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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Designing

Designing a Typeface, With Illustrator and FontLab, from Start to Finish - Part 2

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This post is part of a series called Design Essentials.
Designing a Typeface, With Illustrator and FontLab, from Start to Finish - Part 1
Designing a Typeface, With Illustrator and FontLab, from Start to Finish - Part 3

In this installment of Designing a Typeface we will be continuing on with the artwork from Part 1. So you've got the framework for some lovely letters worked out, and have used some of the basic principles of typography to establish a system to design within. Now its time to take these rules and flush out into a full-fledged typeface. Back to work, lets keep having fun!

Step 1

Whether you start with the letter A and go to Z, or create similar letter groups (aceos, lijft, bdghpqy, vwkyxz, mhnur), all the characters need to be created. I prefer to use similar letter shapes to generate new letters. It seems to be a faster and more productive way to work and helps to keep things consistent.

Step 2

Here is an example of creating uppercase letters that are similar in shape and form. Starting with the P, which is created with a vertical line, a circle and a 'cropping' white shape (1), simply create a copy to the right (option + Drag) and mirror the top circle to the bottom, creating a rough base for the letter B (2). Extend the white shape on the left, apply a fill on the bottom circle and a white shape to crop the rest of the remain overlapping circles (3). Draw a horizontal line, from the point where the 2 circles intersect to the spine to create the letter B (4). To create the R, simple delete the bottom circle and reflect the cropping white shape (5). Draw the diagonal line in the appropriate position, creating the letter R (6).

Step 3

Characters with curves can be tricky, consistency is the key. Using the same shapes will simplify the process. Notice how I'm using the same exact shapes to create multiple letters. The g is a reflected p, with a modified descender. The q uses the same shapes, except the descender is reflected and modified. The j and f use the same modified descender from q.

Step 4

Again, notice how simple it is to create new letters from existing letter shapes. You may have or want to make some exceptions, notice how the u is an upside n, with a minor revision.

Step 5

My progress, uppercase.

Step 6

And lowercase.

Step 7

Don't delete characters just because they don't fit the grid or you decide not to use them in the final character set. They can still be included as alternate characters, here are a few leftovers.

Step 8

Next move on to all the extras; numbers, punctuation, international characters, etc... Obviously, again its smart to use lines or shapes from other characters. Here the S becomes an ampersand (&). It is very important to create a full character set, including international characters. This will make the typeface more professional and far more versatile. The worst is when you go to use a typeface and it doesn't have the necessary characters. You can find a fairly standard and comprehensive typeface set here.

Step 9

Periodically, check and see how your typeface looks when used. Create the characters for the word 'hamburgefonstiv', this is a classic way to help you judge your progress and flush out remaining characters. It also helps to check character proportions as well as vertical/horizontal spacing.

Step 10

Now you'll want to make any corrections modifications, substitutions, etc... Depending on your specific typeface you may have to make some characters that need optical corrections. For example, if you put the O and H next to each-other on the guidelines, the O may look slightly smaller (height). Even if they are mathematically perfect, they still may not visually look 'right'. By subtly increasing the height of the O, reaching over the baseline, you can make the characters look correct.

Step 11

At this point you have decided on the weight, or stoke weight, of your typeface (2.5pt in my example) and have applied it consistently across all characters. Thus far only lines (with stokes) and white 'cropping' shapes have been used to create the letters. In-order to get them into FontLab, you cannot have strokes or multiple shapes, each character needs to be one shape. So you will need to convert any line with a stroke to outlines. Select all the appropriate lines and go to Object > Path > Outline Stroke.

Tip: An easy way to select all of the appropriate lines is to simply select one line, using the selection tool (black arrow) and go to Select > Same > Stroke Weight. This will select all of the black lines with the 2.5pt stroke.

Step 12

Use the pathfinder palette to crop or trim any area where you used the white shape to develop the letter-form. In-order to guarantee there are no issues I suggest doing each character individually. For example, the D is constructed by a circle and vertical line and a white shape 'cropping' the left side of the circle (1). Once the strokes are outlined, select the white shape and the circle and while holding the option key, click the Subtract from Shape option in the Pathfinder palette (2). The white shape will disappear, cutting or 'cropping' the let side of circle. Next, select both the vertical line and the remaining part of the circle (hold option) and click Add to shape area option in the pathfinder palette (3).

Step 13

Here are my finalized, outlined, lowercase characters. Each letter is single shape. There are no longer line with a strokes, or white shapes, just single expanded shapes. I have used just the lowercase letters for display purposes, apply this outline/pathfinder process to all characters.

Step 14

Ok, you have the full characters set created, now its time to prep for FontLab. Create a new document in Ai, the document size will depend on the individual typeface, mine is set at 1000pt X 1000 pts. This will be the file you use to export the characters from Ai to FontLab so name it something 'export'. Open the Ai preference (Command + K), under Grids & Guides set the Grid to 10pts and 10 subdivisions. Also check the preferences under File Handling & Clipboard, they need to be set-up as I have below.

Step 15

Set-up the guide system that you established for your typeface. You can use the lines (light blue) you drew initially (select the lines and Control + Click > Make Guides) or use the actual guides in Ai. Be sure to lock the guides (Option + Command + ; ). The scale that you use for this export grid depends entirely on the size/detail/shape of the typeface you are creating. To give you an idea, the numbers I am using are below. Since in this type design there are not ascenders my cap height and ascender figure are the same. For simplicity set the baselines as 0.
Cap Height: 700, x-height: 441, Descender: -269

Step 16

Make sure that you have View > Snap to Grid (Shift + Command + ") on. And finally position all your characters so that the are consistent with the guidelines. If possible try to scale all the characters at the same time, it will keep things consistent and will take far less time.


Congratulations, the design of your typeface is complete, in Step 3 we will learn how to take the letterforms into FontLab and turn them into a working font. Again, this may not be the 'expert' way to go about designing a typeface, but its a good way if you don't like drawing directly in FontLab. The final image is below

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