a beginner’s guide to type

January 20, 2014

written by
Bri Martinez

When we first had the idea of writing about the designing of typefaces, it was mentioned that it would be interesting to get a non-designer’s perspective on the process. That’s where I come in! The 300FeetOut team decided to send me, Hilary the Project Manager and newest team member of 3FO, for a short walk on a warm, sunny January day to visit our friends at FontShop. I sat down with David Sudweeks, type designer/expert and Type Director at FontShop, for a conversation about what exactly goes into creating a typeface. Following is what I learned during my lesson with David.

• • •

first of all, what, exactly, is a “typeface?” and how does it differ from a “font?”

A typeface is a design while a font is the embodiment of that design. A font is a product; a typeface is a design. A font is a product – a file you install on your computer, a collection of letters cast in metal or cut into blocks of wood; a typeface is the idea, independent of medium.


so why do we need different typefaces? what’s their purpose? can’t we just go into microsoft word and choose a font for our website that looks pretty and be done with it?

Sure, you can do that, but you run the risk of your work being perceived as common. Selecting a suitable typeface and using it well can make a project. Select the wrong one and it just doesn’t hold up. One view of the role of typography is that it should exist only to facilitate the content. Beatrice Warde’s classic essay on the subject, “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible” says that type should be invisible; it should serve the purpose of conveying the content and should otherwise disappear. With any design project, you begin with the function of the content, and then develop a certain look and feel that allows the content to do its job. In order for the piece to work, you may need to convey specific ideas or evoke distinct emotions. Choosing type that works and using it appropriately can help to achieve these ends.


Now that we know the purpose of type, from where do type designers draw inspiration?

The process of developing a typeface is similar to any design process. Inspiration for a design comes from observation, whether from some abstract visual device, from writing, or from some specific thing a certain typeface does well. Designers often keep their eyes open to ignored type styles, or alphabets that come from disciplines not traditionally associated with printing or typography. I find inspiration in woven clothing labels, in tattoos, and in the names of construction companies pressed into the sidewalk. Most type designers keep a sketchbook or loose drawings around when piecing together a strong concept. There is constant experimentation and playing with different forms and properties. Even if they go unused, drawing concepts out while you think about them is valuable. I like to say “sketches for sketches’ sake are worth doing.”



when it comes to the actual process of designing type, do designers have a detailed plan? or do they work more organically?

Most designers will work from a creative brief, whether they are designing from their own inspiration or for a specific client. These briefs can be very specific. Briefs list the constraints and specifications of a job. Sometimes they can be very precise (e.g. “At 9-point size, it must be able to fit 70 characters on a line of this length and it must be reproducible on newsprint with cheap ink. It should not be too friendly, but not too brusque, either. It also shouldn’t be too different from what we currently have so that it makes people wonder what’s wrong or what’s changed…”), which leads the designer in a very specific direction (looking at type designs from Edinburgh circa 1840). Other creative briefs can be very loose and open-ended (e.g. “We would like to have an announcement in an elegant alphabet that is stately, refined, and dignified…”). Then the type designer has to fulfill those requirements, taking into consideration the client’s frame of reference.

Even a designer pursuing personal work will use a creative brief that outlines their goals for the design. Having too loose of a brief can create too large of a job with too many varying directions. Sometimes a tighter, more focused start is better, and sometimes a more general direction is all you need to discover an idea that’s great. Once a brief has been outlined, and a rough idea of about how large or small a font family will result, type designers get to work drawing and establishing the feel of the typeface. This process usually involves pencil and paper, with some designers pausing here to get their drawings quite tight, and others moving quickly to compose directly on-screen.


so a creative brief has been drawn up; now what?

A good starting point is with what’s seen most often. If the typeface is for setting long passages of text, the lowercase comes first. The letters “n” and “o” are often the first characters drawn because “n” is a square or rectangular character, and “o” is a round character. From here, establishing the fit (setting the width and amount of space on either side of these letters so that a typed line appears evenly spaced) sets the standard by which the spacing of all subsequent characters is judged. This ensures a consistent rhythm, or flow from one character to the next, throughout.

The designer then introduces additional characters, testing each as they come along. Capital letters enter the mix, along with figures (numbers), punctuation, and other marks and symbols. The big task here is making sure the personality remains true to the brief, and each character is contributing its part, without calling undue attention. Once a design is complete, the fonts are mastered, where the characters are kerned, hinted, and the font is named. In the same way that authors have editors, most type designers rely on others to check their work, and handle many of the finishing touches. Once the fonts are finished and the work is approved, they go on to their end-users. This often includes graphic designers or typographers (people who specialize in typesetting).


when is it decided that a new font needs to be created?

There are two primary ways type designers work. Some work on commission, where they are paid upfront to create something specifically asked for by a client. Others work similarly to a singer/songwriter. A singer/songwriter produces a song because they feel inspired and is then paid royalties each time that song is played by someone. If the work isn’t exclusively licensed, you can do both: submit the custom work to the client, and then prepare it for retail release. Retail fonts are sold through websites of font producers called foundries and typically also through distribution channels like FontShop. One example of a commissioned job is 300FeetOut’s partnership with FontShop to develop a custom typeface for your client, Pasolivo. Through collaboration, we were able to come up with a distinctive packaging typeface with a handcrafted, sign-painterly feel.


• • •

After thanking David for his time, I headed back to the 3FO office to organize my thoughts and notes. My biggest take-away from the conversation? Make no mistake — while it seems like a fairly straight-forward process, designing a typeface can take months or years. Just from my short talk with David, I have developed a great amount of appreciation and respect for the thought, time, and energy that goes into developing type. The next time you find yourself reacting to an article in a certain way, take a step back and examine the font being used. It’s certainly not meant to be the star of the show, but it’s amazing how subtle changes in that one aspect can completely alter the way we experience things.

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