Shop Forum More Submit  Join Login

How to design a typeface (Part 2)

Wed Apr 24, 2013, 5:32 AM

How to design a typeface (Part 2)

Sans serif — Italics & weights

In the previous article of the typography series I presented some of the basic principles of type design and we started designing a geometric sans typeface such as Futura. In this article we will expand that typeface and add italics and alternate weights. Or rather, I will show you how to design italics and briefly present how you can modify your regular weight typeface to create alternate weights rather than having to re-draw the whole letter.

Before we start
If you haven’t read the last article/tutorial but you want participate in this one, you can download a pack of resources of the last article so you don’t have to design all the Roman letters to follow this tutorial. However, you’re only allowed to use that pack for this tutorial. The letters are of my own design (and they’re not even perfect anyway because the design was done rather quickly only for the purpose of these articles), so to use them as your own is copyright infringement. Besides, you could probably do a better job than I did if you have the patience, and you carefully look at the design of professional typefaces. Looking at other typefaces is probably the best way to learn.

If you already have a typeface designed, perhaps this is a good excuse to expand it with italics and a bold weight. For editorial use this is a must. Most professional typefaces feature a few weights (plus italics for each weight), ligatures, small-caps and different numeral sets. You can expect articles on those features from me in the future. You can find a link to download a pack of resources from part 2 at the end of this article.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 01 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 1

Before we design the italics, we will create an oblique. You might have seen this name before and recognized it as an italic typeface, but they’re quite different. An oblique is simply a slanted roman. Now you might ask yourself what the use of an oblique is, because on the surface it seems to be a more primitive italic. That might be so, but sometimes an oblique simply looks better in regard to the roman. In case of a geometric sans typeface or a grotesque (such as Helvetica and Univers) you can expect to find some obliques because the design in general tends to be quite linear, but in a humanist serif you would expect a true italic because the letter shapes are more humanistic/calligraphic, so a slanted roman looks odd because it slants humanist features which are only native to the roman. The italic design is based on cursive writing, so the structure and weight distribution tends to be too different from the roman to simply slant it and call it a finished design. In case of serif typefaces an oblique is almost unheard of. The italics in a serif typeface are of a quite drastically different design—even more so than in the humanist sans serif—so simply slanting your roman won’t do. However, in all cases it’s very smart to use your roman to create an oblique, and then modify the oblique to turn into a true italic.

So let’s take our roman (see my version from the previous article in figure 1), select it in a vector program (Adobe Illustrator is my choice) and select the Shear Tool. Double click on the Shear Tool icon and select a Shear Angle of around 7°. Make sure the Axis is set to Horizontal so the design will slant horizontally. Before we continue, I should say something about the angle of the slant though. The oblique and italic of a sans serif typeface really don’t have a severe slant, but in case of serif typefaces you can go a bit wilder. Which slant is perfect for your typeface really depends on the design and general proportions. You will probably find italics with a subtle 3° slant up to an extreme slant like 20°. A geometric sans typeface is quite minimalist and so the construction of the roman and italic will almost be the same. For that reason I wouldn’t go below a slant of 5° because it doesn’t make your oblique/italic distinct enough from the roman. For a sans serif I also wouldn’t go higher than 12°. In case of a serif typeface you could even use no slant at all (a so-called upright italic). Upright italics are usually used as a roman rather than an italic though. For reference, have a look at the upright italic Ninfa and compare that with Ninfa Serif (which was designed later after Ninfa’s success).

I’m getting off-topic, but if you applied the slant to your roman typeface, you have a finished oblique (figure 2). It’s really that simple. To change your oblique into a true roman, we actually don’t have to do much more in case of a sans serif, and particularly a geometric sans. In case of serif typefaces the italics are sometimes more work than the roman.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 02 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 2

Now things will become more interesting. If you’ve followed the previous article, you probably have two variants of /a: a one-storey /a (figure 1 & 2, first letter) and a two-storey /a (figure 1 & 2, second letter). The two-storey /a is a roman design, while the one-storey /a is used for the italics, but since geometric typefaces are all about minimalism, you will often find a one-storey /a in the roman. I can appreciate that, but I personally like to include a two-storey /a as well. So for the roman you can use both versions, but in case of the italic things are not so clear. There doesn’t seem to be a clear rule which states you can’t use a double-storey /a for the italic, but this is not common and in fact, when I see a slanted two-storey /a I get angry. That says more about me than anything else, but a slanted two-storey /a can mean two things (with only few exceptions):
  1. That the font is an oblique rather than a true italic (and often obliques are called ‘Italic’, which frustrates me further).
  2. That the typeface only includes roman and you simply used faux italics. In the Character panel of Photoshop you can turn your font into bold, italic or small-caps; when the typeface does include these features, they will automatically be used if you activate bold or small-caps etc. However, if the typeface doesn’t have these fonts, Photoshop will create faux fonts. Faux italic will slant your roman (=oblique, not italic), faux bold will make your font bolder with an algorithm so it usually looks quite ugly (far worse than a real bold, anyway) and faux small-caps will simply make a capital letter smaller, which means the weight will also decrease while true small-caps feature the same weight as the capitals.

In conclusion, seeing a slanted two-storey /a makes me think of an oblique by design or an oblique generated by using faux italic, and I personally perceive this as negative. I said earlier that sometimes an oblique is preferable, but rounded letters should always be adjusted after slanting. If you do adjust it after slanting however it becomes an italic rather than oblique. As such, I perceive an oblique to be undesirable in all cases. If you have clear reasons for including a two-storey /a in your italic, by all means do it, but do adjust the letter. A good example of this would be the popular Gotham. The italics look like an oblique because no letters clearly change and both the roman and italic feature the two-storey /a, but if you slant Gotham Italic -15° and compare that with Gotham Regular, you will notice the italic has clearly been adjusted after slanting. In fact, it’s adjusted to such extent that when you slant the Italic -15° to get back to 0°, the design looks really off. So anyway, Gotham shows that it’s not bad to use an oblique design as long as you make the proper adjustments after slanting, and it also shows an italic two-storey /a is not necessarily bad, but you do need to be able to say why you made that choice; don’t let it be a decision based on ignorance. Anyway, I don’t like an italic two-storey /a for this Futura-like design, so I will remove it. So you now have a roman typeface with two versions of /a and an italic (well, it’s going to be an italic) with one version of /a.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 03 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 3

Slanting causes undesirable effects
Okay, so the two-storey /a is gone. Since we’re designing a geometric typeface I had a look at Futura and I found out Futura features obliques (with a 10° slant, if you’re curious) rather than italics, which was to be expected considering it’s a geometric design, but I can’t help but feel it’s unfortunate. I will show you why. In figure 4 you will see three different versions of /s. The first /s is Futura Book and the second /s is Futura Book Oblique. Perhaps you think there’s nothing wrong with that /s, but if you haven’t realized this by now, type design is all about nitpicking. Besides, why be pleased with something when it can easily be improved? So anyway, what’s wrong with the oblique /s is that the slant changed the weight distribution. The weight in the bottom curve on the top left (the one going to the spine of the /s) is hanging too low and the weight in the top curve on the bottom right is placed too high. So there’s a weight build-up in the extremes of these curves, and there is also weight build-up in the endings of the terminals (the very top right and bottom left). On the right you see my modified version of the oblique /s (so it’s now an italic).

I’m not going to pretend the letter is perfect now (I will have to modify the whole typeface to get all letters perfect in relation to each other, which is obviously a waste of time considering I just want to illustrate why an oblique is not optimal), but it looks a lot better already. Weight build-up is not always a bad thing (in fact, just look at the italics of a serif typeface and you will see plenty of variety in the weight distribution), but since Futura is supposed to be monolinear (=consistent stroke weight), my /s simply fits Futura better, and Futura’s oblique /s is a bit distorted. It won’t be noticeable at text size, but at display size it’s definitely noticeable. Alright, so I’m a type designer so it’s not strange I would notice these things, so you might tell me most people won’t notice. Well, that’s not entirely true but I do understand that argument. People usually don’t notice what’s wrong with a letter or a typeface, but unconsciously they often do notice something is off. This oblique issue is not a big, noticeable issue, but if your typeface is full of these tiny flaws, unconsciously your typeface will be less comfortable to read than it could have been. That’s why I recommend to always modify your letters after slanting. Slanting predominantly tends to cause a lot of undesirable effects in the curves.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 04 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 4

Figure 4 actually illustrates most of what needs to be done to change your oblique into a true italic. Adjusting the curves is a big part of that. I will show you in a moment what specifically you need to do to optimize your italic design, but let’s first have a look at why slanting adjusts the weight distribution in the first place.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 05 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 5

In figure 5 you see the outlines of the letters of figure 4 and you can see how the vector points of the horizontal center of the roman /s are vertically aligned, just as in a vector circle, which has four vector points at the extremes of the shape. Letters work the same way; vector points need to be placed at the extremes. If you look at the oblique /s, you will notice that these vector points still align at an angle. That’s where the problems start. With a simple shape like a circle, you can add a slant and the shape still looks fine. If you do the same to an open circle (like a letter /o) though, the weight distribution will be altered relative to the slant. So, if you slant a letter to the right, then the outermost vector at the top will move to the right and the outermost vector at the bottom will move to the left. This means the weight at the top will move to the right, and the weight at the bottom will move to the left. Since a geometric typeface is supposed to be monolinear, you obviously have to adjust these curves so the slanted design will still be consistent in stroke weight. I think you might now better understand why I don’t appreciate obliques and why I consider them to be flawed, unfinished italics.

You might also have noticed that my version of the Futura /s is a bit narrower at the bottom than the official oblique one. I did this because the oblique /s was simply falling too far to the right. An italic will obviously always do that, but there still needs to be a certain balance in the design. I personally find it useful to see the letters as objects which adhere to the laws of gravitation, so it’s your job to make the letters as stable as possible. Anyway, in case of the oblique /s I thought the bottom terminal was extending too far past the central point of the letter, so I compensated for that. Be reminded though that by moving the bottom terminal to the right and the top terminal to the left, you’re essentially converting the letter back to roman. I didn’t modify the spine, so technically the middle part would still be at a 10° slant, while the outer shape is probably at about 8° now that I moved the bottom terminal to the right. So don’t overdo the adjustments. At the same time though, don’t be afraid to have a bit of variety in the slant in your typeface. In case of a geometric sans you do want all the verticals to slant at the same degree, but when designing italics for serif typefaces (particularly Venetian and Garalde styles) you will probably notice there is a lot of variety in the slants. The letters /a and /e for example are usually less slanted than letters with ascenders (b/d/h etc.) I will go more into detail about this in the future articles about designing a serif typeface.

So what do you need to do to adjust the curves of the slanted letters? Well, as I explained with help of figure 5, by slanting you distort the way the weight is distributed, so you simply need to “normalize” the design without changing the appearance of the slant. So, move the top vector point a bit to the left to move the weight from the right a bit more to the left (but don’t bring the vector point to the center because a bit of weight modulation is needed for the italic), move the bottom vector point a bit to the right, move the bottom right vector a bit down to get a bit of weight away from the spine, and move the top left vector point a bit up. The same principle should be applied to all rounded letters. I should perhaps prominently state that adjusting curves is not only about moving vector points, but also about adjusting the bézier curves. For example, after moving the top vector point a bit to the left, you might want to extend the right bézier curve to compensate a bit for the weight you moved from the right to the left. After all, you want the top to look balanced, not simply move the problem from the right side to the left.

Alright, so you now know how to easily slant your roman to become an oblique, and you know how to adjust the curves to make a proper italic. You now know enough to finish the design of the italic, if indeed you’re designing a geometric sans typeface. But just like the one-storey /a, there are letters in the italic which are distinct from the roman. In case of a serif typeface every single italic letter is distinct from the roman, but for sans typefaces it’s a lot less work. First, have a look at figure 6. The first line is Scala Sans Regular, then Scala Sans Regular which I slanted 9° to create an oblique, and then Scala Sans Italic (which also seems to feature a slant of 9–10°). Now, the oblique Scala Sans doesn’t look wrong on its own. In fact, Scala Sans is a humanist sans, and so the distortion from slanting the design is less obvious because the stroke weight is not as consistent as in Futura for example. If you zoom in, you will notice that rounded letters like /s and /c actually do look off, just as the /s in Futura Oblique. But zoomed out, it’s not so bad. Actually, it might be more accurate to say it looks alright as a typeface, but it’s pretty bad as a font. Why? Because an italic in a humanist sans needs to fit the roman (as in any other style of typeface), but unlike a geometric sans typeface, the italic in a humanist sans also needs to be very distinct; in fact it needs to be of a cursive design. I hope you can see why. First off, in my eyes Scala Sans Oblique looks quite dull. Yes, the letter shapes are still attractive, but italics require a certain flow and dynamics. Scala Sans Italic does that, by changing the weight distribution, making the letters more narrow and make the design more distinct. So now, if you set a page of text in Scala Sans and you put a few words or sentences in Scala Sans Oblique, it won’t jump out of the text that much. And let’s face it, nowadays italics are predominantly used to emphasize words in a text. Small-caps and bolder weights are also used to emphasize things. Interestingly enough italics were initially separate typefaces, so a whole page would be set in italic rather than putting a few things in italic for emphasis. While the first roman typeface was released at around 1470 by Nicolas Jenson, the italic typeface was first introduced in 1501 by Aldus Manutius. The italic was probably first used within roman text for emphasis by Robert Estienne in 1532.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 06 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 6

So which letters in the italic need to be very distinct from the roman? Well, there’s no clear answer to that. It really depends on the typeface. As we’ve seen, a geometric typeface doesn’t necessarily need distinct letters in the italics. By far the most important letter to change is the /a. Or rather, this letter is changed most commonly; this one often changes even in geometric sans typefaces while the other letters do remain the same. /e and /g are also commonly changed, though usually not in geometric sans typefaces. Geometric typefaces tend to use a monocular /g (a /g with one storey, like the italic /a) in both the roman and italic. Actually, many sans typefaces use the monocular /g, while serif typefaces feature a binocular /g (a two-storey /g) for the roman and a monocular /g for the italic. This is because the binocular /g is easier to read because the letter is more distinct from the other letters, but since the /a in italic changes to a one-storey design, a monocular /g is used for consistency.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 07 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 7

The letters h/m/n/r/u are also often distinct from the roman in sans typefaces. Elements tend to start at a lower point (or in case of /u, a higher point) and gradually emerge from the stem, while in the roman these elements will emerge from the stem more abruptly. This is particularly useful in humanist sans typefaces. In geometric typefaces it’s uncommon because it defeats the minimalist approach.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 08 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 8

The /f is also quite an important letter. Not only does /f belong to the most common ligatures (fi/ff/ffi), but particularly in humanist sans typefaces the /f tends to get a descender. In case of geometric sans typefaces this might not be a good idea. In case of grotesque typefaces it depends. Use your own judgment. If your typeface is very elegant an /f with a descender might be smart. The letter /e can also be of a cursive design in a humanist sans typeface.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 09 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 9

These are the main letters which are subject to change in the italics of sans typefaces. But actually, every letter could be distinct. You can design a /k with a cursive curl rather than an arm, design a loop in the middle of /w, design an /x like two half circles, do something wacky with the tail of /y or make the top part curved like the /u rather than at a sharp angle like /v, you can give the /l a little tail or make a bend in the curves of /c (such as in Scala Sans), /e and /o. Really, there are a lot of possibilities; as long as it fits the style and you remain consistent throughout the typeface it’s at the very least worthy to try out. And again, look at other typefaces to see how they go about the italics. The more you look at other typefaces, the more you become aware of the possibilities—and what not to do.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 10 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 10

I should also mention that italics are sometimes a bit more condensed or a bit lighter in weight than the Regular. You can adjust all letters manually, or you can use a dirty trick of mine. I sometimes like to select the whole italic font, select the Scale Tool and click on Non-Uniform so your design is scaled either only horizontally or vertically but not both. Make sure the vertical is set to 100% and for the horizontal select 98% or so. Your Italic is now 2% more condensed and the weight of the vertical strokes is 2% less. Now, I should note here that this is actually bad practice for two reasons. First off, you already slanted the letters, so condensing the letters after slanting normalizes the slant a bit. If you feel your Italic is too upright, just select the Shear Tool again and slant the design horizontally a bit more. The second reason why this is bad practice is because by condensing the design horizontally, you make the verticals thinner while the horizontals stay the same weight. So why do I use this dirty trick? Well, note that I scaled the typeface by only 2%, which isn’t enough to seriously distort the typeface but it’s just enough to make your text just a bit shorter so you differentiate a bit more with the Regular (see figure 11). The longer the text, the more space you save in the ever so slightly condensed Italic compared to Regular. I also think by adjusting the verticals and keeping the horizontals intact you create a bit more tension. This should be very subtle though, as horizontal strokes look optically thicker than vertical strokes so you always need to take that into consideration. If the tension is too high, either manually adjust all your letters or just don’t use this dirty trick.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 11 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 11

Alternate weights
So that’s the italics for sans typefaces pretty much covered. Let’s create some alternate weights. First you need to define which weights your typeface will include. The range of weights as I know them are:
Hairline, Thin, Extra Light, Light, Book, Regular, Medium, Semibold, Bold, Extra Bold, Black, Ultra Black.

You don’t need to use every weight in the range though. The application of your typeface will affect which weights would be useful and which are unnecessary. For example, Verdana was designed for low resolution screens, so it would be ridiculous to expect the lightest weights to be part of the typeface. Not only is there virtually no need for it, but you’re probably wasting time designing a weight no one will have a use for. For a low-res screen typeface you probably only need Regular, Bold and Italic. If you want to design a so-called workhorse typeface (a typeface with lots of features and styles for advanced editorial use) then obviously you need a wider range of weights. I mostly use this range for my typefaces: Extra Light, Light, Regular, Semibold, Bold, Black (plus italics, which make a total of 12 fonts per typeface). I mostly design book typefaces, meaning they’re legible serif typefaces with lots of features, but the font family is nowhere near as big as a workhorse typeface.

If you intend to have a wider range than 3 weights, it’s best to use the regular weight to create the two extremes in the range. So in my case, I would change Regular into Black and Extra Light. These three weights can be used as master weights to generate the in-between weights with interpolation software. Mac users are probably lucky to be able to use Superpolator, but some font editors also include interpolation and extrapolation (creating a weight or style outside of your master weights, which is a lot messier than interpolation) features. Fontlab Studio 5 does. How this interpolation process works exactly I can’t tell you because I haven’t done it yet, but there are plenty of resources around including video tutorials. So you might want to research this yourself, and also how to turn your type design into an actual usable font. Because frankly, I have plenty of articles to write about the design, so it might take a while before I write an article about the more technical side of typefaces, if at all. But do be reminded that you don’t need to completely design each weight from scratch, nor do you have to modify the regular weight to get each other weight in the range. 3 master weights should suffice. After interpolation you still need to make adjustments, but you save a lot of time and effort anyway. By the way, interpolation is useful for more than just generating weights. If you design Regular and Condensed, you can use that as master styles to generate the in-between width, which would be Narrow. You can interpolate weights, widths and even contrast. Here’s a little taste of what you can do with interpolation:…

Forgive my endless talking. We will get back to the typeface now. So you probably have a typeface consisting of Regular and Italic about now. Let’s create Bold. First we need to reference the weight of a bold typeface. In the first article I told you to type something with a professional typeface at 400pt. If you used a different pt size, make sure you use the same now. If you don’t know the pt size of your typeface anymore, just select the regular weight of a random professional typeface and resize it until the /l is as wide as the /l in your own typeface. Make sure you only look at the width of the letter, because the height will always differ between typefaces. Now that you have your pt size, change the font you’re referencing to Bold. Go to Object  > Expand to create outlines of the typeface so it’s easier to handle. Now take your own typeface and make your /l just as wide as the bold /l of the typeface you’re referencing. Make sure you only change the width of your /l and don’t alter the length. You can remove the typeface you’re referencing now because you have the weight in your typeface defined. Now all that is left to do is make all letters the same weight as /l. Look at my Regular, Italic and Bold /l in figure 12.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 12 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 12

I obviously started with /l because it’s the easiest letter to change the weight of. All verticals are as easy to adjust though. Copy your /l and give it a color. Now place it on a layer below your typeface. You can use this letter as a template for the others. First, put the /l right behind your /i. You might want to lock the layer of /l for a moment so you don’t accidentally change the /l when you adjust the /i. Now select the Direct Selection Tool (the white arrow) and select the two left or right vector points of the stem of /I and drag it to the width of /l. Hold the Shift key while dragging so the vector points are only repositioned horizontally and don’t accidentally move up or down. Repeat this process to the stem of /i, and then resize the tittle (the dot of /i) with the Scale Tool until it’s in proportion with the stem again. Remember, the tittle needs to be thicker than the stem because rounded shapes look optically smaller. Just use your own judgment. I chose 158% and increased the horizontal bézier curves by 0.5pt on both sides (Go to Edit > Preferences > General and select a Keyboard Increment of 0.5pt and now simply select a bézier curve and use your arrow keys to increase the curve) and I moved the left and right vector one increment to the outside. This gives the tittle a subtle horizontal oval shape. Look at figure 13 to see the process to change the regular /I into a bold one.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 13 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 13

You can actually go a bit crazy with the tittles if you want. It’s often nice to have some subtle differences between the Regular and Bold weight. Also, if you give Regular rounded tittles and Bold or Black squared tittles, you can then interpolate the weights in between and the tittles will slowly change from circle to square as the weight of the font increases. Or, you can make your tittle a bit squared and make it rotate throughout the weights. I haven’t done anything like this before, but I’m very impressed with the tittles in the Vesper typeface.

Now select the inner four vector points of /o, select the Scale Tool and scale the counter down (uniformly) by about 40% so the vertical parts of /o are the same width as /l or a tiny bit thicker. Now select the inner top vector and move it up a bit and do the opposite to the inner bottom vector so the horizontal parts become skinnier. Move the inner and outer left and right vectors outward a bit to regain a bit of the circular shape. Increase the bézier curves on the inside a bit, and perhaps on the outside if necessary. You should now have something similar to figure 14.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 14 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 14

d is for difficult
Now things will slowly become a bit more difficult as we’re going to add weight to letters which combine circular shapes with rectangular shapes, like b/d/p/q. Essentially you will repeat the same process as with /o and /l, but with a bit of a twist. After you know the method to do this though, it shouldn’t pose much of a problem. First, select the inner vectors of /d and scale it down to 40% just like you did with /o. Now, press Ctrl + R to activate the rulers and drag a horizontal guideline from the top ruler to the inner top of /o and to the inner bottom. Select both guidelines and place them in the Guidelines layer you created in the previous article (or create one now). Lock the layer. Now align the inner vectors of /d with the guidelines. Move the inner left and right vectors outwards and move the left vector to the left, just like you did with /o. Now copy /o, give it a different color and superimpose it on /d to check if the counters are roughly the same shape. If they’re not, adjust the counter of /d. You should now have a /d which looks something like figure 15.1. Now copy /l and give it a different color and position it behind the stem of /d; a bit more to the right rather than centered (15.2). Merge the two shapes with Pathfinder (15.3). Delete the extra vector points in the stem if there are some. Now move the vector points in the indents between the stem and the bowl more inwards (vertically) to increase the indents. Adjust the bézier curves accordingly so the transition is smooth. Move the left bottom vector of the stem and the vector in the bottom indent a bit to the right to increase the negative space in between the stem and the bowl. Don’t overdo this for a geometric sans typeface though. You should now have something like 15.4.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 15 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 15

Now, the cool thing about a geometric sans typeface is that you can just reflect the /d horizontally to get something like a /b. Do this, and move the top vector of the bowl of /b a bit to the right. You may also want to move the bottom vector to the left a bit. Don’t overdo this because a geometric typeface requires a certain symmetry. It’s predominantly the humanist sans typefaces which feature weight modulation in the curves.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 16 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 16

Even for a geometric sans typeface though it’s smart to reference the letters /b and /d of a serif typeface because then you know what shape the bowl of /b and /d should roughly be (very subtly in this case) and how the weight is distributed in the curves. Have a look at figure 17, and apply the same principles to the letter /p and /q. When you rotate /b and /d to create /p and /q, first reduce the length of the descenders a little bit. They should be in harmony with the ascenders, but shortening the descenders a little bit looks better to me. Then make sure the top of the stems is the same width as in m/n/r and finally adjust the curves while referencing figure 17. If you get stuck, look at other (geometric) sans typefaces, or download the resource pack at the end of this article so you can have a look at the outlines of the typeface I did for this tutorial. Mind you, it’s far from perfect so I would actually advice to have a look at the outlines of popular typefaces like Futura, Gotham, Univers or Franklin Gothic. Also have a look at the unusual shapes of Gill Sans.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 17 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 17

Now we will do an easy letter again before I will show you how to go about h/m/n/u; we will create the one-storey /a. Simply copy the letter /d and turn the Guidelines layer on. Select the Rectangle Tool and create a rectangle over the ascender of /d and align it to the x-height (the line at the top of the stem of /i). Now subtract the two shapes with the Pathfinder panel. Make the top of the stem of /a a bit smaller and make the top indent a bit deeper. That’s your one-storey /a finished.

Copy the bold /I and the regular /n. Remove the tittle from /I and use the stem to add to the stem of /n. Look at figure 18 to see the process. You can either add the shapes together, or you use the stem as a template (like we did with /l) and simply drag the two left vector points of the stem of /n to the left until it aligns with the width of /i. Do the same on the right side; this works better with the template method so you don’t ruin the curve on the inside of the arc. Once the right side is as thick as the stem, condense the letter until it has a harmonious rhythm with the counters of the other letters. Now lower the curve on the inside of the arc and adjust the bézier curves accordingly. I also moved the top vector in the arc to the right to make sure the curve towards the stem is smooth and the weight is consistent at the right side.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 18 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 18

Now copy the bold /n and turn it upside down to get a /u. Align it with the baseline again and condense the letter. This is necessary because the /u always looks optically wider than /n. The curve in /u also appears weaker, so I usually move the bottom vector of the arc to the left and extend the left vertical bézier to make the curve a bit stronger. That’s the /u done.

Copy /n again and copy /l. Superimpose /l on the stem of /n and merge them together with Pathfinder. Remove unnecessary vectors if they appeared after merging, and make sure the verticals are still absolutely vertical. And that’s how we make /h.

The /m is a bit trickier. First, copy /n and condense the letter a bit. Now copy that one again and remove the stem. You know have something like figure 19 (left). Align the /n without the stem with the one with a /stem like in the second step of figure 19. Merge the two together and remove any vector points which might have popped up when merging. Now copy this flawed /m and give one of the two a color and lock the layer. Superimpose the black one on the colored one and remove the vector in the indent where the two arcs connect. Now drag the other vector in that area down so you can see the colored /m underneath. Now reposition the vector in the center and cover the colored /m accurately but close the indent. Now drag a horizontal guideline to the indent between the left arc and the stem. Align the vector where the two arcs meet to the guideline so both indents are at the same height. Now adjust the bézier curves and make the letter a bit more condensed if necessary. The letter /m should never be the size of a double /n; it’s always more condensed.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 19 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 19

The letter /r can be made from the left part of /n by cutting away most of the right side of the arc. Just repeat the process of /n and make sure the letter shapes remain consistent with the regular weight.

Alright, we’re nearing the end of this article/tutorial. I kept the most difficult letters for last, though this tutorial typeface doesn’t feature a /g and a binocular /g is probably the most difficult letter to design and to adjust. In essence you would be using the exact same principles and methods we’ve already covered.

For the /s I thought it would be easiest if I re-draw it with the Pen Tool, just like we did originally with the regular /s in the previous article. Unfortunately the stroke needs to be 72pt now to match the weight of the other letters, and if I keep the /s the same height as the regular /s the two openings will get completely filled. It’s harder to get that open again, so I will introduce a new method. Copy the regular /s and give the letter a color. Add a 30pt stroke to the letter in the same color.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 20 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 20

We will now use this letter as a template. Lock the layer and copy another /s onto the colored one. You might have noticed the colored letter goes beyond the top and bottom guidelines. We will use the whole colored letter as a template except for the area at the top and bottom. So just start dragging vector points out and align them with the colored /s, but keep the top and bottom aligned with the guidelines. Other than that I don’t know what to tell you. It took me a while to get the /s reasonably well looking, so it’s just a matter of moving vector points around and changing the béziers until you’re happy with the result. I’m not happy with mine, but I will leave it for now.

Now on to the last letter of this tutorial: the two-storey /a. First select the vectors on the interior of the bowl and select the Scale Tool. Scale the counter down to around 60%. Copy the bold /I and remove the tittle. Make the stem a bit shorter and superimpose it on the stem of /a. Merge the shapes and remove the vector at the very right. Now re-do a few bézier curves and move vector points around until the design is to your satisfaction and the weight is consistent with the other letters. Again, look at outlines of other typefaces if you get stuck.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 21 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 21

More weights and styles
Now we’re able to create a bolder weight, a thin weight shouldn’t be much of a problem. It’s essentially the same as making a bolder weight, only you need to scale counters up instead of down and you need to move vectors inwards instead of outwards. When creating a thin weight based on a regular weight it’s handy to use a specific Keyboard Increment. To save time, you could select all the left vector points of the left stems and press arrow right so all stems become skinnier.

And finally, when you have your bold weight finished, it might be worth it to slant it by the same degree as you slanted the regular weight before and repeat the process of creating italics from obliques and you have a typeface consisting of 4 fonts already: Regular, Italic, Bold and Bold Italic.

How to design a typeface (Part 2) - Figure 22 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 22

Lighter weights
If you want to design lighter weights, it's the same principle as a bolder weight but the other way around. Just reference a professional typeface again for the weight, increase the size of the counters and reduce the general line weight consistently. If you want to design a hairline version you might want to trace your Regular design with the pen tool (same technique as we used for the /s) and select a stroke weight of 1pt or so. You might also want to try interpolation between a hairline font and a bolder weight to see what it will produce. You might get some pleasant and unexpected results. Also remember that the contrast in a typeface doesn't necessarily need to remain the same throughout the weights. I tend to give lighter weights less contrast between thick and thin strokes, and darker weights more contrast. Just like with the rotating tittles, you can vary a bit with your design throughout the weights as long as you don't change the dimensions or the general style.

Future articles
So that’s it for now. Let me know if there are any questions, and suggestions for future articles are always welcome. This is what I have planned:
   • Designing a serif typeface
   • How to add full language support to your typeface
   • How to create true small-caps
   • Everything about ligatures

Let me know if there is a specific letter you want me to make a tutorial of. I didn’t think covering capitals is necessary since they’re based on the same principles as lowercase, but do let me know if I can clear anything up with a short tutorial. In fact, it might be fun to take requests for mini-tutorials on how to design a specific letter in a specific style.

Download the figures used in this article here:

Avatar - Circle by MartinSilvertant

An article/tutorial about expanding your sans serif typeface with italics and alternate weights. Read the previous article here.
Add a Comment:
Mafatihul1947 Featured By Owner Feb 13, 2016  Student Digital Artist
Thanks :D (Big Grin) 
Ikue Featured By Owner Apr 25, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
MartinSilvertant Featured By Owner Apr 25, 2013  Professional General Artist
Thank you.
DTfox Featured By Owner Apr 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Just the perfect compliment to your last article, this one's going to my favorites as well.
MartinSilvertant Featured By Owner Apr 25, 2013  Professional General Artist
Thank you!
cocktail-mafia Featured By Owner Apr 24, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
"though this tutorial typeface doesn’t feature a /g and a binocular /g is probably the most difficult letter to design and to adjust"

Perhaps you could do a tutorial on that as well, afterwards? Though you've explained the process for all the letters pretty well so you don't really need to, but it would be interesting.

Also, is making the finer fonts like the reverse of what you did to create the bold fonts? (excuse me for my terminology;; )
MartinSilvertant Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2013  Professional General Artist
I would like to let you know I just created a mini-tutorial on how to design the binocular 'g'. You can find it here: [link]
MartinSilvertant Featured By Owner Apr 25, 2013  Professional General Artist
Indeed the same principles are used for the binocular /g as for the other letters. I will think about creating a short tutorial just for this letter though.

For lighter weights indeed the reverse is done as for the bold weight. I actually combined italics and weights in one article because I thought they would both be short articles, but it ended up even longer than the last one. For this reason I didn't quite get into weights as deeply as I initially intended, though it all works according to the same principles. For the weight just reference other typefaces, and just make sure the rhythm in your typeface remains consistent regardless of the weight.
4EverYoungKid Featured By Owner Apr 24, 2013
:meow: very nice.
MartinSilvertant Featured By Owner Apr 25, 2013  Professional General Artist
Thank you!
Add a Comment:

:iconmartinsilvertant: More from MartinSilvertant

Featured in Collections

News by WhiteKimahri

Journals by FawnBirth

Articles by Wurlddestroyer

More from DeviantArt


Submitted on
April 24, 2013
Submitted with Writer


108 (who?)