Daniel Nisbet

Episode 10  |  February 6, 2018

What I’ve learned about typography while designing type

When I set out to learn how to design my own typeface, I unexpectedly began learning a lot more about how to use type better in my design work. I also gained some massive appreciation for the masters of the craft—and why its important to pay for a font.

A few years ago, I made the commitment to learn how to design a typeface. It's something that I wanted to do for many years. Quite frankly, it was more than a bucket list item.

But the moment I decided to sit down and actually create my typeface, I started to realize that there was a lot that went into it. There was a lot of things that I had to absorb, learn, and understand to make an effective font.

On this episode I wanted to talk a little bit not about the typeface design process, but what I learned about typography while designing my own type.

Leading up to this, I never got a formal education on typography. I had a basic class for a semester that more or less went over very basic fonts. I think we even use DaFont for a class project which, looking back, makes me shudder a little bit.

The problem with the class, was I never learned any concrete things that that stuck with me. To be fair, I'm not even sure my teacher knew a lot about it.

But as I started getting into type on my own, I began absorbing new material and exposing myself to new things. I owe a lot of it to the movie Helvetica—which, if you haven't seen it, it's completely worth your time. I would be too embarrassed to tell you how many times I've watched it at this point in my life.

I started to gain a new appreciation and respect for what went into it. I began looking at my own work and realizing that there was room for improvement. So as I started diving into my own work and began learning about what I needed to do.

I started to realize that there was a right and a wrong way to do things like pair typefaces. I learned how fonts can coexist with each other or why you shouldn't pair two fonts that are similar to each other.

I realized that I had been doing this a lot without even thinking about it. It was what bothered me when I looked back on my work, wondering why it didn't look right but couldn't tell why.

One of the other things I started to pick up on, while I poked fun at terrible font websites, was what made a typeface good or bad.

For many years, I poked fun at fonts like Comic Sans because (let's be honest) its fashionable to hate on it. But there actually had to be a reason why. For me, its the kerning.

That got me taking a closer look at some other fonts. Why does Helvetica look better to me than Arial? Why am I completely over Times New Roman, but I will gravitate towards the Bodoni or a Didone-style font?

I was paying closer attention to the finer details and nuances that I typically passed over. I was giving expensive typefaces a second look instead of turning my nose up at and being put off by it.

I started to learn there's a reason why these typefaces have stood the test of time. And this is the biggest thing for me is, going through this process.

I've learned how much work it takes to actually build a type face. It isn't something that can be done overnight or in a week. It actually takes time to craft these things.

It takes a lot of work to go through and make sure you have a set of characters that not only look good but they look good next to each other in every combination you can imagine.

Kerning is something that everyone goes straight to but this is even considering things like wine. How you are repeating elements? How you are not repeating elements? What if it has multiple weights styles? How is the DNA of the font being carried through those different styles? Does the light face look like it relates to the bold one? How does it still feel like it's part of the same family?

When I started paying attention to the details, I started to appreciate the time, effort attention and work typeface designers put into their craft.

I hope that you'll take some time to look through your font collection and see what kind of typefaces you have. You might find some of these same appreciations after taking a closer look at the details.