After 15 Years I Finally Created a Font

Designing a typeface and creating a font has been on my designer bucket list for a very long time. It was always one of those things I would tell myself I would do but would get put on the backburner, and other things with ‘higher priority would continue to bump it down that list. Also, let’s face it, designing a typeface is not easy. It’s tedious work that requires a lot of time, effort, and detail.

Here at Underbelly, there is a lot of encouragement for education and growth in our craft. Every quarter we set new goals for areas of importance and how we can improve in those areas. So I decided that this was an excellent opportunity for me to dive in and finally design a typeface. Here I will share some key takeaways from my research and experience with designing my first typeface. Hopefully, if this is something you have ever considered, it will inspire you to jump in and get your hands dirty in some good ol’ fashioned type design!

Font VS Typeface

Font vs Typeface

Once and for all, what the hell is the difference between a font and a typeface?! These terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Decades ago, before digital printing, typesetters used a collection of small metal glyphs to set a page of text by hand. These typesetters would organize their glyphs into different categories called ‘fonts’, such as 12 point Futura. Each ‘font’ would have to have its own collection of glyphs with its own size and weight. A typeface was the family of all of these collections of glyphs. So, a font was a more specific subcategory of a typeface.

Today we no longer need to use these collections of metal glyphs to set type. However, we still need digital collections of these glyphs in the form of .OTF, .TTF, and .WOFF files. These files that we install are now what we consider ‘fonts’. And the ‘typeface is the design of the glyphs that each file contains.

Before You Start

Know Your Type. Before you dive in, it’s helpful to educate yourself about type anatomy, classifications, and how letters interact with each other. I would recommend picking up a book or two about type design. A little research goes a long way.

Build a Library of Inspiration. I’ve learned that most type designers are hoarders of inspiration. Old magazines, packaging, signage, etc., are great tools to reference. Studying how type has been used in the past is a great way to educate yourself and decide on a direction for your type design.

Designing Type Book

Things to Consider

When you are ready to put pencil to paper or pixel to artboard, there are a few things you want to consider when designing your typeface.

How is your typeface going to be used? Before considering anything else, you want to determine how your typeface is going to be used. Are you designing something for large chunks of text that would be used in a novel or newspaper, or are you designing type for larger media such as a poster, billboard, or sign?

Serif or Sans Serif? The style of typeface is important to consider before you get started. As a general rule, sans serif typefaces are easier to design. However, if you are creating a typeface for print, especially small print, you may want to consider sans serif as it is generally much easier to read.

Geometric or handwritten? If you want a typeface with a little more character or personality, a handwritten or script typeface might be a good option for you. If you are looking for a typeface with broad usage applications, geometric is probably a better option.

Don’t design a typeface that’s good for everything. A typeface that’s trying to be good at everything most likely is good for nothing. Consider a few uses for your typeface and refine it to meet those needs very well.

My Process

Concept & Inspiration. Travel is an excellent source of inspiration for type design. Even the smallest detail can spark the beginning of an idea for a typeface. While I was on a trip to Charleston, North Carolina, we did a lot of walking around the city. I kept noticing small water meter covers on the sidewalks with a really cool design on them. I snapped some photos and didn’t think about them again. Later as I was brainstorming for an idea for my first typeface, I came across those photos of the water meter cover. They lead me to research all kinds of manholes and sewer covers. I liked the lettering on one particular manhole cover, an old relic from the Croton Aqueduct Water System in New York City. It was simple but had character. I was looking to design a typeface that would be used primarily for display purposes. Because this was my first typeface, I wanted to keep it simple and create a sans serif typeface. I had found the inspiration for my typeface and the concept around it.

Buoy Sketches

Sketching & Drafts

Most type designers have a standard process when they begin a new typeface. There are a handful of letters that are best to start with because they set the foundation for the rest of the alphabet. One method is to start with the letters O, E, L, F, I, and H. Some type designers also begin with O, E, N, A, S, and X. These letters contain many design elements that will be used throughout the rest of the letters you will be designing.

I began sketching out ideas and rough drafts of letters. After determining the look and feel I was happy with, I imported the sketches into Illustrator and began refining them.

Refining & Vectorizing

Refining & Vectorizing

After solidifying your base letters, some others come pretty naturally. With proper modifications, the letters Q, C, and G can be based on the O. The letters T and L can be based on I. There are other letters like W, M, and K that need special attention. My approach to designing my entire alphabet was long and tedious but slowly came together.

These are all details that are worth researching and studying. I will list several resources at the end of this article.

Creating My Font

There are many pieces of software that can help you convert your typeface into a font. In other words, I mean a file that can be distributed and installed on any computer for use. Some are more complex than others, which is good to keep in mind when creating your first font. Some of the more complex standalone applications are Fontlab, FontCreator, and Fontographer. I decided to use a powerful plugin for Illustrator called Fontself. This plugin is great because you can work entirely within Illustrator, keeping your workflow simple. After many revisions and much refining, I was finally ready to export version one of my font.

Marketing Image 1

Branding & Marketing

I had done it! I finally had a fully working font complete with numbers and glyphs. For the most part, I was happy with how it looked and was ready to put version one out to the world. One of the most fun aspects of designing and creating a font is the idea of other designers using it in their own designs. One way of doing this is to create some well-thought-out type specimens and example usages. I named my font Buoy and designed everything around a sailor/ocean/water theme that ended up being super fun. There was something very gratifying about using my own font in my designs.

Buoy Final

My Takeaway

Type design is hard. Very hard. It is something I think I will continue to learn about and refine my skills at, but there will probably always be room for growth. The rabbit hole goes deep with type design, and I barely scratched the surface. It was enough to satisfy my 15-year long urge to learn more about the craft, as well as pique my interest in pursuing it more in the future.

Download Buoy for free here.

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