Design With FontForge

A book about how to create new typefaces using FontForge

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Creating Your Type’s DNA

After you have completed good solid design and spacing of the ‘o’ and ‘n’, the next thing to do is to begin populating the font with letters whose structural characteristics provide a useful basis for making many of the other letters in the font.

It may be tempting to rush and populate your font as rapidly as possible with all the letters — resist this urge!
While ‘o’ and ‘n’ provide an excellent starting-point to the foundation of the design, we need to establish the rest of it. Rapid expansion before this is done will mean that the whole project will become harder to manage — and takes longer than it needs to.

What else do we need for the foundation of our design? — First, let’s look at what we’ve got with our ‘n’ and ‘o.’

Although the ‘o’ is especially useful for working out the basic spacing, it’s not going to help us design other characters — not necessarily even the ‘b’ or ‘d’.
The letter ‘n’, on the other hand, is very useful because it helps making the ‘m’, ‘h’, and ‘u’. The other factor that we need to weigh when choosing letters for our foundation is how frequently the letter is used. A letter that’s used a lot will help us make test words. Some of the letters may be chosen almost exclusively for this particular reason.

The letters you choose don’t have to be those suggested here. They should simply have the characteristics being discussed. So, for instance, you may want to use “a d h e s i o n” to start with. This set of letters is what’s used in the type design MA course at the University of Reading, UK.
An alternative is “v i d e o s p a n” which is used by the foundry Type Together to start their projects, and in their own type design workshops. Either set has enough DNA to be meaningful, and both are small, so they are easy to make ‘global’ changes to.

While it may be easiest to simply use one of the above sets of letters, you can also build your own. Ask yourself what set of letters you should pick to add to ‘n’ and ‘o’. Consider the following options:

  • ‘a’ — the letter ‘a’ is also a very common starting choice. The ‘a’ may also be useful in ‘anticipating what the terminals of the ‘s’ will look like.
  • ‘d’ — the shape of ‘d’ can let you know quite a lot about the design of ‘b’, ‘p’ and ‘q’.
  • ‘e’ — in English and many other languages, the letter ‘e’ is especially common — which ‘makes it especially valuable. The shape of ‘e’ can also be used to begin the design of ‘c’.
  • ‘h’ — while ‘h’ can be built fairly rapidly from the ‘n’, it also provides variety to the texture you want to test by offering an ascender.
  • ‘i’ — like ‘e’, the letter ‘i’ is fairly common and has the benefit of letting you know a little bit about the face of the ‘j’. The shape of ‘i’ is also partly inferable from the shape of the ‘n’.
  • ‘s’ — the letter ‘s’ is a good one to draw early on because it adds visual variety to the texture of the letters you will be testing. The letter ‘s’ is also unusually hard to get right, so starting on it early makes it more likely that you will be able to spend enough time to get it right by the end of the project.
    The terminals of the ‘s’ may sometimes be useful for anticipating what the terminals of ‘a’, ‘c’, ‘f’, ‘j’ and ‘y’ could be like.
  • ‘v’ — the letter ‘v’ is useful for anticipating what the ‘y’ and ‘w’ may be like.

Once you have these letters, it’s good to spend time refining them by testing words that are made from them. As before with the ‘n’ and ‘o’, a great deal of attention should be paid to the spacing of the letters and the relationships of the counters to these spaces.

Here is a TypeDrawers thread on determining the ascender and descender heights: http://typedrawers.com/discussion/1620/ascender-descenders-in-latin-type-design

Building a test text

There are many resources available online for rapidly building your dummy test text:

Use real text

Those dummy texts are in a way “blind” texts; you can not actually, really, read them.

But once you have a dozen or so letters, you can construct real text to experience immersive reading. This is essential for deeply understanding how the design performs, so its good to get to this stage quickly.

But watch out for the stale text effect. If you re-use the same real text for testing your typeface, it can become so familiar that you lose some perception abilities for how the typeface is performing.

Once you have a full alphabet, to ensure fresh text, you can set your operating system font, email application, or web browser’s default font to be your font.

This was discussed on the Type Drawers forum On The Use of Blind Texts thread.