Though integral to how the written word is conveyed, chances are you never give too much thought to fonts or how they’re created. It’s an intricate process, lengthier and more complex than one might imagine, but it results in an entirely new set of characters that can evoke just as much emotion as the text that they contain.
Typeface design is a constantly evolving art. In the 1960s, Helvetica, a plain but precise type, took center stage during the modernist movement. In years following, the post-modern movement focused on creative typefaces that acted more as imagery themselves than as a method of written communication. More recently, the radical changes created by the new, digital era have influenced not only typeface design but also the process by which it is produced.
Crafting a Masterpiece
The process of designing a typeface is painstaking, and the typographer or type designer must pay great attention to even the smallest detail in order to achieve near perfection. With the aid of recent technological advancements, the process can start one of several ways. First, the designer can sketch each character on paper and scan them into the computer, or he can choose to design the character digitally using a mouse or tablet. Using a font editor, such as FontLab, the designer can manually add points on or directly outside character edges. These points can then be dragged with the mouse, subtly moving that edge of the character so that the designer can manipulate the glyph until he achieves the desired design. This process is repeated for each character, including letters, numbers, punctuation marks and any other characters the typeface contains.
Next in the process comes the lengthy, but important process of spacing. The typographer is not only responsible for the design of the character but also for the negative space around it. For example, think of the letter “a” enclosed in a small square. For the “a” to fit in the square, the box must be slightly larger than the imperfectly shaped letter, leaving room on either side of the “a.” For the character to look visually appealing next to other characters, the average space on each side of the glyph should be equal. After balancing the space on each sidebar, the typographer must see how each character looks next to any other character. He does this by creating an alphabet string, starting with “aa,” “ab,” “ac” and so on. From these, he can see how the characters look next to one another and adjust the spacing accordingly.
For pairs of characters that don’t seem to look quite polished enough, the typographer can use a technique called kerning. The process of kerning involves adjusting the spacing of a specific combination of letters and telling the computer to substitute this adjusted spacing whenever these characters are next to each other. However, Charles Bigelow, well-known typographer and professor in the School of Print Media, warns about the use of kerning, “if you don’t space the type as well as you can initially — and you try and use kerning to fix all
these odd combinations — it winds up being a mess.
Type in the Digital Era
Technology has certainly played a critical role in the development of typefaces. The concept of the typeface emerged in the 1400s, during the era of the printing press. With a growing literate population, printers realized that the type that they used, which was often based off of traditional script, was too difficult to read. In 1470, Nicolas Jenson, a French printer, began printing his first work in Roman lowercase. This marked a transition from handwriting-styled typefaces to more legible ones. Today, technology has influenced typography significantly by increasing its accessibility. Now, anyone with a computer and a good eye for design can begin exploring the expanding typography industry.
The process of creating a typeface is something Bigelow knows very well. As the co-creator of the collection of Lucida typefaces, Bigelow is a distinguished and well-known typographer. A collaboration with Kris Holmes in 1985, the Lucida family anticipated the coming digital revolution. It was the first typeface designed for the specific purpose of being digitalized. Prior to Bigelow and Holmes, typographers worked to modify existing typefaces such as Times New Roman for the digital era. Bigelow and his partner created their design on
speculation, hoping that it would catch on. Although it took awhile, it eventually did. The Lucida family is a huge success; its typefaces often ship by default with software such as Microsoft Word, and Lucida Grande was chosen as the default typeface for Mac OS X.
In addition, the increasing popularity of computers has allowed typefaces to be shared and distributed via the internet where many typography blogs have arisen, including “Type Union.” Andrew Lakata, a fourth year Graphic Design major, and Garret Vorhees, a graduate
student in the School of Print Media, discovered that most typography blogs limit submissions to a closed group of designers. Hoping to create a more open community, they started “Type Union.” “We wanted to create a system where anyone could submit, hence union,” said Lakata. “Type Union” was created at the beginning of fall quarter and has since picked up in popularity. Lakata says that neither he nor Voorhees has had to submit any designs to keep the site active; they receive several submissions daily.
Sites like “Type Union,” which promote amateur typography, are the direct result of digitalization. Without the digital era, typography would still be a mostly professional industry. This increase in amateur typography correlates to an increase in the “sheer volume of types that have been created,” and what Bigelow believes to be the most significant impact of the digital era.