As you read this, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new typefaces are being conceived
A snapshot of my serif typeface in progress
Once upon a time, there were only a handful of typeface designers in the world. It was a field belonging to a special few. Many whose names you probably know, because many of their creations have been immortalized as Mac system fonts.
Now it is impossible to track how many fonts there are in the world, and how many new TTF and OTF files are getting exported every day by typeface designers.
Thomas Finney, CEO of Font Lab answers How many fonts are there in the world? on Quora with an estimate of “perhaps 300,000.”
One would imagine that this statistic would have the late great Massimo Vignelli turning in his grave. Vignelli was known to favor only 12 “good typefaces.” Among them Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded, Futura,and Helvetica. He was very vocal about his typeface convictions.
“I don’t think that type should be expressive at all. I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.” — Massimo Vignelli
Vignelli lived in modern times but most of his favorites were the classics. Garamond was designed by Claude Garamond, who lived from 1510 to 1561. The designer of Bodoni, Giambattista Bodoni, lived, two centuries later (and two centuries before us). Helvetica was the most modern typeface Vignelli liked to use, which was designed in the 1950s. What all these typefaces have in common is that they were designed for metal type, and went through a rigorous development process that took years. They are now classics that never look old. They are still widely used in graphic design work.
Two centuries after Bodoni’s lifetime, the doors of typeface design have been opened to all, whether professional or hobbyist. Anybody with a computer, a credit card, and enough hours to spare. Fonts are no longer precious things that can be made by a chosen few.
For someone like me for whom the field was not very accessible when I was younger, being able to use a friendly and affordable typeface design program is a privilege I can’t refuse.
So I find myself creating typefaces in a world already overpopulated with typefaces. Why?
First of all, why not?
For many, it’s strangely satisfying. It’s a rare indescribable feeling to use a typeface you made. It’s the ultimate graphic design project — creating a system of letters that can be used and re-used, and shared with the entire world.
For the experience
As a graphic designer, I have benefitted from the ease of using well-made fonts. Graphic design involves a great deal of curation—we put together work created by others—illustrations, typefaces, text, messaging.
Now able to experience what it is like to actually make typefaces gives me a whole new perspective, an appreciation for the tiny details, the relationships between shapes, the subtleties that contribute to the unique flavor of the font.
The customization possibilities
Because it takes a lot less time to design a typeface, compared to the days of Bodoni, a whole range of letterforms can now be designed for very specific purposes, and to reflect very specific, sometimes very subtle, characteristics — tiny details that make a world of difference.
Designers still find themselves in situations in which none of the typefaces in their current library of hundreds of fonts will work.
One example I recently encountered is Bethany Heck looking for a typeface for a particular headline:
It has come to my attention that one of the more noticeable traits in my design work is my willingness to use what is…medium.com
She shares about a search for a headline in which one of the serif fonts she tried would cut it. But there was one font—it was a novel kind of font, hardly useable for most projects, but it worked perfectly for that particular headline.
Developing your design eye
Drawing typefaces improves your design eye, whether you are a graphic designer, or letterer.
The humanity of it
I love how much time I can spend with pen and paper, away from the screen. I was introduced to a French typeface design method by Jean François Porchez in a workshop in which we spent 80% of the time drawing calligraphy and sketching and refining letters with pencil, tracing paper, and a marker. It’s a process that trains the eye and the hand to work together, and develops your judgment of shapes and weights.
My work from the typeface design workshop with Jean Francois-Porchez
“The history of typography reflects a continual tension between the hand and the machine, the organic and the geometric, the human body and the abstract system.” Ellen Lupton says in her introduction to Thinking With Type.
Typography is a very human process, that’s why it is irresistible. Typefaces are a reflection of a time and its culture, people, and technology. Each typeface of today has a story, and many of these stories get documented. Documentation is now a regular part of creation, and sharing the process is part of creative community.
“Typography is what language looks like” — Ellen Lupton
And every generation has its own language .
Just as long as we keep living, we will never stop making new things. Some of these things just happen to be typefaces.
The challenge for typeface designers today is to continually learn and keep getting better. So that each typeface released into the world is a work of great quality and value, doing what every great typeface has done before — enabling graphic designers to create work that meets its objective, and looks amazing.