I Love Typography

The first one’s the hardest

I remember clearly the day I was waiting for the 6 train at 33rd Street and Park Avenue in New York. I had taken pictures of type on the street for some time, but there was something here that caught my eye. There was a plastic sign on a door with letters and numbers routed out of plastic, and I noticed a couple of characters in particular: the way the 8 curved back into itself, the charming tail of the a. And then I realized that the lowercase e’s were all different. This had been done by hand and therefore wasn’t an existing typeface. I knew then that I could actually make this into a font.

router inspiration


This moment of inspiration in a subway station was the beginning of the year-and-a-half process of designing my first typeface, and the start of an obsession that would permanently change the way I experienced the world. I thought I knew a lot about type as a graphic designer, but I soon realized that the art of typography went much further and deeper than I could have imagined.

Diving in

early draft

Having photographed the subway sign, I fired up Illustrator, and later FontLab, and started putting down points and pulling away at the beziers. One thing that really helped early on was opening up some of my favorite fonts in FontLab. I would look at how the points were arranged and the forms were constructed, and would flip and rotate the drawings to see what sort of optical corrections had been made. I found it intriguing to see that many glyphs that appeared symmetrical, like the O in Gotham, were subtly lopsided.

Though I was learning a lot on my own, I needed something more structured. I enrolled in a type design class at Cooper Union, but just days before it was to start it was cancelled. So, I contacted the instructor, Hannes Famira, and started taking private lessons. Hannes had studied at the Royal Academy in the Hague, where he was exposed to the Dutch school of type design. He taught me about Gerrit Noordzij’s Stroke of the Pen theory, the idea that there are two fundamental categories of lettering based on the broad-nibbed and pointed-nibbed pens and that serifs are just an expression of contrast. I did calligraphic exercises based on these ideas as well as drawing experiments with Frank Blokland’s Lettermodel modular type system.

This is how I first learned to evaluate drawing in type design. I went to Hannes’ once a week for the better part of a year, spending two and a half hours with him at a time. Every week I would show Hannes the progress on my typeface, which I was calling Router. He’d get out his red pen, and we’d go through and mark up the drawings. We’d talk about the things he was seeing, and the things I was trying to do. I was initially focused on some of the quirkier aspects of the subway sign, like the narrow f and t, and the strange r. I eventually abandoned those elements as I realized that Router was about something else. As other type designers have noted, self-editing is a crucial part of the process.

But then a funny thing happened. I kept correcting and correcting, and all of a sudden I had sanitized the font and there was almost no personality left in it. What I was left with might as well have been VAG Rounded. In a very early draft, I had played with the idea of exaggerating the swellings in the strokes from the original sign. Now I resurrected that, and found the true character of the font.

terminals swelling router

Submissions

In addition to working with Hannes, I reached out to other type designers whose work I admired. One of the first people I contacted was Chester Jenkins at Village. I liked that his company was set up as a co-op, run by designers who all did great work.

I also posted my designs on Typophile, and was encouraged to submit my font to FontFont. I worked feverishly toward their May 15 submission deadline, preparing the book weight in roman and italic. I also showed Chester where my work was heading, and he suggested that there might be a home for Router at Village. The royalty percentage at Village was higher, but total sales would probably be less. I heard back from FontFont, and they were interested. I took a few days to think about it, but then let them know that I was going to proceed with Village and release my font in their new foundry, Incubator.

What made the difference was that Chester was willing to work with me and give me the time and attention to help make Router the best it could be, offering drawing feedback and sharing production tips. FontFont is a much bigger organization with a lot more releases, and they would have put me on a much faster timeline.

Production

router complete character set

Once I had decided to release with Village, I started working toward a full draft of the family. Chester sent me files of Apex to show me the character sets they required. At first I was overwhelmed. I didn’t think I could possibly draw a font with about 1000 glyphs in each style. Fortunately, a lot of those are accented characters which can be created through components (linked references to other glyphs), but there are still several hundred original drawings in each of the styles. I had a lot of fun drawing some of the peripheral characters and finding ways for everything to follow the rules of the font, asking questions like “How can a triangle be routed?”

I spaced the font using the control characters ‘H O n o.’ Once I had the correct sidebearings for these characters I applied those values to all the glyphs that have straight or round sides (with some adjustments). Then I placed each character in the string ‘HHAHOAOO’ for uppercase and ‘nnanoaoo’ for lowercase, where ‘A’ or ‘a’ is replaced with the current glyph. Spacing the italic was a counterintuitive mystery — the only character that has the same sidebearings on both sides is the lowercase o, and you build everything off that.

In order to generate the in-between weights (extralight, light, and medium), I made interpolation tests. I did all of the drawing of the thin, book, and bold in Fontlab and then used Robofab (python-enabled Fontlab) to generate UFO masters (Unified Font Objects). Then I opened the UFOs in Prepolator to make sure all of my characters were interpolatable and used Superpolator to do the actual interpolation. Finally, I re-imported the UFOs back into Fontlab and checked each glyph for errors. It’s a lot of steps, but it’s superior to using either the Multiple Master or ‘blend’ action within Fontlab because it’s much more flexible and precise, capable of generating instances that require minimal redrawing.

During this time I kept showing my work to Hannes, as well as having meetings with Chester. I also got great feedback and guidance from Village member Christian Schwartz.

Time to deliver

router specimen on vllg.com

I could have kept fiddling with it forever, but a date had to be set. I was moving to Providence, R.I. in the summer and didn’t want to take an unfinished font with me.

The last minute drawing and spacing changes were very important. The final steps were to build the accented characters, and then use Metrics Machine to kern the six masters (thin, book, and bold in roman and italic). I finally sent the files to Chester. There was some back and forth over the next week — he caught some mistakes and I rethought a couple of things. Then he mastered it and launched the Incubator foundry on Bastille Day, July 14, 2008, coinciding with Village’s three year anniversary.

A year and a half after I first started, and a world away from my first draft, I had finally published a typeface.

What’s next

I’ve worked on a few custom type commissions since Router’s release as well as projects with my friends at The Design Office, a collaborative office of independent designers here in Providence. Most importantly, I am working on more uncommissioned designs that will eventually become commercial releases. But it hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be. Just because I have an idea doesn’t mean I can pump it out right away. As Chester told me, “you still have to go through the same snakes and ladders.” The production side of type design is much easier though, because I’m not figuring it out for the first time.

I’m trying to push myself and expand the ways I think about letterforms. In addition to drawing type, I’m taking a calligraphy workshop and later this year a stonecutting class. I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Providence Public Library where they have D.B. Updike’s collection of type specimens and books on printing. And I’m still taking lots of photos of signs and things I see on a day-to-day basis, and reading all the books I can find.

But no amount of research or theory is a substitute for the most important thing: drawing as much as I can.

Bonus: links & thoughts

Several designers have told me how important it is to have a specific use and point size in mind. The idea is that if you try and design a font that’s good for everything, it might not be REALLY good at anything. But if the font works really well for one specific use, then it can probably work well for lots of others. I’ve heard the example of J.K. Rowling writing her books for her daughter. If she tried to write books that everyone would like, they might be too general to connect with anyone.

When you’re drawing a character and it’s taking up the full size of your screen, it’s easy to forget how it will look when you print it at 12 pt. In order for your decisions to have a real impact, the drawing has to be a caricature. It’s okay for details to disappear in text. But only by printing specimens at different sizes can you see the real effect of your actions. And only by looking at the individual letters in words, sentences, and paragraphs can you understand how all of the glyphs work together.

Draw the black and the white shapes. Many designers will say that the white shapes are more important to the overall harmony of the letterform. Just like turning the glyph upside down or looking at it sideways, concentrating on the white shape lets you understand the form from a different perspective. And balancing the white with the black helps you with the spacing and understanding the overall weight of the forms.

Optical corrections are key. It’s been said that type design is the art of making unequal things appear equal. Noordzij’s theory of the Stroke of the Pen is apparent even in monoweight sans-serifs. Flip Helvetica’s A, V, or W sideways, and you’ll see that the diagonal strokes are slightly unequal. Rotate the O in Futura, which I was always told was a perfect circle, and you’ll see why that’s not true.

futura o

Resources

The most helpful sites for basic type info:
Underware’s typeworkshop
Briem’s Notes on Type Design (disregard the site design — the information is great)
Hannes Famira’s www.typedu.org

And the most informative (and often out-of-print) type design books:
A Book of Type and Design, Oldrich Hlavsa
Counterpunch, Fred Smeijers
Dutch Type, Jan Middendorp
Fontographer: Type by Design, Stephen Moyer
Adrian Frutiger — Typefaces
The Stroke: Theory of Writing, Gerritt Noordzij

Many thanks to Chester and Tracy Jenkins, Hannes Famira, Christian Schwartz, and everyone else who helped me along the way.


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  1. Kari Pätilä

    Nicely done. It’s been a while since I’ve actually read an article here instead of just skimming through, but this one was worth the read.

  2. Kari Pätilä

    Just to be clear - the skimming part has more to do with me being too busy than the content being uninteresting…

  3. Kari
    That’s what I thought you meant :)

  4. the router type looks good in thin, well done jeremy!

  5. Wow, that’s one hell of a way to do something with your life! It’s truly fantastic how the font became a ‘font’ starting from a handmade sign.

    What did you do with the different “e’s”? Picked one? Or just used them all?

  6. Thank you very much for this extensive and insightful article, Jeremy. Reading such a detailed description of the design process is fascinating - and I just love the result!

  7. Thank you for your interesting story, it inspires me!

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m looking for more of these lately. It’s really nice to be somehow near a source of expertise in the field of type design. Although the internet brings everyone closer, nothing compares to a breathing, human being next to you, teaching you about type design.

    Congratulations. And thanks John :)

  9. Thanks for the article and the inspiration it provided!!
    Really like the thin weight! Congrats!

  10. Fantastic article! It’s always an enjoyable read when someone takes you through their creative process. I especially appreciated this line:

    “But no amount of research or theory is a substitute for the most important thing: drawing as much as I can.”

    I wish I could say I was a font connoisseur, but alas, I’m not. But I know what I like, and I love the character to your font — the slight change in weight that’s only just noticeable in the light weight and the slight kicks at the ends of a lot of the strokes are gorgeous — the lowercase u, i, n and m especially.

    Thanks for the article

  11. Great article! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Looking at futura and seeing the difference at 90!!! Now i’m going through all the fonts and playing spot the difference. The thing with the o happens in avant garde too!(May be you guys already new that, but i just found out!)
    I think all these little mentions from the different articles should be compiled as a seperated section! Or does it already exist?

  13. Leandro

    Absolutely honest and lovely your article describing your design process. That’s the mood, man. We’re moved by passions like that. Your typeface mirrors these feelings. What’s your favorite glyph in you typeface and why? I liked the “Q”. Keep it going. Bye.

  14. A very interesting insight into font inception and creation.

    I particularly like the thin and extra light weights.

  15. I liked the “Q”, too. Thanks for sharing you work process, in a so clear way.

  16. Great post Johno, fantastic to get an insight into the actual development of a typeface. Something I’ve been considering but not sure I have the mentor I would need to take on such an epic task.

    Also some really good books there, Frutiger’s ‘Typefaces’ is calling out to me, I’ve seen it a few times - truely beautiful.

  17. Fascinating, inspirational stuff. I guess type is one of those things that’s easy to appreciate, but you can only truly understand it’s subtleties by getting your own hands dirty and designing some yourself.

    One day I’ll give it a go … one day …

  18. Thank you for your article. It is really inspirational. And a really, really good job.

  19. Thanks so much to everyone for their kind words. I hoped that this would be useful for aspiring type designers. I was one not long ago.

    @Lieven

    I suppose I chose one of the e’s to start with, but I very quickly got away from the sign and didn’t really look back. The final shape of the e has a lot more to do with the final shape of the o and c.

    @Leandro

    Well, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I definitely prefer the lowercase over the capitals, and the capitals over the small caps. I really like doing the numbers, and all of the obscure stuff like the currency symbols and the non-English characters.

    The diagonals in K M W X k w x are all challenging (especially in italic and in bold weights). But the most challenging of them all are the O and o. Getting the right balance is something that will probably take a lifetime.

    @George Wiscombe

    Mentorship is important, but of course you have to have that initial spark and motivation on your own first. Just starting to draw will take you to the next steps.

  20. Dear Jeremy,

    first things first: Congratulations to your beautiful typeface and the good article!

    But we at FontFont are wondering about some of your lines:

    What made the difference was that Chester was willing to work with me and give me the time and attention to help make Router the best it could be, offering drawing feedback and sharing production tips. FontFont is a much bigger organization with a lot more releases, and they would have put me on a much faster timeline.

    How did you get this impression?
    It is very important to us being a reliable partner when it comes to a collaboration and we are always at the designer’s service if he needs help.
    So, what you say about chester is equally true to us.

    Your sudden leaving back then made us think you weren’t willing to go so much into detail, so seeing extended Router posively surprises us. This could have been a nice collaboration!

    In fact Andreas was preparing a very detailled feedback when you left us.
    After giving you a short feedback asking your patience, he spent hours keenly sketching around in your source files giving you hints and suggestions, when you suddenly changed your mind and went to Village.

    We are a bit astonished at your “much faster timeline”, since Andreas actually asked you for some patience …

    Best,

    Christoph

  21. It looks wonderful! The article with the details on the whole process is great, thanks for sharing it all. (:

  22. @Jeremy

    Just let me add that I’m an aspiring type designer, and it was certainly useful. Once again thanks for the article!

  23. @Christoph

    Thanks for your thoughtful note. I certainly didn’t mean any disrespect to the FontFont team and its excellent roster of typefaces and designers.

    Ugla had mentioned planning a release date, and maybe I mistook that for a fast production timeline. My actual release date was more than a year after that.

    Chester was in New York, and I could sit down with him and go through things side-by-side, and that degree of hand-holding was what I needed at that time.

    Having Router accepted for publication with FontFont was a dream come true, and it was a very difficult decision to go with another foundry.

    Jeremy

  24. Rusty Wright

    Great story; I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

  25. Awesome article. I enjoyed reading it. Very nice type face. i love it.

  26. Truly a great read. I was completely enthralled with this story. The realization you made about having the ability to then make the font was awesome! Reminded me myself in college for some reason.

  27. Randall

    Thanks for this interesting post. It is always interesting to see behind the music, I mean type face. :-)

    One thing I was curious about was the publishing side of things, this tends to be shrouded in mystery to us lay men. I am guessing that it is like book publishing where a new author will submit his manuscript to several publishers, and then wait for responses. Knowing who is interested in publishing the work the author can then go about getting the best deal, or at least the most interesting deal.

    Is it the same thing with type faces? Was there a bidding war between FontFont and Village? ;-)

    Thanks again for the great post and the great typeface. I have downloaded the PDF and filed it away.

  28. Great post. Thanks for the blow-by-blow and the links. Glad you added back some of the quirks based on the source. This article will be a great resource.

  29. Chris

    Very nice typeface. It reminds me of using the router machine in Jr. High shop class.

    Seems like this would work very well at small sizes and be very clear and lend a bit of fun due to the roundess of it.

  30. Hey Jeremy, nice article and congratulations (again) on the very nice and flavourful Router.

  31. thanks so much for featuring these typographers and their self-written processes of how they created fonts. it’s really interesting and insightful, especially for a student like me. :)

  32. A lovely family! Kudos to you for your work-ethic and all of the care you put into Router. Man, if I put in a month’s work on a font, I get all self-congratulatory about my tenacity. Sad, really. Anyhow, good luck with the release. I’m sure Router will be a smash.

  33. jessica

    I actually read this article…usually i skim. This was a very interesting read. thanks!

  34. Your website keeps amazing me! Type design is a complicated stuff. Thanks for all the info, stories and examples. They are inspiring!

    Kind regards,

    s

  35. ettie

    Nice!

  36. @jeremy: Great Article. Nice and encouraging to read every step.

    @john: Great site. Keep up the good work!!

  37. Wow. I’m really impressed. I don’t know if I could ever dedicate myself to making a font. Nicely done!

  38. Well! Done!

  39. Great article, thanks for delivering insight!

    A nice introduction into my workday :-)

  40. Thanks for a great article. It’s nice to know that it isn’t an easy process to design a typeface, otherwise we’d all be doing it! ;-) The effort you went to is certianly apparent in the final font.

  41. That’s awesome, I think font making really is an art and having posts like this that make light of the small nuances and really all the work that goes into making a font is great.

    I haven’t made a font yet myself but I would like to try someday. I think it would be awesome.

    Again, great post!

    Nate Johnson

  42. It’s amazing, the details that go into things are crazy. I bet no one would of ever thought this in depth to your font unless you told your story. Of which is a great one, I’m sure that you could even go into more detail.

    What I really liked about the article is the motivation and how you described how you went through the whole process. Its inspirational.

    A few questions:
    Where would you say your font is best placed? Since published, have you seen it pop up or shall I say “seen its face” in places?

    One more question, do you think the originator of the sign you first saw will ever contact you?

  43. Yaco Roca

    Interesting stuff. This has shed new light on my intentions to design type myself. Just all the work your first typeface took! I certainly have that much more respect and admiration for type and typographers. It really is a sort of alchemy, mixing science and art, precision and intuition.

    Just as Kari, I had ceased to read ILT, and much any other blog, due to time and computer issues. Now I am set up again and while browsing though the wonderful site, this article caught my attention. Glad it did so.

  44. Gorgeous font, the italics especially so - the swells do make the difference. It would look great on achitectural renderings as it does have a lettering tool/drafting vibe.

  45. Beautiful work! The light italic is especially delicate and graceful. Bravo!

  46. For those who especially enjoyed Jeremy’s article, see also Kris Sowersby’s From Moleskine to market.

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

  47. I loved reading this.

  48. Thanks again to everyone for their nice comments. I’m glad that it’s been interesting and useful.

    @Randall
    Not quite a bidding war, but it definitely boosted my confidence to have multiple foundries liking my work.

    @Anthony Proulx
    I doubt I would ever heard from the signmaker. The end result is pretty far from the original sign. And the original sign has more to do with Helvetica than it does with my font.

    @John
    Moleskin to Market was the undeniable inspiration for this article. I’m a big fan of Kris’ work and his writing.

  49. Fredolfo

    What an inspiring article and even more inspiring piece of work. Loving the regular and lighter versions.

  50. Jeremy, thanks for sharing, I enjoyed this.

  51. so nice article, good one.

  52. thank you. this is my favorite article in all my years reading here. that’s saying a lot!

  53. Veronica Famira

    Jeremy, I really love your font! So this is what you and Hannes were working on all those nights! Well worth the effort. I’m very impressed.

  54. great post, thanks!!

  55. Mikah Sargent

    I’ve always thought about creating a typeface. This has proven that it happens to be a very involved process. Yikes! Thank you for inspiring me to stay away from a project like this for awhile.

  56. Sooz

    Hi Jeremy

    Loved reading your type design journey! It is so informative and inspiring, and will help me, hopefully one day, finish my typeface (which I started in 2002).

    Thank you, Sooz

  57. Sooz

    BTW, forgot to say what a beautiful and complete typeface you have created!

  58. I always thought the O in Futura was perfect… I feel so disillusioned now.

  59. Jeremy, nice job my friend! I’ve been witness to labor on this project and its been a great inspiration. It really is an amazing accomplishment!

  60. process is so amazing.

  61. Good post, thank you for sharing your methods for designing type. Very inspirational.

  62. Mikko Vierumäki

    Hah :) That Futura “o” is great! Thank you for great article.

  63. I love stories like these. They demystify the creative process and bring everything down to a human level.

    If someone tells me they could never do what I do, I always try to explain that its a process — just like anything else. I believe maybe one or two of us are gifted, but most of the greats (in any field) are/were just hard workers.

  64. Garo

    Great article! Just starting out on making my first typeface and have found Karen Cheng’s book ‘Designing Type’ invaluable.

  65. You missed the part where you contacted the sign-maker to ask if you could use his copyright font to make your “router” font.

    Unless you got permission you’re infringing that guys copyright by copying the essential elements of his design, moreover you’re on double-jeopardy as you’re selling the infringing work … it’s not just designers that are protected from copyright infringement anyone that creates a work with distinctive character is protected by international copyright (and many people that don’t!).

  66. Victor Chan

    As an admirer of the process, thanks for sharing your own personal insights and experience. The devil’s in the details but I love reading all about them.

  67. Randall

    Thanks for the reply Jeremy. (If I may call you Jeremy.) I can imagine that it must have felt good to have multiple foundries interested in the face, and it’s nice to know that the decision came down to personal rather than business reasons. Or rather, that business reasons were also personal.

    That comment from pbhj is pretty funny. I guess s/he doesn’t understand what “inspiration” is. I think it’s pretty clear that you took inspiration from the routed sign to make Router instead of actually recreating the routed sign type. By pbhj’s reasoning, all rock and roll musicians should pay royalties to blues cover bands.

  68. @Randall, I think I understand inspiration quite well. In order to create a new work the artists input must be transformative. In this case it appears the the distinctive character that created the visual appeal of the original work has been copied wholesale and formed as a substantial part of a new work. The typeface is clearly a derivative (in the copyright sense) of the original.

    If this face had been produced without copying then there would be no case to answer but copyright law protects artists (even if their medium is plastic and their method routing) from copying. Altering the “e” to establish a mean “e” is not transformative.

    As for musical analogies - consider sampling:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/pop-stars-will-have-to-credit-the-musicians-they-sample-502486.html (UK centric article but I gather Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films means the same sort of rules stand in the US).

    As for me I have no problems with such a requisition provided that profits are shared fairly.

  69. I just signed up. Hello everbody. I felt the need to sign up and comment on this great font. Looks amazing. I especially love the i. Very classy looking. Also the v is one of my favorites. Great stuff. Keep up the good work. I can’t even imagine how big of a task this is. I mean you described here some of the steps but I guess you spent tens if noth hundreds of hours creating this. But I guess it’s a rewarding process after all. It’s also really interesting to see how a font, well the different variants/weights work differently. For example in your font the n looks gorgeous in thin and extra light italic, but not necessarily in bold italic. Same goes for a lot of other fonts. I’d love to try to design a font though once. In the past few weeks/months I kinda got obsessed with type and when I’m walking on the streets all I do looking at sign and labels and posters etc. and trying to check out the typefaces used. But I guess I stop here with my babbling, it’s already a huge first post. Glad to be here and I hope to contribute to this amazing community. I also made a few wallpapers that I want to submit for the wallpapers section of the site. :) Take care everybody.

    Szabi

  70. Great article, someone should study the Moscow subways too

  71. Thank you for sharing this.

  1. Davemolloy.net—Mar 23, 2009

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