So You Want to Make a Font?
The right type of lettering or font can do a lot for your brand. It can convey the “feel” or ethos of your company. It can associate or differentiate you from a similar business. Its legibility (or illegibility) may make the difference in how easily someone remembers (or forgets) your name. A lot of thought goes into choosing a font for a brand; there are folks who make their living working with typefaces, fonts, and letters.
I’ve always been into type. Before I even knew what typography was, I was fascinated by letters and lettering. I blame Sesame Street. And as a designer, that means I’m really into fonts.
A few years ago I got the itch to try my hand at making my own font. How hard could it be? I could draw the shapes in Adobe Illustrator and copy and paste them into a simple font editor like Fontographer. I had been admiring the blocky, rectangular lettering on engraved equipment nameplates and thought it would be the perfect inspiration for my first font. I wanted the design to work well for logos and branding. I would call it Centrifuge.
Well, I did manage to create that first version of Centrifuge, but it was anything but good or usable. The end result was disappointing and the world will never see it. But it was a good learning experience.
I started hanging out in type design forums, picking up books on lettering and typography, and began studying how professional type designers build their fonts. I learned about proper spacing, optical correction (how to build shapes so they look right to your eye), kerning (the spacing between characters), interpolation (designing your characters so the software can generate different weights), and best practices. Most importantly, I learned what not to do.
Today my process starts with sketches, by hand, in a notebook. When I have an idea for a font, I ask myself, does this really need to be made? There are already thousands of fonts available. I’ll only pursue the idea if it’s going to fill an underserved niche or if it can improve in some way on an existing font in the same category.
My next step is to draw the basic characters—usually uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and some punctuation. I will sometimes still draw in Adobe Illustrator (I’ve learned to do it the proper way), or I will draw straight in my font editor of choice, Glyphs. At this point, it’s a good idea to export a first, rudimentary version of the font and set some text with it. This will let me know if my shapes and spacing are working. The goal is to have a consistent, even look to the overall text. If that’s not the case, I go back in and edit as necessary.
Once I’m satisfied with the basic character set (this can take months!), it’s time to draw the remaining punctuation, symbols, and extra characters that make up a professional font. This is also the time to think about which languages the font will support, which means including accented and language-specific characters.
The final step is kerning. Kerning is the fine-tuning of spacing between pairs of characters. Good kerning can make the difference between a good font and a bad font. I’ve come to the conclusion that kerning is practically an art form and requires lots of practice to get right. And for me it’s the most time-consuming part of making a font.