Why extra sort designers ought to break the foundations

I’m always surprised by how my fonts are used. You can design something for very small sizes, for instance, and a graphic designer will shatter expectations and create something you never thought was possible with your typeface. It’s wonderful.

Before specialising in type design, I originally studied graphic design. I think it helps to have that grounding, because even if you think you’re designing something that can live on its own, eventually it will be used by a graphic designer.

You can anticipate where it’ll be most beautiful, or will work the best, and set guidelines or constraints to make it meaningful for someone else. But don’t have too many expectations. Designers should be able to do what they want. After all, when you release a font it’s not completely yours anymore. At some point, you must let it go.

DIVE INTO YOUR SKETCHBOOK EARLY

My approach to type design is a little like sculpture: you start with a big block of rock and chisel it away to make rough shapes. Then the further you go, the finer the detail.

It’s so important to get something down in sketch form. First drafts are always ugly, but they give you something to build from. Make sure there’s enough room in your design process to let yourself be surprised by what you’re drawing. It helps not to have too specific an idea of where you want to go.

When designing bespoke fonts for brands, the first step is to establish an art direction based on visual reference. Often clients are not that comfortable with type design, and you must walk them through your design choices with these visual references in mind.

For instance, my font for the perfume brand Ormaie used sketches from the designer of the logotype as a base, plus plenty of Art Nouveau references. We created a one-weight family, but it included alternate versions of almost every letter to give designers room to play. Essentially, we mimicked different weights, all within one style.

BALANCE FREEDOM WITH CONSTRAINTS

At Production Type, our design process encourages us to push things as far as possible – whether optical sizes, weights, or exploring variations on the design to create shapes you didn’t expect. Even if you don’t end up using them in this project, those shapes may end up nourishing your next design.

But endless freedom can be counterproductive. Type design has so many possibilities and having constraints can help. It can drive the project in a certain direction.

When I first started learning type design, I wanted to put all my ideas inside one typeface. I wanted to do it all, and it didn’t look good. The convention is that each typeface should have one or two ideas. Those constraints can feel frustrating at first but give yourself the space to explore new shapes and that frustration goes away.

My starting point for my first retail font, Qommodore, was a personal interest in monospaced serifs. That was my brief: no use-case in mind, other than exploring the kind of shapes that we couldn’t put in our commissioned work. It’s mostly for display and branding use – a monospaced text font is probably not the best idea, but I do love to be surprised.

EMBRACE THE UNEXPECTED

When designing type, you usually start with the medium weight, then build out bolder and lighter weights from there. There’s a sort of creative sweet spot between the extremes. Use the tools at your disposal to go far beyond the limits of what’s comfortable.

Your computer may extrapolate the points in your design to create something ugly, but sometimes it can create interesting, unexpected shapes. You must decide when to stop. I recommend pushing your design until it breaks, and you don’t recognise it anymore.

With Qommodore, we went way too far on the extrapolation to create a super-heavy weight. It fused all the stems of the ‘M’ together to create an almost illegible shape. I knew it was past the limits. My colleagues and friends said it was too much. But I liked the shape, and saw something interesting in this crazy one-stem M. In the end, I changed everything else around to fit in with it.

It’s the opposite of what you learn at school. As Matthew Carter famously said: “Type is a beautiful collection of letters, not a collection of beautiful letters.” Here we had one beautiful letter and built the rest around it. It’s not an efficient way of working, but at some point, you need to catch a surprise and build from there. It’s an essential part of the work.

START WITH BROAD STROKES

I don’t like to move points around individually. I find it tedious. Rather than tweaking one by one, I design type in an organic way, transforming shapes by scaling, rotating, and squishing. Basically, I mistreat my Bezier curves.

Sculpting letterforms like this gives you an idea of what you want, and then you can go through the painstaking placement of points after that. That’s particularly important for lighter weights, as it’s more difficult to hide mistakes. There’s very little contrast, so every bump stands out.

I once thought that type families should look like a nuclear family, with very small changes across weights. Now I see them more as a contemporary family, with siblings, parents, different cousins and more.

The different weights of Qommodore have a certain elegance, but the monospacing creates shapes that are intentionally more mechanical. Qommodore Bold is loud and fat, while Qommodore Light is sharp, witty, and swift. Every individual in the family has its own personality, but they share the same core principles.

KNOW THE VALUE OF FEEDBACK

In my role at Production Type I regularly collaborate with other type designers to commission new typefaces, and I find working with others can be a very good way to take a step back and reflect on your own practice.

It teaches you to efficiently summarise and communicate feedback and forces you to question yourself. Why do you like a particular shape? Why should a particular letterform look like it does? Not just because it’s pretty: it must work.

Likewise, having people give you feedback helps you move forward. But it’s important to know when to say ‘no’. It helps you strengthen your decisions, because you need to explain why you’re designing in a particular way. People will always give you different advice, so if you compromise too much the result might be dull or uninteresting. And no one wants that.

productiontype.com


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