Unearthing Some Truths About Type Design

Piecing together some clues on how to master this difficult craft

Janina Aritao
Dec 28, 2020 · 10 min read

A typeface is a mysterious creature.

A well-designed typeface can look like the most obvious thing. You wouldn’t think to question the shape of the serif, or the negative spaces. They look perfect. Like leaves, they look just the way they should be.

Except, typefaces didn’t just grow out of the soil. They’re a product of hundreds of hours of work, thousands of hours of education, and years of influence and typeface design evolution.

Like a detective, a type nerd will be able to tell roughly what historical period a typeface is from, and what influences the type designer may have drawn from.

A typeface’s beauty is largely influenced by cultural perceptions of what is a good typeface, something that has evolved from years of the print tradition-typesetting and designing type, and most importantly, the experience of reading typeset text in books and publications.

As graphic designers, we have the privilege of staring at type, blowing it up playfully to create gorgeous supergraphics, experimenting typographically, and spacing and kerning to achieve a desired effect or impact. Typefaces are one of our most crucial building blocks and raw materials for visual communication. Finding an appropriate and well-designed typeface is a big leap of progress in any project, a stage that jumpstarts you into feats of creativity on the page.

The Helvetica lowercase “a” up close, with its iconic teardrop-shaped negative space

When you try making a supergraphic out of something like Helvetica, you can’t help but marvel at its details. What’s in these magical curves? Where did they come from? How did they form?

The magical curves are all part of a certain typeface logic. It’s almost like a secret language that only type designers see. It’s very subtle, so for a graphic designer like me, it was not obvious at all how a text typeface takes shape.

Text Type vs Display Type

The mystery to me was in learning how text type, the “workhorse typeface” as I’ve heard it called, is constructed. The principles behind a good, pleasing modern text typeface.

Designers use text typefaces all the time, especially for editorial work. Examples are Sabon, Garamond, Avenir, Minion. With a vast character set, and usually a family of weights and styles (Light, Light Italic, Roman, Italic, Bold, Bold Italic, Medium, Medium Italic, etc.), they work hard, indeed. And so did the type designers who made them. These typefaces, created for use in books and publications, presented a real mystery to me as I tried my hand at making type.

Display type, in contrast, which is used for large text (and may be illegible or awkward-looking in small sizes). Display type doesn’t have to adhere to certain design requirements that small type does (such as the recommended amount of contrast, size of serifs, if any, size of apertures, x-height, and proportions that are optimal for comfortable reading).

Learning Text Type at Type @ Cooper PoTD

Thanks to COVID-19, I had the opportunity to study type design with people on the other side of the world, in a type design class by Type@Cooper in New York City.

Type@Cooper PoTD (Principles of Typeface Design) is a guided typeface design experience with a team of instructors led by Troy Leinster, and the programme is generous with one-on-one feedback. It’s a one-semester period, journeying through various stages of designing type with classmates who are passionate and serious about type.

Beyond sharpening my understanding of the rhythm and logic to letterforms, Type@Cooper PoTD allowed me to dig into what it takes to make a text type and be guided by experienced type designers.

Working on my project, which is a text typeface, here are some lessons that I unearthed that will be helpful for anyone starting to explore type design.

1. There are some things you can only learn straight from a master.

I have been learning type design from various online sources and courses for years now and so when I found out that Type@Cooper offered short courses online (due to COVID-19), it was such a welcome opportunity. A real class, in real time, with real, live classmates. And it offered “lots and lots of feedback” as the write-up said.

I’ve learned so much more in 10 weeks of interactions with the instructors and students than years of taking various one-way online courses and self-learning.

The online resources can be a good supplement and reference, but if you’re serious about learning, a mentor changes everything.

A screen capture of live feedback I received on the spot

2. You can’t ignore type history

In a field like graphic design, you can get away with not knowing the various art movements or the evolution of logotypes. Your ignorance can result in fresh work.

But that’s not the case in the world of type design. Understanding how reading, writing, and type creation evolved develops your understanding of why and how typefaces work.

In the Type@Cooper course, we started with a whole session of calligraphy. Calligraphy does so much explaining of why printed letters are shaped the way they are. Type design still refers to “pen angle” which is based on how a calligrapher would hold the pen to create strokes with a particular thick-and-thin relationship.

My calligraphy exercises for the class

At one point in history, before mass printing was invented, printed material was reproduced through writing. And after the invention of the printing press, handwritten characters became more drawn than written. They eventually evolved into “perfected shapes” by some type craftsmen such as Gianbattista Bodoni, who designed the original metal-cast Bodoni typeface.

3. Type design is a lifelong adventure.

It takes time and practice to really “get it,” and starting out is like being a newbie swimming and riding a bike, but when you finally get it, you can move on to building specific skills and strengths and learning techniques.

But even after that, your eye will never graduate.

A typeface is never done, even the masters will say there is always something the can still improve in their commercially released typefaces.

At the end of 10 weeks, we finished our basic character sets, enough to create a type specimen and show its various recommended uses. But we wouldn’t call any of our typeface projects completed.

And during the final presentation day, we all shared how else we would develop and evolve the type, as well as received suggestions-for example, add a bold and italic weight, ornaments, cursive versions.

But seeing everyone’s presentations, I could already imagine how I could use the typefaces my classmates designed, in various types of design projects.

4. Type is still human.

Even though type drawings are go through rigorous refinement and are tweaked to perfection, they are done by human hands, and with a human sensibility. There are many aspects to type that people automate (such as the creation of a spacing calculator) and programmes with smart spacing features), but majority of design decisions, and the sense of beauty, proportion, among other characteristics type embodies, are really a function of the human eye and brain. The typeface bears the designer’s fingerprint.

Sketching with black ink and refining with white-out

Type design is also learned in many different ways, with no single correct or standard way of creating type. Our instructor Troy has been through major type design educational programmes, and from his own experiences and learnings, would “pick and choose” the principles he would put into practice.

This makes a lot of sense to me too. Having taken many type design short courses, it is obvious that typeface designers all approach things differently. When I took an introductory workshop with the great Jean Francois-Porchez when he visited Singapore in 2016 (where I lived at the time), he taught us the French method; when I took the Type@Cooper course, we learned a different sketching technique.

All this makes the craft diverse and exciting and should give type designers the confidence to think independently and create their own system for making type.

5. Good type is never designed alone.

Type@Cooper often quotes R. Hunter Middleton: ‘Relationship’ is the most important word in type design. A typeface is a system governed by the relationships between characters, creating a coherent set of glyphs.

But Middleton’s phrase may as well have a second meaning too. Being part of a type community is key to learning type. For me, having a lack of type peers in the past has been crippling, and connecting with fellow type students has helped to accelerate learning and increase my confidence.

Access to references and resources I wouldn’t have found on my own has also been vital in developing efficient practice and staying current. This is especially valuable because in the typeface design industry, there is no obvious place to look for answers. They are like hidden treasures.

6. In type design, drawing and spacing are one.

Drawing letters and letterspacing are not two separate stages, as I used to think.

Previously, I would draw all the characters first, then space them.

But a typeface, as was famously said, is not a group of beautiful letters, but a beautiful group of letters. They have to be treated as a team, not a bunch of individuals.

That means, a letter is always draw in consideration of how it will work together with the other letters.

I recently saw a title frame in a production in which the leg of the R was fancy and long, and it made the name PERSIA look like PER SIA. The R had compromised the ability of the letters of the word to work as a good, legible team.

7. Type design is like sculpting.

One of the teaching assistants in our class, Cris, said that type design is like sculpting.

Imagine drawing a block slightly resembling a letter. Then adjust the curves, and keep refining, until you have the shape you want.

Similarly, Troy demonstrated a possible way to draw an S, by creating an angular form, and then smoothening them into curves, and adjusting little by little until it had the right curves and proportions.

I also learned that even the pros go through awkward stages in their letter drawings, which was of great comfort to me.

8. Typeface design is like archaeology.

At many points in a type design project, you will find yourself wondering where to begin. For me, it was making an italic version of a regular typeface.

Part of type design is knowing where to dig things up to find clues, or how to figure things out by studying existing typefaces.

“Think of it as archeology” our teaching instructor Allyn said. She described that element of being an archaeologist or historian in which you search for answers. Aside from being passed on from one master to another, type design clues and treasures are found by digging.

Existing typefaces have always served as helpful maps to type students figuring out the rhythm and logic behind typeface design, and learning what works and what doesn’t.

By studying other typefaces, we learn how type designers solved certain problems. While doing typeface “archaeology” I was encouraged by this article on type designer Zuzana Licko -she didn’t go through formal education; she was guided by typefaces such as Bodoni and Baskerville as she created many of the most popular typefaces of the 90s, which are still in use today. Among them are Mrs Eaves and Filosofia.

9. Type Design is a labor of love.

During our last day of group discussion and feedback, some of us stated the obvious: typeface design is a labor of love. “You don’t go into this for the money,” Allyn said. Yet it’s one activity that we type students are happy to stay up late at night doing. It’s a very productive, although not always lucrative, addiction.

But there is so much satisfaction in making a typeface. As a graphic designer, I make things for brands. I design communication pieces. But making a typeface feels like making art. I know it has a design brief, but it has that element of art in which you are creating something that is almost like an offering, made from the heart, with a piece of yourself in it. Something valuable, and lasting.

Finally, before the 10th week, all my basic characters were ready, in a test file loaded into Font Book.

10. Typeface designers shape the past, present, and future of graphic design.

Thanks to typeface designers, our work as graphic designers is already halfway done.

Typeface designers have greatly influenced the landscape of graphic design, and continue to shape its future through their dedication to the craft and sense of adventure in crafting new typefaces.

Something I would like to do more as a graphic designer is mention the typeface used and give credit to the typeface designer whenever possible.

Graphic designers can’t do any beautiful and functional design work without well-crafted type.

Originally published at https://www.janinaa.com on December 28, 2020.

Alphabetype

Insights and discoveries from type design students, observers, and explorers.

Janina Aritao

Written by

Writer • Communication Designer • Type Explorer | janinaa.com

Alphabetype

Learning type design is a crazy adventure. So here’s where we can share our explorations and excavations, and learn from each others slips and successes. Spill the beans, we’d love to hear your story.

Janina Aritao

Written by

Writer • Communication Designer • Type Explorer | janinaa.com

Alphabetype

Learning type design is a crazy adventure. So here’s where we can share our explorations and excavations, and learn from each others slips and successes. Spill the beans, we’d love to hear your story.

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