when you are doing hand lettering. It helps when you highlight important words (via a change in font style, a bigger size, adding basic ornaments and flourishes, etc.) for easier readability.
“Lastly, imagine where you are going to see your design — on paper, on a wall, on a shirt, etc., and consider its size and placement. By visualising, you will have a clearer picture in mind when choosing a typography that will best suit your project.”
“Spend time drawing letters by hand- it will help you understand how they work and it will allow you to focus on the form of the letters, their angles and the negative space they create. I also find it very helpful to work out the composition of the piece before spending time crafting the piece digitally- a loose sketch of the piece lets you experiment with how the words / letters sit together so that they work as a unified design — helping you identify the areas where you have room to play.
“Once you start working digitally, always spend the time crafting your letters and keep angles and flow consistent.”
“I started graffiti at age 11, and that’s what gave me the taste for typography.”
10. ANDREY SHARONOV
“I believe that the key elements of success in creativity are titanic work and love. If you want to create something extraordinary, there’s no sense in feeling sorry for yourself, waiting for inspiration, or on a sign from above. In most cases, it’s important just to work hard.
“Many beginners stop at the stage when something fails, but I think this is a key moment, something like a test – like Someone decides if you’re ready to go further or not. Therefore, it is important not to stop and to try again and again.
“Of course, it’s important to be inspired by the works of other authors and in this regard, the internet is very helpful. If it so happens that the answer to your question can’t be found on the internet, you should write a letter to a designer whose work you like.”
“To get a great idea you need to pay attention to type design around you and realise where you can make a contribution. More than ornaments or “cool effects”, pay attention to the essence of a typeface – its structure, the x-height, thick and thin strokes etc. So instead of making “Helvetica with wings”, start from scratch, aiming for something original.
“Also, have in mind where you want your typeface to be used (Big titles, small titles, text), study the different characteristics of each and apply to your design. You should understand that although many people won’t recognize certain design choices on your typeface, they will feel them.
“To conclude, there is a famous quote from Matthew Carter that says ‘Type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters’.”
12. DADO QUEIROZ
“Visual balance and adjustments that usually go against what one could assume to be an ideal of mathematical precision, are important in many areas of design, but I know of no other area in which they’re more crucial than in the world of typography. No round shapes are perfect circles; things that appear to be aligned, or to have the same width, or to be perfect opposites of one another to the eye are seldom mathematically so (and would, in fact, look weird otherwise), and so on.
“There are of course many other fundamental principles to observe, but to understand this one would be my top tip, since it’s virtually impossible to draw letters well without it. Plus a quick look at a somewhat dated (for internet standards), but timelessly informative and accessible resource – Typeworkshop.”
The most important factor in creating great typography for beginners is getting to know your space better and better. Like a racing driver who learns the road before he starts the race; the more he knows about the field, the better he can perform. When a typographer pays attention to his space of work, he can find the best ratios, spacings, kernings, etc. regarding his style of work.
8 Step Journey to Successful Typeface Design
Start by looking for quirks in your own handwriting, then move on to studying the typeface design work of others. Consider the individual personality of each letter − what makes it unique? Make a few initial sketches based on any inspiring work you come across.
Even if you’re working for yourself, it’s a good idea to create a set of guidelines to work to. Build upon your initial sketches and really question their value as a typeface design: What is the purpose of your design – for reading or display? How will it be used? What makes it special? How does it compare to other designs? Is it sans serif or serif? Hand drawn or geometric? You need to really nail down what it is that you are creating before you start to create it.
Always start by sketching your typeface design by hand. Work to a grid to keep the sizes and shapes in check. Experiment with different approaches. Once you are happy with a few simple characters, or even the whole alphabet, you can digitise your design.
Using your chosen software (Glyph, Robofont, and Fontlab are all industry favourites), try to improve your hand-sketched efforts. Print out your designs − often they will appear differently in print than on screen. When you have a complete alphabet, including punctuation marks, it’s time to kern.
Kerning (adjusting the space between characters in words) is tedious. But kerning is crucial to the usability of your font. Many great typeface designs go unused as they are poorly kerned. Take your time, perseverance at this stage is key!
Using some of your previous graphic design projects, a poster design for example, substitute in your font to check how it works. Be honest with yourself – if it works, it works; if it doesn’t, you need to revise it.
Revisions are always necessary. Don’t stop until you are completely happy with your design. Most designers find that strong coffee helps at this stage.
Post your font to your website or online portfolio and encourage others to give feedback. Take this feedback on board – it could be useful to implement in your next typeface design.
FREE Typography Ebook
For more advice on how to create a great typeface design and information on the history, terminology, and purpose of typography, download our free Typography eBook.