You are slashing your way into the Papa New Guinean jungle...

Craig RozynskiCraig Rozynski Posts: 29
edited December 2020 in Education


[Removed by @James Hultquist-Todd for violating TypeDrawers Code of Conduct]

I’m a graphic designer who’s worked with type on a daily basis for 25 years. I instinctively know how to select and set type well, but as I’ve found out this year, that’s not enough to create a successful typeface.

Initially I approached learning type design like I did web development, raising a child, or making pancakes – by googling it. But unfortunately, for type design I don't think that’s enough. There’s no textbook definition of how wide an S should be in proportion to an O, yet there does seem to be a right and wrong answer; why the ear on a double-storey g looks offensive on one side but not the other; why a glyph’s stem and bar weights only look balanced when they’re actually not.

Just like graphic design, I've found there’s an intangible element to knowing what works that can only be learnt through immersion and experience.

I’d hoped the intuition I’ve honed in graphic design could be applied to designing a typeface, but my feeling so far is that’s not the case. I need to go on a journey – not through the jungles of Papa New Guinea – but by learning how the Roman alphabet came to be what it is, and through lots of trial and error.

For me this answers why so much importance is seemingly put on having a formal education in the field of type design. Not because of snobbery, but because good typography is about building on what's come before.

For the accomplished type designers, I’d love to hear your experience – was it hard? Did it come easily? Were there "Aha!" moments? Would you agree a strong foundation in the history of type is essential to creating good fonts?

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Comments

  • Thanks @Craig Eliason. Point taken on the cannibalistic stereotype.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 746
    edited December 2020
    While your "Travesty" sample indeed shows a set of letter widths for the capitals that would not normally be used, it may be noted that many typefaces don't follow those of the "Trajan" sample. Some do; Optima is one obvious example of one that does. But some don't: Century Expanded or Times Roman. E, F, P, and (to a lesser extent) S are wider, in relation to the other letters in those and many other faces.
    Even in the crude 5-unit system used on the IBM Executive typewriter, the widths given to the different letters were altered between the typestyles.
  • Hrant H. PapazianHrant H. Papazian Posts: 1,865
    edited December 2020
    Thank you @Craig Eliason for minding the content more than the delivery.

    Studying history is a two-edged sword in terms of what matters most: marking progress. Because it can behold you to existing ideas just as much (probably more) than driving you to come up with new ones. History is, after all, written by the winners. Such as the colonialists... To me the best way to look at history is akin to how an accident investigator works.  :-)

    @Craig Rozynski Culture secretly wants you to break some rules...
  • This isn’t it.
  • > turn back
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,302
    edited December 2020
    Historical models "were" a beginning in the past. Yes, but they need not be "The" beginning for today, unless what you are trying to do is replicate them or revise them. The point of drawing a new typeface is drawing a new typeface.  Don't worry about would be critics.  Use your eyes and mind to define what makes a letterform concept into a finished glyph, and more importantly, what makes all of the glyphs work together as a family unit.  You are not looking for Jensen's answer, you are looking for your own thesis. If you look at World scripts, you see variation in approach.  None of them are wrong, they are just what emerged over the centuries. There is no recipe that guarantees success, only a meager place to start.  Judge what you see in front of you as you make it and then put it away and judge again--you will see more. What you need to do is do the work of teaching yourself to see, not looking for the Holy Grail. Put in the work, then you have something to judge.
  • Hrant H. PapazianHrant H. Papazian Posts: 1,865
    edited December 2020
    @Dyana Weissman A lot of good advice. Except: "Type design is an art, not a science." It's more of a craft, and includes aspects of science (not least in terms of readability). In my mind calling it an Art denigrates it; in any act of Design self-expression is never absent (thankfully) but also never the main intention – it comes about in spite of you.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,641
    edited December 2020
    My success, after many years of relative failure in getting my designs published as rub-down or phototype, was the result of being the right person in the right place at the right time, and being part of the emergent digital-font, indie-foundry phenomenon. But that was long ago, and I wonder what a comparable ecology of culture, technology and commerce would be today. I suspect that variable fonts and social media marketing are important in designing typefaces that aren’t just “correct”, but become useful, relevant,  profitable, and advance one’s œuvre.
    But why bother being correct when you can be transgressive? That certainly helped a lot of us get started back in the day. When FontFont published Dolores, it was a breath of fresh air, there was nothing that looked like that. Same thing with my Fontesque.
  • Erin McLaughlinErin McLaughlin Posts: 45
    edited December 2020
    (n/m I wrote to Craig privately)
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,641
    To make a less objectionable “pre-contact” comparison, Craig, consider the ethnological group of kids today who have grown up with sans faces on mobile devices, and have never read a book printed in Bembo or Garamond.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 746
    edited December 2020
    To make a less objectionable “pre-contact” comparison, Craig, consider the ethnological group of kids today who have grown up with sans faces on mobile devices, and have never read a book printed in Bembo or Garamond.

    Of course, though, sans faces on mobile devices also have a set of proportions for their letters. So in one way, that's not a workable "pre-contact scenario".
    But putting aside the legitimate objection to the one used in the original post, it too is flawed. People who aren't literate in any Latin-script language couldn't really judge the aptness of letter proportions for the intended purpose of a typeface - to produce text for reading.
    So a "good" scenario might be to take a time machine to an age before Gutenberg?
    Ah, but all these Roman monumental inscriptions would still have given literate people a bias!
    Well, maybe if you take your time machine further back to the ancient Etruscans...
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,302
    or else, just start drawing type for a good chunk of time
  • Historical models "were" a beginning in the past. Yes, but they need not be "The" beginning for today, unless what you are trying to do is replicate them or revise them. The point of drawing a new typeface is drawing a new typeface.

    Yes, but what kind of new typeface are you intending to devise?
    Yes, one scenario where studying a historical model is if one is going to re-interpret it for modern times; so of course the type of Nicolas Jenson was studied to permit the design of Cloister Oldstyle, Eusebius, Doves, Centaur, and so on.
    But there is a lot of space between Centaur on the one hand, and Dolores, as cited above, on the other.
    Thus, let us take Optima by Hermann Zapf as an example. This is clearly designed on a historical model, with its capitals clearly following the proportions of classic Roman inscriptional letters.
    But it isn't a "revival" or "imitation" of Trajan or Lydian or Futura or even Radiant.
    So it illustrates another reason for studying a historical model than replication or revision.
    If one's goal is to design a typeface that will have at least the potential to be widely popular for a workaday use for things such as body copy for easy, crystal goblet invisible style reading... a very good grounding in historical models is, I should think, very much a prerequisite.
    No, not every type designer needs to try to become, say, another Frederic Goudy. There is room for wild and crazy ideas out there, even if even some of the more successful ones have gotten a mixed reception (Papyrus and Comic Sans come to mind). But classic models still very useful because of the expectations of readers - so those who design typefaces like Plex or Roboto, for example, will certainly have studied them.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,302
    edited December 2020
    Why would someone want to be the next Goudy? Would you not rather be the 1st John Savard? Sometimes the path not taken...


  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 746
    edited December 2020
    Except: "Type design is an art, not a science." It's more of a craft, and includes aspects of science (not least in terms of readability). In my mind calling it an Art denigrates it; in any act of Design self-expression is never absent (thankfully) but also never the main intention – it comes about in spite of you.

    Although I do partly agree with you, in that I agree it isn't accurate to call type design an "art" and nothing else, I disagree with categorizing it as a "craft" as well.
    I think that type design is a... discipline... that does not fit neatly into those categories, because it has room for activities which belong to both categories.
    Thus:
    Caslon and Baskerville were clearly works of craft.
    Peignot Bold, Bifur, Hobo, Mistral and Kabel (to use tired old examples likely to be familiar to virtually everyone here), on the other hand, are just as clearly works of art.
    Type designers may design body type, and they may design display type, and they have a wide latitude within which to choose between the conventional and the novel when designing either. Thus, while Cheltenham is a display face, it's on the "craft" side of this continuum.

    Also, in a way, your response may have been unfair to the posting to which it was a reply.
    To say that "Type design is an art, not a science" is to state that type design is subjective rather than objective, and thus such a statement is using the word "art" in a general sense, which includes crafts.
    There really wasn't anything in that statement to suggest that the ideal type designer is like Richard Wagner or Vincent van Gogh.
  • @John Savard The way I've come to formulate it is that every act of making is somewhere on the Art-Design axis, with nothing being at either pure extreme. BTW everything is subjective; scientists have bills to pay too.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 746
    edited December 2020
    Why would someone want to be the next Goudy? Would you not rather be the 1st John Savard? Sometimes the path not taken...
    Well, if someone decides to be a type designer instead of, say, an accountant, he is already taking "the path not taken" in the Robert Frost sense even if he is going to design typefaces heavily steeped in the traditions pioneered by Jenson and Griffo the way Goudy did.
    If being the "first John Savard" means being the next Vincent Connare, I'd rather be the next Hermann Zapf.
    One can speak of someone being "the next X" without meaning that he is a slavish imitator of X. This is particularly true if X happens to have been someone who made significant creative contributions to the field. Thus, in music, no slavish imitator of Miles Davis is going to be called the next Miles Davis!
    Were I to try my hand at type design, though, I do know what it is that I might attempt. A truly challenging task, apparently, one that even experienced type designers hesitate to attempt.
    Even Times Roman and Century Expanded, never mind Caledonia or Caslon, don't seem to me to be quite as invisible as a typeface for reading ought to be. Thus, through diligent study of those typefaces, as well as Number Twenty-One, Corona, and Baskerville, I would try to devise the most boring and nondescript text face imaginable so as to provide a crystal goblet for the ideas of authors.
    After, of course, getting some practice in the time-honored way of designing yet another Jenson-alike for the private presses.
    @John Savard The way I've come to formulate it is that every act of making is somewhere on the Art-Design axis, with nothing being at either pure extreme. BTW everything is subjective; scientists have bills to pay too.

    In that case, we're in agreement about typeface design at least.
    Basically, I think that my real disagreement with your post was that instead of a specific criticism of the post to which you replied, your real point might have been better directed at the fact that the term "craft" is underused these days, so that one has to speak of "high art" or even "art with a capital 'A'" to speak of the kind of art that you were saying type design isn't.
    And I think the cause of that is obvious: items produced by craft are less common in our everyday lives now, as mass production has displaced craft in many of its more obvious manifestations.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,302
    If being the "first John Savard" means being the next Vincent Connare, I'd rather be the next Hermann Zapf.
    But you won't be either one so why not just be a better you and quit tilting at windmills?

  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,641
    edited December 2020
    To return to the idea of tacit proportion.

    So often, type designers present their working designs at Typedrawers as alphabets.
    Now, if you have some experience in designing type, you can look at such a showing and discern what is “right” or “wrong”, because you know the genre, and how these individual glyphs will interact when rendering text.

    But even so, there is no substitute for actually seeing text.

    Whether there is variety in the width of capitals, as in Trajan and Futura, or whether they are all rather similar in width, as in the Scotch, Times or Helvetica, doesn’t really matter to the reader, as long as text colour is not disruptively lumpy.

    So “getting it right” is something the type designer does first to satisfy their own taste, and secondly to avoid transgressions that flag the tacit standards of professional graphic designers and typographers, and ultimately their peers—if that’s a concern.

    However, if you are not starting out to make something that conforms to a particular genre (in the extreme, a revival), but have a new concept that you’re working out, then you don’t have to worry so much about whether you proportions are “correct”, just please yourself.
  • Lots of good points there @Nick Shinn.

    From a beginner's point of view I can tell you I made the mistake of working on an alphabet for too long before jumping into text strings and a proof. I suspect many graphic designers make this mistake because they draw in Illustrator first, which doesn't provide the tools to draw within context. I've now spent the time learning Glyphs app's drawing functionality and wish I had have started there.

    Regarding "getting it right", an experienced type designer would look at my letters and instinctively know why the uppercase C was too wide, whereas I would have an itch that something was off but wouldn't know if it was too wide or too narrow. 

    It was at that point that I went down a rabbit hole looking for logic to base decisions on. The closest I got was 'balance the positive and negative space between letters', but even that's an imperfect answer imo when determining tacit proportions. I feel *if* we are trying to please the reader's eye there needs to be some familiarity and to produce that a type designer needs to study what's come before.

    I'm a big fan of the Loewy quote “To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.” 


  • Hrant H. PapazianHrant H. Papazian Posts: 1,865
    edited December 2020
    one can’t talk about proportions without also talking about style
    There's some truth in that, but there's also a fundamental risk: becoming an "infill" designer. Style categorization helps you understand the existing, but can also narrow your vision of what's possible. Culturally (versus commercially) to me what a given style needs most is to flourish via change.
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,066
    edited December 2020
    what a given style needs most is to flourish via change
    Sure, and there's also a line—probably indistinct until after the fact—where cumulative changes to a style results in an identifiable new style, with its own categorical characteristics, including proportions.
  • Hrant H. PapazianHrant H. Papazian Posts: 1,865
    edited December 2020
    @John Hudson It's only indistinct if you didn't realize you were doing it... While to me the best design is with intent, and eschews classification, which only serves the infiller, not the driver of cultural progress.
  • I wouldn’t say studying historical models directly is necessary (although it’s useful and one possible approach). I think having a deeply internalized understanding of what the reading public expects is essential. From there, one can choose to follow or break the rules, but will always see and understand what they’re making against that baseline.

    And I certainly agree that looking at one’s own typeface in text samples is necessary, and really putting what I wrote above into practice. Looking at individual letters or an alphabet out of context is not particularly helpful (and often counterproductive, I think), while looking at text settings is literally seeing one’s typeface at work. A typeface is a system to make words visible and readable, so if you’re not looking at words, you’re not really looking at your typeface.

    The trick is to look at a word, a sentence or a paragraph and see what doesn’t work. One can’t do that unless one first understands what does work. Given that what we know that works can be traced back to historical models, one can either go back to those sources or just look at successful, recent examples that have already benefited from those historical models.

    (I’m talking mostly about text typefaces here, although display faces aren’t so different.)

    Proportion is a big part of this, because that’s about the relationship of one letter to others. Getting proportions right is about finding harmony among the letters that are put together to make nice text. As others have said, there’s a sweet spot along the line from monotony, liveliness, to dissonance. One has to follow and break the rules enough to convey the right amount of functionality and pleasure without breaking into territory that becomes irritating — and there’s no better way to find that spot than by simply looking, but looking won’t work if one isn’t able to spot what’s unfamiliar or wrong, and understand why.

    To practice and learn all this, I think revivals and imitations are great. The world has plenty of Garamond revivals, but making one (not necessarily to sell it) will teach someone a lot before they understand how to create something new and interesting. It’s the equivalent of spending years in a cover band playing standards. It worked for the Beatles, and it’s how one becomes an accomplished artist by first mastering the mechanics of their craft.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 746
    edited December 2020
    While to me the best design is with intent, and eschews classification, which only serves the infiller, not the driver of cultural progress.
    Yes, but...
    It’s the equivalent of spending years in a cover band playing standards. It worked for the Beatles, and it’s how one becomes an accomplished artist by first mastering the mechanics of their craft.
    Yes!!! If you intend to get noticed by making something genuinely new and original, then you need to be very good at your craft. (And I do not need to be an experienced type designer to say this, because this principle applies to many fields of endeavor; it's a fundamental general principle, not a peculiarity of type design - even if the ways that type is used make familiarity especially important in that field.)
    I tend to use Hermann Zapf (instead of many other equally deserving type designers, like, say, Adrian Frutiger) as my go-to example of this, since his Optima is so obviously something innovative, and other successful typefaces of his are clearly more traditional (although Palatino is also significantly innovative in more subtle ways).
    I mean, if you want to see what originality without craft achieves, look at the fonts that aren't pirated that are available on the free font download sites (that is, aside from the good ones that end up on Google Fonts).
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