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How to design a typeface (Part 3)

Serif — Roman

In the last two article of the type design series we made a geometric sans serif and added italics and a bold weight. The geometric sans serif is the easiest style to do, but for me personally things really get interesting with serif typefaces. Of course there is the addition of serifs, but the structure and weight distribution is also much more advanced. In this article I will make an introduction to designing serif typefaces. This article won’t be as detailed as the previous ones because this third article serves as an expansion on the first two. In other words, I won’t get into the basic vector tools or type principles, nor will I show you how to design the letters step by step. I will explain techniques in detail when necessary, but generally I will refer to the techniques described in the first article particularly. So if necessary go back to the previous two articles of the series.

The first letter
With a sans serif typeface I generally start with a lowercase letter like /I to define the x-height. With serif typefaces I first want to establish the style of the serifs before I define the x-height. So, usually I will start with a capital /I. I start with a vertical stroke of the same weight as a Regular typeface. I convert the stroke to outlines and then add two horizontal rectangles and position them at the bottom and top of the vertical stroke. Now merge the three shapes with Pathfinder and remove any unnecessary vector points which may show up at the very top and bottom after you merge the shapes.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 01 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 1

Now you have a very basic serif capital /I, and this is where the fun starts. You might be aware that there are quite some different serif styles. Before we continue working on our serif typeface, let’s have a look at a few different styles.

Type categories
In figure 2 are the main serif categories exclusive the slab serif. I suppose you could call these the classical type classes. The 4 classes go from old to new: Venetian/Humanist (Jenson), Garalde (Caslon, Garamond), Transitional (Baskerville) and Didone/Modernist (Didot, Bodoni). If you look at the weight distribution and the details of the serifs you will notice there is a gradual transition from calligraphic to mechanical. This transition is parallel to the development of improved printing techniques and refined letter casting and designing processes. If you’re curious about the history of Roman typefaces (meaning typefaces in the Latin alphabet), read my appropriately titled article "History of Roman typefaces". If you want to design a serif typeface it’s tremendously beneficial if not required to know how serif typefaces developed and which aspects define their style. It’s very hard to make the letters consistent in design/style if you don’t really know what style you want to design or what characteristics are common for that style. For example, it wouldn’t be wrong to design a humanist serif typeface with the weight distributed vertically, but since the weight distribution is historically diagonal in humanist serif typefaces and it’s vertical in transitional serif typefaces, you couldn’t consider your hypothetical design historically human. Most contemporary serif typefaces are hybrids of different styles though, so it’s not wrong to mix. I just want to alert you to the fact that some knowledge of the different styles and their historical context will make it much easier to make specific decisions for each letter and to create a consistent whole. That’s where the real challenge is. It’s one thing to design a beautiful letter, but it can be difficult at times to translate the same style to a different letter and keeping the weight distribution and general weight consistent throughout the typeface. And then there is another challenge: to design italics to fit the roman.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 02 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 2

Serif styles
Before we will go back to the design I want to show you some different types of serifs. I think by now you’ve already decided what kind of serif typeface you want to design, but let me give you a few tips and show you different types of serifs—the serif types and serif classifications don’t necessarily need to match, and it may bring interesting results to mix a few styles. I’ve tried quite a few things out myself, and sometimes you get a lucky accident. Other times I have a good idea in my head but once the idea is executed it’s not quite as great as I thought it would be, or I just haven’t figured a proper way to execute the idea. You tend to go a lot by trial and error, and as you get more experienced things will become more intuitive, but I suppose there’s always the chance to get into a boring routine, so it’s good to mix it up once in a while.

Serif types by MartinSilvertant
Figure 3

In figure 3 are some different serif styles, but probably not even all of them.
  • Blackletter typefaces have all kinds of different “serif” shapes, but they always resemble a rhombus because the gothic script is calligraphic.
  • Glyphic serifs are usually triangular in shape and very subtle. These serifs resemble the chiseled Roman lettering. There aren’t many glyphic typefaces around, but a good example of one would be Astoria. You will likely find glyphic typefaces under the name ‘semi-serif’.
  • You can recognize oldstyle serifs by their triangular shape and a gradual slope.
  • Transitional serifs are usually more pronounced.
  • Wedge serifs come from the stem at a sharp angle at the bottom rather than a gradual curve.
  • The hairline serif is of course unmistakable. This serif can be seen in the Didone types (Didot and Bodoni), but the Scotch types feature the same kind of serif but with reduced contrast.
  • Bracketed serifs feature sharp serifs with a gradual curve towards the stem. There is some common ground between bracketed serifs and glyphic serifs as well.
  • The bracketed slab serif is not seen that often among slab serif typefaces, but the ones around are often quite beautiful; they combine the elegant look of the classical styles (Garalde and Transitional mostly) with the strength of a slab serif. The result is often refreshing and what we would consider “modern”. Clarendon typefaces also belong to the bracketed slab serif typefaces.
  • The unbracketed slab serif is the more conventional style. Also called Egyptian, these typefaces emerged in the early 19th century and combine the legibility of the classical serif with a more rigid construction to create a crisp type with a lot of impact.
  • The Tuscan serif can probably be divided into several sub-classes. There don’t seem to be any clear rules regarding the design of the Tuscan serif, but they all have extravagance in common. The most common type of Tuscan type is the typical Western lettering with the overly big slab serifs, but the serifs can also be highly decorative. It’s common for Tuscan serif typefaces to feature decorations at both sides of the center of the stems.
  • Today  we combine roman and italic (which has a cursive construction) like they’re the same typeface, but the cursive type started out as a distinct style. So initially it wasn’t only used for emphasis but whole texts were set in a cursive type. Although we don’t recognize it as a distinct type category any longer, we have to acknowledge that the cursive serifs are very distinct and deserve their own class. The cursive serif can take on all kinds of shapes, partially depending on the shape of the serifs of the roman, but cursive serifs are always either curved or diagonal to resemble cursive writing, which is the root of this kind of type style.
  • The sans serif is without a doubt the easiest style to recognize, simply because it’s the absence of serifs. 

In figure 4 you can see a few samples of a wide spectrum of possibilities for the serifs. For those who are interested about the designers:
  • Mercury was designed by Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones / 1997.
  • Collis was designed by Christoph Noordzij / 1993.
  • Jannon was designed by Jean Jannon in 1621 and digitized by František Štorm / 2001.
  • Alegreya was designed by Juan Pablo del Peral / 2012.
  • Aghari is my own design. It’s still in development, so the design may still change slightly. On that note, any feedback is welcome.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 04 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 4

Serif letters
So I think we have some background information and inspiration for our own serif typeface now. Of course one should still consider the application of the typeface. If you will use it for newspapers, one of the requirements will be that the typeface should be relatively condensed to allow for more text in a given space, especially for the typeface used for headings. A book typeface needs to be legible and shouldn’t tire the eye so quickly (which geometrical typefaces, high contrast typefaces and typefaces with a focus on the vertical strokes end to do). So these are things you will have to consider, but during the design process a lot of changes can still be made. As I explained in the first article though, you will save yourself a lot of time if you do establish the x-height so you won’t have to change it later. Other than that, I think you know what kind of typeface you want to create, so let’s first focus on the design of the serifs of the first letters, and then worry more about the general construction of the typeface. Mind you, I do recommend you sketch out some ideas on paper. Most of my process is digital and I’m embarrassingly bad at drawing letters on paper (for a type designer that is), but more than once I did get some great ideas out of just doodling letters—often pages full of the same letter, just to get an idea of all the variations and possibilities.

Creating space for your letters
Thus far we have a very minimalist capital /I. Now it’s time to mold this shape into something more exciting. I won’t do this step by step; the basic principles are described in the first article and showing you where to place what vector point at this point of the type design article series will limit your potential to create something unique. The reason I have more fun designing serif typefaces than sans serif typefaces is because there is more variation and more potential to design something unique, because you can bring originality in the serifs and you can play around with the weight distribution. The latter you can also do with sans serif typefaces, but usually a lot more subtly.

What I can tell you however is that usually the two vector points at the base (the corner between the serif and the stem of the letter) are moved up so you can add a bézier curve. Don’t be afraid to add vector points where necessary. For example, my Aghari typeface features vector points at the center of the stems so I could make the middle a bit more thin, which will give the typeface a more organic look. Also, because by thinning the center I essentially focus the weight at the top and bottom. The fact that the center therefore becomes lighter gives me the opportunity to compensate for that weight by making elements in the central region more prominent. For example, by moving weight out of the center, in the center I suddenly have a cleaner canvas as it were to do something special with the way the strokes connect in the letter /k, or do something special with the bowl of /a etc. You have to play around with the black and white space to create something balanced and interesting. I can’t tell you how to do that, other than to practice and look at the details of other typefaces. If you have the typeface on your computer, convert the letter to outlines and inspect the use of vectors and bézier curves.

I hope by looking at other typefaces you will manage to design proper looking serifs for the capital /I. As you can see in a typeface like Didot though, serifs don’t need to be very complicated. Also, most serif typefaces feature symmetrical stems, but depending on the style of typeface and its application, it may be interesting to create something more dynamic. As you can see in figure 4, the stems are symmetrical in Mercury, Collis and Jannon, and this fits the general design perfectly. In Alegreya you see the designer played around with the shapes to create tension and a sense of direction. The result is a vibrant, dynamic typeface. In terms of design this makes things a lot more interesting, but with typefaces you need to consider both design and function. Mercury was designed for newspapers, and this printing environment (the inks, paper and machinery used to produce newspapers) won’t do a highly dynamic typeface much justice. Ink may be absorbed in places where it wasn’t meant to be, and this may distort an already vibrant and perhaps even unruly design. That is not to say all newspapers should look boring (quite the contrary, in fact), but these are limitations which should be considered. For starters a typeface for a newspaper will likely have flat serifs to bring some order to the baselines. In my Aghari typeface you can see I also subtly played around with asymmetry. Not so much to create a lot of tension, but just enough to keep it interesting. Most of my serif typefaces are designed with editorial use in mind, so they’re usually quite legible, feature a medium to relatively high x-height and take a lot of inspiration from Renaissance typography when it comes to the weight distribution and relative proportions between letters.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 05 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 5

From capital to lowercase
Alright, so I always start with the design of the capital /I to get the stems and serifs the way I want. From there I can easily expand the typeface. Two /I’s with a horizontal bar and you can design /H, cut off the bottom of /I and replace it with a tail and you get /J and use the /I for the stem of B/D/E/F/K/L/M/P/R/T/U/Y. Before you do all that work though, it’s better to first focus on the lowercase letters. As the fact that you can create so many capital letters by using the /I shows, there is less variation in capital letters. I mean, you can still vary a lot, but capitals will always look blocky. It’s with the lowercase letters that you can really define the style. Firstly because the letters vary more, but also because you can play around with the ascender and descender lengths and the x-height. The first step though is to design the top serif (figure 6). To do that, we first take the /I and cut off the top half. You then replace the top with a top serif, as seen in the lowercase /i. I advise to get the shape of this top serif perfect because it’s one of the most prominent elements in a serif typeface. It’s also fairly easy to design something original for the top serif. You can design anything resembling something from the shape of a triangle (Mercury, Garamond) to the shape of a rectangle (Museo Slab, RePublic), but I don’t even see why you couldn’t try a circular top serif. Just play around with it. Also keep in mind though that the shape of this top serif will be one of the elements which creates the texture and it can shift weight. For example, the top serif of Jannon is very sharp at the top, so this will create tension in the x-height and provide a sharper texture. By contrast, Garamond also has triangular top serifs, but they’re a lot softer and subtle. The top serif in Mercury is rather small, which resembles the weight of the regular serifs. By contrast, in my design of Aghari the weight is shifted away from the middle of the stems and it’s largely focused in the base and the top serifs, so while in Mercury the stem is dominant, in Aghari the top serif and base are dominant. So, always keep in mind what each design decision will do for the texture, weight distribution and general appearance.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 06 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 6

For the tittle (the dot) of /I (and /j), be reminded that it should never be a perfect circle. The tittles in Collis and Jannon are almost circular, but if you superimpose a circle on the tittle and zoom in close enough you will see that the tittles are in fact not perfect circles. I attempted to show this in figure 6. Here I zoomed in on both tittles to show they subtly differ from a circular shape. In case of Collis the tittle is white. In case of Jannon Text I had to color the tittle black and color the perfect circle white, because due to the shape of the tittle if I were to do it the other way around, the circle would completely cover up the tittle of Jannon Text. The difference in presentation between the two tittles aside, you can clearly see that both tittles are in fact not perfect circles.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 07 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 7

More lowercase letters
Once you have the capital /I and lowercase /i, things become easier for a little while because you can create lowercase letters in a similar way to the process of a sans serif. First you copy /I (excluding the tittle) and extend the length to ascender height to create the /l. Copy the /I again to use as a stem for /n (instead of using rectangles when we designed the sans serif /n in the first article) and follow the process of the first article to create the whole letter, but obviously with a higher contrast between thick and thin. Look at figure 8 to see a quick way to create /n.

Daser from /i to /n by MartinSilvertant
Figure 8

You can vary more with the point where the arc emerged from the stem, how thin it starts from the stem, and where the weight is distributed along the arc. In figure 9 are a few distinct styles. Click on the picture to see a larger version so you can inspect the details. Note the different ways of distributing the weight, the different use of angles and how the base serifs tend to show some variation within each letter.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 09 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 9

Once you have the letter /n, you can follow the process described in the first article to create /h (by using /l),  /m, /r and /u. In case of /m, you may want to decrease the middle base serif a bit to increase the aperture (aperture= how open the letter is). In case of /r I would slightly increase the length of the right base serif to compensate for the empty space underneath the arm. Also look at the /r in other serif typefaces for inspiration, because there is quite a lot you can do with the arm of /r.

Daser ilmnr by MartinSilvertant
Figure 10

As for /u, be reminded that you have to condense the letter a bit because a /u always looks optically wider than /n so you need to compensate for that. If you just flip the /n upside down though, you might discover the result is not quite as pleasing as it was in case of the sans serif. This is because the base serifs of /n now become the top serifs of /u, and the top serif of /n becomes the spur of /u. So after flipping the letter /n, cut off the top part and replace it with the top serif of /i. Now remove the bottom serif of /u and replace it with a spur. You have some opportunity here though. In some typefaces this spur somewhat resembles the shape of the top serif (the same as the spur of /d), while in others the spur is a curved shape as can often be seen in the lowercase /a. The former is much more common, but this it’s an area where you can make your typeface more distinct—if it fits the design of your typeface that is. 

You might also want to increase the length of the right top serif a bit, and it probably looks best if you make the curve at the bottom a bit more squared compared to the /n. I don’t know why, but this ends up looking better every time I do it. I suppose it’s one of those optical illusions again, such as the /n looking optically wider than /n. A very good tip is also to adjust the letter according to the eye and not according to strict rules. Initially you need rules to keep your typeface consistent, but after that comes a process of fine-tuning according to the eye. So don’t be afraid to move the connection point between the stem and the arc up a bit in /u compared to /n, as long as it looks good. The design process of a serif typeface tends to be a lot more like molding. A lot more manual work is involved, and a lot more fun with the weight distribution. In figure 11 you can see the process of how to go from /n to /u. Do note the alignment to the guidelines. So far the top of the lowercase letters were either rounded or sharp so they aligned to the same guideline. Now we turned the /n upside down and suddenly we flat, rounded and sharp objects, and so we need an extra guideline; one for the flat objects, and one for anything which looks optically smaller (rounded and sharp objects) so the objects can extend a bit beyond the baseline and x-height when necessary. This might sound confusing, so just have a look at the guidelines of the typeface provided at the end of this article.

Daser from /n to /u by MartinSilvertant
Figure 11

Black and white
I’m going on about optical adjustments, molding and weight distribution, but something occurred to me. If you want to create a typeface with an even color (meaning the black weight is optimally distributed), you can think of a white field with a black blob on it. Depending on the way the black blob interacts with the white, you can shape letters. A wider letter (like /m or /w) requires a wider field while a small letter (like /l or /i) requires a smaller field, and the black blob shrinks or grows relative to the area of the field. As such a mathematical system could be constructed to calculate the optimal size of the black blob per letter given a certain weight, because obviously a bold font will have more black space than a light font. If such a mathematical system is constructed, you could also see how much each letter of a given typeface deviates from the optimal amount of black relative to white. This should give interesting statistics, but it should be said that an even color is not necessarily what you want. Didone typefaces like Didot and Bodoni for example don’t have an even color at all; most of the weight is in the stems, and so there is a focus on the vertical strokes while horizontal and many diagonal strokes are very thin or in some typefaces remain completely absent, since the thick strokes alone are enough to recognize most letters. I personally think typefaces with a very even color tend to be dull. If you vary a lot with where you focus the weight though, you will get something wacky and quite hard to read. An excellent example of this is ITC Biblon. Love it or hate it, but it can give some very interesting results. One should just be reminded of the application of the typeface. ITC Biblon works excellent at display size, but at text size the texture resembles that of a blackletter, or something handwritten; so if you want crisp and modern, ITC Biblon is definitely not a good text typeface. If you want something playful and quite dark in color then ITC Biblon might be a good choice. It’s one of those typefaces with such a distinct character it might be difficult to find a project for it though. But then, you don’t select the projects for the typefaces but the typefaces for the project. There are plenty of typefaces I would love to use but just haven’t gotten a project which it would be perfect for yet.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 12 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 12

The letter ‘a’
In a previous article I talked about the importance of the letter /a; how it’s one of the most prominent letters and one of the most commonly used letters and is therefore a great letter to show all you’ve got and really make your typeface distinct. In the English language the most commonly used letters are /e (12.7%), /t (9.1%) and /a (8.2%). In all other Western languages the /e and /a are also among the most commonly used letters, and in Spanish it’s even the most commonly used letter. So really, spend extra time on these letters to make them perfect. In case you’re interested in the statistics of the frequency in which other letters are used in Western languages, go to this page. Not only is the /a a frequently used letter, but it’s also quite a challenging letter to design. Full of possibilities, but also challenging. All I can say here is to follow the previous two articles and have a look at the /a in other typefaces. Make sure the proportions are consistent with the other letters, meaning the white space inside /a is roughly equal to the white space in /n. The letter /n is probably a good letter to keep as a master for the width, so you compare every other letter to /n. Some variation in proportions may be wanted though. Particularly Venetian and Garalde typefaces tend to feature more variety in the widths of letters; often such a typeface will feature a condensed /B and /L, wide rounded letters (D/C/G/O/Q) and a wide /M and /N. In slab serif typefaces you will probably find the least variety in proportions among the serif typefaces—monospaced typefaces excluded of course. In figure 13 I selected a range of different /a’s. I wish I could add another 2 rows but that’s really pushing it. Besides, you will find plenty of good typefaces on or on one of the major font foundries like Darden Studio, Emigre, exljbris Font Foundry, FontFont, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, HvD Fonts, Process Type Foundry, Storm Type Foundry, Suitcase Type Foundry, The Enschede Font Foundry, Typejockeys, Typotheque, Underwear, Village etc.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 13 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 13

Bee dee pee quu
The letters b/d/p/q are quite strange in the sense that the letters are reflections from each other at first glance. What makes the letters distinct from each other is the weight distribution. Typefaces have roots in calligraphy, so if you were to visualize writing with a calligraphy pen, I think you can imagine where the stroke will become thick or thin. The weight needs to be distributed according to this principle. If you don’t do this, your letter will look awkward. At the right in figure 14 is the /b reflected. As you can see it obviously resembles a /d, but while the weight distribution and general shape of the bowl worked for /b, once you reflect the letter it becomes very awkward. This is because the weight distribution no longer follows the calligraphic flow typefaces are based on.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 14 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 14

The letter ‘e’
The letter /e is also a common letter, and a prominent one. There are quite some typefaces where the /e has some quirk to make the typeface more distinct. It’s also fairly common to create some tension in the /e, because its shape lends itself well for that. As you can see in figure 15,  Requiem Text focuses its weight in the lower left and top right corners, but the letter is balanced. By contrast, Relato’s weight is distributed vertically; most on the whole left side, and a bit on the top right. A vertical weight distribution tends to create less tension, but if you look at the shape of the eye, the letter wants to move to the right. The letter isn’t static, but has a sense of movement. In Jannon Text the weight is distributed diagonally, and in fact most of the weight is in the bottom left curve; a characteristic of oldstyle typefaces. Despite the diagonal weight distribution, the letter features hardly any tension, though a bit of tension was added by letting the horizontal stroke slope inwards towards the eye. The top right is quite flat though, which focuses the letter on its own spot rather than creating a forwards tension. In Leitura the weight distribution is roughly the same as in Requiem Text, but other than Requiem Text, Leitura does have a forward tension. This is created with the shape of the eye, the curve on the top right going a bit to the right instead of immediately to the left, and the terminal (the ending of the curve at the bottom) extends slightly beyond the core of the letter, giving the letter not only a sense of moving forward, but a sense of rotation to the left.

So there are several tricks you can apply to the design of your /e to both make it consistent with the rest of your typeface but to also make it distinct. Also be reminded that although you can play around with the weight distribution within a typeface, it’s going to look really awkward if one letter features a vertical weight distribution (Transitional) and the other features a diagonal weight distribution (Venetian or Garalde). Also, the weight distribution of /c needs to be rather similar to /e. In fact, remove the horizontal bar in /e and replace the top right curve with a proper terminal/serif and you’re well on your way to designing /c. You might want to move the weight very slightly towards the bottom. Remember the example of the black blob and how it interacts with the white space? Well, the black of that horizontal bar of /e has to go somewhere now that you removed it. Removing too much black without adding any back in return will result in a lighter letter. One final thing to remember is that the /e and /c can have a fairly diagonal weight distribution anyway. This doesn’t necessarily indicate the weight distribution of the letter /o, and so the weight distribution in these letters alone are not enough to verify whether a typeface is transitional or oldstyle.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 15 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 15

The letter ‘o’
Alright, so they say the letter /g (the double storey one) is the most difficult letter to design and generally I tend to agree with that, and yet with some typefaces (like my Aghari typeface) it seems impossible to design a letter /o which looks good and which fits the typeface. I’m sure it will become easier as I gain more experience and vision, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the /o can be a deceivingly difficult letter to design. In the first article I showed you how to design the letter /o, and by increasing the contrast I can easily make the letter /o for Baskerville or Bodoni. Any /o with a vertical weight distribution, basically. Once the weight moves diagonally, it can be very challenging to balance it out. One trick is to move the outer left vector down, the outer right vector up, the inner right vector down and the inner left vector up, the top outer vector to the right, the bottom outer vector to the left, and finally the inner bottom vector to the right and the inner top vector to the left. This will essentially rotate the counter (the white space inside the /o) counter-clockwise. Do note that this is very different from simply selecting the inner vectors and rotate the counter with the Rotate Tool, because in that case the bézier curves rotate as well, which ruins a lot of the flow. Move vector points around and change bézier curves to get the result you want, and I can’t say it often enough, but look at other professional typefaces for reference. Especially have a look at the bézier curves if you have access to the vector design. In figure 16 you can see how I went from a simple ring shape to an /o with diagonal weight distribution. Initially the result was the fourth /o. Two things become obvious to me here though:
  1. I’m not great at designing the /o. This explains why it takes me so much time to get it perfect, or why I already redesigned the /o in Aghari numerous times and I’m still not quite content.
  2. That the /o of the typeface I’m designing to accompany this article needs a very subtle diagonal weight distribution, if diagonal at all.

So I made a second attempt, which you can see at the far right. I’m still not content, but at least it fits the typeface now.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 16 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 16

The end
I think that’s it for now. I could make a step-by-step tutorial for each individual letter in each style, but I’m not sure if that’s the proper way to learn. If you’re passionate about type, you will discover most things on your own, and make them your own. I’ve had no official type design lessons, and so what you learn from me is what I learned on my own, by doing a lot of research, constantly looking at other typefaces, and of course practice a lot. With this type design article series I want you to become more and more independent, and by the end of the article series I will likely give information predominantly, and not so much show how something specific is done. Having said that, if you have any questions or would like me to make a tutorial for a specific letter, let me know.

Next time I will probably focus on designing italics for a serif typeface. After that I have an article about small-caps and ligatures to write and an article about adding full language support to your typeface, but other than that I think I’m nearing the end of this series. So if you have any subject relating to type design or typefaces you would also like me to write about, let me know.

How to design a typeface (Part 3) - Figure 17 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 17

This time I included a separate file for the typeface I designed to accompany the article. The name of the typeface is “Daser” (dA serif), and it includes guidelines for the baseline, x-height, capital height etc. to give you an idea of the dimensions of a typeface. All is included in the resource package below. Be reminded however that all resources are only meant for educational purposes; you're not allowed to distribute or alter any of the work.

Download the figures used in this article here:

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Why Helvetica is not great

Type design is a rather obscure profession but even the typefaces themselves don’t get too much attention by the general public. Most people could only name a few typefaces, but among those few are always Times New Roman, Arial and Helvetica. Well-known and popular or not, in this article I will show you why Helvetica is not the great typeface people perceive it to be.

Helvetica by MartinSilvertant
Figure 1

The designer
Arial is often frowned upon due to its history, but what most people don’t know is that Helvetica has a very similar history. A bit different, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just as dubious and embarrassing. As most people who are interested in typefaces might know, Max Miedinger is the designer of Helvetica. However, what most people probably don’t know is that Max Miedinger was not a type designer. Miedinger studied typesetting between 1926 and 1930 and later became a typographer for Globus department store’s advertising studio in Zürich. As a typographer he obviously saw a lot of type, and he became a customer counselor and typeface sales representative for the Haas’sche Schriftgießerei (Haas Type Foundry), so without a doubt he had expertise in type. However, this is very different from being a type designer, and this tends to show.

Haas-ProArte- by MartinSilvertant
Figure 2

In 1954 at around age 44 he designed his first typeface, called Pro Arte (figure 2). It’s a condensed Egyptian (slab serif) like many of its contemporaries. In general Pro Arte is quite nice, but the letters K, Q and the ampersand (&) show he isn’t quite the master type designer people nowadays may perceive him to be when they think of Helvetica. To humor you, this is what I perceive to be wrong with Pro Arte:

K – The slab serif on the arm and leg are positioned too far to the left. Or, if Miedinger would insist on keeping the gaps in between the slab serifs consistent with the gaps in H/U/V/W/X/Y, he would have to change the angle of the arm and leg a bit. It’s an easy fix, but it’s a bad mistake to make in the first place.
Q – I have to say, I find this swash-like tail of Q quite attractive, but then I would expect some elements of the same stroke weight somewhere else in the typeface. The tail is simply not heavy enough.
& – The ampersand looks like it belongs to a completely different typeface; the top isn’t heavy enough, the thin stroke should go more gradually from thin to thick (a bit more weight in the curves), the curves look wobbly and for some reason the ampersand features quite thin and elegant serifs. The glyph is simply more refined than all the other letters. Also, the fact that the glyph is slightly flattened at the left and top left and right sides makes it consistent with the large vertical parts of the slab serifs in other letters, but it makes the ampersand look quite awkward. I don’t know what the solution should be for this, but sufficed to say the current ampersand is seriously flawed.

Alright, so Miedinger didn’t do a perfect job with Pro Arte. That shouldn’t deter any type designer from making more typefaces. Eduard Hoffmann—who was director of Haas Type Foundry by the time Miedinger joined—recognized Miedinger’s talent and commissioned a new typeface. Not just any typeface, but a very specific design. At the time the typeface Akzidenz Grotesk (bottom line of figure 3)—released by Berthold Type Foundry in 1896 under the name Accidenz Grotesk—was hugely popular, and Haas Type Foundry became alerted to the fact that they were missing sales because all Swiss designers were specifying Akzidenz Grotesk from Germany. The Swiss wanted some of that market share, and so Haas Type Foundry requested a typeface like Akzidenz Grotesk.

Akzidenz by MartinSilvertant
Figure 3

Akzidenz Grotesk was based on Scheltersche Grotesk (released by Schelter & Giesecke Foundry in 1880) and both these typefaces served as models for Helvetica. In fact, if you compare Helvetica with Akzidenz Grotesk, you might notice the general proportions are exactly the same. Conscious decisions were made to keep the proportions the same so it was possible to substitute one typeface for another without having to re-set the whole text. This is also why Arial was designed with the same proportions as Helvetica. Arial was based on Grotesque 215 but redrawn to match Helvetica in weight and proportions.

In figure 4 you can see the authentic documents showing the working process of plagiarizing (or at the very least being greatly influenced by) Akzidenz Grotesk. The top lines on the right are Helvetica in progress and each second line is Akzidenz Grotesk. Image provided by Nick Shinn (type designer and founder of Shinntype).

NickShinn-shows-how-Miedinger-rippedoff-AkzidenzGr by MartinSilvertant
Figure 4

While the antique grotesque typefaces were warm, Helvetica was designed to be neutral; compared to Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica is rather cold. This neutrality was exactly what the world of design needed at the time. Suddenly a lot of big companies got rid of their hand-lettered, decorative type and replaced it with this new typeface called Neue Haas Grotesk—which would later be called Helvetica so it would be easier to market internationally. While the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements were all about minimalist modernism, the post-war mentality abandoned austerity and embraced midcentury modernism; neutrality and impact were the new modern style—something which Helvetica (and the contemporary Univers) provided. As such Helvetica became a hugely popular typeface, and during the 60’s it had major impact on the advertising industry and on corporate branding. Not only was the typeface supposed to be neutral, but as Helvetica became synonymous with modern design, it also neutralized the whole design industry and impacted modern consumerism in a major way. It set some of the aesthetics we still cherish today, and Apple played a major role in that by using Helvetica as a system default typeface. Look at figure 5 for a comparison between a Coca Cola advertisement from the 60's (left) and the 70's (right) where Helvetica is used. It's still looking clumsy compared to contemporary marketing, but for the time this was a major improvement, and a big step towards commercialism as we know it today.

Ad by MartinSilvertant
Figure 5

Helvetica may have been neutral in the 60’s, but ironically enough Helvetica is definitely not a neutral typeface. It’s quite cold, but not neutral. In fact Helvetica is highly prolific. In that sense—and only in that sense—Helvetica is like Eurostile; cold in design but highly prolific as a typeface. A typeface like Franklin Gothic is what I would consider more neutral. If you can recognize the typeface straight away, it’s obviously not a neutral design. As such, it's definitely not a typeface to use for any and every project. Every project should be treated individually, and so it seems unlikely that Helvetica would be the optimal choice for each project. In fact, Helvetica isn’t an optimal choice at all, but more about that later.

So Helvetica isn’t in fact neutral. Is it modern? Certainly it’s mid-century modernism, but since Helvetica is based on the same model as typefaces from the late 19th century, you can’t really consider that modern as in, contemporary. The design of ‘a’ with the curve going from the top of the belly to the stem is an antique design, stemming from the Egyptians (slab serif typefaces) from the early 19th century. So next time you’re selecting a modern typeface for your project, consider if you want genuine modernism or 19th century modernism. There is nothing at all wrong with 19th century modernism, but it has to fit the context. Although, for me personally I can imagine a typeface working well even if it doesn't fit the context. For example, to create contrast. So I guess fundamentally what concerns me more is the fact that people choose typefaces based on ignorance. Just like all other aspects of a design—such as composition, use of color, symbolism, symbology etc.—the choice of typeface is very important and needs to be carefully considered. I have to admit though, even as a type designer and typography, selecting the right typefaces can be very challenging. Partially because there are so many things to consider, but also because design is subjective anyway. First you need to know the facts though. How you may deviate from certain facts or design principles is your responsibility and possibly your obligation as a designer; to consider all aspects and bend it according to what you think fits the product best. It's partially an intuitive process, but with knowledge and logic at its base.

Clarendon by MartinSilvertant
Figure 6

A default typeface
Have you heard the phrase ‘When in doubt, use Helvetica?’. If you have, forget it immediately. As I explained, every project needs to be treated individually, and so when you’re in doubt you should either do more research on typography and branding, or do more market research on your product. Simply selecting Helvetica when in doubt is lazy, and you’re not much of a designer by doing so. In fact, Helvetica has become so prolific that although it’s still considered a designer typeface, it’s actually increasingly becoming the amateur designer’s typeface. It comes with OS X by default and for a Windows user it’s also very easy to get, and the problem with these kind of default fonts is always that everyone has already seen them, and any amateur has access to it and will likely misuse the typeface—which further stigmatizes the typeface just like it did with Comic Sans. Besides, Helvetica is absolutely everywhere on the streets, and I simply tire from seeing it. Many designers still cling to Helvetica, but a truly professional designer won't limit himself to one typeface, or select a typeface for a project because it's his favorite. A type designer or typographer may not even want to use Helvetica at all, both because they recognize there are better typefaces around or because they want to avoid using a system default font to avoid any negative connotations.

Helvetica-Warning by MartinSilvertant
Figure 7

Better typefaces

Helvetica is by no means a bad design. It could easily be improved (have you noticed the weak design of the belly of ‘a’?), but it was a wonderful typeface in the 60’s and 70’s and it’s still a nice typeface today. But have you seen other sans serif typefaces lately? I strongly suspect that if Helvetica is your favorite typeface, you simply haven’t seen a lot of professional typefaces. Typefaces like Trivia Grotesk, Voice, Bulo, Sixta, Adelle Sans, Argumentum, Supria Sans and Air Soft are certainly not for every project, but they’re very attractive grotesque typefaces. Grotesque isn’t my personal favorite style though (but personal preference shouldn’t matter much when considering a typeface for a project); I’m very fond of humanist sans typefaces and typefaces with some quirks. Typefaces like Winco, Ideal Sans, Sonus, Tabac Sans (Figure 8), Andes, Uniman and Karmina Sans are absolutely amazing to me. Speaking of quirks, I still admire the classic Gill Sans. Interestingly though, I initially hated the typeface for being so awkward and "imperfect", but as I learned more about typefaces and type design, I came to admire the typeface for the reasons I started out hating it. This makes me think sometimes typefaces are a bit like an insiders joke; only few people will truly understand what the typeface is about. This can be rather frustrating for type designers because our main target audience are graphic designers, who generally know quite a bit about typography but not about typefaces. At the same time though, that's the type designer's challenge and tool, to play with such differences in our perceptions of design. This is also why there are never enough typefaces and there will always remain a gap in the market. You would think every style and concept has been done already when it comes to typefaces, but once you really study it, you become aware to how many gaps there are yet to fill, and how many highly unique typefaces are being released each year.

52464 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 8

Better alternatives to Helvetica
If you’re simply in love with Helvetica’s aesthetic though, there are still plenty of better alternatives and even better renditions of the Helvetica model (like Aktiv Grotesk [bottom line of figure 9], Vaud or Haas Unica for example). If you enjoy the general style of Helvetica [top line of figure 9] but you want something less antique, Univers is a great alternative. It should also be said that Helvetica is nice as a display type, but it’s very bad in long texts; it tires the eye easily. On the web Helvetica is off even worse, as it renders horribly on Windows. For the web I would much rather use Arial than Helvetica because the hinting is better, so it renders better on screen. I believe Helvetica Neue renders better on the web, but most companies seem to use Helvetica rather than Helvetica Neue.

Aktiv by MartinSilvertant
Figure 9

Choose objectively
By the way, is it not strange that Arial is frowned upon for being a copy of Helvetica, while Helvetica is a copy of Akzidenz Grotesk and Akzidenz Grotesk is a copy of Scheltersche Grotesk? When people seem to speak from authority, we tend to listen to what they have to say, but in the design field a lot of opinions are often mistaken for facts, and a lot of these opinions are often based on ignorance. Arial is not the horrible typeface people make it out to be, and Helvetica is not the great typeface people make it out to be. Neither one is absolutely amazing to me, but they're both good typefaces. The reason for writing this article is not to mock Helvetica, its history or its designer, but rather to offer perspective from a professional type designer, and so you might reconsider whether to use Helvetica for your next project. Not because it's a bad typeface, but because we've seen it far too often for over 50 years, there are an impressive amount of other professional typefaces to choose from, and no typeface is perfect for each and every project. It’s nice to have a favorite typeface, but it doesn’t speak of a good designer to use a typeface because it's your favorite. Choose your typefaces as objectively as possible.

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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

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How to design a typeface (Part 1)

Sans serif — Roman

In this article/tutorial I will show you how to design a typeface. I will cover the basics and show you how to design advanced letters as well. There is so much I can talk about though, so if people like this article I might expand on this with future articles and get more into detail. I will only cover the design though, so you will have to research how to do the spacing and programming and turn your typeface into a usable font—or wait until I might do an article on that as well, but I don’t have such an article planned anytime soon.

What will we design?
I will first show you how to design some basic letters for a geometric sans typeface like Futura, because it utilizes geometric shapes, which is always my starting point for every typeface regardless of style. Once you understand the basics, you can use those principles to design the other letters. If you don’t know how a specific letter should look, just look at other typefaces for reference. Just as with any other art form, you learn a lot by looking at other people’s works. Don’t ever modify a typeface though! Always design your letters from scratch, or you might get into legal issues. I can recommend however to select a certain typeface, type some letters and expand the Text Field (Object > Expand) to get the contours of the letters and have a look at how vectors and bézier curves are used. That’s how I learned.

Before I get to the tutorial I have to offer you a bit of background information. If you’re only interested in the actual process of designing the font, just skip to the chapter appropriately called “Let’s get started”.

Before you continue, let me state here that I will provide a link to download a zip file featuring all the figures used in this article as an AI vector file and a PDF at the end of this tutorial. So, if you get stuck somewhere, just open the AI file and inspect the outlines of the letters, or just continue with one of my letters. As long as you don’t use the letters in your own typeface feel free to modify and experiment with it.

Now, if you want to create a typeface from start to finish (meaning design, spacing and programming), Fontlab Studio is probably the best option to do all of that. I’m not comfortable with designing in Fontlab Studio though. Many type designers actually do the design in Illustrator. It’s a great program for designing typefaces, as you can zoom in more than in Fontlab Studio, you can adjust your art board so you can have all letters in one spot, and it’s easy to add guidelines and place them in a separate layer so you can turn the whole group on or off. Any vector program will suffice though.

Before you start designing, you need to establish the weight of your typeface (assuming you’ve already thought about what kind of style you want to design and what the application of that typeface would be). Are you going to design a typeface consisting of several weights, or in a single weight? In case of the latter, which weight should it be? You have to consider the application of your typeface. If you design a really wacky font, it may only be useful to use as a display font (meaning for use at bigger sizes, like in titles and headings), and as such it may not be important to have more than one weight. I mostly design serious typefaces, meaning the intended use is for books, magazines, logos, signage; virtually anything. For such a typeface it’s almost required to include more than one weight, because the end user will want to put some texts in bold or italic, or utilize other features which remain absent in a single weight font. Don’t let this discourage you though! There are still plenty of single weight typefaces with plenty of use. I released the single weight typeface Dion (though I’m currently working on Dion Pro, which offers more features, has improved letter shapes and includes Bold and Italic) and I have a single weight (and capitals only) typeface called Crouton Grotesque in production.

I always start with the Regular weight to establish the style and proportions. I then copy the Regular weight and modify it to get the two extreme weights in the family (assuming the typeface consists of more than one weight). So, I usually design either Thin, Light or Extra Light as the lightest weight (I haven’t done Hairline yet; Thin seems light enough for the typefaces I’ve done so far) and Black as the darkest weight (I’ve never done Ultra Black). These three weights will function as masters for interpolation. Interpolation is when you take two weights and let certain software generate the weights in between these masters. You can also use interpolation for width and contrast. For example, you can design a Regular font and a Regular Condensed font and generate each width in between, and select one of them to become Regular Narrow.

For this article I will show you how to design a typeface in the Regular weight. For the other weights the same principles are involved, though in the darkest weight you will have to pay more attention to keeping the counters (the negative space inside letters) sufficiently big so the counters are still visible if you use the font at text size (9–12pt generally). If you design a typeface with more than one weight, you should make sure the proportions and style remain consistent throughout the whole typeface. If you have no idea how to do this, I might write an article on changing your font from one weight into another if there is sufficient interest.

For reference, let me name all the weights I know from lightest to darkest (but do note that a typeface rarely ever includes ALL these weights; usually 6 or 7):
Hairline, Thin, Extra Light, Light, Book, Regular, Medium, Semibold, Bold, Extra Bold, Black, Ultra Black.

I personally mostly use this range: Extra Light, Light, Regular, Semibold, Bold, Black.

Let’s get started
It’s important to note that not all typefaces have the same weight, not even when it only regards the Regular weight. So there doesn’t seem to be a specific weight assigned to Regular, but obviously a really fat typeface shouldn’t be called ‘Regular’. It might be best to base your Regular weight on the weight of a professional typeface. So, select the Type Tool and type /i (without the slash; I only use that instead of apostrophes when mentioning letters because it’s less obtrusive). Select a pt size of around 400. You want to design your typeface pretty big so you can still zoom in a lot to adjust small details. My most recent typeface Aghari (still under heavy development) is being designed at 800pt because the letterforms are quite advanced so I need to refine the details so much more than a simple geometric sans typeface like Futura for example. By the way, some typefaces don’t have a Regular weight but instead use Book (which is usually a tad lighter than Regular) or Medium (which is slightly bolder than Medium).

Now that you have a reference for the weight, select the Rectangle Tool and create a rectangle of the same width and height of /I (excluding the dot). Now select the Ellipse tool and create a perfect circle (hold down the Shift key as you drag). The circle needs to be a bit bigger than the rectangle, and it should stick out both at the bottom and at the top. This is necessary because one of the basic principles of type design is that rounded shapes appear smaller than rectangles, so you need to compensate for this by making rounded shapes slightly bigger.

Let’s create actual letters. First go to Edit > Preferences > General and change the Keyboard Increment to 2pt. This changes how much a vector point moves if you select it and press one of the arrow keys. You will likely change the Keyboard Increment frequently while designing a typeface, depending on what you use it for. For example, modifying a curve requires a smaller Increment value than when I use it to change the Regular weight into Bold. Keep track of which Increment values you use for what. If for example you make the /I one Increment smaller with a 2pt value and you make the /b one Increment smaller with a 4pt value, your weight between these two letters is obviously not consistent anymore. If at a later stage you feel like you might have ruined some of the consistencies in the proportions (it happens to me too at times), just select one letter as the base letter and compare the other letters to the base letter (by superimposing) and modify accordingly.

Select the Direct Selection Tool (the white arrow) and select the left vector point of the circle and move it a few Increments to the right. Select the right vector point and move it a few Increments to the left. You now have a condensed circle. The reason why you should use this method rather than directly create an oval shape with the Ellipse Tool is because an oval would be thinner at the top and bottom. It works better if the shape is a bit bulkier.

How to design a typeface - Figure 1 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 1

Now copy the oval shape and put it in the exact same spot as the first oval. So, two shapes superimposed on the same spot. Change the color of the top oval to white and select the Scale Tool. Turn Preview on and go for a Uniform percentage of around 65%. Select both ovals and select Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel. If you don’t see the panel, go to Window > Pathfinder. You now cut the white shape out of the black shape, and in effect you have a badly designed /o.

How to design a typeface - Figure 2 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 2

Horizontal strokes
So why would I want you to create a badly designed /o? Well, it’s not an /o just yet. One of the basic principles in type design is that horizontal strokes appear thicker than vertical strokes, so you need to compensate for that. I would usually tell you to select the top inner vector point and move it around 1 Increment up, and select the bottom inner vector point and move it the same amount down, but if you resized the white oval to 65% in the previous step, your /o is thinner than your /i. So instead, select the left inner vector and move it around 2 Increments to the left, and do the opposite to the inner right vector. The letter is still too thin compared to /I, so move the outer left and right vectors around 1 Increment outwards. I say “around” because this is not an exact science. Just modify until it looks right.

How to design a typeface - Figure 3 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 3

I think the /o looks pretty good. Now you have this basic letter you really have to decide which direction you want to take your typeface into. If you move the top and bottom inner vectors outwards, the left and right inner vectors inwards or the left and right outer vectors outwards, you will adjust the contrast of your typeface and it starts to look like a serif typeface. The more you raise the contrast, the more you need to adjust the bézier curves. Do this by selecting the inner top curves with the white arrow and move up. You might want to use a smaller Increment size for this, like 1pt. Do the opposite to the inner bottom curves. You now have something that starts to look like a Transitional typeface like Baskerville. Look at my result in figure 4.

How to design a typeface - Figure 4 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 4

Raise the contrast even more to get a Didone typeface like Didot and Bodoni. If you go back to the shape of figure 3 and move the left and right outer and inner vectors inwards, you condense the letter and when you select the inner and outer curves and move the bézier curves outwards, you make the letter more squared. If you do that, you might end up with something like DIN. Look at figure 5 for my DIN-like /o.

How to design a typeface - Figure 5 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 5

Alright, so that’s some of the basics covered and we designed our first letter. Let’s make more letters. Right now we can still take our typeface into every direction. We can adjust weight, width, style etc. But now we will start defining some things. In order to define our style and proportions, we will design a/h/i/l/n/o. Ahilno!

So why these letters? Well, the /o I don’t usually design first, but it was handy to design it first for the sake of this tutorial as it covers a few basic principles in type design. A letter like /n is technically more advanced. I first design the /I to get the weight and x-height (the height of the lowercase letters without ascenders or descenders). I then use the /I and make it taller to get the /l. The height of the /l defines the ascender height, which is a bit higher than the capital height. I then design the /n before I combine /l and /n to get /h. A lot of letters can be designed by using elements from other letters. You can design a one-storey /a (like in Futura) by using /I and /o and do some modifications. For a two-storey /a (like in most typefaces except for geometric sans typefaces like Futura), there isn’t really a letter you can reuse except the /I to get the stem of the /a. The /a is a very common letter in languages, and so a two-storey /a helps define the style of your typeface. Because it’s such a common letter you might want to spend some extra time on it and give it character. Don’t do anything wacky though, because this can be very obtrusive. Also, consistency is key, so if you give the /a a sharp serif, I expect the other letters to feature sharp serifs as well.

So, the letters in “ahiln” I design first because they define the style and dimensions. The letter /o might actually be a useful letter to design in the beginning because it defines a secondary width. Remember how rounded letters need to be bigger to look optically the same size as letters with a straight top? Well, that also counts for the width. Your /o will be slightly wider than your /n, and other rounded letters like b/d/p/q will likely resemble the width of /o. Don’t look too much at the general width of the letters though; the negative space is actually more important in this case. If the negative space inside /o equals /n, you know you’ve chosen a proper width for a consistent rhythm.

With the letters of “ahilno” you define everything except for the descender height, capital height and diacritic (éèêë etc.) height. I usually define these at a later stage. In fact, in most cases I won’t start designing the capital letters until I have at least half of the lowercase letters done. It’s much easier to define the style of your typeface with lowercase letters anyway.

The descender height should resemble the ascender height (but it can be slightly shorter than the ascenders), the capital height should be underneath ascender height and you will have to judge for yourself how high to position diacritics. Don’t get too caught up in defining all these heights though. I usually adjust these values at least 10 times during the design process of my typefaces. Same goes for the x-height, width and in some cases even the weight. You can adjust all the ascenders at once, but if you change the weight you will have to modify each letter individually—which is quite some work, so the weight and x-height are better defined at the beginning and not changed later.

Making oli
That’s enough background information for now. Let’s make some other letters. Select the rectangle you made at the beginning of this tutorial. Make a copy, because you will be using this rectangle frequently. Now that you roughly have the width defined with /o it’s easier to guess roughly how high your ascenders will be. As I mentioned before though, this isn’t an exact science and the ascender height will likely be subject to change. But for now, let’s extend the rectangle to make the letter /l. Now copy the first rectangle again. Select the Ellipse Tool and make a perfect circle which is slightly wider than the rectangle. Resize the circle to match the weight of the rectangle (not the width!). Center the tittle (that’s what the dot on /I and /j is called) horizontally on the rectangle, and position the tittle vertically somewhere between the lowercase- and ascender height. Now, it’s important to note that tittles and dots look like perfect circles, but they rarely are. The shape of these characters depend on the style of the typeface. A serif typeface could feature quite an unusual shape. Have a look at figure 6 for two examples (left: Swift / right: Brioso Pro).

How to design a typeface - Figure 6 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 6

For a sans serif typeface the shape of the tittles and dots will be a lot more conservative—particularly in case of a geometric typeface. Go to Edit > Preferences > General and define a Keyboard Increment of 0.5pt. Now select the top and bottom left horizontal bézier curves and move one increment to the left. Do the opposite to the right side. Now you should have a slightly more bulky looking circle for the tittle. If you want the stem and tittle to stay together, group them by selecting both shapes and press Ctrl + G (Windows) or Command + G (Mac). If you want to ungroup again, do the same but also press Shift. If you did everything right, you should now have 3 letters which look roughly like my result in figure 7.

How to design a typeface - Figure 7 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 7

Making nhmu
Alright, so thus far we made some of the easiest characters. Well, easy for a sans serif. A serif is a bit more difficult, and particularly the /o can be deceivingly difficult if you have a diagonal stress (weight distribution according to a diagonal axis). Have a look at figure 8 to see the three ways of distributing the weight.

How to design a typeface - Figure 8 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 8

Now make two copies of the first rectangle you made and place them by a little distance apart to resemble the negative space in /o (roughly like in figure 9, but adjustments can be made later).

How to design a typeface - Figure 9 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 9

Select one of the rectangles and make another copy. Rotate it 45° so the rectangle is positioned horizontally. Shorten it a little bit and position it between the two vertical rectangles near the top, like in figure 10. Select all three shapes and click on Unite in the Pathfinder panel.

How to design a typeface - Figure 10 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 10

I now came to a point where it’s rather complicated to explain what to do, so I will offer you a figure with multiple steps so you can create your letter /n. But first, let’s add a few guidelines. Create a new layer and call it “guidelines”. Press Ctrl + R (Windows) or Command + R (Mac) to show the rulers on the top and left of the canvas and drag guidelines from the ruler to the top and bottom of your first rectangle, and do the same to the top and bottom of your /o and the top of your /l. Lock the guidelines layer so you don’t accidentally move any of the guidelines. You should now have something like in figure 11.

How to design a typeface - Figure 11 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 11

Now let’s go through a few steps to finish the /n. Look at figure 12 while following these steps.

How to design a typeface - Figure 12 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 12

  1. Select the shape with the two verticals and one horizontal stroke. Counting from the right and the top, remove the second vector point to get a shape like in 12.1.
  2. Move the most right vector point down, move the second vector point from the right a bit to the left and align it with the overshoot  guideline (the one which aligns to /o). Add a vector point to the bottom part of the horizontal stroke and move it up. You know have a shape resembling an /n made without curves.
  3. Select the Convert Anchor Point Tool (one of the options in the Pen Tool panel) and drag each vector point while holding Shift to create horizontal bézier curves. Do this only to the 4 most right vector points. You now have something similar to 12.3.
  4. Now move the two most right vectors down and increase the length of the bézier curves. Move the vector on the inner horizontal up. Move the two vector points touching the stem (the left vertical stroke) down; the upper one more so than the bottom one. These two vector points will define at what position the arc starts, and the top vector of the two defines the contrast. The curved stroke is called a “shoulder”; I will refer to it as such from now on. Increase the length of the left bézier curve of the arc. You now have a letter /n, though it’s anything but refined.
  5. Move the top right vector of the stem a bit to the left. Select the Convert Anchor Point Tool and define the angle of the top vector near the stem (at the beginning of the shoulder). Click on the left anchor of the bézier curve to remove that side. Do the same to the bottom vector at the start of the shoulder, but removing the left anchor is optional. If you remove it, you will have an abrupt angle between the stem and the shoulder. If you don’t remove it and align the anchors vertically, you will have a smooth transition between the stem and the shoulder. Refine the other vector points and bézier curves. There is no exact method here, so just have a look at the outlines of other typefaces. Do keep the contrast and style consistent with your other letters though. A final thing worth noting is that the weight in the shoulder is usually distributed more to the right to give some space in the area between the top of the stem and the shoulder. Oh, and this has nothing to do with the letter /n in particular, but remember to NEVER let an anchor extend beyond another anchor. Look at figure 13 to see what I mean.

How to design a typeface - Figure 13 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 13

Now that you’ve designed /n, it’s easy to make /h. Simply copy /l, superimpose it on the stem of /n and Unite it with pathfinder. You can also design the /m using /n, though this is a bit trickier. First, copy /n. Now, select the right vertical (all four vector points) and move it about 4pt to the left. Now also include the two vector points in the middle of the letter and move the whole right side about 4pt to the left. Shorten the anchors in the arc by about 1pt on both sides. Adjust the top of the shoulder, and you’ve got a more narrow /n. Copy the narrow /n and remove the stem. Attach the /n without a stem to the right side of the narrow /n and Unite with Pathfinder. Fill the gap at the top center of the proto-m and refine the curves to match /n and /h. You now have a proper /m.

Now let’s make another easy letter. Copy /n and rotate it 90° to get a /u. Move the letter down until the arc aligns to the bottom overshoot, the bottom of the stem aligns with the baseline and the top of the stem aligns with the lowercase line. As you might notice though, /u looks optically wider than /n. Simply compensate for this by narrowing the letter by about 1pt on each side of the vector in the middle (the same way as we did with /n when we were designing /m) and reduce the anchors by about 0.5pt on both sides. You should now have something like in figure 14.

How to design a typeface - Figure 14 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 14

Making a…
So we created a few extra characters, but we have our basic “ahilno” except for the /a. This is the most advanced letter yet. Well, the two-storey /a is, anyway. For a geometric sans typeface like Futura it may be preferable to design a one-story /a. I will show you how to design both of them.
  1. Let’s design the one-story /a first. Copy the basic rectangle and copy your /o. Select the most right vector and move it inwards about 12pt. Select the right inner vector and move it to the right about 4pt. Increase the vertical anchors on the inner right by 2pt each. Now select the Rectangle Tool and create a rectangle about half the size of your basic rectangle. Superimpose them and select Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel. You will now have something similar to figure 15.1.
  2. Superimpose the distorted /o with the rectangle shape. I cut a shape out of the rectangle so that I can bring the rectangle closer to the counter of /o without covering part of the counter with a straight vertical shape. Bring the two shapes close enough so that it looks like the counter takes a little bit out of the stem. Now Unite the two shapes with Pathfinder. You should have something similar to figure 15.2.
  3. Move the bottom and top vectors in the middle of the bowl about 2pt to the left. Move the top vector where the bowl connects with the stem about 12pt down. Do the opposite to the bottom vector. Now adjust the bézier curves so the bowl smoothly slopes inwards towards the stem. Check if the indent at the bottom roughly matches the one in /u; the indent shouldn’t be much higher or lower. Move the whole stem about 2pt to the right. After refining and adjusting the weight distribution and width a little bit, you should have something similar to /a in figure 15.3.

How to design a typeface - Figure 15 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 15

Now that the one-story /a is done, you can easily design /d. Copy /a and /l and superimpose /l with the stem of /a and Unite the shapes with Pathfinder, just like we did with /n and /l to create /h. Don’t forget to cut out a part of the /l before you merge it with /a though (like we did with the stem of /a), otherwise it will cover part of the counter. After merging the two shapes, don’t forget to remove any unnecessary vector you might discover in the stem. These extra vectors sometimes appear when merging shapes if they didn’t align to the micrometer exactly—which they usually don’t. Now your /d is finished, copy and reflect it to make a /b. It’s very important to note here that just like /n compared to /u, a rotated or reflected letter still needs adjustments before it becomes an optimally designed letter. For example, I might move the top serif of the bowl 2pt to the right and increase the length of the top right anchor of the bowl.

How to design a typeface - Figure 16 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 16

Let’s design the two-story /a now. Some typefaces feature both versions of the /a so you can choose. It’s not always the best option to give the end user the choice between different characters, but you might be able to judge this best. Sometimes in type design it’s not so much what the end user would like, but how you intended the typeface to be.
  1. Copy your one-story /a. Remove the two vectors which form the indent at the top. Select the Rectangle Tool and create a horizontal stroke roughly the same weight as the letters. Superimpose it on the left side of the bowl and click on Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel. You now have something like figure 17.1.
  2. Create another horizontal stroke and superimpose it on the top of the bottom part of the bowl and the stem, so you essentially create a new bowl. Merge the shapes and remove the unnecessary vector point . You should now have something similar to figure 17.2
  3. Add an extra vector to the inner top of the bowl and move the other vector points around to achieve something similar to figure 17.3.
  4. Use the Convert Anchor Point Tool while holding Shift to add curves and move the vector points around some more. You now have a basic shape for /a which you can start refining. Look at figure 17.4 for my flawed design.
  5. For a geometric sans typeface you might want to keep the bowl and stem minimalist. For a grotesque or humanist sans typeface you can play with the contrast of the bowl, the weight distribution, the slope of the curve towards the stem and you can even add a spur to the bottom of the stem. Look at figure 17.5 for the result of my geometric /a, and at figure 17.6 for my humanist /a. 17.6 is definitely not fitting for a Futura-like typeface, but just to show some of the possibilities.

How to design a typeface - Figure 17 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 17

A final character
So we have “ahilno” completely covered now, and in the process we went through the basic type principles. You now probably know enough to design the other characters as well. If you get stuck, just reference other typefaces. You learn a lot from inspecting professional designs.

There are many more principles to consider when designing a professional typeface, but for now this should be enough to get you going. Before I end this article, let me show you how to design the letter /s, as it seems this is the character most beginners have trouble with. There are several ways to design this letter, but whichever approach you use, it really doesn’t matter as long as you consider the basic principles of type design and refine the result. You can first draw the letter with the Pencil Tool and Expand the outlines and then refine it, you can connect two C-shapes and remove the kinks from the center where the two shapes connect and refine the rest, or you can use the method I’ve been using in this article. Because of the amount of curves in the letter /s I actually wouldn’t recommend using the method I’ve been using so far.
  1. For this letter I will use the Pen Tool with a Stroke. To match the weight of the other letters, select a pt size of 38 for the stroke. Now click and place 6 vector points at each extreme end of the shape of the letter /s. Look at figure 18.1 to see where to place the vector points. Either make every anchor curves while you place the vectors, or first place the vectors and then add curves with the Convert Anchor Point Tool. After adding curves you should have a flawed looking /s such as in figure 18.2.
  2. If you want the middle part of the spine of /s to remain straight, add another vector in the center and extend the anchor points. Now move the top and bottom vectors so that the stroke perfectly aligns with the overshoot guidelines. Move the other strokes around until you’re happy with the basic construction of the /s. See my result in figure 18.3.
  3. Expand the strokes so they become outlines. Make sure the horizontal strokes are thinner than the vertical strokes, and further refine the character. You should end up with something like figure 18.4.

How to design a typeface - Figure 18 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 18

And here are all the characters of our geometric typeface together:

How to design a typeface - Figure 19 by MartinSilvertant
Figure 19

Future articles
So that’s it for now. I was going to show how to design serifs as well, but this article would become way too long if I have to cover that now as well—particularly since I would have to introduce a few new principles, and I’m sure from there I would want to expand to the next. So let’s do this one style at a time. Future articles will be about:
• Designing a serif typeface
• How to easily add Oblique to your sans typeface and how to add Italics
• How to expand your typeface with bolder or lighter weights
• How to add full language support to your typeface

If you want to know how to design capital letters, I will consider writing an article/tutorial covering that as well, though in general they’re easier to do than lowercase letters so if you know the basic type principles you should be able to manage. Also let me know if you have any suggestions for future articles.

Download the figures used in this article here:

Avatar - Circle by MartinSilvertant

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History of Roman typefaces

Typefaces are our instruments to construct words and sentences. Of course this very article couldn’t be written without type other than writing by hand and scanning it in, but I wouldn’t know how to save the file or how to access the website to upload it to if I had no access to typefaces. Of course I don’t have to say where type can be found; it’s absolutely everywhere. However, most people don’t consider where typefaces come from. Most of my life and even the first 5 years or so of my design career I was absolutely ignorant of where typefaces came from. I mean, they were just "there" on the computer and I never considered someone actually had to make typefaces for us to use—letter by letter.  In this article I will discuss the history of Roman typefaces; how it progressed during the ages, how each style can be recognized and how to select typefaces consciously and logically rather than by personal taste alone.

The printing press
While the first movable type (the system of printing and typography that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document) was developed by Bi Sheng in China around 1040, the German  Johannes Gutenberg was the first to use movable type in Europe in around 1439. In that time Gutenberg was involved in a financial misadventure making polished metal mirrors for sale to pilgrims in Aachen, Germany—which supposedly captured the holy light from religious relics. That year the city was planning  to exhibit its collection of relics from Emperor Charlemagne but due to a flood the event was delayed by one year and the investors ended up losing money. In order to satisfy the investors Gutenberg promised to share a "secret" which is widely speculated to have been the idea of printing with movable type. Legend has it that the idea came to him "like a ray of light". In 1440 Gutenberg perfected and unveiled his secret of print and released an essay entitled ‘Kunst und Aventur’ (art and enterprise). After borrowing money to fund his project and a whopping 10 years later the first printing press was finally operational. In 1455 Gutenberg completed his 42-line Bible, the legendary Gutenberg Bible. The bible was printed in a blackletter typeface, which was a script commonly used during the Middle Ages. The specific style of blackletter for the Gutenberg Bible is a form of Textura called ‘Donatus-Kalender’.

The blackletter, also commonly known as Gothic script or Gothic miniscule, was a script used throughout Western Europe from approximately 1150 to well into the 17th century but continued to be used in Germany until the 20th century. The blackletter—as the name implies—is a particularly dark kind of style and tends to be quite illegible to the untrained eye. Styles of blackletter include Textura/Textualis, Schwabacher, Fraktur, Rotunda, Cursiva and Hybrida. The first typeface of the Latin alphabet to become available was a blackletter but this style would soon meet a rival type design: the Roman type.

History of Type - Blackletter2 by MartinSilvertant

The French engraver, printer and type designer Nicolas Jenson went to Venice in 1468 and opened his own printing workshop. It is hypothesized that Jenson studied printing under Johannes Gutenberg for a while, though there are no clear sources to verify that. Jenson would design all kinds of Gothic type but he also designed a new kind of typeface based on the humanist writing of Italian scholars of the Renaissance. For the first time a typeface was designed based on typographic principles rather than the constructed letters from the old manuscripts. He would use his first humanist typeface in ‘De Evangelica Praeparatione’ in 1470. In 1471 he introduced a Greek typeface which was used for quotations and in 1473 a blackletter typeface which he used for books on history and medicine. Jenson became a wealthy man and was eventually able to run as many as 12 printing presses at the same time and would release around 150 book until he died at 60 in 1480.

The Venetian typeface was very short-lived but it’s quite a prolific style of typeface which even nowadays still has its application. The Venetian typeface can be recognized by the following characteristics:
  1. Calligraphic, often almost handwritten appearance.
  2. Relatively small x-height. This means the lowercase letters are relatively short but with long ascenders and big capital letters.
  3. Low contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  4. Because of the low contrast the color of the text is dark. This means there is a lot of black space per line—as was specifically the case with the blackletter typeface.
  5. Weight distribution according to a diagonal axis.
  6. A sloping crossbar on the lowercase ‘e’. Often the right side of the letter featured a so-called ‘beak’ which is the pointy feature but in case of display typefaces could sometimes be larger and more elegant features.
  7. Very wide ‘H’, ‘M’ and ‘N’ and characteristic is also the double top serifs on the ‘M’.
  8. Small counters. This means the ‘eye’ of the lowercase ‘e’ and the ‘bowl’ of the lowercase ‘a’ are relatively small.

History of Type - Venetian type by MartinSilvertant

Notable typefaces of the Venetian/Humanist class are Berkeley OldstyleBrioso Pro, Centaur, JensonHightower and Spira.

Garalde/Old Style
After Jenson’s death his typefaces were employed by Aldine Press, a printing office started by Aldus Manutius in 1494 in Venice. Aldus Press is famous in the history of typography, among other things for being the first to release books in octavo size (comparable in size with a contemporary paperback) and most notably for the introduction of italics. The italic type was first used by Aldus Manutius and the Aldine Press in 1501, in an edition of Virgil dedicated to Italy. The italics were based on the Humanist cursive script first developed in the 1420s by Niccolò de’ Niccoli and first started as a distinct condensed type for simple, compact volumes. The punches for these types were cut by Francesco da Bologna also known as Francesco Griffo. It wasn’t until later when roman and italic were used together—italic being used for emphasis.

In the 1540’s Claude Garamond came to prominence first for a Greek typeface he was commissioned to create for the French king Francis I. Garamond’s typefaces would quickly become popular throughout France and Western Europe. Most italics used in contemporary Garalde typefaces are based on Garamond’s assistant Robert Granjon. In 1621, sixty years after Garamond’s death the French printer Jean Jannon issued a specimen of typefaces that had some characteristics similar to Garamond’s typefaces, though Jannon’s letters were more asymmetrical and irregular in slope and axis. For this reason many typefaces are misattributed to Jannon but it is said that in fact most modern revivals are based on Jannon’s work and not Garamond’s but the name just stuck. Whoever designed the typefaces we now know as Garamond, it remains a popular style and typeface even today.

Although the calligraphic influences were still obvious in the Garalde type, the typeface became a lot more constructed and designed. This refinement was the result of the improving skills and tools of the punchcutters. The Garalde style can be recognized by the following characteristics:
  1. Relatively small x-height and very long ascenders.
  2. Medium contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  3. Weight distribution according to an oblique axis—not quite as severe as in the Venetian type.
  4. A horizontal crossbar on the lowercase ‘e’.
  5. Wedge shaped serifs.
  6. Often very elaborate, elegant tales on the italic ‘Q’.

History of Type - Garalde type by MartinSilvertant

Important type designers and typefaces in the Garalde style can be categorized in 4 groups:
  • 1495 – Italian – Aldus Manutius and Francesco Griffo with the Bembo typeface.
  • 1540 – French – Claude Garamond, Robert Granjon and Jean Jannon with the Garamond and Jannon typefaces.
  • 1600 – Dutch – Christoffel van Dijck and Miklós Kis with the Ehrhardt typeface.
  • 1725 – English – William Caslon with the Caslon typeface. It should be noted that while English, the Caslon typeface was very similar to the Dutch typefaces at the time. Caslon became an immensely popular typeface and is an excellent book typeface even today.
Other notable Garalde typefaces are AthelasMinion and Sabon.

In 1692 king Louis XIV commissions a Jacques Jaugeon to create a typeface to for the Imprimerie Royale. The typeface is called 'Romain de Roi' (‘King’s Roman’). It’s engraved by Louis Simonneau and the punches for the metal type are cut by Phillipe Grandjean in 1698. The Romain du Roi was the result of rational design: the letterforms were mapped on grids before being cut into metal. The Romain du Roi was not the first constructed alphabet, however, this was the first time the letters adhered to the grid so closely that it shows a distinct shift in style, with an increased emphasis on the general composition and an increase in the contrast between thick and thin strokes. This style would later influence the transitional typefaces of Pierre Simon Fournier (known for the Fournier and Narcissus typefaces) and John Baskerville. The full Romain du Roi set consisted of 82 fonts and was finally finished in 1745.

The Transitional style can be recognized by the following characteristics:
  1. Medium x-height and relatively short ascenders and descenders.
  2. High contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  3. The weight is distributed according to a vertical axis.
  4. More horizontal head serifs.
  5. A greater focus on horizontal and vertical lines.
  6. More gradually curved serifs
History of Type - Transitional type by MartinSilvertant

During Baskerville’s lifetime his types had little influence in his own country, however, in 1758 Baskerville met Benjamin Franklin who returned to the US with Baskerville’s types; he popularized the typefaces by employing them in federal government publishing. Franklin was a huge fan of Baskerville’s work, and in a letter to Baskerville (1760) he defends Baskerville’s types, recounting a discussion he had with an English gentleman who claimed that Baskerville’s ‘ultra-thin’ serifs and narrow strokes would “blind its readers”.

In the 1920’s many revivals started appearing and the Baskerville typeface increased in popularity and sparked new transitional typefaces such as Times New Roman. Initially the Baskerville typeface was seen as disturbing, and according to the people—as was the case with the English gentleman Benjamin Franklin spoke of—took it too far in regard to the contrast and details. This is rather amusing considering the style of typeface the transitional typefaces inspired, which featured an even higher contrast.

Notable transitional typefaces are BaskervilleCapitolium 2FarnhamProforma and Tabac.

Scotch Roman
A sub-class of the transitional which should be mentioned is the Scotch Roman. It’s actually a gradual step towards the modern style which became popular in the early 19th century and you can see the last humanist traces are replaced by a minimal, mechanical appearance. The Scotch Roman typefaces feature ball terminals and are modeled on a design done by Samuel Nelson Dickinson in 1839 (cut by Richard Austin and cast by Alexander Wilson and Son in Glasgow).

History of Roman Typefaces - 04 - Transitional Sco by MartinSilvertant

Examples of Scotch Roman typefaces are Century SchoolbookGeorgiaHarrietMiller and Scotch Modern.

Baskerville’s typefaces featured a contrast which some considered to be “blinding the nation” but that’s not the furthest you could take the contrast as the Didone style shows. The first Didone typeface was Didot, designed by the Frenchman Firmin Didot and was first used in print in 1784. The Italian Giambattista Bodoni designed his Bodoni typeface around the same time and took inspiration from Baskerville’s typefaces; he took the horizontal serifs and high contrast and emphasized these features. Giambattista Bodoni would go on to personally engrave 298 typefaces during his life. In the image below you can see how Baskerville and Bodoni are in fact quite similar; Bodoni almost seems like a more minimalist design with a higher contrast.

History of Type - Didone and Transitional by MartinSilvertant

Characteristics of the Didone style are:
  1. Very high contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  2. Weight distribution according to a vertical axis.
  3. Due to the weight distribution a great emphasis on vertical lines.
  4. Unbracketed hairline serifs.
  5. Small aperture. This means that the letter shapes are rather closed.

History of Type - Didone type by MartinSilvertant

The Didone typeface features such a high stroke contrast that it’s very unpleasant to read in long texts. There is such great emphasis on vertical lines rather than the natural flow of letters we've grown familiar with due to the chirographic foundation of Roman typefaces that you effectively get what typographers call a "picket fence" effect. This effect tires the eye quickly and disturbs the reading experience. The Didone style is therefore best used in short texts such as titles and headings. As such it did increase the typographical variety in the First French Empire and particularly Didot remains a popular typeface in fashion and remains prolific in French culture.

History of Type - Didot and Bodoni by MartinSilvertant

Notable Didone typefaces are BodoniDidot (Hoefler & Frere-Jones' version is simply the best), RePublicTWT ProsperoTeimer and Walbaum.

Slab serif
The slab serif typeface is a style which pops up at the beginning of the 19th century coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. This era asked for a strong, robust typeface which is easy to produce and use in various applications such as advertising and posters. The first known slab serif typeface used was ‘Antique’ by the British punch-cutter Vincent Figgins in 1815.

The slab serif is often called ‘Egyptian’, which is a name given due to the craze for Egyptian artifacts in Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century, which led typefounders producing Slab Serifs after Figgins' work to call their designs Egyptian even though there is no connection with anything actually Egyptian—except perhaps for the robust structure of the letters which could equate to Egyptian architecture. The term Egyptian had previously been used to describe sans serif typefaces in the United Kingdom, so the term 'Antique' was used by British and American typefounders. The term Egyptian was adopted by French and German foundries, where it became Egyptienne.

Essentially the slab serif style can be further categorized into three groups:

  1. Large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
  2. There is some contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  3. The serifs are bracketed, meaning there is a bit of a curve between the serif and the stem.
  4. Classical proportions, often with a long, curly spur and a teardrop bowl on the ‘a’.
  5. The Clarendon style often features teardrop terminals.

History of Type - Slab serif Clarendon by MartinSilvertant

The Clarendon style is the most classical slab serif and in construction relates most to the Scotch Roman and the classical Transitional typefaces. Notable Clarendon typefaces are Belizio, Clarendon and Suomi Slab Serif.

  1. Large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
  2. Very low to no contrast between thick and thin strokes.
  3. The serifs are generally unbracketed.
  4. Minimal design and a construction like a sans serif.

History of Type - Slab serif by MartinSilvertant

The neo-grotesque typefaces are the most minimal slab serif variant and is often considered the most modern type of serif. It would tire the eye if long texts were set in a typeface of this style but in contemporary typography it’s often seen in short texts and display use.

Prolific neo-grotesque typefaces are AdelleKulturistaMuseo SlabPrelo Slab and Sánchez.

  1. Large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
  2. The serifs are heavier than the stems.
  3. The serifs are often dramatic and decorative.
Italiennes are most easily recognizable as this is the only class of Roman typefaces which features decorative elements. These typefaces are probably mostly seen in the circus and Wild Western themes. Notable typefaces are Buckboard, De Louisville, Playbill and Wood Type.

Although sans serif type can be found in Latin, Etruscan and Greek inscriptions as early as 5th century BC, it was used in 1748 as an experiment and it wasn’t until 1805 that the sans serif would make its first appearance in printed media (in European Magazine). In 1832 the first sans serif printing typeface was finished including lowercase by William Thorowgood of Fann Street Foundry. Thorowgood also coined the term ‘grotesque’ based on the Italian ‘grottesco’ (‘belonging to the cave’).

Although ‘grotesque’ is often used interchangeably with ‘sans’ and other such terms as ‘egyptian’, ‘antique’ and ‘gothic’, the grotesque/grotesk style as we know it today is a distinct sans serif style:
  1. Large x-height and short ascenders and descenders.
  2. Very subtle weight contrast.
  3. Most commonly features the double story ‘g’.
Sometimes ‘neo-grotesque’ is considered a distinct style from the grotesque because the neo-grotesque would feature a more consistent stroke weight and a more mechanical appearance. For comparison, Akzidenz Grotesk would be considered a grotesque while Helvetica (which is based on Akzidenz Grotesk) would be a neo-grotesque. There are such few genuinely grotesque typefaces which have been digitized though and the differences are simply not very distinct so we will consider both styles ‘grotesque’.

History of Type - Grotesque by MartinSilvertant

Some of the best known grotesque typefaces are Akzidenz GroteskDINHelvetica and Univers but I also want to give attention to a few of my favorites: Alright SansBuloEpoca Classic and Marat Sans.

With the mechanization and increasingly minimalist approach to architecture and general design at the beginning of the 20th century there was a need for more minimal, modern typefaces. This movement in typography went parallel with the Bauhaus/De Stijl movement and featured the same design elements.
  1. Relatively low x-height (for a sans serif).
  2. Use of geometric elements and repetition.
  3. Often a minimalist approach and stylization of details, such as a spurless ‘G’ and a one story ‘a’ and ‘g’.

History of Type - Geometric by MartinSilvertant

Some of the most prolific typefaces in the genre are Brandon Grotesque, Futura, GothamNeutraface, NobelSofiaSoleil and Verlag.

The humanist sans serif—as the name suggests—features humanist elements. It doesn’t necessarily have to look that different from the grotesque and in fact grotesque and humanist typefaces tend to have some overlap. However, characteristic for a humanist sans are the chirographic features such as more weight in the curves and a subtle weight distribution according to an oblique axis. 
  1. Medium x-height.
  2. Weight distribution according to an oblique axis.
  3. Humanist proportions, meaning the eye of the ‘e’ and bowl of ‘a’ are often small and rounded letters tend to be relatively wide.
  4. Calligraphic features such as extra weight in the curves.
  5. Sometimes features soft terminals rather than a straight cut.
  6. Usually has a rather elegant double story ‘g’ reminiscent of serif typefaces.

History of Type - Humanist sans by MartinSilvertant

The best known humanist sans typefaces are FrutigerGill Sans and Scala Sans by far. The humanist sans class is my personal favorite though so I would like to name a few more typefaces I appreciate: Aragon SansElemental SansGraublau SansKarmina SansNovel SansTabac Sans and Winco.

And that’s the history of Roman type covered. When selecting a typeface for your design always consider both its appearance and its history. This becomes even more important when pairing two typefaces together because not everything works together. For example, you may pair two typefaces from the same time or the same proportions or you might pair two typefaces which contrast in style, color or proportions and compliment each other. There are so many combinations which work but you have to know a bit about a typeface in order to use it consciously and appropriately—particularly when establishing a brand with more than one typeface.

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