3 Steps to Start Designing Typefaces
Before beginning to design a typeface you need to have an idea of what you want to design. This can come in the form of reference material, sketches, or just a general idea of characteristics for your font. Some people like to have a perfect sketch to work from when the move to the computer, whereas I prefer to have a general idea or a loose sketch and then explore more on the computer. Either direction works, it really is a matter of personal preference and what you are comfortable with. I prefer to explore on the computer because I am better at that than sketching. To get started I have a few steps that I like to follow:
Decide where the typeface will be used
Is it meant to be used for body copy, headlines, footnotes, signage, etc? The usage for your typeface is going to affect every aspect of your typeface. If you are designing body copy you don’t want to have very thin parts that disappear at small sizes, whereas this might be a good feature for a headline or display typeface. If your typeface is supposed to fulfill multiple of these roles then that may affect the design as well, it could also help you decide that you need multiple styles for your typeface (eg. a body copy and a headline style). It is important to define the usage first because all other choices will come from that as a starting point.
What are the defining characteristics of your typeface
Is your typeface a serif or a sans serif? What style is your typeface, Didot, Slab Serif, Scotch Roman? What is the contrast level on your font? What languages will this be used for? These are all really important questions that need to be addressed before beginning your typeface. The more specific you can be about what you want for your typeface the better. The choices you make are going to dictate a lot of design decisions. One thing that people often forget, especially native English speakers is that typefaces being designed for other languages or multiple ones, even if they use the Latin alphabet, do not always look the same as ones we design for English. German for example uses a lot of capital letters so their paragraphs have more uppercase letters. French typically has a smaller x-height because they use lots of accents and need extra space to fit the accents. Therefore it is important to define what languages you foresee your designs being used in. The languages you decide to design for will also define what characters you need to design. If you are designing for Polish you will need to make sure you cover a lot of diacritics (characters that accompany a base character often seen as accent marks), whereas if you are just designing for English you won't need to include many diacritics since they aren’t frequently used.
It is important to plan out the details about your typeface before you begin designing, or looking for inspiration, as these details will influence design choices. all of the things that you are going to need for your typeface before you begin to design it. I like to write this all in a brief for myself, even if it isn’t for a specific client, that way I have one document where I can reference all of the things I want for my typeface.
Find inspiration and ideas
Once you have planned out your typeface it is the fun part, looking for inspiration. I like to find visual inspiration by looking at other typefaces that are similar to what I want to create or by looking at typographic samples. I am by no means suggesting you should copy anyone else’s typeface, but you can look at details and characteristics of the typeface and use them as inspiration. I will expand more on how to sketch for your inspiration in my next blog post. My three favorite places to check out typographic inspiration are Pinterest as well as Designspiration.net and Instagram (obviously). All three have countless samples of typography and design that you can use as inspiration. I will often find a letter or two that inspire me and use them as jumping off point to sketch the rest of my typeface.
Typecooker.com is another great resource. Instead of providing visual resources it provides a list of characters and attributes to sketch typefaces from. Sometimes the suggestions they give can lead to some pretty crazy designs so I prefer to pick and choose the characteristics that I find the most inspiring. If you want to hear me talk about this more in-depth check out my latest IGTV video.
These are the 3 steps that I take when beginning a new typeface. These are by no means the only way to begin a new typeface project. I find that these three steps give me a clear direction to start with. This way when I am making design choices, later on, I have something to refer back to in order to make sure that I am answering my brief and the objectives of my typeface.