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Doing a Typography

Screenshot of FontForge showing some of the glyphs of an unfinished typeface. In the lower-left, a window shows a test-word: "Circleville."

So many letters, someone should write a song to help remember them all.

I’ve been working on a new typeface. The filesystem shows the last time I made one was 2014. The one I made before that, I’m not sure when it was, but no later than 2004. Not a skill I’ve kept up with too much, but it’s always an interesting challenge.

There’s a paradox in recreating the alphabet. You have to stick to the known forms, so that readers won’t be confused, but you also have to find some way to make it different enough to be appealing. You want the variations to be consistent between letters, to give your creation a unique feel, but they should be subtle enough to make the font feel consistent with others (particularly if replacement characters are needed; that is, if you aren’t providing full coverage of the thousands of glyphs you could).

It’s a low-stress activity. You see your progress with every letterform completed. You work on one letter at a time. You can tweak them endlessly.

It’s a low-knowledge activity. I use FontForge, which does a lot of work for me. I don’t understand how manual hinting would work, but it has auto-hinting. I don’t know how to control for all the little problems I cause, but it has a “Find Problems” feature that will fix most of them for me.

The website Design with FontForge has some good information to get started, and it’s written with a you-can-do-it tone. I don’t believe that existed the last time I worked on a font. It really is something more people should give a try.

When starting a font, the first question you have to answer is, “What kind of font?” It could be a serif font, or maybe sans-serif. It could be monospace, or it could be variable width. Or it could be a display font—one meant for short bursts of text (signs, headings, like that), not suitable for paragraphs and long reading.

The second question is, “How much coverage should it have?” If you want a usable typeface, you’re talking at least 85 characters: the alphabet twice (for uppercase and lowercase), ten digits, and about 32 other punctuation and special characters available on an plain US keyboard. Plus space. If you want to go all-out, you can create a true italics version, which isn’t simply an oblique rendering of the normal version, but features its own glyphs. You can add ligatures and kerning and wade deep into the Unicode Basic Multilingual Plane or even beyond it. (Don’t believe I’ve ventured beyond Latin-1, myself.)

On the other hand, some characters are easier than others. Hyphen and equals share enough similarity that you can get at least all three done quickly, and you can tweak them later if needed. For brackets, braces, and parentheses, making one gets you its partner without much trouble. And uppercase E and uppercase F are usually pretty similar, just chop off that lower bar on the E. You can rotate your six to make a nine. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even rotate your uppercase N to get uppercase Z, which you can tweak to lowercase z as well. Your stop and comma can be reused to make your colon and your semicolon.

But outside these quicker ones, it’s a matter of one-at-a-time, building the shape, refining, fixing the flaws.

Things look nicer the fewer points you can use, at least initially. The curves won’t get lumpy, won’t require a lot of fiddling to change. You’ll learn a lot about how little attention you’ve paid over the years to these shapes your eyes have passed over billions of times. The basic scribble of your handwriting is very different from forming the letters as vector shapes.

The good news there is that you can open finished fonts inside of FontForge and look at how others made their letters. I should probably do that more. I could stand to learn a lot from that stored knowledge.

But for now I’m just picking a letter and getting it into a rough shape, then straightening what’s meant to be straight and curving what’s meant to be curved, getting the thicknesses consistent, and then moving on. Once I get my basic coverage done, I’ll come back and work on consistency between letters.

It’s a nice, relaxing artistic experience.

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