Thoughts on Type Design

Dr Peter Gilderdale
Peter has twin research practices, one visual and one historical. He has degrees across several areas of history, and teaches across the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, focusing particularly on design history, theory and practice as well as calligraphy.

If someone tells you airily that they design type, you should probably probe further to find out what they actually mean. The word ‘type’ has megalomaniac tendencies, and will, given half a chance, act as a catch-all term that erases all difference. While many typographers would happily call my work ‘type’, as a calligrapher who designs letterforms, I would never describe it that way. To me there is a very clear difference between making alphabets and what a type designer does.

The key distinction relates to context. When I design calligraphic alphabets, they are only ever a guideline which I then adapt to the specific context of a one-off final piece. Each time I work with an alphabet, I recreate it and change it. The same applies to someone who does hand-lettering – something which is distinct from calligraphy but which shares some of its features. A calligrapher creates work that has a necessary relationship with the tool in hand. A letterer draws letterforms, and the tool is not all-defining for the end outcome. However, like a calligrapher, the option remains for letterers to improvise, alter and adapt the structure of the letterforms to the specific work they are creating.

Type design is different. And (done well) much more difficult. The type-designer does not have the luxury of adapting, because for the most part they are not going to be the person creating the final work. What they are creating is a pattern which others will apply. And because it has to be reproduced automatically, the most arduous element for the type-designer is not designing the letterforms themselves, but is making the letterforms fit together evenly in any given combination. As a calligrapher I make these adjustments to the spacing by eye, but unless the type-designer is happy to force hapless designers into doing bespoke kerning each time they use the font, a good typeface has to have resolved these spacing issues so the task of composing and reading the face is straightforward: requiring as little hand adjustment as possible. This sounds simple, but it is not.

Before delving a little more into what a type-designer does, however, it is worth noting some other key terminological points of confusion. There is, for example, a difference between users and creators of letterforms. For me, a calligrapher is a person who writes letterforms, a letterer draws letterforms, and a typographer uses typographic letterforms. However none of these roles necessarily involves creating the letterforms themselves. There is an established distinction between typographer (the user) and type-designer (the creator) of typefaces. Terminology is less clear for what I do, which is create new calligraphic alphabets, but the distinction between designing an alphabet and a typeface is crucial. I only need to develop the pattern for the lower and uppercase letterforms. If I need an apostrophe, a question mark or (Heaven forbid) a calligraphic hashtag, I make it up on the spot. I don’t have to create all those extra characters up front. A proper type-designer, however, has to develop a full set of most of the possible extra characters (not to mention all those extra letters that occur in other languages) in order to make the font workable for users from any country that uses the script type that they are designing (be it Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic etc.) For the most part, one does not expect to see these extra characters fully developed in a student typeface, but to be fully functional in a commercial context, this extra work has to be done for a typeface to be useable.

I say typeface – you probably say ‘font’. Historically a typeface is the overall design, the font is the way that typeface looks at a specific size. In the days of metal type, type designers altered a typeface to work optimally at each given size, rather than simply scaling it up or down, as we do now. So the word font used to relate to the version of the typeface at a particular point size. However now the typeface looks the same at all different sizes, so the distinction between font and typeface is redundant. So if you want to call it a font, that’s fine, but I’ll call it a typeface.

It should now be clear why there is a need for precision – and a fair bit of historical knowledge – when discussing different modes of engagement with the alphabet and type, in order to ensure that the distinctions between different activities are clear. Nevertheless there are many things that are shared by anyone who takes a deep breath and attempts to create a new constellation of the 26 letters that make up our Latin alphabet. What they create has to distinguish itself in some way from every other typeface or alphabet that has gone before, and each alphabet has to have some kind of internal logic. The most useful analogy one can give here is that of speaking. When we speak we use a language, we have an accent, and we have a unique tone and way of talking. If we apply this to typography we can say that the Script is the equivalent of the language. A Latin Script is a different language to a Cyrillic one, for example. However within a script, there are distinct classes of alphabet which act like regional accents. The most obvious example is that there are many different versions of Gothic script, but they all share a very distinct quality that allows you to recognise them as Gothic, and not Roman, just as an American accent is clearly distinguishable from a New Zealand one. However accents have regional variations, and we can readily tell the difference between, for example, Roman alphabets that derive from an historical letterform like Garamond and those that derive from Bodoni. Many typefaces use these particular designers’ work as starting points, and this imbues each with a kind of regional quality that locates it around a particular hub. But even among faces that all stem from Bodoni, each has unique identifiers which make it recognisable and distinct from the others – the sort of qualities that allow you to easily tell which of your school friends is ringing you by the time they have said a sentence on the phone. Combinations of subtle factors like the slant of a serif, or the ratio of figure to ground come together to give each face its distinctive features.

The crucial problem one encounters when trying to make a consistent alphabet design is that intrinsically, several of the letters hate one another. The Z hates more or less every other letter, and has to be cajoled to cooperate with the rest, whilst the W and X cordially dislike the circular forms. It is rather like family dynamics, and in fact alphabet designers talk about creating families of letterforms. The circle-based letters like B, C, D, G, P and Q need a different treatment to the letters that have dominant verticals and horizontals like F, H, I, J, L and T. The job of the designer is to figure out which family grouping a letter has to belong to. Some are always going to be in different groups, but some are fluid. A lower case Y, for example, can be based in the circle branch of the clan (linked to the U) or the diagonal branch (linked to the V). The designer gets to play therapist and decide which grouping will create the greatest harmony.

There is of course much more to designing type than I can possibly discuss here, however I hope that this brief meditation on the activity and its terminology gives some sense of the complexity involved in creating letterforms and typefaces. This is what each of the people in this section have chosen to do, each with quite distinct results. What remains constantly surprising to me is how rich and varied the combination of just a few elements can be. Like music, where a small number of notes can be used to write an almost infinite number of melodies, there seems to be limitless scope for new typefaces, once one begins to look at the opportunities for variation provided by the elements within letterforms themselves. Although one might think that an ‘A’ shape is pretty prescribed, and there is not much one can do to modify it, the angles of the diagonals, the placement of the crossbar, the way the diagonals meet, the way one designs the terminals of the strokes, and the relative weights of the different elements mean that there is huge potential for variation. It does take a particular mind-set to want to do battle with letterforms, and to produce something new and vibrant from within the limitations of those 26 elements, but that is what all those reproduced here have managed to do.