Quality; or, What Makes a Font Great?

Hello. I just can't make the jump from pretty good to great in my work (maybe “decent to good” would be more accurate). I can create clear shapes, reasonably smooth curves, optical correction, consistent weights and shapes, and all of that basic stuff, but I just can’t create a font that actually works. Plenty of classic faces violate these tenets (sometimes egregiously so), yet have a certain... resonance? flow? that mine lack. Clearly, there is more than mechanics going on. I just can’t figure out what it is!

I have a few sample of my work in the Critiques section (here and here especially), but I think this is more a matter of philosophy than technique, and I want this discussion to be about more than just my work: ideally, it will benefit others. In other words, I hope I’ve chosen the right category!


  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,637
    Solid advice from both Andreas and James.

    Too expand on Andreas’ comment, having a really clear vision, mission for what you are trying to accomplish is helpful. Consider having a brief for your type design. Here are some thoughts on that:


  • attarattar Posts: 209
    Copy existing fonts and you'll know when you compare what you did with the original.
    And practise some calligraphy.
  • Well, for designing type one needs to develop thorough insight and knowledge, a lot of skills, and on top of that one’s own idiom. That this requires a lot of time is nothing special. After all, designing type is a serious profession, not a hobby. Find a good tutor, find two good tutors, follow a course, follow two courses, mature, mature even more, let your designs mature, take a deep breath before you release a typeface, be highly critical, and then go your own way.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,637
    No question that almost every great typeface was made by somebody with a lot of training and/or practice.

    Although you can’t replace practice, education can be an immensely time-effective leg up. I list all the major English-language programs here: http://www.thomasphinney.com/type-design-resources/
  • I list all the major English-language programs here: http://www.thomasphinney.com/type-design-resources/

    You can add Type@Cooper West in San Francisco, CA, USA, a collaboration between Cooper Union and Letterform Archive, to the list. The first term of their first extended program just finished. Similar to the NYC certificate program.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,637
    Oh, of course! I have promoted the program in other places, just forgot to add it to my list. Fixed.
  • [Deleted User][Deleted User] Posts: 0
    edited April 2016
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  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,098
    Thomas said:
    No question that almost every great typeface was made by somebody with a lot of training and/or practice.

    Some great first efforts:

    Bernhard Antiqua

    When there is a change in technology, there is an opportunity for newcomers and outsiders to make a fresh, definitive mark. 

    What is the new technology now, that opens the door for tiros?

  • Would Baskerville’s types have been so great if he had not found a punchcutter who could interpret what he wanted?

    A good punchcutter always comes in handy.

  • Would Baskerville’s types have been so great if he had not found a punchcutter who could interpret what he wanted?

    A good punchcutter always comes in handy.

  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,637

    Yes, I said almost every great typeface. Not every one.

    But still, I am with Dan: a lot of those typefaces you named would not likely have been great without the major involvement of others. We know this with utter certainty with Futura, because we can see Renner’s original drawings. While the concepts were interesting, the execution was crap and useless. It took the Bauer staff to make his ideas into something useful.

    You could have added Sabon to your list. But of course Tschichold had decades of experience as a typographer and book designer before he tried to design a typeface.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,637
    edited April 2016
    Not something anyone can sign up for off the street, but I do teach undergraduate typeface design at Parsons School of Design. Perhaps you can add that to the list.

    I know you do, but it is not a dedicated program in type design, and is only available as part of a much broader design curriculum. I have avoided listing such classes because I am sure there are very many of them (and they are not all taught by people who are terribly expert on the topic). The list is “where can I study type design specifically” not “where can I study design, and get a type design class included.” However, this makes it clear that I should spell that out on the list.

    I also link to a Wikipedia list that does include such classes, btw.

    Also, I could not find a specific listing for your course(s), online. Do you have a link?

    Also, SVA's "Type as Language" month-long program should be included as well.
    Ah, now that is a fine thing that I am going to go add right now.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,098
    I do realize that the designers involved in the types I mentioned had some (quite handy) technical help, and prior experience in graphic design and lettering.

    But those were nonetheless first typefaces by the people universally credited with their design, which is not their draughtspersons or punchcutters.

    What I found interesting was that the originality Baskerville et al brought to bear on the subject was not just that they were fresh to the process of type design, but that there was something new or different in technics which their designs addressed. 

    Baskerville: smoother paper (also perhaps blacker ink, harder metal).
    Cheltenham: Working from engineering drawings, hence scalable micro-details.
    Futura: I associate the geometric sans with the emergence of typo-photo and photo-process mechanical assembly, on layers of clear acetate.
    Perpetua: Not so much the novelty of Monotype’s drawing office, but rather Morison’s idea that it could be used for epigraphic purposes, translating Gill’s stone-carved letters to type.
    Similarly, Bernhard’s Antiqua transitioned a fashionable distress of lettering, which had appeared in his posters (and those of Bradley and the Beggarstaffs), to type.

    So I would say that for Michael to make a great typeface, it’s not enough just to work within the genre of bezier-drawn classic serif styles, which has been pretty much mined out these past 25 years, but some originality could be accessed by considering new things that font-making software can do, or transitioning lettering from other media.

    In other words, originality is a requirement of greatness, as much as refinement, and certainly more accessible to a newcomer.

    Perhaps an interesting place to start would be with a new tool, such as featured by Ofir Shavit here on Type Drawers: http://typedrawers.com/discussion/comment/19201/

  • What Nina said. Students always have some brilliant idea for a breathtakingly original typeface, and they're always enthusiastic about these ideas. They're generally less enthusiastic about the hard graft that goes into making a type fit for use. They want to know how quickly they can get the thing up on MyFonts or GF.

    On the other hand, what Chris and Andreas said. I do think "Design a type that you would like to see" is an excellent rule. I also think it's the approach most likely to produce valuable contributions. But "Design what you'd like to see" doesn't mean "design something no one's ever seen."
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  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,098
    edited April 2016
    Thesis had a couple of precursors. 

    But wasn’t it De Groot’s first published typeface?

    Further on Thesis, not to over-emphasize technological determinism (and as I understand it, Thesis exemplifies The Stroke), but didn’t interpolation—’tweening—play a large role in the development of the typeface? Not just the availablility of a large number of weights and styles, but the mathematical disposition of weights.

    This is what I’m trying to get a handle on, the idea that new technical capabilities can be exploited by designers to “get in first” and create definitive, and hence “great” typefaces.

    IMO, learning a skill in a conventional manner can seriously hamper a person’s ability to do really original work (with which I equate the “great font” that is the subject of this thread). It creates a rut, a modus operandi, a conventional semantic groove that is hard to escape.

    It may be necessary to put in 1,000 hrs somewhere along the line, but on the other hand, plodding towards greatness doesn’t entirely ring true.

  • Ofir ShavitOfir Shavit Posts: 371
    My drawing teacher in first year of my Industrial design studies, said that the difference between a pro and an amateur is that an amateur can sometimes "jump" very high and on the other hand can as well "fall" very low, while a pro, might not create a masterpiece every time but he will probably never fall too deep.

    I'm sure there are many designers or "regular people" that can bring their talent and (naive) brilliance to type design with the reduction of the massive amount of work involved in the process. I believe it can have a most positive influence over professionals work as well, not to mention the educative benefits (@James Montalbano a student can create a geometric typeface from scratches in 1-2 hours of work with Fontark, in 3 hours he'll understand almost all there is to know about why it doesn't work. In 5, he might come up with a cool idea?)

    We've started a month long Hebrew type design course (in a Facebook group) this week (Monday), and I have decided to start a fresh new design along with the students, here are few shots of it during only several hours of work...

    But it doesn't sum to the time factor, I believe it only starts there.

  • Deleted AccountDeleted Account Posts: 739
    edited April 2016
    All sounds like good advise. Also: "...when your hair's combed right and your pants fit tightit's gonna be all right"
  • I believe one cannot consider type design as separate from its intended use and, therefore, one has to judge text types separately from all others. A great text type has to be something greater than the sum of its parts, to the extent that its spacing is as important as the design of its characters. What types will work well for text in one technology might not work as well in another. Cultural expectations and fashion trends play a role, too, such as when the style turned from Old Style to Modern in the 19th century and back to Old Style in the 20th.

    Another matter: Ofir, why are your students using Latin punctuation with their designs? While it is true that neither the period nor the comma existed in traditional Hebrew, they have been part of it since the advent of Modern Hebrew in the 19th century. (See, for example, the poems of Nahman Hayim Bialik.) Various attempts to incorporate those punctuation marks go back to the 17th century.

  • Ofir ShavitOfir Shavit Posts: 371

    Another matter: Ofir, why are your students using Latin punctuation with their designs? 

    The dot and comma were missing-glyphs at that stage, automatically replaced with the default font's glyphs while the demo text was generated to examine the design.

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