At what point of the design process do you start digitising your drawings?

Hello, I am new to type design and I am currently working on my very first typeface. So far I have sketched out most of the lowercase and uppercase letters on paper.

I was wondering, at what point do professional type designers start digitising the letters in a font editor? Is it better to move to the computer only after completing the design on paper first or is using a font editor earlier preferable?

Would love to hear your thoughts on this and learn about professional type designers workflows.


  • I agree with @Chris Lozos here. I come frome a similar background. I would also suggest you just look at type. It may be a bit antiquated but I suggest picking up a copy of PhotoLettering's "One Line Manual of Style" and just look and look and look. What typographic education in that book

  • Over 400 pages of this insanity. Organized by style. Ed Benguiat gave me my first copy back in the late 70s
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 786
    It's too bad you can't see full character sets, but it's still a fantastic resource for studying letterforms.
  • Drawing by hand can teach you so much about the logic of typefaces, but digital lets you experiment so much faster. Both approaches have so much to offer for learning. Personally I sketch ideas for letters all the time but as soon as one letter, or one word, looks good to me, I move into digitizing. I can use my one letter to build half a dozen others in minutes and get a better idea if the whole design might work as a font.
  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,382
    I almost never digitize a drawing. I might draw a tight sketch for reference, but scanning and tracing rarely works well for me.
  • @Mark Simonson I'm sure you remember well that type shops in those days never showed a specimen with a full character set!

  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 940
    "a specimen with a full character set!"

    They did not want to be copied ;-)
  • In 1978 I became a student at the KABK and the only computer-related thing at the academy was a terminal connected to a mainframe at the Delft University of Technology. This terminal was exclusively used by a technical school housed in the same building. So, we did not have the option to work directly on a screen. Consequently Gerrit Noordzij taught us how to draw letters on paper and on drafting film.

    At that time the only way to digitize analog artwork was manually using the IKARUS format in combination with a tablet plus lens cursor. However, an IKARUS system cost roughly DM 250,000 back then. In the mid-1980s the relatively very affordable (DM 7,500 inclusive Aristo tablet plus lens cursor) Ikarus M application became available and I started manually digitizing myself. And the latter is what I do at DTL still using DTL IkarusMaster (see also the most recent post on my Facebook page).

    I like to draw on paper because it gives me more freedom than drawing on the screen. Also it is easier to preserve very subtle details when for instance making a revival. The production of DTL Fleischmann is a good example of this. Nowadays at DTL we often make an analog start and subsequently proceed on screen (although printers are used for judging the outcomes).
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 940
    For me, it is more like Yoga or Tai Chi 
  • Jens KutilekJens Kutilek Posts: 87
    The thing that has that helped me the most with working with Bézier curves is to realize that it's not drawing. It's more like sculpting.
    And to me the difference between cubic and quadratic Béziers is that cubic ones are constructive, while quadratic ones are descriptive. It may be just a feeling because I am so used to building glyphs with cubic curves. You can get really nice curves with quadratic Béziers, but I wouldn’t want to use them for drawing.
  • Jens KutilekJens Kutilek Posts: 87
    I never digitize drawings. I may draw or write a glyph to test out design and structural possibilities, then construct it from scratch directly in the font editor. To me it is more important to see the overall impression, the proportions in relation to other glyphs, in context and at actual size (on a 1200 dpi laser printer), than to draw large perfect glyphs on paper.
  • André SimardAndré Simard Posts: 83
    I drew a lot of hand sketches both in graphic design or in typeface design and after 40 years in graphic design I noticed that what I drew is often very far from the finished product. However, I continue to work on paper because for me it's helpful to start a design project.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 721
    edited May 20
    I'll just add that some 5-10 years ago there was a survey of a bunch of type designers (back on Typophile—I think?) and at the time we found that it was about 50/50 whether people sketched first or went straight to their font editor.

    The main correlation with that was age. Older type designers were more likely to sketch first, and that chance went up fairly linearly with age. So the oldest ones it was more like 75% sketching first, and the youngest ones it was more like 25% sketch first. Or something like that.

    I do not particularly think people are more likely to sketch as they gain more experience with type design, so I suspect the percentages are continuing to shift a bit with time, as the existing population ages. Probably it is a bit less than half who sketch first, today.
  • Thanks for your responses everybody.

    I agree with @Chris Lozos here. I come frome a similar background. I would also suggest you just look at type. It may be a bit antiquated but I suggest picking up a copy of PhotoLettering's "One Line Manual of Style" and just look and look and look. What typographic education in that book

    Thanks for the suggestion. I will try to find a copy. The book I am using for reference is Designing Type by Karen Cheng. I found it made me more aware of the subtle differences in typefaces.

    I almost never digitize a drawing. I might draw a tight sketch for reference, but scanning and tracing rarely works well for me.
    I started off by making fairly tight sketches and tracing them in Illustrator as I was finding it easier to get certain curves to look right if I have a sketch to trace over. But this was turning out to be a slow process so I decided to roughly sketch out all the letters first then move to the computer.

    With drawing on paper it's easier for me to get more complex or organic curves looking right, such as the "s", but it's harder to maintain consistency between letters. With bezier curves/digital I find that it's much easier to do the more constructed/geometric parts of the letters so there are definitely pros and cons to both methods for me.

  • Although times are undoubtedly changing and new technologies make other design and production methods possible, I still believe that there is no better way to learn the tension of curves, the (relation between the) quality of contours and counters, and to understand that a speedy process is not always the best way to preserve the highest quality, than drawing with pencil, pen, and brush. I wonder whether the fact that drawing on paper has become less common might be also simply the result of a lack of training and hence of the specific skills required for analog drawing.

    As I wrote above, roughly 40 years ago as student I just had to make analog drawings because there was no other way to design letters. I have always been very pleased with this training. I think that today at type courses manual digitizing should be demonstrated and that students should play around with it. If they decide not to use it and to sculpture directly in Bézier format, that would be a decision, i.e., a choice, based on experience and knowledge. Also it makes sense to show the IKARUS system if one wants to place the current digital font technology in a historical context. On the aforementioned Facebook page Juergen Willrodt states that FoundryMaster will support manually digitizing in the near future too. Yeah!

    To garnish my plea for good ol’ manual labour, I post a few drawings here based on an italic by Guyot, which I made 22 years ago for DTL VandenKeere. I made these drawings with pencil, pen, and brush (you can see traces of white paint) next to prints of the regular version –which was drawn on paper first too and then manually digitized, of course.

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