Learning to make a font the hard way

Thiago Oliveira
Jul 29, 2015 · 7 min read

The year was 2009, after some four years at the design school, there it was in front of me the task of making my graduation project.

Just some semesters before I watched a lecture about the work of Jan Tschichold and was amazed, “could I design a typeface?”, I thought. I was used to drawing letters since my childhood, but just for fun. I already had an old passion for calligraphy too that was kind of forgotten and buried in my infancy memories.

So there I was with the task at hand, and an increasing interest in, and curiosity about typography and typedesign. Therefore, naturally, my choice was to make a font.

Setting boundaries

Perplexed I think is a good word to describe my feeling at first. There were endless possibilities, I could do just any type of font in any thinkable style so, with the invaluable help of my teacher and mentor in this project, I settled for the task of defining the boundaries.

The intention was to learn by making and, for that matter too, there were plenty of choices available, but I needed focus.

The “hardest” choice seen to me that would force me to learn how to do it, plus I would like to pay some homage to tradition in this first endeavour of mine in this. So the vision was getting sharpened as the researches and studies followed to the point where the decision was to make a text font, and a serifed one. So that would make a good opportunity to learn how to make fonts, and learn it the hard way.

The practice

Having dealt with illustration and lettering before, using the broad nib pen, I got the tools on and started sketching, but this was my first time with humanist letterforms and the legacy and tradition were heavy weight, I was struggling with the fact that I just hadn’t yet the skills I would like to draw those letters harmonically. The first sketches couldn’t satisfy me at all, far from it, I had to spend more time and energy to get it right.

I could just draw the letterforms like I would for some lettering, but having chosen to somehow try to reproduce some historical steps in my limited time for this project, I wanted to get better at making these forms just with the pen, so that I could feel something of that legacy of going from the calligraphic living letters to the idealized first typefaces cuts by those designers and punctionists of not so long ago.

So after some months trying, shapes were getting better, hand was getting smarter and, just in time, there were only some months left to finalize the project, I had to proceed to the digital world.

Bézier nightmares

I was not very good at it too at the time, I would spend something like a whole day just to get some curves of an “n” the way I wanted it… but in some weeks things started getting better until I realized a terrible mistake I was making.

Being familiar with Illustrator, naturally I started to open my calligraphic studies scans in it and taming bézier curves and points to digitalize the letterforms, and Illustrator was at that time, and still is, good for designing vectors, even letterings and all, but it was not made to make fonts! There was a moment of truth then, copying and pasting shapes from Illustrator to Font Lab… this showed me my deep naïveté about the process, so I ended up having to redraw a lot of forms, some in my original file in Illustrator were out of proportion, some in the copy/paste process were distorted, but I was learning it the hard way at least, and that was good after all.

Much more than beautiful shapes

So the task was to make a font, more specifically a type family based in the humanist typographic tradition, inspired and guided by the calligraphic forms, so there came that point in time when I was starting to get more satisfied with the shapes, but I knew that ahead of me lied a challenge I was not comfortable with, and was time to step there, setting side bearings, balancing spacing and facing the dreadful kerning, that one that I’ve heard a lot of scary things about, there it was at last!

That was a critical point, one that would define if this project could bear usable fruits or not, there were no value in all of the previous efforts, in terms of a final product, if I messed it all up in spacing, making the typeface unusable. So I had to proceed with caution while the clock was ticking, and understandable enough, the time taken to get those curves right in some “n” shapes, was nothing in comparison with the time spent to make it all work with proper spacing for someone who has never done it before.

This was of the hardest parts of the project, and of the most significants too, for it involves art, but not only it, it involves numbers, but it can not be reduced to it, it takes trained eyes, and that only comes with time, and in its purpose of serving and honoring both content it would portray, and people that would make use of it to shape this content (ultimately to serve other people that would take some benefit from it), this type family should have that quality that would be best described by Robert Bringhurst as somewhat of a transparent statue.

Taking this into account, in the case of spacing, a bad spacing would make the type scream, instead of having this transparency, or at least hurt the readability of its contents in subtle ways, and this was never intended for a text font.

The seriousness of the matter was clear then, so I proceeded with caution, and by the time of finishing it as a graduation project it was “done” but not yet done.

Meaningful naming

The name of choice for the project back in 2009 was “Paciencia”, from the word paciência, meaning patience in portuguese, clearly self explanatory, and it really took a lot of it, I mean, really…

Having finished it as a graduation project by the end of the first semester of 2010, it turned afterwards into a personal pursuit.

I was not at all satisfied with the results then, mostly with spacing, so between day jobs, and taking this as a side project, from 2010 until now, I changed a lot, and it changed with me. Some parts of the design were reviewed based on personal dissatisfaction with them, others on feedback from teachers back then, some flaws I could perceive only with time and, as for what spacing is concerned, it was remade from scratch at least some three times, mostly for the italics, from 2010 until now.

The conclusion, but not the end

Looking back, about six years were past since the beginnings of this journey, and it has been a nice one, so in the dawn of this year of 2015, there were intention and will to run the last miles and get it ready for release. And here I am finally… writing some words about the process, and it is done, not perfect… but done at least! And this do not mean that it is sealed and closed to improvements, those are always welcome, but there is a time when you just have to release it.

It may seem a bit, or even completely, nonsensical in the light of lean and similar methodological practices of nowadays, in the context of a digital product, to wait about six years to put something out there, but in this specific case, it was a labor of love, and some fruits are coming out now. The first one being the experience that resulted from the process, which will enable me to make some other typefaces after this one so, as for learning it the hard way, I’m content with the path that brought me here, although the learning part has no end to it, maybe it will not turn out to be that much hard after this first time.

So a text family is being born, one I would like to use in my own personal projects, with most of the things I intended it to have when it all started in 2009, coming in 16 weights, from regular to extra black with equivalent italics, small caps, some alternates and ornaments, fractions, old style plus lining and small caps numbers with equivalent tabular forms and supporting a wide range of languages that make use of the latin script.

I’m happy with the results so far, the roman regular weight will be free, and every constructive feedback is very much welcome. It will be available soon, right now I’m looking after dealing with some of the very last details, so if someone would like to know when it’s release time, there is an email list you can subscribe to in this link!

And if you came along all the way up to this point, thank you for the attention!

Thiago Oliveira

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Love typography… designing fonts