Categories / Inspiration
So You Want to Be a Type Designer?
Derek Weathersbee March 31, 2021 · 14 min read
My Story in a NutshellAbout 5 years ago, I was stuck in a rut as designer; I was in my mid-twenties with about a decade’s worth of work under my belt, feeling burned out. Curiosity and the desire to explore my own special interests eventually won out. I quit my comfy studio job, started working for myself and sporadically worked on type designs, not having a clue what I was doing, until I felt I had to take the next step. I created my first font, still just researching and figuring it out as I went, and initially released it for free, which happened to be a really easy thing to do being a developer at the time: I built a web page with a link. Simple. I also listed it on Lost Type for a while, and that surely helped my visibility. That font, Franchise Bold, became and still is a big success, from the standpoint of being used everywhere. It has finally started to pay off financially the last couple years. Life (the first of two kids, moving, health hiccups) happened shortly afterward, and I took about a six month break from designing. When I felt the itch to get back into it, a job as a design instructor happened to open up. I took it, and the passion of some of the students and co-workers, along with the nature of the projects I was assigning, continued to re-ignite my own passion. I worked on projects and custom letters in my downtime, and in the summer of 2014 I created and released 6 fonts in a marathon round of vectoring and kerning and re-learning the font software I hadn’t touched in years. Not being keen on the idea of giving a chunk of my sales to someone else if I had the resources and knowledge to distribute type on my own, I built my own digital foundry in the form of a website, had a fellow designer create a logo for me, and began selling the newly made type immediately. As of now, I have only a handful of fonts built, and another half dozen partially designed. But this is now a serious venture; it’s not burdensome, but it is something that I endeavor to do correctly and take pride in. When I started selling my work, I still didn’t really know what I was doing. I just did it anyway, tried my best to do it right and fixed problems as they arose. This continues to be my approach, because it’s the only way I know to move forward.
So You Want to Be a Type Designer?You should ask yourself a few questions before you decide you’re gonna start designing type.
- Do you have the initiative to research on your own?
- Are you really into the shapes of letters and how they work together?
- Are you able to financially handle the burden it will create when you don’t make money immediately? (Because you probably won’t.)
- Do you seriously like vectors? Do you get a rush out of a beautiful curve?
- Do you have the perspective to understand that you are small fries in the world of type design?
- Are you tenacious enough to spend hours a day for weeks, sometimes months, toward one goal?
Come Up With Font DesignsThe thing I’ve been asked more often than anything is “how do you just come up with an original design?” My answer to this is “you usually don’t.” Sitting around trying to squeeze an idea out of your brain is rarely fruitful, and it doesn’t feel good, emotionally or physically. A more practical approach to creating new typography is to create goals for the type, conceptual or practical. For example, you might want to create a typeface that looks like the lettering found on sports jerseys and billboards, but more finessed than what is typically seen. (That’s how Franchise was born, and now it has been used on TV and in games for the NFL, and has occupied the Cleveland Browns end zone.) Or you might want to create a monospace typeface without a mile between each letter. Or you might ponder what Helvetica would like look if it were drunk. A few useful approaches to font design include:
- Pseudo-conceptual or Practical For example, create type made from purely geometric shapes (really unwieldy ones), but optically balanced.
- Revival Find one-off, hand-made type on window signage or old matchbooks that looks like it would make an interesting typeface. The best way to know something is not a typeface is to find a sample that includes several instances of the same letter. If they are clearly different, then this is likely a good candidate to turn into a typeface. Make sure that you start with a good variety of letters (curved, straight, angled) so there is enough DNA that you’re not inventing everything about the design. And note this: what you make won’t be a copy. Your typeface will evolve and turn into its own thing. The found type is simply a catalyst to get you moving and exploring letterforms.
- Classic with a Twist What would it look like if Frank Gehry got hold of Gotham?
Turn Your Letters into a Working FontYou’ll need a piece of font-editing software. Don’t go all out and get FontLab immediately. Start on the cheap. My recommendation is to start with TypeTool, which you can acquire for less than $100, and even cheaper if you’re a student. The big brother to this, FontLab, might become a necessity later on if you begin to build complex fonts or families of type. For example, when I created new weights of my first typeface, FontLab sped up this process immensely. But TypeTool is more than enough to begin building display typefaces. Even after I upgraded to FontLab, I have still used TypeTool to create a simple display font. Research others if you wish – I’ve heard lots of good things about Glyphs – but this is what I would recommend. You can create letters in FontLab or TypeTool using their drawing tools. Type designers I’ve asked or read have suggested drawing letters in the font software. I don’t recommend against this; obviously these guys know more than me. What I will say is that it’s okay not to do that, at least starting out. If you feel comfortable drawing your letters in Illustrator, then do that (I do). You’ve got enough new information to deal with already. Make the transition when you’re ready. Be sure and look up how to set up your document so that there is a smooth copy and paste import into your font-editing software, as this setup sometimes changes with software versions. Controlling the spacing of your type is key in making it look professional as opposed to amateurish. You will do this in your font software, and it’s a lot simpler (not easier) than you might imagine. You basically tell each letter how much space (sidebearings) it should have around it (an O should have smaller sidebearings than an I). And then you address problematic pairing of letters by creating Kerning Pairs. These are commands, done manually or programmatically, that say “if an A appears next to a W, decrease the space between them” in order to achieve optically similar space between letters. The manual that comes with the software gives a pretty clear and straight forward way to do this.
Make Sure You Do it RightDon’t make sure you do it perfectly, just don’t half-ass it. There are plenty of free typefaces flooding the market, with gaping holes between letters. If you want to be taken seriously, then design your type seriously, even if the typeface is a playful one. For example, be consistent in your letter weights and the amount of stroke variation. Note how your letters look next to each other. Remember, a typeface isn’t a set of beautiful characters, but a beautiful set of characters. Kern your type. Nothing screams “amateur” louder than a gaping hole between V and A caused by a lack of kerning. Create en, em, and hyphen characters, and smart and dumb quotes, even if it’s just a display face.
Accept That You’ll Still Mess UpIf you’re going to attack this yourself, know that things are not going to go perfectly out of the gate. You will mess up, you’ll make some silly decisions, spend days that turn out to be fruitless. You’ll create letters that you despise a few years later. That’s all okay. You don’t have to wait until you’re a master to start something. Some would argue, but I’ve made money and created work I’m proud of with this mentality, and the fact that my work is available has forced me to get better at it. When I first released Franchise years ago, there was a stray node causing the R to have an awkward growth on it. Only months later was I made aware of this. I fixed it and moved forward, careful to check my letters a little more closely in the future. To this day, I occasionally receive notifications that my type is acting odd in particular contexts. Sometimes there’s a glitch I need to address. Sometimes it’s just user error. But again, although I try to constantly decrease these instances, it hasn’t derailed my business. Although I am not as good as I’d like to be, I enjoy it, I get better with each endeavor, and type design has been profitable to me.
Get HelpThis is so obvious that it seems silly to mention. Searching online will give you most of the information you need to get moving on your first type endeavor. The problem is that the internet isn’t human, so you may have a question that’s more nuanced than the answers available online. That’s when it’s time to call on the professionals. Seriously. Find a type designer whose work you respect and send them an email. Now don’t send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and expect an answer: an individual or small company is more likely to respond. You might be pleasantly surprised at how accessible and kind other designers are. I was, on two occasions, surprised to receive the most clear, succinct, useful answers from Mark Simonson, who is one of my type heroes. Now as you ask questions of designers, be respectful of their time, because it equates to money. Accept some help, but do your own research where you can.
Address Font LicensingIt’s really easy to skip over properly dealing with licensing when you just want to get your type out into the world. It can also seem daunting if you’ve never dealt with contracts or legal jargon. But you can’t skip this, or you’ll leave yourself in a world of trouble, open to being taken advantage of. You need to consider what sort of things you want your type used for, what it absolutely can’t be used for, and what you think should warrant an extra charge. You won’t know exactly what restrictions to put in place at the get-go, so your license will evolve as situations present themselves. A great starting point is to look at the licensing of other foundries, and use theirs as a guide for the more technical information (making sure you understand it of course). Then you can remove restrictions that you don’t agree with, and add in ones that you find necessary. If you don’t want your type used in cigarette ads or pornographic material, state it in your license. The great thing about a font license is that you can write it like a human being…in other words, you can place whatever restrictions you wish on your type, and as long as it’s clear, then it is valid and binding. No lawyer is necessary.
Publish Your TypeThere are countless ways to publish type, and none of them are likely to destroy you so long as you have attached a clear license. But there are places to avoid depending on how you want your type to be perceived and who you want to see it. And the resources and knowledge you have may open other options for presenting your work to the world; this has certainly been the case for me.
Here are some major ways of releasing type:Type Distributor/Middle Man Creative Market is an example of a hosted solution that takes care of all the sales for you and takes a fee, usually around 30-50%. This is a great option for most people, because you need only create your products and samples, upload, and you’re in business. Plus, the exposure you get on a site that already has a solid traffic flow is a terribly difficult thing to duplicate. Self-Publishing If you have the knowledge to create your own outlet for type distribution (a website, with e-commerce functionality), then it is a great way to release your type because you make nearly all the money yourself, you completely control licensing and display of your type, and you are subject to nobody’s rules but your own. You should also be aware of a few things. You will spend more time dealing with customers if you self-publish. You will need to find a way to direct traffic to your site as well, because keeping all your profits is great unless all your profits is zero. Blogging about type is one good way to do this, along with being active on social media. In my case, I had a pretty solid standing on the web because of some other things I was involved with. I use WordPress as my content management system, and designed my own site to display the content. But if you’re more concerned with releasing your work and not quite as concerned about designing a site exactly to your specs, WordPress has a relatively easy learning curve, it’s free, and there are plenty of great themes to show your work in its best light. Creative Market has some beautiful ones here. Free Release You can release your type for free. I did this once. I don’t recommend it, at least not just for exposure. This makes it more difficult for everyone to get compensated for the effort involved in type creation and the mass of free type that exists gives the impression to some that type should be free. But if you do decide to release your type for free, you should do some or all of the following things:
- Require a signup to a newlsetter for later typefaces.
- Release limited-character versions of the faces.
- Be very deliberate in the licensing of the font. From experience, I strongly believe that a major motion picture or a worldwide food chain shouldn’t benefit from a designer’s work without compensating them. (Do I sound bitter?) Limits on the number of impressions of a product or the gross of a movie containing your type are not unheard of.
- Don’t release “free for personal use” type. Personal use doesn’t really help anyone. Just apply appropriate restrictions.
- Don’t put your type on Dafont if you’re serious about it. I speak from personal experience. Opt for something more like Lost Type.
Get Started NowAt this point, the best advice I have is just to do it. You may not know what you’re doing. Neither did I. But you probably know a little about typography, and can recognize the good from the bad. You’ll stumble, you’ll get stuck, you’ll get really frustrated. You may decide it’s not for you. But you also may discover that it completes you as a designer.
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Derek Weathersbee is a designer, developer, instructor & weekend music maker. He designs for clients across the country, teaches at a local community college, and releases type at weathersbeetype.com and on Creative Market. You can see some of his work at derekweathersbee.com and more random articles at manmakefire.org.