Challenges of Choosing the Right Typeface

Interview with Type Designer Alanna Munro

Finding the right font for your project can be frustrating. Type Designer Alanna Munro shares how finding the right typeface informed her decisions while designing the typeface Tofino.

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Lizzi Chen: Thanks for setting aside time to talk with us, Alanna! You’ll be speaking at Creative Pulse in a couple days about finding the right typeface for a project. I’d like to talk about your background and experience first. Let’s start from the beginning: How did you get involved with design in general, and what drew you to type design and lettering specifically?

Alanna Munro

Alanna Munro: Hi Lizzi, thanks for having me! I went to Emily Carr University here in Vancouver and did some type design while at university. I absolutely loved it but didn’t really pursue it until later. After graduating, I worked at a digital design firm for a couple years. Then I started going to a local lettering club where we rolled out vellum on the tables and drew letters while talking about design and enjoying beer and pizza. Hanging out with all those wonderfully letter-obsessed people was the encouragement I needed to start working on Tofino.

LC: Congratulations on the release! So what was happening during your career that inspired you to speak about this topic?

AM: When I was a designer straight out of school I didn’t have a clue how to find interesting, contemporary typefaces. There are a lot of great resources to help with this search, but I didn’t even know where to find those and I think there are a lot of other designers in that position.

Alanna’s side project

I also started speaking around the time I started making Tofino, more about my other side project Local Lettering in which I was recreating vector versions of old apartment signage from my neighborhood. I really enjoyed sharing things I had learned and I’d like to continue sharing more about this industry with others. I think the process of making type can be valuable knowledge to the people working with type.

You first need to have a pretty detailed idea of what those classifications mean and what visual styles they might hold.

The Challenges of Choosing the Right Typeface

LC: So it’s fair to say this was a common frustration in your design community. Could part of the frustration be attributed to the paradox of choice?

AM: I think that’s fair to assume. I didn’t really do a study to find out for sure, but generally, as a human, if you are feeling a certain way, there are likely many others who feel the same. It also might be evident in the popularity of tools and websites that aim to help you choose typefaces. I definitely think the paradox of choice is part of it! There are a ridiculous amount of commercial typefaces available on the internet today. I’ve seen estimates between 400,000 and 500,000. The only way I can see narrowing that down is to consult an expert and type designers are some of the most knowledgeable people out there when it comes to typefaces.

LC: This is a great segue into tool search, actually. There’s a research demo project that parses the metadata of Google fonts as another way to classify and analyze visual characteristics of a typeface, not sure if you’re seen it. Basically it takes on the premise that font search menus either have too many or too few options, making typeface search interfaces less of a systematic exploration. What are your thoughts on the way we search for fonts and the way we’re classifying them? Could this also play a part in what’s causing the process to be so time-consuming?

AM: I haven’t actually seen that project yet but that sounds super interesting! That may be a really great way to help with searching. I know from my experience when you are searching by classification, you first need to have a pretty detailed idea of what those classifications mean and what visual styles they might hold. Most try to keep it simple by giving you the choice of something like serif and sans serif but that’s not going to help if it narrows down your options to 500 choices. On the other hand, when the filters get very detailed it’s hard to know what is contained in them and you might be missing the font you are looking for because its been classified as something slightly different.

I’d saying knowing your budget, what features and what kind of licensing you need will save you a lot of headache later in the process.

A Method in Searching for the Solution

LC: Can you elaborate more on your search method and decision making when choosing typefaces?

AM: My process has been evolving for a while and now I’m starting with specific type designers and foundries I admire. I’ve got a list of places I know have great quality, will fit into the price range I need, have a good variety of styles, and support the communities around them. If I choose the “font store” first, I don’t have to think about those things while figuring out the style of a typeface that fits a project. So I’d saying knowing your budget, what features and what kind of licensing you need will save you a lot of headache later in the process.

LC: Speaking of saving oneself from headaches, can you share any learning experiences? Presumably you write, “…there was a good chance it had a hidden shortcoming that would require hours of painful customization later on.” What unforeseen customization have you had to do, and what new awareness was gained?

AM: This is usually a risk with the lower-priced fonts. Some of them don’t have complete character sets, or are missing kerning tables. If it doesn’t have great kerning, you will be constantly fixing letter pairs as you work on stuff and if you want to use it on a website you might as well start again because you can’t fix kerning on the web. An actual example I ran into was when I was working on branding for a pie company and we wanted to make some pi jokes in the marketing material. The typeface I had chosen didn’t actually have the pi symbol so I had to make one from scratch that looked like it belonged with the rest of the typeface.

I learned something new that was vital to the entire structure of the typeface.

What Alanna Learned From Designing Tofino

LC: Sounds like quite a ride. Let’s switch gears and talk about the release of Tofino in 2016, as it has served as an eye-opener for you. What are some revelations you came across?

AM: I think first is just the sheer amount of knowledge that goes into it. There are all kinds of subtle things in both the drawings of the letters and the spacing around them to make a typeface look “right”. I think I trashed the whole thing and started over at least 3 times because I learned something new that was vital to the entire structure of the typeface. I’m sure it gets easier as you make more typefaces but I still have a huge respect for the amount of work that goes into creating something like that.

I also became aware of just how niche and small the type design community is and the amazing things they are doing for our daily communication. I am used to doing really niche things, I grew up playing the side drum in a pipe band — that’s the one with bagpipes. It’s some of the most technical drumming in the world and the culture is steeped in tradition and it’s highly competitive. But when you are in that world, you don’t realize no one else has a clue what it’s like; public perception is way off. Most people probably don’t realize there’s a pipe band world championship competition but for us it was a huge part of our life.

I think the type design industry is a bit like that, especially for the general public. They don’t have a clue that type design is even a profession. The difference is that people use typefaces every day and they probably don’t listen to bagpipes very often, haha.

Foundries all seem to have different rules for what we can and can’t do with their type and it’s hard to keep them all straight.

Licensing with Type Foundries

LC: Definitely — it goes to show how important community is! Having been on the other end of sifting through and picking typefaces for use, has this affected the way you approached Tofino at all? On the flip side, how has the release led to insight on the industry itself in terms of licensing and legal matters?

Tofino weights from Lost Type

AM: When I was making Tofino I definitely paid a lot of attention to include useful features. I carefully considered which styles to include, which figure sets were useful, including stuff like all caps punctuation so your brackets don’t look all long and weird when you set type in all caps. These were little things that frustrated me when I was using type and not things you often think to check for when shopping for type.

It has definitely given me insight into the industry and licensing is a huge messy part of it that I think causes a lot of confusion for type consumers. Foundries all seem to have different rules for what we can and can’t do with their type and it’s hard to keep them all straight. This was a huge conversation we were having at ATypI in Montreal last year. I am fascinated with how to make licensing more understandable and easy for the consumer, it’s probably something I will tackle in the future.

The Talk’s Main Takeaway

LC: Keep us posted on that! As for the tips you’ll be sharing on Thursday, is this aimed towards designers who are familiar with the anatomy of type or for those with minimal background?

AM: It is for those with minimal background but I think some of the tips will extend to those who have some experience in choosing type as well, it’s a little bit about changing your perception and process of how to shop for type.

LC: Wish I could make it out there. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge with us! Will this information be made available later online?

AM: This talk won’t be filmed, but I will have a follow up blog post that links to a lot of the resources I’ll be talking about. Hopefully, I’ll be able to take the talk around to a few other places in the future.

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