Posted in Theory, Typeface

Bespoke Process by Phil Garnham


Letters. These alphabetical shapes, these strokes, swoops and flashy little tickles that get us excited have been evolving in ever increasing minutiae for centuries. Much like other forms of design, say furniture design or fashion, type design is similarly circular in its approach. The end result never changes, the letter shape is never wholly re-born but re-invented into fresh expressions and voice. The desire for the ‘new’ continues. Type energises and it fuels my desire to pursue what could be considered an unobtainable goal, the newer letter shape or the better typeface design.

Over the past 10 or so years at Fontsmith, we have been quietly drawing and thinking about these letters, we’ve been thinking about how they fit into a specific picture. How can we create the tone of a letter-shape to fit into the context of a graphic designers brief. Legibility is fundamental, it is the omnipresent requirement, but the tone and texture of the letter shape is ever changing. As a species of brand aware individuals, we have become alphabet savvy. No matter how small, organisations want to communicate in a distinguished and personal manner, tailoring their words carefully to help them speak with a voice that is fitting to their offering. They also want to have ownership and control over their graphic assets and a font is a very powerful asset indeed. When used effectively a font can be the glue that binds all of the other graphic elements together.

The type industry has never felt more fertile than it does today and in this climate, interest in type design has piqued at feverish levels. So to continue Fontsmith’s superb relationship with the good folk here at TypeToken, Mike Sullivan (aka design tweeter @studiomr) has asked me to write a few words about the Fontsmith bespoke type design process. Obviously every type design project is different. There is no set formula or right way to design a bespoke typeface. Here I have attempted to break things down, to simplify and pigeon hole the process in order to give a little insight into how a bespoke type project may play out at Fontsmith.

Stage 1 – The Brief – context, words, colours and type mood-boards…

When we are approached by an agency, designer or client, we have a quick conversation in order to define the fundamental parameters of the brief. A conversation that revolves quite simply around the question – “How and where are these fonts going to be used?”. We can then wade into the exciting bit, the creative undertones of the proposed type. Typical questions are: “What are the values of this font?”, “How does it want to speak?”, “Is it direct, at a distanced or is it understated and approachable?”, “What other design elements are going to sit with it?”, “What is the photographic style”, “What colours are being considered?” etc…

Listen and understand your brief. Make notes, think, doodle and see where those doodles take you. Designing type isn’t rocket science but it does require a huge amount of skill and understanding that can only be gained through years of experience. It requires a fine eye for detail and craft, a visual sensibility for type styles and formal relationships within letter shapes. It requires an understanding of what has gone before and how that can help you to explore new creative possibilities.

Sometimes we create typographic mood-boards like the one above. Mood-boards allow you to gather a range of stylistic influences to pitch your own ideas into. They can help a client to define a typographic area that they feel comfortable with, a style that tonally resonates with them.

Sometimes mood-boards are very focused. For the UEFA Champions league typeface we felt that we had a good idea about where things should go. We gathered a mixed bag of typographic influences – a blend of sturdy sans types and classical forms implying a heritage and weightiness that felt right for the brand. (See above)

Stage 2 – Initial Ideas – sketchbooks, blackboards & beziers…

We begin to draw, craft and experiment with letters in our sketchbooks and on-screen…

The freeness of the sketchbook, can really aid the discovery for new ideas. More often than not, the confines of the computer and mouse can act as a straight jacket. We like to mix the process up, sometimes all sketch book, sometimes all on-screen, sometimes both in varying amounts.

Stage 3 – Developing and exploring a theme…

Our initial client presentation will include mood-boards, sketches and vector based ideas. This variety of ideas helps to define what aspects of the brief are important to the client and in-turn form a clearer direction for the project. Wh we have clarity, the next phase involves digging deeper. We begin to look at introducing subtle features into the letters and evolving alternative characters for the concept in order to work out which letterforms best suit the design in both it’s uniqueness and functionality. We use a standard font test word – ‘hamburgefontsiv’ to get a good overall picture for all shapes and the DNA within the alphabet. We also often accompany this test word with project specific words, sometimes juxtaposed with project colours and photography.

Here are three ideas that explore the realm of the Slab Serif. The top option is rounded, the middle is squarer and the bottom has more contrast and a slightly condensed proportion.

We also just play with individual characters to find the right energy. This collection shows a selection of experiments from our work on the Channel 4 typeface.

Stage 4 – Fontlab Refinenents – glyphs, spacing, kerning and coding…

We then push on and create a “Beta” test font for design agencies to start dropping into their design work.

We begin by crafting a more comprehensive character set within Fontlab. We refine the relationships between letters and we letter space each glyph to achieve a harmonious balance and grey tonal colour in text.

We then move onto kerning. The above image show kerning pairs for the Sheffield City typeface.

Engineering the functionality of the new typeface.

We print out large versions of characters and stick them to the studio walls to check over the curves.

We explore the possibility of complimentary weights and styles. For instance we can develop a re-weighted and simplified text font from a headline font like the tests above. Bespoke typeface design creates a very strong and unique synergy throughout a brand. It communicates through a plethora of varying situations and mediums, using different words to subtly convey a consistent tone. Branded type is a subtle and powerful device.

Stage 5 – Project launch…

The big launch and inevitable blog critique… always an exciting yet nervy time for all concerned ;) Here are a few of the bespoke projects that I have been involved in over the past few years…

The team – See above.
From Left to Right – Jason Smith, Me (Phil Garnham) , Emanuella Conidi, Helen Buckhurst and Fernando Mello.


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