The Music of Type Design

A typeface is a series of conversations happening simultaneously between different characters. For example, in the Latin script, the lowercase b talks to the d, talks to the p, talks to the q, and they respond. So there is this ongoing conversation between the b, d, p, and q, and then there is this other conversation happening between the m, n, and h. And then all the diagonals, like the v, the w, the x, and the y, are talking to one another as well. At some point, you realize that these conversations are all happening in the same space, and the groups start talking to one another as well. The role of the type designer is to facilitate these conversations.

A typeface is like an orchestra, and the type designer is its conductor. At a classical music concert, there are 50 musicians on stage. The violins are on the left, and the cellos and double bass on the right. Before the conductor comes out, the musicians test and tune their instruments. Individually, the sounds that come out of their instruments are nice, but collectively, it’s just noise — it’s not music.

Then the conductor comes on stage. There is a pause, then he or she suddenly brings them together into the same rhythm, and music comes to life. There is a collective conversation that often happens in classical music. The violins start to speak, and then at some point the cellos come out and they play something very similar, but it is not the same. It’s a deeper sound, different yet related. A conversation is taking place, and at some point the harp comes in and everyone else is very quiet.

A good typeface is one that’s able to master that harmony. That’s not to say that all letters need to look the same or that they are entirely modular. This is a common mistake that newbies coming into type design will make: that the essence of type is to create a module (or unit), then attach ascenders and descenders to it. But type design is not like that — it’s a series of conversations that are related to one another, existing together, but not really the same. It’s about creating a system of harmonic variation and not a series of individual parts — even when those parts look good independently. The trick, and it is at the heart of type design, is to tame those variations so that the music that comes out is the sound you are looking for.

If you are intrigued by the idea of musical instruments speaking to one another, check out this rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. At 0:35, the flute starts to speak to the double bass, which in turn replies in its deep, sombre tones. Watch as the other instruments begin to join in, and keep this in mind next time you look closer at your favorite typeface. Look for the music!

Learn the Music of Type Design

If you’d like to begin your type design journey, we have a number of introductory courses in Latin Type Design, Script Design, Ruqaa, and Arabic — with many more on the way.

Learn type design with ILT Academy. Typeface used is LiebeGerda by Ulrike Rausch. All other specimens set in Sahlia by Alanna Munro.

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