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.



  • Lata gataLata gata Posts: 758
    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

  • Lata gataLata gata Posts: 758
    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: 788
    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: 1,399
    I almost never digitize a drawing. I might draw a tight sketch for reference, but scanning and tracing rarely works well for me.
  • Lata gataLata gata Posts: 758
    @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: 950
    "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: 950
    For me, it is more like Yoga or Tai Chi 
  • Jens KutilekJens Kutilek Posts: 97
    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: 97
    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: 84
    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: 734
    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.

  • Chris DrabschChris Drabsch Posts: 66
    About 15 years ago while studying at university, it was drummed into me that the computer is just another tool in the designer's toolkit, and that you shouldn't rely on it alone to conceptualise and mature an idea. I guess times are changing more, but my habit has always been to begin with a rough sketch of the basic forms first, and then move to drafting on a computer. And I even go back to sketching on paper again, if I hit a crossroads about a particular letterform, and I don't know how to tackle it properly. It's helpful to print out your glyphs and then trace / sketch over them again to try out new ideas.

    To me the real benefit about sketching on paper, is that you forget about precision, which allows you to test out ideas more rapidly, with less scrutiny. In saying that I don't think it's worthwhile to draw an entire alphabet first, rather you just get the basics down (o, n, H, O, "a d h e s i o n", etc) and then use the computer to quickly duplicate common shapes and build out the rest.

    As far as how much deviation occurs for me, I tend to find that the ideas I put down on paper sound great at first, but after drafting them up digitally I start to see optical problems and other things I couldn't take into account originally. For instance, here's a pencil sketch of a typeface I'm working on, where I wanted a particular angular / hexagonal shape to certain letters:

    (This is the actual extent of what I sketched for this design, as I felt a natural impulse to draw the rest up on the computer.) But you can see in the actual drafts below, it made more sense to tone down the idiosyncrasies (but not lose too much of the flavour either!)

  • Simon CozensSimon Cozens Posts: 194
    I've recently started playing with the idea of doing everything digitally, but "sketching" in the font editor before drawing out the forms. Sort of like using digital graph paper:

  • As exponent of Albert Kapr’s school, Erhard Kaiser was thoroughly trained to design letters with pencil, pen, and brush. October 1996 the 7-years old Sebastian Kaiser made a special exercise book for his father’s 39th birthday. February 1996 Erhard Kaiser made his first sketches for DTL Prokyon in this Arbeitsheft, and he proceeded in March 1997.

    These sketches formed the basis for the initial drawings.

    And, of course, the final drawings were manually digitized using the IKARUS system.

  • Jens KutilekJens Kutilek Posts: 97
    I did a writeup of my search for an efficient process of producing a large handwriting font family (spoiler: it didn’t turn out as large as intended):

    How do I create my own comic handwriting font? on Quora.

    I think it may be interesting to followers of this thread.
  • Hi Mark,
    I think the common element here is the importance of becoming skilled with the tool that you use. It's not so much the tool as the skill and experience of its user.
    That would –correct me if I’m wrong– imply that every tool is fine for whatever the job is, as long as the user is skilled. Actually I think that the job itself defines what the best tool is.
    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.
    In some case drawing can be the more appropriate way to define the contours than sculpting, especially for making revivals. My experience is that it is pretty easy (and tempting) to copy letter parts in Bézier format but less easy to draw tiny and delicate differences.

    In for instance DTL VandenKeere and DTL Fleischmann no serif is identical –on purpose. These details are easy to draw and to manually digitize. Hence, at DTL we normally draw revivals on paper, or at least we start that way.

    Also I believe that being able to adjust one’s tools directly positively influences the quality and originality of the design.

    For instance Elmo van Slingerland’s DTL Dorian is the result of digitizing letter forms made by a very skilled calligrapher who is extremely capable of drawing with pencil, pen, and brush.

    In case of for example Hermann Zapf or Jan van Krimpen, I don’t think that their type designs can be separated from their skills as calligrapher and type drawer. Even if we take into consideration that the technology was different in the past.

  • Wes AdamsWes Adams Posts: 45
    edited June 13
    Frank makes some good points in favor of his workflow. To my knowledge, the Ikarus system requires a bit of overhead and specialized software that must run on either Windows or an emulator of some kind. Is that right?

    As for drawing, I tend to do nearly all of my sketches with a brush, using a pencil only to rough out vague proportions. It's my experience that starting digitally often leads to poorly balanced letters that one wouldn't likely derive from a manual process. Granted, the subtleties are probably easy to overlook for those unencumbered by tool experience.

    Often in the process of reworking print proofs by hand I notice some small refinement afforded by the tool which would be lost working only from the screen. As for the tool itself, a broad edge glides in a particular way and where this implicates stroke order it directly impacts the structure of letters. For this reason I find refined pencil drawing to be largely inadequate. Like purely digital letters, ones modeled with a stylus are overly rational.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,110
    I question the premise of this thread, which locates drawing as a purely analogue media process. I draw digitally, using a tablet and stylus, creating and manipulating Bezier paths on screen in FontLab.

    I don’t digitize my analog drawings per se, in the sense of tracing over them or copying— they are rough sketches used to work out ideas.

    Now that I have amassed a body of work in various genres, I often develop new work by transforming or cannibalizing the old. And that too is drawing.

    However, I have made script fonts by drawing over scans of my writing/calligraphy—which are not drawing.

    And I made Handsome by writing directly into Fontographer.
  • Avi ZimetAvi Zimet Posts: 3
    I think an important quality of a typeface is originality and how recognizable it is. In my opinion what makes a good font is a unique personality that is well executed. Based on business I think that a new font that just mimics what traditionally sells well and is designed to look like a classic font will give no incentive for people to buy it. For instance if people have Helvetica why buy another clean sans font, if they have Caslon why buy another book font that just changed some details. I don't know what the goal to making another font is, but I love drawing something unusual or novel and having it look good to other people too.
    Drawing by hand, at least when it is small, doesn't offer the crisp lines that digital design does, so it is more difficult to add subtle details like corners in curves and that stuff. When I draw by hand I am forced to add personality to my letters in a deliberate, even obvious way. The advantage of hand drawing letters is that it is more difficult to rely on older designs to make a new unique font, and so the result will be more creative.
    This is just my opinion and I step to the digital part right after drawing the basic alphabet because digital drawing does offer superior flexibility in adding details that will really make the letters work. First I draw an alphabet, then scan, then trace, then refine. Also, I suck at drawing with a computer and personally like fonts that have a more humanist and handmade flavor.
    Really this way is hit or miss but it is my workflow. Hope this helps
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,091
    Like much other terminology around type, I consider the term 'drawing' to be a kind of dead metaphor based on historical practice. Only in a production workflow such as Frank describes does it make sense to talk about digitising drawings in a literal sense. And yet, like Nick, I talk easily about 'drawing' in terms of manipulating bezier curves; I talk about a font that as been heavily edited as 'completely redrawn', even though no actual drawing took place; I am aware that these usages of the term are really metaphorical, just as it would be to say that the latter font is 'recut'.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 950
    A Drawing by any other tool would smell the same.
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