What are your methods for designing type?

I'm not sure whether this should be in this forum, or education. Apologies if I'm in the wrong one.

I'm a recent graphic design graduate and I've drawn a few simple geometric display typefaces at University. These were "display", so I had a certain amount of artistic license with legibility.

However, I'm not sure where to begin with drawing a serious (preferably serif) typeface.

Do you draw with pencil first, then scan it in?
If so, do you use any sort of gridded paper?
How long until you take that design and start using Glyphs, FontLab, etc?
Are there any books that have helped you, or others begin designing type?

In the future I plan on taking a course or workshop on the subject, but I can't afford to at the moment.


  • @tmyie, please change your profile to show your real name. This is a "Real Names Only" site. Thanks.
  • Hi Tom. According to your website, you're from London. Dalton Maag just happens to be in the same city, and just happens to offer excellent internships (actually, it's more like a guided learning experience). You can read about some of the previous interns on their blog, and in this article written by me: http://ilovetypography.com/2013/11/01/making-fonts-proza-typeface/ (towards the end).

    Also, may I be so bold to suggest my own 'RALP' to help you get started? bureauroffa.com/about-ralp

    To answer your question: it depends. Just like every graphic designer has a different approach to his work, so does every typedesigner. Sketching is recommended, though I skipped that step, and I'm not the only one. Scanning is not always necessary, some suggest to try to design on the screen from scratch, with the sketches in mind.

    'The Stroke' by Gerrit Noordzij is a very good book for a starting typedesigner, although you shouldn't expect to get all the answers you're looking for. 'Counterpunch' is also interesting, though none of these books are, well, 'necessary'.

    Then, get as much professional feedback as you can, from different people, but remember to take all feedback with a pinch of salt.

    One more piece of advice: drop the geometric thing. Drawing something more calligraphic will teach you a greater deal about typedesign.

    Good luck!

  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 708
    edited December 2013
    http://www.designwithfontforge.com will answer many of your questions; if it doesn't, just write an issue describing where you are stuck on https://github.com/fontforge/designwithfontforge.com/issues/new and we'll figure it out :)
  • Do you draw with pencil first, then scan it in?
    If so, do you use any sort of gridded paper?
    How long until you take that design and start using Glyphs, FontLab, etc?
    Some people will tell you that drawing direct on screen is the only way to go. Others will insist that you need to start with pencil or ink on paper. Distrust both these kinds of people. Different type designers work differently; one of the things you'll need to design is a process that is comfortable and efficient for you.

    (FWIW, I'm a pencil on paper guy, except when I'm not.)
  • As someone who started out by drawing a “serious text fonts with true italics with… …Vietnamese… …old-style numerals, proportional lining numerals, proportional old-style, small caps and on and on”, I would listen to Ray Larabie’s advice.
  • Ditto. My first commercial typeface was such a monster, and it took quite a few years. I learned so much during the process that by the time it was done I was kicking myself over things I would have done differently. A mixed experience to be sure.

    Two books worth checking out:

    Designing Type by Karen Cheng
    Fontographer: Type by Design by Stephen Moye*

    * Yes it's out of print, but it's cheap used. No it is not a big deal if you don't use Fontographer, the point is the advice on outline construction and the like.
  • There is also a very good Spanish book, http://tipo-e.com/blog/category/publicaciones/ that is translated to polish and other languages but not English
  • I would recommend that as you work on your original concept you take the time and trace (by hand with pencil and paper) any number of classic (whatever that means) designs. Blow them up to two or three inches on the cap and take your time and study the outlines. If you do not "see" the letterforms, you will never be able to "draw" them.

    While I haven't drawn anything out on paper for at least ten years, and prefer to work directly on the screen, I did spend 15 years drawing and inking on frosted mylar. Get used to the way those curves behave, see what is similar and what is dissimilar in a typeface. You will be surprised at what you discover.
  • There is no better way to learn type design then by putting pencil to paper. As James says, "If you cannot see the letterforms, you will never be able to draw them".

    Practice sketching loosely your ideas then refine the shapes at a larger size (preferably 6 to 8 inch cap height), on tracing paper or frosted mylar. In this way, you can invert the letter forms and refine the shapes further. Erasing and drawing, on both sides, until the shapes are completely refined to your eye. You’d be amazed how much easier it is to spot poor shapes while rotating the letterforms and inverting. You can do the same sort of thing by looking at your letter forms in a mirror.

    Once you perfect this technique you’ll become a much more effective letter drawing technician working directly on screen manipulating vectors and splines. I still use some of these techniques, many times, while working directly on the computer, rotating the glyph and inverting to refine and optimize my curves.

    There are no shortcuts to becoming a good type designer. Many newcomers to this craft immediately gravitate towards opening up someone else’s fonts in a drawing program and manipulate those shapes directly. Although this may seem easier, it isn’t a real substitute for becoming an apprentice in type design.
  • I will disagree with Alex on one point. 6 to 8 inches on the cap is too tall, and takes too long to draw. I once had a student who drew everything on an 8 inch cap height. She could never finish anything because her drawings were too damn big.
  • In my defense, James, I will only say that the larger drawing size helps to train the eye and improves hand-and-eye coordination (IMO). It's always easier to draw something small and it is quicker and saves time. But, as an initial training letter drawing exercise—bigger may be better. After you are able to do that, you can do anything, at any size. Or, even work directly on the computer screen. I would urge any student to try it large, a few times first, just to experience the difference.
  • I would urge any student to try it large, a few times first, just to experience the difference.

    Larger is better (about 6.5 inches) for accuracy when drawing on physical media. Use a reducing glass to check for gross errors that don't disappear upon reduction. Inverting and reversed helps too. Doing it this way for a period of time will help improve your on-screen vector drawing skills.
  • In the minority here, but I'm strictly on screen. It probably depends a lot on your background and on what tools you've used before. Oh, and skill; I couldn't draw a circle if my life depended on it, but digitally....
  • Michael, this this good practice for a student—someone just starting out. But, seriously... if you can't draw a good enough freehand circle, you should practice a bit more by hand. Trust me... it's worth the effort. But then again, if it's not broken, why fix it.
  • I only do rough sketches of two, three, maybe four letters, to see if an idea works or not. If it does, I go digital right away. My sketches are really just approximations, I leave all the precision to the computer work. The computer is much better at precision. Only when I can’t find a solution for a particular letter on screen, I will temporarily go back to rough sketching. But that hardly ever happens. I think it is more important to be quick in the beginning and be able to set words, sentences, paragraphs a.s.a.p., and starting from there, I make corrections. All digitally, of course.
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