Design With FontForge

A book about how to create new typefaces using FontForge

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Planning Your Project

Now that you have a sense of how a font design can vary, you may want to decide whether your project will have only one font, if it will be a collection of several inter-related fonts, if it will be a (now traditional) three or four-styles type family, or if it will be something even larger.

Common styles of type families include:

  • A Regular and a Bold weight
  • Regular, Bold, Italic – eventually with a Bold Italic
  • Thin, Light, Book, Regular, Semi-Bold, Bold, Extra-Bold, Heavy and Black
  • Regular, Condensed, Bold and Bold Condensed
  • Narrow, Condensed, Wide and Extra Wide
  • Regular, Semi-Flourished, Flourished, Very Flourished, Extremely Flourished.

While there are reasons that typical patterns in families exist, you may find you want a very different kind of grouping.

The scope of the project can be determined exclusively by your ambition and your amount of free time. But project scopes are often determined by the use you have for the collection or family of fonts, or, even further, by the needs of your client. Certainly for professional type designers, the latter two questions are usually the determining factors.


The most important thing about a type design is the feelings it evokes. This is notoriously hard to verbalise, but it is what makes a particular typeface meaningfully different from any other.

A type designer in Portugal, Natanael Gama, designed the Exo family with FontForge. On his homepage he describes another project for the sculptor John Williams and includes a graphic showing his brief in a matrix of continuums of feelings:

  • Figurative to Abstract 50%
  • Graceful to Robust: 30%
  • Calm to Energetic: 0%
  • Puzzling to Plain: 15%
  • Experimental to Standard: 15%
  • Prestigious to Ordinary: 15%
  • Other Ideas: Beautiful, Outside Spaces, Human Condition

Glyph coverage

A font is still a font even if it has only one glyph in it. But a font can also have a few hundred or even thousands of glyphs. If your project is self-initiated, then this choice is ultimately arbitrary. You may decide you only want capitals, or that you want to include the glyphs found in the other fonts you use. If you are doing work for a client, you may want to clarify which language or languages the font is meant to support. Your goal could also be to extend an existing font, adding a few glyphs to make it work in one or more additional languages.

It’s certainly a good idea to make this choice deliberately, and to err on the side of including less rather than more. Often as a typeface is being made, it can be tempting to include more and more glyphs – but it is frequently more valuable to continue to improve the core set of glyphs than adding new ones.

Multi-style family workflow

If you know from the start that you will have more than one font, you will save yourself time if you plan and build the font family systematically, and work on the styles somewhat in parallel, rather than completing one style at a time.

It is of course impossible to create every style in a completely parallel manner, but it’s possible to complete a given design step for each style in order to check and be sure about the relationships between the styles, early in the process. You may find that it is useful to complete one full set of test letters (such as “adhesion”) for a regular version, and then to make “adhesion”s for the other styles next. However, you can also make the process even more granular and make decisions about specific parts of the base letters (such as the ‘n’ and ‘o’) for all styles together.

Depending on the size and composition of the family you are planning, you may find that it saves time to make interpolatable instances of glyphs, not only so you can interpolate intermediate styles, but to aid making design choices about those typographic variables that shift across the members of a family.
For a remainder of the variables you should be considering, see the chapter “What is a font?”.

Technical: Version Management

You should learn to use Git and Github to store your files, and use the “SFDir” format for your sources.

Overall Process

Testing Environments

When planning your project, you must consider the medium of typography you are intending the typeface for primarily and secondarily: Mobile and web, or digital projectors, or cheap office bubblejet and laser printers, or high end print bureau laser printers, or magazine offset lithographic printing, or high-speed high-volume newspaper printing… and so on. You should then try to acquire or arrange access to those typesetting technologies, so you can see the real results of your work.

Throughout the type design process, you will find it very helpful to preview text set with your (prototype) typeface at a higher resolution than your laptop or workstation screen. This typically means a laser printer with “true” 1200 DPI and Adobe PostScript 3. For individuals it is possible purchase something like this for around $500, and some 2013 recommendations were:

  • HP P2055d
  • Xerox Phaser 4510
  • Xerox Phaser 5550
  • Nashua/Ricoh P7026N

In May 2013, the Production Type studio has a Xerox 7525 with “fiery” controller, which costs around €12,000 to purchase but is €300 per month to lease with toner, parts and maintenance. In late 2015, Octavio Pardo leased a Xerox Phaser 7100 in a similar way for €30 per month.

OpenType Features

You can plan the OpenType features of your project before you begin drawing. Common features include

  • liga Ligatures
  • onum, lnum Numerals

For some languages locl works but for others it doesn’t, so it is best to expose language specific forms via both locl and ssNN or cvNN.

The OpenType specification allows for some kinds of features which are not recommend:

Further Reading