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?
I do think studying historical types is tremendously helpful for type design. (I also subscribe to the idea that designing types is tremendously helpful for researching type history.) With enough study you start to develop a more interior understanding of why letters look the way they do--not just "I've seen enough fonts to have a sense of how wide an S should be," but rather "I've come to understand that in this genre of design, underlying simple geometry (or an impulse to even out cap widths, or an overriding focus on equalizing counters, or etc.) dictates how wide an S should be."
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...
To answer your questions. Yes, it was hard. Some parts came easily, some did not. I would say it took me about 5 years before I felt like I "got it" and could make a typeface without massive amounts of feedback from my mentors. There were a few "Aha" moments. I think it really depends on what you do with knowledge of the history of type. I don't know that you need a formal education in it, but one certainly wouldn't hurt. I do think some studying of historical proportions will help, but not as much as looking at what you are drawing very closely, in different scenarios, and spacing while you draw. It's about experience (IMO). Throw out any ideas about mathematical precision. Type design is an art, not a science. If it looks right, in the context it was designed for, it's right. Some stuff will be subjective, some people will tell you that [X] is wrong when it actually doesn't matter. The more you work with type the more you will know the difference. But it can take a long time.
Anyone who is new to typeface design, do not be afraid. You're going to make mistakes. It's going to take years, probably, before your stuff looks good. That's what happens to everyone. Do you want to stick with it? Are the rewards worth the risks? That's another discussion. But if it's something you're interested in, you owe it to yourself (and not for anyone else's approval) to try.
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.
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.”
This can be illustrated by the same set of letterforms adapted to two different styles and functions: top, Castoro text roman, and bottom. Castoro Titling caps.
PS. Thank you, moderators, for sensitively trimming the original post of its unnecessary and offensive content, retaining the relevant and possibly interesting bit.
The reason that L and T are so very narrow in Futura is to smooth out all-cap text colour, when no kerning is applied, or for that matter, when set very tightly. Far narrower than their ostensible source in antiquity, because lettering such as on Trajan’s Column was, of course, “kerned”!
However, you don’t need to adopt such extreme measures when you can easily kern your <L_T> combinations. But the downside of this is that, for me at least, so many present day types have comfortably bland proportions, tending to a sameness.
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.