The design process

Hello everyone,

I am doing a paper and designing a limited typeface for my bachelor's degree, and I've discovered that something has gone wrong in the beginning of my process, esp. the sketching part. I am curious to know what is your process prior to using your preferred type programme. Do you only sketch out few minuscules and head for the computer? Do you sketch out all minuscules and majuscules on paper? Do you make a creative brief that states who is your target audience? My biggest problem is my approach is not as holistic as I would have liked. I focus too much on the individual glyphs.

To give you some context, I have attached a screenshot of my typeface as it is currently . Mind you, some glyphs are still very rough.




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  • Drawing directly with bezier curves is, in general, more obtrusive if you have to put the curves you have in mind into focus. Unless you are already very experienced, I’d try to draw and/or go back and forth pencil and vector drawing. I have started to draw directly only recently, but I always feel the need to lay down some pencil drawings if I have to finalize a form properly, especially if the curves are complex.
  • There is no "proper" way of doing things. Depending on your experience and the design, one might start digitally and do some sketches later or meticulously draw all letters on paper. Or anything in between. 

    And quite often you start with some letters that describe you idea only to discard them when you have drawn the rest of the alphabet as the first few do not match what came out of it. After all it is most important that the letters fit together.
    Of course it depends on the design idea itself. My observation is mostly for complex curves, and concerning a situation where there is not much familiarity with drawing with bezier curves yet.
  • Drawing directly with bezier curves is, in general, more obtrusive if you have to put the curves you have in mind into focus. Unless you are already very experienced, I’d try to draw and/or go back and forth pencil and vector drawing. I have started to draw directly only recently, but I always feel the need to lay down some pencil drawings if I have to finalize a form properly, especially if the curves are complex.
    My experience is the other way around: My hand drawings mostly turn out goofy, whereas Glyphs allows me to toy around with the shape until it looks good. As such, I prefer to switch to Glyphs as soon as I can.
  • Drawing directly with bezier curves is, in general, more obtrusive if you have to put the curves you have in mind into focus. Unless you are already very experienced, I’d try to draw and/or go back and forth pencil and vector drawing. I have started to draw directly only recently, but I always feel the need to lay down some pencil drawings if I have to finalize a form properly, especially if the curves are complex.
    My experience is the other way around: My hand drawings mostly turn out goofy, whereas Glyphs allows me to toy around with the shape until it looks good. As such, I prefer to switch to Glyphs as soon as I can.
    Well, it does not appear as a matter of mere experience to me. It obviously depends on how firm your hand is, and how much you are leaned to drawing. It is clear that if someone experiences (for the most varied reasons) difficulties in drawing by hand, the aid given by computer-aided means is very important (I recall what P. Scott Makela stated in some early 1990s interviews about his design work as a whole).
    But this is a specific way, heavily depending on the computer, and instaurates a different relationship between the idea/form of the curve that you are trying to give shape to and the given tool. The relationship between the concept and purely manual gesture (as drawing in pencil is) still remains important, it also retains awareness of the physical world.
    Besides, since Mads Davidsen gave a specific example, I was looking at his typeface. With such forms, it clearly could be heavily "constructed" in many parts, but nonetheless: how to best establish the proportions and relationships? If someone uses a graphic tablet or the like, it’s similar to drawing by hand, but always not the same. The physical, manual aspect, has a uniqueness to it. Such as writing on paper, for example, rather than typing.
  • My experience is the other way around: My hand drawings mostly turn out goofy, whereas Glyphs allows me to toy around with the shape until it looks good. As such, I prefer to switch to Glyphs as soon as I can.
    BTW, I often have a somewhat trembling hand, so I clearly see your point (as highlighted by Makela in that interview), but I believe it all depends on how one decides to "toy around" and on the nature of the shape.
    I often spend ages by working with beziers directly, while with a pencil sketch it takes a few minutes (and attempts) to me to fix the errors.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,167
    It is about seeing.  I used to use black and white paint, going back and forth. I started using bezier curves in 1987 and took to it quickly. The only time I hand draw first is if the desired output needs to follow a more calligraphic form.  This is me, this is how I see.  I have had the pleasure to watch Doyald Young use a pencil in a masterful way.  That was his way and I admired him for that.  Don't worry about finding "The" way. Work on evolving your own way.
  • Some time back, I did a survey of type designers (both pro and amateur) and whether they preferred to draw first, or go straight to the computer.

    At the time, the results split about 50/50. What was interesting was that there was a strong correlation between age and whether the person sketched first: older were more likely to sketch first. Of course, age was also mildly correlated with type design experience—but the sketch-first thing was independent of type design experience.

    I also note that sketching tends to be a preliminary thing for most type designers, with most typefaces. Once they are well into the digital, they tend to be mostly (or entirely) done with sketching.
  • James MontalbanoJames Montalbano Posts: 917
    edited November 13
    Having drawn endlessly before the computer came around, I never felt the need to sketch since I started working digitally. I come upon and idea and then I proceed with those silly bezier curves.
    Could I do that without those endless years of drawing. I doubt it. "Time well spent" I suppose.
    That and studying the Photolettering "One Line Manual of Style" ad nauseam help a lot. As did setting metal foundry type from a young age.
  • Drawing and working with Bézier paths are not the same thing. They are two different skills. Working with Bézier paths is more like sculpting. It takes just as much practice to get good at it as it does to get good at drawing. What they have in common is the need to train your eyes to judge the results.

    When I was less skilled at working with Béziers, I wished I could just draw, since I already knew how to do that. But eventually I got to the point where I could get the results I want faster and more easily by skipping the drawing and going directly to Béziers.
    That‘s a very good synthesis. I would add that the question of "finding the «perfect» curve” while drawing by hand and drawing on the computer poses itself differently, and thus poses different challenges.
    Besides, we design typefaces as software to be used with computers, but nonetheless we end up on paper, on materials, with them as well.
    I can’t explain precisely why, but I find that many contemporary typeface designs (not necessarily amateurish or "hastened") give a sense of "dematerialization".
  • As an aspiring type designer, I usually sketch on paper at least one or more control characters like /n /o /p /H /O. The size of the sketch can vary, I’ve done them large and small. It just depends on the design and what I want to capture most. These at least give me a starting point to build off of and develop a design concept. This occurs after I have an idea, inspiration, or scenario, in my head.

    Then, I get into my font editor asap because there I can test variables like proportions and spacing and make quick adjustments to only a few characters. It is best to continue to focus on the control characters at the start as these will influence other characters. The following part can also apply to drawing on paper: If it is going well up to that point I expand my character set to include /h /u /d /a /v /N /D /V. I tend to save the double-story /g for last because it usually takes me the longest. 

    Up to that point, I try to work fast. For one, it isn’t worth the time lost if the design goes no where and second, finding the right parts can take lots of experimenting. Move points, check, move points again, repeat.. If it isn’t working at all I do something easier like play golf or go to the pub.

    Good luck!
  • Christian ThalmannChristian Thalmann Posts: 1,428
    edited November 14
    The problem with drawing on paper is that while it's easy to start over and redo a botched glyph, it's impossible to carry over a good part of a glyph to the next attempt. I have to do it a dozen times to get all parts of it right. No such problems in Glyphs!
    I find paper most useful for figuring out what naturalistic pen or brush strokes look like and how a style solves the common design problems. Once I understand that, I can develop the rest of the glyphs in Glyphs. For instance, no paper was harmed in the design of the following ampersand (from Kuschelfraktur):


  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,160
    As an aspiring type designer, I usually sketch on paper at least one or more control characters like /n /o /p /H /O. 

    I'm not sure this is what you mean, but I don't think you can begin a typeface concept just from the control characters. They are not the best for determining the appearance and character of a typeface. Other characters have more influence.

    Control characters are a good place to start when you begin building a typeface in the font editor, since they will determine spacing and (to some extent) proportions.
  • As an aspiring type designer, I usually sketch on paper at least one or more control characters like /n /o /p /H /O. 

    I'm not sure this is what you mean, but I don't think you can begin a typeface concept just from the control characters. They are not the best for determining the appearance and character of a typeface. Other characters have more influence.

    Control characters are a good place to start when you begin building a typeface in the font editor, since they will determine spacing and (to some extent) proportions.
    If I have a general idea in my head I will normally begin a sketch with control characters.  Sometimes, I do stray from those CC if there is more to be explored. Unless, the idea is specifically conceived around a different letter, like an /a or /t, which I have also done.

    I typically use that method because it is what I have been taught and seems to make sense. But, if I understand your process correctly, influential characters come first then the controllers next, which also makes sense.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,167
    There are characters which define a face for you or  that prompted you to begin the face. If you do them early on, it will help with the rest.  That does not say you won't go back hundreds of times and revise them.

  • One of the disadvantages of drawing on the screen is the fixed vertical orientation. With paper you can easily turn the sheet or your whole body to see things on a different angle. You can see the effect yourself in your type design application by rotating a glyph 45 degrees, adjusting the beziers and rotating it back to vertical. At least for me, it comes back looking different, especially ampersand, S or most of the Greek lowercase.

    I think being locked in vertical orientation affects the perception of curves. For sure, it does for me. I think that vertical lock has had cumulative affect on decades of typefaces.

    Another disadvantage of drawing on a screen is the not so subtle nudging toward optimum vertex placement. Nobody's forcing you to put 8 perfectly aligned points on an O but that's probably how it's going to end up. If a control point is almost vertical, you'll probably snap it to vertical. If a horizontal is nearly flat, you'll probably make it flat...or increase the angle to make it more obviously slanted. It's not wrong to design this way but it pushes everyone's typefaces to look the same.

    When you're designing with beziers I think you're more likely to end up with something that looks like someone else's design. I'm not saying designing with beziers is bad. But there are times I'm when making design decisions I feel like beziers are calling the shots and I need to grab a pencil and figure it out.
  •  I disagree Ray
  •  I disagree Ray
    Hearing why would be interesting. ;).
  • >>Hearing why would be interesting.<<

    Rather than use the anonymous Disagree button I thought I'd identify myself. As to why, just read all of Ray's points and mine are opposite of those.
  • I specifically disagree with Ray’s second point. I very much doubt that different fonts look samey just because they are cleanly drawn — that’s a very drab view of the creative parameter space, and strikes me as a magical romanticization of old-timey methods. 

    (Then again, I find everyone’s interest in letterpress and old specimens of ugly fonts completely inexplicable, so maybe I’m missing something.)
  • I'm the last person to romanticize old-timey methods unless you consider FontLab Studio 5 to be an old-timey method which I suppose it might be. But I think people are lying to themselves if they deny that their designs aren't partially affected by the typical type design app environment.
    It should be quite evident that each and every tool or technical environment influences the work, and to some degree also the conception, and if the work is artistic, the poetics. But it seems in a climate of oversensivity and "abstract" disagreement it is no longer so evident. :)

    Here is a practical example of what you added. Neon, by Giulio Da Milano (1935). No particularly calligraphic or affected forms. Superelliptic curves. Yet it is not possible to draw this type of ellipse with four points. You need at least eight. (from the far right: my early digitization, a suggestion from Fabrizio Schiavi and my final choice – placing further bezier points at an angle (a PDF to see the actual curves is also attached).

  • And my rendition of Neon (which hopefully some day I will finish and carry out to all weights, including the microscopic one which served as a source and inspiration for Butti's Microgramma, and later for Novarese's Eurostile):

  • >>Hearing why would be interesting.<<

    Rather than use the anonymous Disagree button I thought I'd identify myself. As to why, just read all of Ray's points and mine are opposite of those.
    That is good (why there is a "disagree" button is beyond my comprehension, anyway) but if you do not explain why one cannot understand in full from your previous statements. Both you and Ray raise valid points in favor of drawing in pencil and directly with Beziers, and clearly each tool/technique has advantages and drawbacks, but without discussion it’s hard to see which are the fruitful elements as opposed to the drawbacks.
  • James MontalbanoJames Montalbano Posts: 917
    edited November 16
    I disagree Claudio.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,167
    When designing a glyph directly on screen, you are not forced to draw points on extrema.  You can draw any way you wish, then put that drawing on the mask layer and trace it with proper at extrema points.  It is just a tool, not a straight jacket.
  • Christian ThalmannChristian Thalmann Posts: 1,428
    edited November 16
    Ray, can you show an example of a squircular «O» that requires 16 points? Do you mean one with straight segments where a round «O» would have its extrema? If this is the shape you want, how do Béziers discourage you from drawing it?
    It's not about whether or not something is cleanly drawn, it's about designing in a space that rewards horizontally and vertically aligned control points in a fixed vertical view. When designing an S in beziers, I know where vectors should go and what kind of tension they need. There are 8 points on that S that will definitely be on extremes and vertically or horizontally aligned.
    You can't avoid actually having those extrema in your /S/, whether or not you have points there... doesn't placing the points there naturally give you the most leverage over the curve shape, though?
    BTW, I'm not averse to adding a few «dirty» points to an /S/, as in the infamous kneed /S/ of Traction:


    Claudio: Interesting example. I don't know whether the colors are to blame, but I find Fabrizio's shape the most compelling...


  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 925
    edited November 17
    Here's an example of the squircle limitation. It's not a massive difference but there's a limit to how deep the counter can dig in to the corners.



    If they look the same you might need to shift F5 as I mistakenly uploaded 2 identical O's





    Nobody's forcing me not to make a 16 point O. But if I'm designing from vectors, I'm probably going to end up with an 8 point version and be done with it. I know nobody's forcing me to make optimize the number of points and keep them aligned on extremes. But realistically, that's where it'll probably end up. Whereas with a pencil, the decisions I make are purely visual.

    @Christian Thalmann
    That's precisely what I'm taking about. The placement of those points defines the curve of that S. It's not bad by any means but optimization and alignment of beziers have made that S what it is. The way the bottom the the spine curls up into that top bowl is totally bezierish.

    Take that S, rotate CCW 45 degrees, reconfigure the points to make them just as efficient. No cheating...don't keep the original on the mask while you're working. Make it look good. Now rotate it CW 45 degrees and compare the results.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,167
    @Ray, I always put those points in.  The problem is that they rarely interpolate properly, instances often ignore those points, meaning I redraw the curves and add points.  I agree that the amount of tension needed in the curve is greater than what 8 points can deliver.  A greater problem is curve joining a straight.  In order to have a seamless transition, I find the need to place the additional points at the crux of the curves.

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