How to Design A Font: {Part 1} Get Inspired!

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I haven’t written a blog post in a while so I thought it was time I jumped right in and did a tutorial series about fonts. There will be three more tutorials that will follow this one. Their forces combined will account for pretty much everything I know of how to make a font. So grab yourself a red bull and your favorite salty snack and let’s get to it!

Whenever I sit down to make a new font the very first thing that I need is some inspiration. Ok, easier said than done. Sometimes I stare down a blank sheet of paper and my mind goes blank! So what to do. . . Well here is a list, in no particular order, of ways in which you might get some inspiration to create your own typeface. Everyone has their own methods that work best, these are just the ones I use.

1} Be aware of what other type designers are doing.

You always want to be trend setting in the design community, what’s the point of creating the same thing someone else has already? It’s very important to be designing something that nobody has seen before, that has your own style. What I’ve learned is that by looking at amazing work it motivates me to make something equally as amazing. I love checking up on some of my favorite designer’s latest pieces. I would HIGHLY recommend that if you haven’t already gotten hooked up into a social bookmarking site, do it now! It’s cool, I’ll wait. I use delicious as my bookmarking site of choice. Of course there are TONS of these types of sites so just find one that fits your taste. Here is a short list of some other bookmarking sites that I am aware of: blogmarks, digg, blinklist, feedmarker.

The benefit of having an account with one of these link posting sites is that you have access to your bookmarks at any computer in the world, if your computer crashes your bookmarks aren’t lost, you can share bookmarks with your friends, you can organize your bookmarks so they’re easy to find, do I really need to go on? Usually whenever I’m on one site I’ll follow some links and somehow find myself on a really sweet, random site. I have a horrible memory so I know the only way I can see the site again is by immediately bookmarking it.

So you may be wondering what websites I enjoy looking at to get some inspiration. Well, there isn’t a short and easy answer to that. Usually what I like to do is just get into my delicious account and poke around sites i’ve taged as “design” or “inspiration”. Sometimes I will have to go around to several different sites before I feel those creative juices flowing. I don’t think it’s necessarily good to only look at one website for ALL your inspiration. Look at a variety of work that might trigger new and exciting ideas.
Here are some of my favorite places to see what other designers are up to: behance (several of us at Go Media are on here), webcreme, ffffound, surfstation. From these websites you can find loads of obscure firms or designers that are doing some amazing work. This will at least get you started in the right direction; follow links around to different sites and see where they take you! It never ceases to amaze me the cool, random things I’ve discovered through these sites.

2} Research, research, RESEARCH!

When I was in school pretty much 75 percent of our energies were given to researching. Rationalizing EVERY line and color choice. Professors did not accept the answer “I just think it looks cool”. I still research before I start designing any font so they are more than a pretty face. Pun INTENDED! For example, while in school, we were given an assignment to create a typeface for the future. We were asked questions like: how will we communicate in the future, Will the alphabet still exist, and so on. From this I came up with a few different ideas. Three fonts were designed for this project. One was diffraction, one was celest and the final one was constellation. Diffraction and Celest are available in our arsenal but constellation is not because it isn’t a usable typeface for the computer. People would use this typeface by connecting stars using lights. Each letter is represented by a star, so words would be constellations.

So how/why do you research a font you may ask? Well think of a topic you are interested in: shopping, computers, food processing, abandoned buildings, the environment, ect. I usually use Wikipedia as a good starting point for research. Don’t use that as your ONLY form but it helps to get some basic information fast. From there you can check out a library book or ten (we pay taxes for a reason right?!). Try and learn everything you can about the subject matter, this will help give you visual cues as you’re researching. The more we know, the stronger our final solution will be. Keep that sketch book nearby! You may come across something while researching that will spark your imagination that never would have happened before. It gives your work a sense of depth and complexity that without research would be meaningless. I have found that the more research I do before a project, the better final solution I get.

3} Restrict yourself!

Ok, I know this sounds a little nuts but sometimes when you’re staring down a blank sheet of paper your mind can go blank too. Sometimes clients come to us and say “Just make a cool looking design”. We try and get more information from them but they really have no idea what they want, just “something cool”. This can be sort of tricky, so what I do in these cases is I try and think of a topic I’m interested in and work off of that.

For example, for Usonia, I thought it’d be fun to design a font based on Frank Lloyd Wright and one of my favorite buildings he designed, Fallingwater. I looked at all the pictures I took while visiting Fallingwater and found inspiration for forms based on the ways in which windows opened or thick and thins created by the stone.

Restrictions can be pretty much any sort of boundary that you want to make up for yourself. Like a dog placing his own invisible fence! You could limit yourself to designing a sans serif font with lots of thick and thin areas in the characters. This may seem a little crazy but it honestly does help sometimes when faced with infinite possibilities.

4} Keep a journal handy.

Let’s face it, sometimes you just can’t control when a great idea is going to come along. I always have a moleskine on me just in case I’m in line at panera bread and randomly think of a great new idea. Sometimes I’ll have days when I think of a million great ideas but others were I just can’t think of a design to save my life! That’s where the sketch book comes in. I just flip through that and see what ideas I had before and use that for a starting point on days I am not quite as inspired. Everyone has a different process for getting their ideas down. I will often write out my ideas instead of sketching them since I know a little drawing wouldn’t help me remember. Concepts inspire me more than visual form most of the time. Do whatever works for you. If it helps to jot down a picture do that, anything that will help you remember the idea.

5} Accept the fact that inspiration can come from anywhere.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I will be walking down the street and I’ll see an interesting crack in the concrete or look out my window and see an interesting pattern that sparks my imagination. Sometimes the stupidest/simplest things get me thinking of a new idea. I think it’s important to be always be looking out for these ideas.

One thing I’ve learned about being a designer is that it’s a lifestyle not a career. Surround yourself with inspiration; my apartment is filled with posters, pictures and objects that keep me thinking of new and exciting ideas. Surround yourself with things that get you inspired and before you know it you’ll be cranking out those stellar ideas.

Stay tuned for part 2 to come next week!

About the Author, Katie Major

I'm a graphic designer with a passion for typography, learning, photography, reading, knitting, and playing music. Check out some of my personal projects here.

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