12 Sources of Inspiration for Creating Your Own Lettering or Typeface Designs

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This is an article written by guest author Sean Hodge from AiBURN, a blog about design, creativity, inspiration, tutorials, and vector graphics.

Introduction

Lettering and Typeface design is a creative endeavor that requires constant sources of motivation, influence, and inspiration. If you dream of painstakingly designing the next amazing Open Type Font, desire to craft beautiful Hand Drawn Lettering, or feel the urge to create original Typeface Designs then this article is for you.

1. Bring Your Analysis to the Process

Learn how letters function alone, as typefaces, and in real world design systems. Logic can take you a reasonable way when analyzing. Though more formal tests are tools that can be used as well. Analyze letter-forms for functionality. Looks for faults in typefaces and ways of improving them. This will develop your visual eye, appreciation for the details of letters, and understanding of the totality of a typeface design.

Platelet is a font released by Emigre. This typeface design was inspired by California license plate systems. The font solution gave greater legibility to a monospace typeface design.

Platelet

Consider how the letters work within the typeface itself. What isn’t working? Try analyzing a free font. The time it takes to design a polished font is remarkable. So, download a free font and you’re likely to find inconsistencies in kerning, visual style, and logic of the letter-forms. This is a good way to start with analyzing typefaces.

You could certainly bring this same kind of critique to professional grade fonts as well. Or one of the higher quality free fonts. There is a critique on the Alphabet itself by Marian Bantjes in the freely available PDF Fontshop Magazine Issue #5.

The Alphabet

2. Study Typeface and Lettering Design History

Since the dawn of the machine age type has evolved into the creation of repeatable designs. Craftsman create the letter designs and then technology provides the tools to mass produce them. Compare the process of Letterpress font creation to that of Digital font creation. Develop your appreciation of the threads of time.

Learn the terminology of the craft of typeface design. The deeper you go into typography design the more interested you’ll become in knowing what terms like: Bracketed slab serifs, X-Height, or Descenders mean.

There are eras and movements within type design that are overflowing with an abundance of ideas waiting for you to discover. This is a big step to becoming a typo aficionado.

Over at Typophile there is a flash based tutorial on Type 101. It covers the history of typeface styles. It also presents information on revivals of these styles. The interactive presentation has the ability to zoom in and see the typefaces up close as well.

Type 101

3. Learn the Process of Lettering and Typeface Design

Study the workflow in creating a typeface design. While every typeface designer has their own methodologies, the creation of typefaces for any particular technology will develop common best practices and workflows. While studying this process historically is interesting consider looking at the process of designing typefaces today.

In the article Newzald: From Moleskine to Market on the blog I Love Typography the process of professional font creation is reviewed. The article shows the initial conceptual sketches of the typeface and then continues to show every step in the process with great detail. Don’t let this process intimidate you though. Certainly, to make a professional font takes an insane amount of time and effort. Though you can get going with sketching out new typeface designs and decide to use them as is in your work.

Or focus your efforts on learning professional lettering. Jeff here at GoMedia has written some great lettering tutorials. They are based on his style inspired by classic signage and hand drawn lettering. Check out the tutorial here on GoMediaZine Ornate Lettering Process or download the freely available PDF tutorial at Computer Arts on Ornate Lettering.

Jeff Lettering

4. Solve Market Needs

Yes, the market can be a source of inspiration. It can lead you in new artistic directions. Or you can attempt to pull the market toward your interests. Keep in mind to make a living with lettering or typeface design you’ll have to fuse your work with the needs of the market.

When new technology arrives review if it may be a source for typographic advancement. Zuzana Licko was an early adopter of digital font design. In the 80s working on early Macs she created some of the first quality digital fonts. She formed the font foundry Emigre and is one of the innovators of the digital font industry. She was successful partly because she was one of the first professionals in a new technical niche. Her work is interesting. Here is a link to an interview she did with Eye magazine.

Consider creating work to fill niche markets. It took time before small bitmap fonts where created in mass by font houses. There was a market need long before type designers were filling it. These are the type of gaps in the market you should look for.

Solve specialized client needs. If you have a talent for drawing ornate or calligraphic letterforms you can find clients that appreciate that style. Take the example of Eduardo Recife. View his Portfolio. For his font designs visit Misprinted Type. He has hand draw and engraved style roughed up typefaces that fit great with his collage style illustrations. He sells typefaces and uses them in his work.

Misprinted Type

5. Choose Your Heroes

Search out typeface designers, lettering experts, or specialists you admire. Learn as much as you can about their approach, body of work, process, and where they get inspiration from. Who you admire will naturally have a positive effect on your typographic work.

Thomas Huot-Marchand was inspired by a 19th century ophthalmologist named Dr. Emile Javal when creating Miniscule. Its a typeface for extremely small sizes, which was designed for use below the normal threshold of legibility.

Minuscule

6. Open Up to the World Around You

Where I live in Barcelona Venezuela there are hand painted signs on most shops. The construction of small buildings, walls, and houses uses concrete. There are worn murals, painted advertisements, and graffiti all over. They city is filled with either tremendous inspiration or clutter depending on how you look at it. What are your surroundings like and how are you looking at them?

One assignment in a college writing class I took was called “Be a Tourist in Your Own Backyard.” We were asked to take a fresh look at our surroundings. Ask questions like, “What would a traveler find interesting here?” People can become desensitized from their everyday world. But there is an enormous amount of inspiration anywhere you look. Start using a camera to record some of the lettering you see. Dig deep into your everyday world.

Travel often. If you travel frequently its easier to develop and keep the “visitor mentality” wherever you happen to be, at home or abroad. No matter where you are your eyes will be open and taking things in freshly. Take the font Carlos Segura created called Pintor as an example. He created it based on a hand painted sign he saw while traveling in Sao Paulo.

Pintor

7. Set Limitation to Work Within

Client projects will always have limitations. Also print project have different technical limitations than projects destined for screen. Deadlines are looming. Though when creating your own work these limitations may be less defined. It may be hard to set boundary lines for your personal projects. You might drift from one interesting thing to the next. Consider that typeface design can be focused by setting artificial limitations as well. You can choose to impose constraints. By doing so you will target your typeface designs and stimulate new ideas. Much like a poet choosing to work in Haiku.

Identikal has a slew of geometric typeface designs. They are masters of creating fonts that are limited based on grids and angles. The font Angol is an excellent sample of their work.

Angol

8. Subscribe to Typeface Design Catalogues, Feeds, and Magazines

You will find articles on typography, typeface design, and font creation in just about any design publication. Though if you become a typophile you’ll search out regular sources of type ideas. You can buy books on many aspects of typeface and lettering design. Or you can subscribe to a magazine. There are also some excellent free resources.

Some free resources: Font foundry catalogs like Catalog By T26, articles like The History of Linear, Sans Serif Typefaces, tutorials like Create a Classic Typeface, magazines like Font Magazine, and blogs like Typographica.

Typographica reviews fonts on a regular basis. Each year they release a respectable list of new typeface designs released that year. Check out the latest article Our Favorite Typefaces of 2007. Its cool to see Arno Pro on the list. As it came with my purchase of Adobe Creative Suite 3. There are many more fonts reviewed than those shown below.

2007 Fonts

9. Utilize Your Tools

You can harness your tools. Bend them to your will. Make them create anything you can imagine. Though the tools you use themselves can become a source of inspiration in creating typefaces. You may find that drawing a font with a brush achieves a unique design. Or cut some metal letters out with a blowtorch. Or you may be inspired by the limits of what your tools can produce.

Zuzana Licko of Emigre designed a font called Modula based on a redesign of an early typeface she created when font technology tools were limited.

Modula

10. Hunt & Gather

Head to the library and find some old type specimens. You might find some vintage signage books. Illuminated manuscripts are wild – incredibly detailed. See what your local library has or try getting permission to look at rare book collections at a university near you. Historical societies have impressive resources, like old hand written letters. If you have a good digital camera with a zoom feature that may be the only way you’ll be bringing these old samples back to your studio.

Rummage through some items at flea markets or used stores and you might stumble upon a classic collection of typeface usage on old products. Look at old buildings, signs, or gravestones. Most of all have your eyes open and a camera ready.

Hunt the net for inspiration. Flickr is a great place to find inspiration. The photo group First-Name Basis Signage Project is a lot of fun. Photographers submit photos of business signs that are principally run by one person. A good example is the photo below.

Debbies

11. Experiment

Play with making letters. Try drawing fifty of the same character different ways. Or use different mediums. Draw letters in the sand. Buy a notebook lined with graph paper and create geometric letter designs. Discover a new visual rhythm. Draw variations of letters from your favorite fonts or sketch with ink on napkins. Contemplate the language of cracks running through the sidewalk or visualize letters floating by in the clouds.

Katie Major is a recent addition to the staff here at Go Media. Since coming on board one of her focuses has been designing new typefaces for release through the Arsenal. With the font Diffraction she experimented with how light and type interact. She was inspired by writing with the light of a flashlight in a dark room. Her font Celest is also available.

Katie has offered some first hand advice to aspiring font creators with her article Katie’s 5 Tips for Typeface Development. Give that a quick read when you can.

Diffraction

When was the last time you wrote with toothpaste? I know its been at least a week for me. Fresh Fonts are a cool experiment in using unusual tools for creating typefaces.

Fresh Fonts

12. Follow Your Interests

Michael Doret is a well know logo designer and illustrator that uses letterforms in his work reminiscent of popular vintage Americana design. He released an open type font through Veer called Metroscript. The font is reminiscent of popular hand lettered styles of the early part of the twentieth century. A quote from Veer, “Mertroscript is suggestive of vintage sports ephemera — especially when tails are added to words — but is also appropriate in virtually any context.” You gotta love that tail.

Metroscript

Fiodor Sumkin found his interests with hand drawn lettering and illustration fuse. Here is a quote from his fabricated self interview: “Although his typographical work belies the influence of Gothic, Art Nouveau, Wes Wilson and others, Mr. Sumkin remains deliciously unique. One would be hard pressed to chose between his exquisitely designed type and his fresh style of editorial and advertising illustration.”

Opera78

Conclusion

This article has given you multiple points of entry into creating your own lettering and typeface designs. Review some of the resources above. Grab a sketchbook and start scribbling. Keep your eye open for type usage around you. Work with the details of lettering and train your typeface eye. Spend the next couple of months making typography your new found passionate hobby. You never know it just might turn into your career.

Discussion

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