Students from Karen’s class at the University of Washington, Seattle

Imagine Making Your Own Font

An Interview with Author of “Designing Type” Karen Cheng

Karen has taught type design for 20 years, at different levels. In this interview we talk about how she structures her course, what the different philosophical issues she encounters are, and finally we discuss the role of software versus the hand in designing type.

Kara in discussion with Michelle about her lettering project at GoogleNYC

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Karen Cheng: Hi Ulrik—I’m excited to meet you!

Ulrik Hogrebe: Hi Karen! I am really excited to meet you too!

Karen — I know you from your book “Designing Type” which is one of the texts I’ve used in my own type design pursuits. But today, we won’t be dealing specifically with the book, but taking a step back and having a broader discussion of what it means to teach type design and typography.

But for those who aren't familiar with your work, do you mind giving a bit of an intro to yourself?

KC: I am a Professor of Visual Communication Design at the University of Washington in Seattle, where I’ve been teaching an annual course in type design for twenty years. I started at UW in 1997.

I learned type design as a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati — the faculty member who taught type design there was Heinz Schenker, a graduate of the Basel School of Design in Switzerland. I think his type design teacher was Emil Ruder, the author of the iconic “Typographie” book.

Karen’s book; Designing Type

The challenges of teaching type

UH: Wow! Those are some pretty notable mentors! Given your expertise, I feel like you are the perfect person to ask this; why is it so hard to teach type design?

KC: There are different kinds of challenges that come up every year. Some things are part of teaching and structuring any design class. Other issues are more philosophical — for example, deciding what is the best approach to teaching type design. That varies according to the type of students you have, and the goal of the program that they are enrolled in, of course.

For example, at the University of Washington, I’m mainly teaching our Visual Communication Design students. It’s important for these students to learn enough about type so that they can be good typographers and good mark/symbol designers. Most students won’t go on to become professional type designers. This isn’t a specialist graduate program in type design — not at all what students would experience at the University of Reading or at KABK, for example.

Some graphic design students to want to make unique, noticeably “cool” letter features. But type design can be quite a subtle activity.

UH: Yes, it’s kind of the difference between taking a self-defence class and becoming a black-belt I guess? I suppose you are dealing more with people who are just setting out rather than people who have already a lot of proficiency. What are the main challenges you encounter with your students? Where do you see them struggling the most?

KC: The black-belt analogy is great. I’ve taught type design to a mixed class of senior undergraduate and graduate students, and those students have more skill and visual sensitivity than sophomores. But both groups have similar problems, perhaps to a different degree.

One key issue is learning to see both the positive and negative shapes of a glyph. It’s easy to just focus on drawing the outlines of a letter.

But when you draw the outline, you’re also defining the negative space — the white space — inside and around the letter. Getting those shapes right is challenging. It’s a test of visual skill and perception.

Tracing found type samples to define initial parameters
Evolving glyphs from the original sample

Perhaps a more philosophical problem is deciding how to put personality into a typeface. Some graphic design students to want to make unique, noticeably “cool” letter features. But type design can be quite a subtle activity. Features that make specific letters stand out are often problematic. It’s not the same kind of design problem as making a dynamic layout, or a poster that arrests people’s attention.

UH: Yes, I feel like I’ve run into both problems — but also find them oddly linked. Because I am aware that I don’t have that perfect eye, I try to compensate by making some detail of the typeface stand out. And then at the same time, struggling with carrying that design feature through in the subtleties of the font going forward.

Have you heard this idea that you are not a true type designer if you haven’t designed a typeface for running text? What do you think of that?

KC: Yes, it’s the ultimate test for a type designer, isn’t it — the challenge of making a clear yet elegant “crystal goblet” for typography. It’s like a test I’ve seen for pastry chefs — I think they are required to make a plain sponge cake. It’s very difficult to make a perfect version of something that so simple.

Structuring a class

UH: Don’t I know it! Tell me a bit about your classes? How are they structured?

KC: Well, most recently I’ve been teaching a type design class at the sophomore level. There are thirty students, which is pretty large. I also cover symbol design in this class, so I just have five weeks to teach students something about type design.

But it’s a fun challenge. I’ve been using a project that Jean François Porchez demonstrated when he came to Seattle in 2012. We hosted him at the University of Washington for a one-week type design workshop.

In his project, students worked in groups to design a typeface — a single weight and style. For 30 students, this means six groups of five students each. Each group is given a type design prompt — a photograph of a hand-painted sign, gravestone, etc. This source gives students some of the letters, and many of the initial parameters — they have the letter stroke weights, serif shapes (or sans-serif endings), etc.

Student work from found lettering to typeface (by Daisy James, Alex Britton, Piper Wysaske and Caitlin Murphy).

It has been a bit difficult to find good source material here in Seattle, because this is a fairly modern city, historically speaking. In Paris, where Jean François lives, there are plenty of wonderful hand-lettered signs. But we can use images of signs from books and on Flickr — Stephen Cole’s Flickr photostream has great images, for example.

UH: I love that! Especially the group part, which I suppose also teaches them to critique as well as create. So what is the process? Do they sketch in hand? And then digitize? How does it work?

KC: First, the students take the original image and correct any perspective problems. Then, they enlarge the image and adjust the value range to try to get clear letters — black shapes on a white ground. The students can trace the letters as precisely as possible, to make a set of key glyphs that all other letters have to match.

I divide the letters into specific groups for each student:

Member 1 (17 glyphs): OCG, S, EFIHTL, vy, w, z, t, f, fi

Member 2 (17 glyphs): D, BPR, Q, U, J, nmhu, r, s, a, g, j, i

Member 3 (17 glyphs): AV, W, Y, M, N, Z, Xx, Kk, db, pq, ce 
Member 4 (17 glyphs): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0, period, comma/double/single quote, ?, !, ( ), hyphen + dashes (en/em), *

If there is a fifth person, their job is:
Member 5: takes three glyphs from each member (EFI+BPR+MNZ+689) and draws: @, &

Typeface design by Dana Golan, Cameron Coupe, Jennifer Strong, Eva Grate and Sahm Lee, based on a sign shown in Louis Fili’s Graphique de la Rue.

Before they can draw their individual glyphs, the students do all need to agree on all the main measurements. For capital letters they need to agree on:
 The thick vertical stroke thickness (of a letter like the I, L, E, F, H) The thin horizontal stroke thickness
 The maximum bowl thickness (of a letter like the O, C, G) 
 The minimum bowl thickness

For lower case letters they need to agree on:
 The thick vertical stroke thickness (of a letter like the h, l, f)
 The thin horizontal stroke thickness
 The maximum bowl thickness (of a letter like the o or c) 
 The minimum bowl thickness

All the letters are hand-drawn first, then scanned and digitized in either TypeTool (FontLab) or Glyphs. The student group then has to elect a “Font Master” who will do the spacing. However, there’s often more than one Font Master. Students usually wind up passing the file around in several rounds of development.

To present the final typeface, they have to make a type specimen poster. Everyone makes a design variation, but only one poster design is selected and refined.

Porchez (next to Karen, middle) and students at the workshop in 2012

For the poster, they have to agree on a name for their typeface, and how to represent the personality of the typeface. That can be quite interesting. 
 For example, this year one of the prompts was this book by Dwiggins. The group wanted their typeface name to have a Q in it, because they were proud of their Q. But it’s not easy to find good names with a Q. Their final name was “Quentin.” A different constraint was their S and A — both letters had construction problems. So they wanted to avoid names with an S or an A, which is a bit silly. They should have simply improved those letters. But of course, it’s not easy to draw a good S.

Collaboration and group dynamics

UH: The S is my nemesis! I really like the collaboration aspect, as I think it’s such a key element to typeface design; it’s very much tacit learning. You learn from doing and interacting with other designers. How much of emphasis do you like to place on those aspects of type design?

KC: I do try and emphasize collaboration, because that’s such an important part of the design field today. For example, at the start of the project, students have to make a group contract. The contract describes the working rules of the group — when they will meet, how they will resolve conflicts, how they will communicate, etc.

The exhausted Patisserie typeface team, after the final critique.

Halfway through the project, students have to conduct a peer evaluation. In the peer eval, they have to tell each other one thing that the person is doing well, and one thing that the person could try to improve/change about their behavior.

I’ve also tried assigning personality tests that students take and share with each other. I’ve been using one adapted from this book a book by Robert Sternberg on thinking styles.

It’s difficult to prevent all group problems, however. Groups have issues because some people are better at drawing letters than others; some people care more about quality than others; and some people have more time that they are willing to devote to the project than others. Pretty much everyone (including myself) has difficulties clearly communicating expectations, compliments and complaints to each other.

Software vs. sketching by hand

UH: Ha! Team dynamics are always the hardest part of any human endeavor, I think. It’s amazing what we’ve accomplished as humans despite of it.

So another thing I wanted to touch upon, is how you have seen education evolve over time? What are the students expectations? Are you doing things differently now than before?

It’s still important to have real visual and physical skills — and to use critical design thinking to solve problems.

KC: Yes — for example, these peer evals and personality tests are fairly new efforts for me.

In the past, I just hoped that students would work out group issues themselves. But when teaching a graduate seminar on design education, I read quite a bit of literature on group projects in design. There is actually a lot of research in this area that can be directly applied to practice. I should have realized this sooner, of course.

In terms of the activity of type design, in some ways it is a relatively stable field. The challenge of drawing an actual letter has not changed that much. There’s more type to look at now, of course.
 I do notice that the student comfort with technology has really shifted over the last twenty years. When I first started, students were still uncomfortable with computers. There were no laptops, and scanning letter sketches created huge files (well, huge in the 1990’s) that were then difficult to manage.

Final Esso typeface design by Rachel Hobart, Lacey Verhalen, Molly Boyd and Jamie Martin.

But now, students are very eager to find software programs that promise to do the work for them. Sometimes they are a bit too eager to build letters on the computer from chopped up parts — for example, they want to divide an“o” and merge it with an “l” to make a (horrible) “d.”

It’s great that students are comfortable with technology — and there are great font software programs. For example, I love that you can delete a point and the curve stays the same (why can’t we do this in Adobe Illustrator?).

But I think digital tools sometimes make designers lazy and passive. It’s still important to have real visual and physical skills — and to use critical design thinking to solve problems.

I also think that we have a different mindset when we’re sketching . The idea flows from your head to your hand quickly, without the barrier of clicking on a tool, selecting parameters, etc. More hand sketching is always better.

UH: Yes, I’d agree — and I think there is something about personal style too. My old CD would force me to sketch things by hand before going into a program. He believed that your style is in your hand and that digital tools erase that.

I think I’d like to close with asking you what your top advice is to others who are about to go teach people how to design type?

KC: That’s a great statement from your CD! It’s very true. I also think that we have a different mindset when we’re sketching . The idea flows from your head to your hand quickly, without the barrier of clicking on a tool, selecting parameters, etc. More hand sketching is always better.
 Sometimes I’m a bit sad that some of the “art” parts of graphic design seems to be fading — they are being replaced by analysis, A/B testing and the like. Those are important additions to design, but I got into design because those artistic aspects seemed to lead to surprise and delight. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back the other way at some point.

Typeface design by Kaito Gengo.

In terms of passing on advice — I’m not sure that I have much advice for others about teaching type. I actually wish that there were more resources/forums for discussing this topic with others.

It’s always inspiring to go to TypeCon and ATypI conferences so that one can see what others are doing. At the last TypeCon in Seattle there was a presentation by Ann Bessemans from Belgium (PXL-MAD, Hasselt) — she showed some beautiful typographic experiments from her graduate students. 
 It was a great talk, but I wish there was more opportunity to discuss how others might replicate those educational experiences. For example, I think she was using large brushes dipped in water so that students could draw calligraphic forms on the pavement. I would love to try that — but frankly, wouldn’t know where to begin. (What brushes to buy? How to hold them?). It would be great to have more collegial exchange and dialogue.

UH: Well, maybe this article can in a small way contribute to some of that discussion. Karen, thank you so much for your time! I know you are working on revisions to your book, so hopefully I’ll get to talk to you once that comes out and we can talk about what’s new! In the mean time, best of luck with your students!

KC: Thanks so much for asking me to participate, Ulrik! This was fun. There are very few people in my life that I can talk to about type (without their eyes glazing over). It was a pleasure.

Pre-order your copy before August 3rd and save 25% at

You can find Karen’s in-depth analysis of letterforms here : Designing Type (Amazon, US)

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