Fonts: Making Your Own

We get requests from time to time by young designers wondering where one begins when they want to design their own font. I could suggest that they leave this to the professionals, but that would be a missed opportunity, since it was specifically because I picked up a pencil and drew the type around me that I developed a sense for how different typefaces do what they do, and how type genres relate to one another. So inasmuch as learning to talk about type anatomy and dabbling in type design offers insight into using type well, I’m including this in our series on using type.

Comma,-Apostrophe-1There are plenty of different approaches to type design. Some designers do very tight drawings on paper, others sketch just enough to get the main ideas worked out. Some, from this point (myself included) skip the step of digitizing hand work and compose directly on screen in a font editor. Some draw only on screen (I discourage a beginner from following this method, by the way). Figuring out what your shapes should look like, knowing which to begin with, drawing them, fitting them, testing and adjusting them to work properly in whatever context is required for target output is largely what type design is. And by necessity, the process varies with the requirements of each design.

IMG_1476To the graphic designers interested in type design who are now reading this: If you want to design type as a hobby, or for a one-off project, great! (And if you want to take it further, great!) It’s never been easier to start drawing type. I would recommend beginning with something simple you can complete in a few days’ or weeks’ time, just to get the hang of the entire process. Certain constraints and genres of type naturally lend themselves well to a quick project, such as a pixel-based design, or a constructivist face. I recommend FontStruct for someone who just wants to jump in and start making something: Arrange “bricks” on a modular grid, fill out your character set, and download your font.

Picture 1For designs that don’t work on a modular grid, you’ll need a font editor that allows you to draw and space your own vector shapes. These include Glyphs app, RoboFont Editor, Fontlab, Fontographer, and the open source editor FontForge, among others.

Picture 2An alternative to drawing your own vector shapes is to autotrace work you’ve scanned using a relatively inexpensive program called ScanFont. (There are others.) Depending on the level of quality you’re pursuing, the nature of the design, and your means of reproduction, this might be precisely the solution you’re looking for.

Follow this advice and chances are your first typeface will be a great learning experience (and honestly, I wouldn’t expect much more from it beyond that.) Good luck, remember to move on, and let us know how it goes!

Also, reach out to members of the type community, online and in person. They’re generally very helpful since every one of them has been where you are now. Once you’ve completed your first face, process stories like Tal Leming’s reflection of his new sans, Balto, will be even more meaningful to you.

Using Type continues here Thursday.


  1. Dan
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 10:50 PM | Permalink

    Why would you discourage people like this? Don’t do it yourself, don’t try, don’t struggle, don’t expect much from it. What!? What the hell are you talking about? You should be telling people to try, to do it, as much as possible, try, draw, sketch, digitize, study fonts and fontmaking and not “leave it to professionals”.

  2. Posted September 27, 2013 at 10:16 AM | Permalink

    Let me add some encouragement to Dan’s (an maybe clarify a point or two). Keep moving. Your second and third and tenth designs are going to be so much better for having moved on from your first. So start with something you can complete, do it, and move on to more ambitious work. Don’t spend a long time trying to perfect your first design. Don’t get discouraged. (I certainly don’t mean to discourage you.) Get it out of the way and your subsequent work will be all the better for it.

  3. Chuck
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 11:15 AM | Permalink

    I’ve got to agree with Dan – this post is quite discouraging and is saturated with an elitist tone that mocks anyone who would dare to dabble in font-making while not being a “professional.” Also, not spending the time on perfecting a font (whether your first creation or one-hundredth) is also a sure fire way to never learn how to create a “professional” font and only degrades the quality of the end product.

  4. Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:12 PM | Permalink

    Hi Chuck. To a certain extent, you’re right. I discourage graphic designers who show interest in type design from getting stuck trying to perfect their first effort—just as I would discourage a student of figure drawing from spending their first day on a single sketch. It takes iteration before one develops a feel for the underlying structure, an eye for the overall gesture, a mind for the constraints of the system one imposes on the design, the ability to see the source of patterns in a proof, and a sense for where to begin when the feel is slightly off.
    As for the tone of this story—that’s my unconscious doing, I guess. I shouldn’t assume that the way it sounds to me (a type designer giving beginners some advice on where to start) is the way it comes out to those reading it.

  5. david
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:39 PM | Permalink

    I actually had no problem with the tone of this. As a designer I have thought of doing a typeface more than once, but recognize that the necessary time doesn’t realistically exist in my life right now. The actual design, all of the kerning pairs etc., etc, is not something that one just bangs out over the weekend. However this article gives me a fast overview of the various software available and the encouragement to possibly try this purely for my own purposes/enjoyment without expecting instantaneous success or a commercially viable result. Nothing wrong with that! So thanks for the overview—this was really useful insight for me.

  6. Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:07 PM | Permalink

    I don’t think this is discouraging at all – just realistic. By the way, what’s the scrummy typeface used for ‘Using Type’ at the top of the page?

  7. Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:10 PM | Permalink

    Isn’t that one nice? It’s Frode Helland’s Aften Screen.

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