How to Design a Font: {Part 3} Make it Digital!

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The Grid

Now that you have your font pretty well figured out it’s time to get into the computer. First things first, setting up Illustrator. I like to first turn on the grid. This is the easiest way to transfer your font from the grid paper to the computer. To turn on the grid go to “view” under the menu bar, then “show grid”. Once you have the grid on you should turn on the rulers (also under “view”). Make sure to adjust your rulers to points instead of inches or whatever your default is. Just right click on the ruler and select “points”. The reason you want to be working in points is because that is the measurement system that fontlab uses too. Now what I do next is to figure out the height of my cap height, ascender height, median, baseline, and decender.


Now as a little refresher from our last tutorial remember that the cap height is just under the ascender height. The median is about 60 percent the total height between the baseline and ascender height. Might need to use a little math here; take your total height and times that by .6 and that is going to be your median. This isn’t an exact rule but traditionally that is where the median is placed. The height of your characters should be about 700 points high. I’ve noticed that sometimes when you import a character very small fontlab doesn’t perfectly paste the character’s nodes. If you have a character with lots of rounded areas sometimes fontlab will paste nodes weird. There is only a slight difference but it can be a bit annoying. Make sure you NEVER scale up your font once you get into fontlab.

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The Font Toolbox

Alright, now that you are all set up it’s time to get crackin’. How I start out is making a font “toolbox”. What I usually do is make a variety of different forms that I’ll use for the rest of the font. This way you make sure that all the forms are completely the same. Here is an example of a font “toolbox” that I use to make Usonia. Amazingly you don’t need that many pieces to create a font. If you are making a script font a toolbox probably isn’t going to work well. What you might want to do is simply scan in the grid paper and trace directly into Illustrator.

Every font is different with different accents you may want to add to the characters. The best thing to do is to figure out what pieces you’d like to use pretty regularly and make the shape. The key here is usability, try and make the shape as usable for as many characters as possible. These are the types of shapes I make: stroke, serifs, shape that connects strokes, additional accent pieces. There isn’t a hard and fast rule to making certain shapes, just make pieces you see yourself using a lot. Cool, now we are good to go onto putting together the letters.

So what I do at this point is refer back to my drawn shapes I made before, this is basically like my blueprint for the characters. What I do is copy and paste the pieces out of the toolbox I think I’ll need to start arranging them into the characters. If you find that you need to make a stroke make sure that you expand the stroke so that it turns into a shape. To do that go to “object” then “expand”. A little window will pop up that asks if you want to expand the fills the strokes. Just click OK.

As I am working on a font these are some of the most common tools that I use:

Transform: Sometimes you want a shape to not change size, just orientation. Use “object” then select “transform” from the drop down menu. You’ll have all your options there to pick whatever you’d like to do. It’s a lot faster than trying to completely redraw your shape!

Direct Selection Tool (open arrow): I use this tool a lot if I want to delete or move particular nodes.

Pen tool: I use this a lot to make extra pieces. I like to make rounded parts of my letters a lot so I most often use the pen tool for those. If you want to make a rounded corner then click in one place on your canvas, then try and pick a place diagonally away from that point and hold down your shift key and drag and it will use only 90 and 45 degree angles to make the curve.

Zoom tool: Really zoom into your font to make sure that all your separate pieces are lining up right. I usually zoom into my font for fine tweaking whenever I am moving a piece into place.

Once you have assembled all your pieces together you’re almost done. Make sure that all your strokes are expanded and you’re ready to merge the shape together. If you don’t expand your strokes you will run into issues since fontlab doesn’t read strokes, only shapes. It will see a line but nothing filling in that line, so strokes in fontlab just look invisible. So now that all of our strokes are expanded we can merge the shape. Open up your pathfinder tool. There are several different options you have here. The one you will most commonly use is “merge”. This one takes all the shapes you have selected and merges them into one shape. To help avoid problems later on its best to just merge in Illustrator and get the font looking EXACTLY how you want now. I only like adjusting kerning (space between letters) in fontlab.

Now let’s say you want to make a grunge looking font. Grab one of our grunge vectors and you can overlay that on your letter. Now with both selected click in the pathfinder tool “minus front”. Generally this should work for you but honestly I’ve noticed this tool is a little funny. If this doesn’t work or subtracts pretty much your entire letter then try another tool or select only part of your letter with the direct selection tool and try it then. Sometimes a process of elimination works best.

Ok now that you have all of your shapes together it’s time to do a little cleaning. So what I’ve noticed with the merge tool is that it will add extra nodes sometimes to the shape. What you have to do is zoom way into your letter and, using your pen tool, delete these extra nodes. This may seem sort of tedious but sometimes fontlab can make your letters look jagged so getting rid of these extra nodes leaves you with a smooth curve. What we’re trying to do is make sure that the font is as PERFECT as possible before you get into fontlab. Once you get into fontlab, believe me it’s all downhill from there!

So once you have done all of these steps for every character you’re probably pretty tired! Making a new font is a LOT of work. So take a quick break, and grab yourself a little snack! Once you’re fueled up it’s time to make your characters huge! I’ve noticed that fontlab has a default size of 700 points tall. So you could start out at that size. Make sure you grab ALL of the letters and special characters and size them all at the same time. You spent all that time getting them perfect, the last thing you want to do is size them up individually and then they’re all different sizes. Amazingly you can really tell if some letters aren’t the exact same size. Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if you go outside the canvas area, since you’re not printing this it doesn’t matter if the characters are all inside of the live area. Usually when I size up my fonts they go pretty much to the end of the entire work space! What I usually do is turn on my rulers and put guides at 0 and 700 so I know exactly how large to make the letters. Well that is pretty much it for Illustrator.

Now we’re ready to get into fontlab so get ready for the fourth and final installment sometime 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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