How to Create a Font

With Wayne Thompson, type designer at the Australian Type Foundry

All photos courtesy of Wayne Thompson @wayneatf



All you really need is pencil and paper, frankly. Everyone has different methods but, in my opinion, it’s the idea that counts more than the execution – a good idea poorly executed is better than a bad idea well-executed. So, you might have a killer idea for a brush-pen font, and you can buy the best brushpens in the world but until you master the tool your font won’t be very good. Mastering the tool is simply a matter of practice, practice, practice – you develop a feel for letters shapes, mood and flow only through practice.

Having said that, some tools are better than others: I, personally, find the Tombow brushpens fantastic and quite long-lasting. The Daiso brushpens are cheap and quite good too. I also like the smaller-tipped Zebra brushpens ( for finer work. I would avoid Copics – the brush nibs on the Copic Sketch markers seem to bend in a weird manner, which makes decent tip contact with the paper difficult.



Accepted wisdom in the type design community is to start with lowercase ‘n’ and ‘o’. The reason is because these two letters contain much of the DNA which applies to most of the lowercase alphabet – straight strokes, round strokes and how they interact. For instance, ‘n’ gives you ‘h’ while the interaction of the straight and round strokes in ‘n’ immediately gives you ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’ and ‘q’. So you work outwards until you have the whole alphabet.

However, this method applies much more strongly to text typography (such as a sans serif typeface) than it does to brush-lettered fonts. In the case of brush typography, I would still start with ‘n’ and ‘o’ but simply draw the alphabet over and over again, cherry-picking the best examples of each letter. The bigger you can do your original artwork the better.



I always scan at a high-ish resolution, 300dpi or perhaps even 600dpi, depending on the physical size of my original letters.



Never use Auto Trace or Image Trace, it is not a shortcut to reducing the painstaking work of drawing letters. All it does is create a rough approximation and thousands of nodes which take longer to download and display. The only answer is to draw it yourself, manually, controlling each and every point. For me this is one of the most appealing parts of the process.

I use Adobe Illustrator, drawing the letters manually using the Pen tool.



Many people ask me if there is a quick way to import all the letter shapes at once, but sorry to say the answer is no. You have to copy and paste each shape, one by one, into its corresponding letter slot in the software. There is simply no other way.

There are several programs which you can use to turn vector outlines into a font. Glyphs is a good one, it has a sensible user interface and is good for entry-level users. I use FontLab because at the time I started it was the only sensible option, but it has the tools to produce fonts of the highest professional standards. There is also a highly-regarded program called RoboFont which is more aimed at the seriously professional end of the font-making community.



I always check my fonts in the context of real words (rather than alphabet samples) as soon as possible. We read real words, so it makes sense to test your font in a proper context, and it’s surprising how different it can look. You’re looking for rhythm, evenness of colour and consistency of stroke thickness, as well as a general sense of whether the font portrays the mood you are hoping [for].



After that, it’s time to set your spacing. I would recommend the Walter Tracy spacing method to anyone wishing to create fonts. This method involves measuring the sidebearings of your letters, then applying the same measurements to letters with similar side-shapes and making visual adjustments based on judgement. Spacing is a highly important skill in the creation of a successful font – much more so than most beginners would recognise.



I always generate OpenType font files (.otf), or WebFonts (.woff) if the fonts are destined for online use.


Wayne Profile picInstant Coffee



Counter: The open space within an enclosed letter (such as the hole in the middle of an ‘o’). Counters are critical to letter recognition and therefore legibility and show that the negative space of a letter is almost more important than the positive space.

Spacing: The sidebearings of a letter, i.e. the space between the edge of a letter’s outline and the edge of the space it naturally occupies.

Kerning: the space between particular combinations (pairs) of letters.


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