Fonts are one of the most common and misunderstood tools of the digital world. Everyone uses them, and most people are familiar with a handful of the classics like Times New Roman and Arial. But few people ever think about where they come from—let alone the fact that someone had to sit down and craft each of those letters. And there is a reason for this: the trick of good font design is that they are meant to be useful in a variety of contexts, which means they should not draw attention to themselves and distract from the message.
At the same time, type design can be an excellent creative endeavor. It provides an opportunity to put your own signature on every word that you write. And modern software makes creating your own font more accessible than ever before. Of course, that’s not to say it’s easy…
Type design can be a time-consuming practice, given that you are creating an entire alphabet along with different stylings such as bold, thin, or italics. There is also a great deal of subtlety involved, and it can be hard for the untrained font designer to see the differences between typefaces, nevermind to create their own variation. There are also many technical considerations to take into account, such as correct sizing and spacing. To guide you past these hurdles, we’re going to walk you through the full step-by-step font design process.
How fonts work
Type design essentially involves going from your own handcrafted drawings of an entire alphabet to the development of a font file. Installing this font file onto any computer will then add your typeface to that computer’s font library, making it accessible through any application that uses fonts, such as Microsoft Word and Adobe’s Creative Cloud. You can also license the font file through a site like Creative Market and earn a passive income when anyone purchases and downloads it.
In order to better understand how all of this works, let’s briefly get some basic concepts out of the way. We’ll start with how fonts fit into the many descriptors for designed letters. You’ll notice the terms “font” and “typeface” are often mistaken for synonyms.
- Typography: The art of arranging and styling type.
- Typeface: The unique design of the letters in an alphabet.
- Font: The software file that contains a particular typeface.
- Calligraphy: Artful handwriting and inscriptions, usually practiced with analogue tools in the moment.
- Hand-lettering: Illustrative renderings of letters and words, often on a poster or signage.
Let’s talk about font file formats. The main two that you’ll hear about are Open Type Font (OTF) and True Type Font (TTF). TTF was developed first by Apple and Microsoft in the 80s as a way for both computers and printers to read fonts easily. OTF was developed later by Microsoft and Adobe to extend these features. While TTF is still in circulation, OTF provides more storage, and it supports many more types of characters. Both are acceptable, but OTF is considered the preferable of the two.
Finally, it is important to understand font licenses. Like any creative asset made by an actual person, typefaces have a copyright holder. Licenses are essentially a way to extend the use of a font to anyone for a fee, but different licenses will come with different terms and restrictions.
If you are planning to sell your font design online, the marketplace will generally have its own framework for licensing and you should review this before getting started (this will also include information about your cut of the profits). If you are licensing a custom font to particular clients on your own, you will have to draft up your own license to ensure there is no confusion on ownership.
The font design process
1. Review the basic rules of font design
Before you jump straight into drawing your letters, it is important that you understand the basics of type construction. Type design is about as old as the invention of the 15th century printing press and scribes were using artisanal calligraphy in manuscripts long before that. Point being: humans have been drawing letters for centuries, giving them plenty of time for trial and error and the establishment of some best practices.
Start by familiarizing yourself with some basic typography terms. Pay particular attention to type anatomy and the function and placement of guidelines (cap height, ascender line, baseline, etc). It is also helpful to understand the different font families, including niche variations such as the Tuscan, slab, wedge and hairline serifs.
If you pay attention to typefaces, you’ll notice that many contain alternating thick and thin strokes within the same letter. This is not by accident—it is a carry-over from how letters were drawn with calligraphy.
Whenever a calligrapher moves their pen down, the movement is slower and the nib releases more ink, resulting in a thicker stroke. On the upstroke, the brush moves quicker, resulting in a thinner stroke. This is subconsciously baked into how we read letters, so if you are planning to design a non-geometric font, you must study the correct placement of thick vs thin strokes. A worksheet like this can help you.
Letters can also be grouped into certain categories based on their shape, and it helps to recognize these in order to draw them consistently. These are rectilinear, curvilinear, and triangular letters (picture squares, circles, and triangles).
- Rectilinear letters include H, E, and N
- Curvilinear letters include C, O, and G
- Triangular letters include A and V
Many letters contain combinations of all three of these forms, and figuring out your design for letters within the three overarching categories can help you build out the combination forms.
Finally, there are a number of optical illusions to be aware of in type design, some of which are covered here. One of the most famous is that you must actually draw curvilinear letters larger than normal (overshooting your guidelines) because our eye perceives them as smaller when placed next to other letters. These are traps that rookie designers commonly fall into, so get them out of the way now!
2. Plan the goals of your font project
If you are working for a client, you will be given a project brief. This will lay out the background of the project and the goals of the design. If you are making a typeface for yourself (or to sell online), you should still come up with a document like this to ground yourself during the design process.
Here are some basic questions you will want to cover at the start of your project:
- Why am I making this? A client should have a specific purpose behind the font, such as fostering brand recognition. Even if you are designing a font purely for your own self-expression, consider the specific feeling you want it to express.
- Who will use the font? If you are making this for a client, you should have information about their business needs and target audience. If you are designing the font for a general-purpose marketplace, you should still have some idea of what kind of person will be attracted to the style of font design you are creating and the types of projects they might apply it to.
- In what context will the font be used? A font for brochures will be styled differently from one that is for movie posters. Along these same lines, consider whether your font will be used more for headlines or body copy. Some of these contexts will necessitate understated, professional, and legible fonts whereas others will leave room for more original, creative, and attention-grabbing fonts.
- What fonts are similar in style to what I am creating? There are thousands of fonts out there, and a great deal of diversity. To figure out how your font design will stand out, you have to gather reference typefaces. Start with the ideal mood you want your font to evoke, be it elegant or casual. If you come across a typeface that you like, find one that is noticeably similar and compare them to spot the subtle details. In addition to whole alphabets, focus on some specific letter styles. Some common places to research fonts are Font Squirrel, Envato, Behance, or iconic studios like House Industries.
3. Sketch out your typeface
Sketching is where the actual design process takes place. This is the phase where you will take cues from your reference typefaces and make specific creative decisions that will differentiate your typeface from others. Which version of a lowercase “a” should you use? Should the crossbars of your capital “E” be the same length or vary? The only way to answer questions like these is to draw the letters out and judge the results for yourself.
Don’t feel like you have to draw the entire alphabet right away. The purpose of sketching is to explore artistic directions, and drawing an entire alphabet for every potential version of your typeface will exhaust you pretty quickly.
Instead, start small by loosely sketching random letters here and there to get a general idea of the style you want. When you find a direction that you like, move onto specific letters from the three shape categories.
Next, draw words that have a nice variety in letter styles, which is to say a good mix of capitals, ascenders, descenders, and combination forms. It’s best to use actual words to help yourself visualize how the typeface might actually read. You can even try out a random word generator for creative practice.
Once you have gone through this process a few times and found a style that you like, you can move onto sketching the entire alphabet using the guidelines mentioned in Step #1 (though this still doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect as these will be further developed in the next stage). Be sure not to neglect numerals, punctuation, and special characters!
4. Develop your font in design software
Let’s go over the software that you’ll need to create a usable font file. There are essentially two that you have to worry about: a graphic design program and a font design program.
On the graphic design front, you’ll want to choose either vector or raster software, e.g. Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop (or the equivalent software from other brands). For the most part, vector fonts are preferable. However, if your design is going for a more realistic, hand-painted look, raster (a.k.a. bitmap) is the way to go. For example, the Macbeth typeface pictured here uses a detailed painterly style, and a raster approach would make more sense here.
In addition to this, you’ll need a font creation program. One of the most popular is Fontself Maker, and this is an extension for Adobe products. At the time of this writing, it is a one-time cost of $39 for Illustrator and $59 for the Photoshop/Illustrator bundle. There are other professional programs such as Glyphs that you can also research as an alternative.
For the sake of ease, we’ll be referring to Illustrator and Fontself. The general principles should carry over to other software. Once you have downloaded Fontself, install it like any other program. If you already have Illustrator open, you may need to restart it before the two will integrate. Going forward, you should have a good handle on the basics of Adobe Illustrator, especially Layers, the pen tool, bezier curves, and the general interface.
To set up your file in Illustrator, just make sure you are working in RGB color mode and that your Artboard is large enough to fit your entire alphabet. You can always adjust the size later with the Artboard tool.
Next, you’ll want to upload your reference sketch either by taking a photo or scanning it and transferring it to your computer. Bring it into the document via File > Place. In the dialogue box, navigate to your sketch image file and make sure the Template Layer box is checked. This will import the file, dim it, and lock the image in place, making it easier to trace over on a new layer. You can unlock it by clicking the lockpad icon next to the layer in the Layers panel.
Tracing letters works by plotting vector points with the pen tool and using bezier handles to create curves where necessary. It is best practice to place vector points only at the extreme edges of the letter and to keep your bezier handles straight by holding Shift whenever you adjust them.
This makes it much easier to edit your shape in the long run. For a great walkthrough of how this works, check out this demo by hand-lettering star Jessica Hische.
While you are tracing, keep in mind that you don’t have to follow your sketch to the letter (couldn’t resist). The software version is what your final typeface will look like, so make whatever adjustments are necessary to get the ideal result.
5. Finalize and export a finished font file
Once you’ve completed your entire alphabet in Illustrator, make sure that your letters are grouped (Cmd + G) by category (capitals, lowercase, numerals and punctuation) and arranged in neat, stacked rows.
Navigate to Window > Extensions and choose the version of Fontself that you have. In the window that opens, drag each row of characters into their corresponding categories. Your typeface will now be loaded into Fontself.
Fontself provides a number of options for making final adjustments to your typeface. There is a Live Preview box near the top where you can type out sample phrases to test your font design. Double-clicking on any of the letters will allow you to change their positioning with the arrow keys.
One of the final adjustments you will need to make is kerning, or the space in between letters. Fontself has a handy auto-kerning button (labeled “Smart”) located under the Live Preview, and that will save you plenty of time. But when it comes to design, the human eye is always going to be more accurate than a computer, so next to the Smart button you will find one labeled “Advanced.” This will take you into another window where letters are grouped into kerning pairs that you can adjust manually. This can be time-consuming, but remember: even the most beautifully designed typeface can be ruined by cramped letters and bad kerning.
Once you are satisfied with your typeface, all you have to do is press Save near the top of the Fontself window. From here, you will name your font file, choose a destination folder, and your font will be exported as an OTF. Double-clicking on this file will install it onto your computer.
And that’s all there is to it! You can start using the font on your projects, research some online marketplaces to sell it, or get to work on your bold, italic, and other versions!
The final word on font design
Font design can be intimidating thanks to the sheer amount of symbols you have to handcraft and the amount of time spent on considerations like kerning. All the same, the feeling of having a font that is yours and no one else’s can be well worth it, no matter whether you’re using it for a business or your own self expression.
And all things considered, digital type design is significantly easier these days than it was even ten years ago thanks to modern tools. Now anyone can create a font with a little practice. But when you’re ready for a font designed not just by anyone, consider contracting a designer who knows what they’re doing.