Typeface Anatomy Simplified

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“ I love learning but I hate studying.” – my former boss

I echo his sentiment. Especially where typefaces are concerned.

I love learning—learning by doing. Drawing letters. Experimenting with font software.

But I, ashamedly, I don’t know the parts of the letters by heart. I didn’t study that part hard enough. I didn’t memorise them like a good student of type would.

So instead, I thought I’d learn them best the way I learn most things—by doodling.

Drawing or doodling helps me get to know something better and cement the learning in my mind. Drawing something makes you more familiar with it.

When I study typefaces, reading books are not as helpful as me drawing Helvetica, Baskerville, Rockwell on paper. Staring, observing, analysing, doodling type.  

So here are my educational doodles. Hopefully they will help you too.

Level 1: Easy/common words

  • Ascender (the part of a letter that goes above the x-height)
  • Descender (the part of the letter that goes below the baseline)
  • Crossbar
  • Stem
  • Diagonals

1

Level 2: Body part-sounding words

  • Spine
  • Tail
  • Shoulder
  • Arm
  • Leg
  • Throat
  • Ear
  • Hairline
  • Waist
  • Throat
  • Upper lobe
  • Lower lobe
  • Eye

2

Level 3: Advanced super hyper typophile words

  • Aperture
  • Counter
  • Spur
  • Link
  • Loop
  • Hook
  • Sheared terminal

3

*Most of the above terms are from Karen Cheng’s book “Designing Type,” in which she clarifies that “there is no official nomenclature for the unique structural features of type.” But “type designers, do in general use the specialized terms” she shared in the book.

Why learn names of the parts of letters?

 

They help you find the right words when discussing type

Instead of saying – “the thin thingie of the “o” is making this typeface hard to read in small sizes.” . You can say, “This typeface won’t work well in small formats because the hairline is almost invisible”

“We need to increase the leading because the descenders are hitting the ascenders on the next line.”

“Can you change it to a typeface with heavier stems?”

And when critiquing type / discussing type design

“Do you think the crossbar of the t is a little too wide?”

“The spine of the S is a little too thick.”

“The shoulder of the lowercase n could use a little more weight.”
And hopefully the more we use these words, the more they will be cemented into our vocabulary. And we won’t need the word thingie anymore.

How to Find Time for Your Side Projects

Most creatives have at least one side project they’re working on—a poetry collection perhaps, a giant tapestry, or an intricate painting. Maybe a book, an ebook, or a short film. If you’re reading this, chances are you have one.

Perhaps you were so pumped about it at first. Then life got in the way. Regular overtime at work. House repairs. Taxes. Business issues. Family emergencies. Freelance projects. All kinds of interruptions and delays. And each day, once you finished all your tasks, you had no time or energy left for your beloved project.

So now your hair turns gray, and you wistfully say (in a soft shaky voice as your hand vibrates while you lift a finger to your temple), “what was that thing I started creating long ago?”

One type of project I often had trouble finding time is typeface design, because typefaces can take a really long time to complete.

A typeface can take from 7 days to 7 years to design, depending on complexity.

So how do we find the time to do things we love?

I’ve learned that there are three things crucial to completing a side project:

  1. Ability to manage your time
  2. How badly you want to complete it
  3. Ability to focus

Let’s skim through some popular time management techniques, then I’ll share what helped me get committed and focused on type design work.

Time Management Approaches

 

  1. Decluttering

 

Things that clutter our lives can become a hurdle if we’re not careful, and they actually keep us from reaching our goals and completing meaningful projects.

It’s surprising how much in our lives is unnecessary. For example:

  • Social media accounts you don’t need
  • Credit cards you don’t need
  • Boxes of old stuff (mental clutter)
  • Obligatory meetings

Think of them as bags that you carry with you wherever you go. If you let go of them, you can move with more ease and freedom.

Removing unnecessary things in our lives does wonders.

  1. Prioritizing

Prioritizing involves planning your calendar with a hierarchy—distinguishing clearly what’s important and what’s not. And managing the urgent tasks so they don’t take over your whole day.

You may be familiar with the Eisenhower matrix, popularized by Stephen Covey:

Eisenhower MatrixIf you want something done, you need to assign importance to it.

But it’s often not that simple. We’re caught in a hamster wheel of the pursuit of a balanced life:

Diagram

Do you ever feel like you need to choose only 3 of these?

Oftentimes it is only possible to achieve 3 of the above in a day.

Prioritizing is the key, and spreading activities across the week, not pushing yourself to do everything every day.

  1. Creative Techniques

Use what you know about yourself and get creative with your self-motivational techniques.

If your energy is highest in the morning, block out out morning time to work on your project.

Or set up all your gear or working materials the night before and put them next to your bed so once you wake up, you find yourself stimulated to get started.

Binge-watch tutorial videos related to your project.

Make it fun and set up reward systems. For example, prepare some amazing looking food that you only get to eat after you accomplish your planned project task for the day.


 

Time management skills alone are not enough. And it does take time, practice, and discipline to find your groove and show up consistently.

Despite how busy you get, there is always time for what you love.

Seal the deal

So here’s what you need to do to seal the deal.

 

  1. Decide that you want it

 

One of our biggest stumbling blocks in getting some things done is we’re not sure we want to in the first place. Count the cost: know the time and resources you need and ask yourself if you still want to do it.

Am I really committed to finishing this short film? Is it worth my time?

For me, even in my busiest days as a full-time employee (when I was one), I still found time after work and on weekends to learn and practice type design and lettering, and produce self-funded print projects.

  1. Decide you will stick with it in the long run

Committing to something long-term changes your whole demeanor about it. Deciding that I wanted to do type design and pursue similar projects for at least the next decade—it is actually quite relaxing. It switched my mindset from scarcity of time to abundance of time.

I feel less time pressure and more confident that I will finish things.

Long-term commitment can change your perspective from “time is against me” to “time is on my side”.

  1. Divide projects into phases and chunks

Planning your project tasks becomes so much easier when #1 and #2 are achieved. So once that was settled for me, I made sure I spent at least 20 minutes every day on my type projects—even just tiny tasks—to keep my momentum going.

But at least once a week, usually Saturday, I dedicate a big chunk of time to it, to make sure I can get into deep work and get a substantial amount of work done.

One of my inspirations is Erik Marinovich, Jessica Hische’s studio partner at Title Case. He is now a full-time letterer, but before he got to do that, he had a day job unrelated to lettering. Every evening at 6PM as the work day ended, he would joyfully proclaim, “Lettering time!” and then spend the whole night doing his lettering work.

There are few things that you can give time to every day. And a project or pursuit that’s important to you should be one of them.

  1. Declutter constantly

Decluttering is not a one-time, spring-cleaning thing. Everyday I’m making decisions about what not to do; what to cut out of my schedule, to make room for the important.

Decluttering is about knowing what’s important and what is clutter. It keeps stuff from overcrowding your life or eating up brain space.

Letting go of things frees up energy and space in your life and in your mind and gives you a refreshed ability to focus.

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs

Here’s a quote I read years ago from The Rule of Four, that has always inspired me when trying to finish long projects.

Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 9.05.32 AM

Just remember these three things:

 

  • Manage time well

 

  • Commit to it—want it baaaad
  • Focus

 

 

There you go. Now make it happen!

 

Does the World Really Need Another New Typeface?

As you read this, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new typefaces are being conceived

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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:

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.

Trust your Typographic Eye

Type is human

One afternoon, as a young designer, I was cutting some thick board paper into several parts. My boss happened to be hanging around, watching. So I wanted to impress her with my precision and carefully measured with a long metal ruler, and made small pencil marks where I was supposed to cut. I was trying to make all the parts perfectly equal. Then she impatiently said, “what are you doing? Use your eye!”

I don’t trust my eye, I thought, so used to hearing that young people should deliberately do things the hard way so that they learn.

Why choose the easy way when you can choose the hard way? was the mantra of my 20s.

She shooed me off the mock-up area and took over. And took the big sheet, positioned the metal ruler somewhere that looked like the middle and just sliced it nice and smooth. Then handed it back to me to continue nervously. I did not have much confidence in my optical perception. My boss, meanwhile, had a superior eye and could see everything.

What I didn’t know was that you can learn that over time. But first you would need to keep using your eye. Exercising your vision. Not necessarily to cut all parts of a sheet into equal sizes, but to think and judge as you design. If you don’t get it right, just keep doing it, and eventually your eye will get sharper.

Consider the following principles, and hopefully they will convince you of the importance of your eye and that though you may be often unsure, ultimately you can trust it as you work on improving your perception and sense of space.

Optical center is different from mathematical center

If you were to center type perfectly (vertically centered) on a page, it will look a little lower than center. It’s not your eye tricking you, that’s how we all see it.

Mathematical centered text appears rather low

Designers would center the text using their eye. If you were to measure it mathematically, it’s not really centered. But between mathematical center and optical center, the optical is the one to follow. Because after everything is done, the design must look good and make sense to the eye.

Kerning is done with the eyes

When type designers kern (determine the spacing for each letter when paired with a specific other letter) all the combinations of their alphabet, they adjust with their eyes. There is no magical instant kerning tool in type design. Moreover, the eye trumps the ruler.

Attempting to kern my first humanist typeface

But weight, there’s more

When I attended a short type design workshop by Jean Francois Porchez, they provided a bunch of materials: calligraphy pen, ink pencils, masking tape, tracing paper, graphing paper. And no ruler.

We drew 80% of the time with our hands, and used the computer in the last hours only. Which I loved. But we also used our optical judgment the whole time, to evaluate details such as size, weight, and proportion. “Use your eye,” even when drawing the guidelines, Jean Francois advised.

We need to consciously use our eyes.

When learning type design, 80% of the work is done by hand

There was one time my boss, let’s call her the Imperial Ruler, said to me “what letterspacing is that?” And I said, auto. Her eyes got big and I felt some steam. She said, “Don’t let the computer tell you what to do; you tell the computer what to do!”

(Later on she also praised me for excellent kerning on a logo, and it was also “auto” but I was so embarrassed and scared of her response, I didn’t say anything.)

Type designers use their eyes to judge things. Similarly, graphic designers use their eye when typesetting. It may be awkward at first, and you may have no idea what to look for but there are some basic principles to start with. They use their eye to judge the weight of a paragraph, readability, balance. Even when you don’t know the principles, your eye has a built-in capacity to see things. Most people don’t see it because they don’t think they can. But really, you have no choice but to trust your eye because that’s what you’ll use for practically everything. You will use the computer to align things, but sometimes it doesn’t get it right either (because of letter shapes and their quirks) and you have to see that.

So the good news: yes, you can trust your eye! Trust is after all the starting point for most things. And the more you use it, the more you can trust it. And enjoy it.

It’s such a relief that type design is not robotic; a lot of it is drawing, imagination, and creativity. A lot of it also is ridiculing boring typefaces like Times new roman, and encouraging each other to do something different, and using type to test it out.

Type is human. Design is human.