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What is lettering? Discovering the designing of hand-drawn fonts.
TYPOGRAPHY AND CALLIGRAPHY. Siblings but not twins.
LOOK AFTER THE FAMILY. Family is the most important.
Neither with you nor without you the importance of tracking and kerning.
PLAN THE ATTACK. The dreaded blank paper.
THINK NEGATIVELY. Drawing with the blanks.
GIVE IT THE FINISHING TOUCH. Know your resources.
SKETCH ME AGAIN. The importance of sketching.
BE CAREFUL WITH THE CURVE. Train your typographical eye.
AND NOW TO THE SCREEN. Digitalizing our drawn fonts.
Introduction. Hello, friends of the fonts, I'm Fidel Lopez and if you are reading this is because you want to fully immerse yourself in the fascinating world of the hand-drawn fonts design. You will find 10 keys in this guide that will help you get started in lettering and to lose fear of font designing. What you will find here is not intended to be the typical text book, but more of a guide with a pleasant language and far from piles of typographical technical terms that tend to dispel everyone who wants to start in this field.
+ About me. My name is Fidel Lopez and I have a degree on Technical Engineering in Industrial Design in the Cardenal Herrera University (CEU), of Valencia, where I later took the official Master in Design Engineering. As a typography, calligraphy and lettering enthusiast, I founded Lettering Time, in 2010, a blog dedicated for these fields and which nowadays is the largest community about fonts of the Spanish language. I currently work and collaborate with clients, advertising agencies and design studies from around the world on calligraphy, lettering and typography projects for any purpose and implementation of my research Lettering Shop. My work has been rewarded with a number or awards and prizes, both, nationally and internationally and my projects have been displayed in halls and museums around the world. You can contact me by this email or by my Facebook profiles, or Twitter.
What is lettering? Discovering the designing of hand-drawn fonts. We cannot not begin with the keys that will make our lettering look good and work correctly without posing the question, What is lettering? This can seem really basic, but trust me that during my years in charge of the Lettering Time blog and after years dedicating my profession to the font world, I have seen that even though it is a term used with some easiness, its real meaning is not entirely clear.
If we had to translate the term "Lettering" into Spanish, it would be something like this "letras dibujadas a mano", which is why Lettering can be comprehended, in a clear and brief way, as those font works that have been drawn. Normally, the outline of the font is built with one or several forms which combined will form the entire character, and said outlines are then filled.
It is worth saying that in lettering "only" the characters of the concerned word or phrase are designed and these have to "only" work in that design and order of appearance. It is due to this feature that we can let our imagination run free in lettering design when it comes to ligatures, Swashes and all of the resources we will see in the "Give it the finishing touch" section.
TYPOGRAPHY AND CALLIGRAPHY. Siblings but not twins. Lettering has two good siblings with which it gets along very well and has an excellent relationship, they are typography and calligraphy. Though they are good siblings, they are not identical twins, which is why, as all siblings; they are similar but not the same. Even though these terms are considered, most of the time, known, the truth is that the difference between these three disciplines is not always known, not even by the very own professionals from different graphic arts, and, as you can imagine, much less by people in general who are not connected to this world. This time, I do not intend to offer a technical definition filled with technical words, which would be difficult to read, but a clear and concise definition of these terms.
Calligraphy. They are all those works which have been written with any type of calligraphic tool, whether pens, felt tip pens, paint brushes.
Not all calligraphic work has to depend on a historical time or region as we would be talking there about the definition of "calligraphic style", and therefore a calligraphic work can show our handwriting or more gestural strokes.
Silvia Cordero Vega.
It is important to highlight that in calligraphy every stroke and every element are made out of one single natural gesture, directly and impossible to modify, whilst in lettering we can erase, retouch and modify as many times as we consider necessary.
Calligraphy is more random and captures the freedom of movement from the author whilst lettering is a more rational method where you have all the time you want and therefore you can decide the exact form of a curve or a letter.
Typography. Even though the term "typography" is normally used, we should actually define the concept of "digital typography" or "typographical font" which is the improper use given nowadays to the word typography, as the typography term comes from the printing technique where forms in relief which have the characters are inked and pressed on paper to achieve printing.
Digital typography, as it is known nowadays, could be defined as a group of complete characters, numbers and signs (though, unfortunately many of the digital typographies we find are incomplete) which are designed and programmed through a software of typographical edition to be used in our computers.
“Showcase Script” Typography from Latinotype shown in the Fontlab software.
At this point you might think that the differences between lettering, calligraphy and typography is clear and that there is not much reason to confuse these concepts, but, actually there are factors that can lead to error: - As I mentioned earlier, it is difficult to find a person who is not related to the typographical design or graphic design in general that knows what typography is as to pretend understanding the difference between the three terms. - Since they are not incompatible terms and as we said at the beginning of this section, lettering, calligraphy and typography are familiar concepts that often complement each other. As an example, during the process of designing a font, sometimes, the three methods can take place, first we begin making strokes through calligraphy as with this one we get more natural and creative results, then we draw (lettering) to refine strokes, auctions, unions, etc., and then we digitize it, turning these drawings into a digital typography ready to be used.
- The explosion that the usage of Opentype program has suffered. Though this program has been used for some years now, this last years we have seen how its usage has increased in different applications, being the one of typographical font design one of them. Opentype allows, among other things, that a typographical font to be modified by the user as this one sees fit, sometimes achieving results that are very similar to those achieved by a lettering on request.
Different Opentype options for the lower case "g” in "Love Script" typography by Positype.
Different Opentype options in "Julieta" typography by Latinotype.
Opentype options in "Risotto Script" typography by Felipe Claderon.
LOOK AFTER THE FAMILY. Family is the most important. It is obvious that within your family nucleus you are not all identical, you are not clones of each other, and each of you have your particular features that tell you apart from each other, but it is very like that you have heard many time phrases such as "you have your mother's nose" or when grandma says whilst watching the new born baby "it has his father's mouth", right? Well, the same happens with lettering design, each of the letters that form that lettering are not clones of the others, because if they were, they would not be different letters but the same one repeated, over and over again. However, they do keep common aspects among them which allows us to recognize them as part of the same group, of the same imaginary typographical family. Some of these common features are: - The weight. - The axis or modulation. - The width. - The height of X. - The contrast between slim and thick strokes. - The retouches or serifs. It is said that rules are to be broken, but before breaking these rules we have to know them well to later risk and form a more "freestyle" lettering. Should we follow the rules? Let's go!
When we talk about weight in the design of letters we talk about the thickness of their strokes and therefore the color of the print. Depending on the width of their strokes the letter will have a color spot or another one, for example, in the designing of fonts these weights can range from an ultralight or light version to a bold, black or UltraBlack weight.
The XS and the XXL. As in the fashion world in the design of letters there are times we face the design of XS (ultralight) or XXL (black) letters in these cases, as in all extreme cases of life, we have to take special measures. The XS are extremely slim letters, letters that would walk on the most prestigious runways of couture. In these letters, the structure is in plain sight, in the style of the very own Tim Burton, as a matter of fact, this structure is in many cases the only thing forming it.
"Showcase" typography of Latinotype.
When we design XS fonts, we can have two very contradicting sensations, on one hand, we can have the impression that everything we do is fine; as we cannot worry about the thickness forming well designed counter shapes. On the other hand, there is the feeling that everything we do is wrong, this is due to, as we previously said, the structure of the letter is in plain sight and any designing error can be noticed instantly. In order to avoid these two situations we have to pay special attention to the design of this type of letters. This type of letters are usually designed when we try to copy handwritten styles where we have to pay attention to the linking of the letters to one another and respect the readability of the lettering. In the completely opposite case, we find the situation of having to design the XXL letters, these heavy weight letters, or well, as my grandma would say "they are not fat, they have thick bones." In these black letters we set off from the same structure of the XS and we will continue adding thickness to the shapes, and in this process we irretrievably find the problem of designing the counter shapes.
“Tobogan” and “Mona” typographies of Rodrigo Type.
As we continue the structure will be lost and the design of the counter shapes will be the one giving the final touch of these XXL letters, and this is why, personalizing and wanting to create eccentricities is a bit more complicated with this type of letters. An exercise that many font designers do when drawing this type of letters, is to invert the colors, meaning, making the counter shapes black and the shapes white. This exercise helps our eye perceive the volumes in a special way, try it out, it'd be fun.
AXIS OR MODULATION. When we talk about modulation in the design of fonts we are talking about the imaginary axis of a character, which is imposed by the position of the slim and thick strokes,
We can find two types of axis, the vertical one and the oblique one. The vertical one is the one placed at 90 degrees from the base line and it is usually used with two types of modern style fonts. On the other hand, the oblique axis is
that one with an inclined axis and it is usually used with styles more similar to handwriting. When drawing handwritten letters we will have to understand that all the characters that are part of our lettering belong to a same modulation.
THE WIDTH As in the design of fonts, the width of the characters is an aspect to keep in mind in lettering, as all the characters we draw will have to have a certain width. Now, the creation of condensed letters, of "normal" width or extended, depends on you and on what the design in question demands.
THE HEIGHT OF X This is one of the aspects that personally obsesses me the most when beginning a new lettering. The height of X, also known as middle point or nucleus of the character, is the height of the lower case (small letter) from the base line to the highest point of the letter, not counting ascendants. The X letter is picked as reference as, in most of the cases, its both inferior supports clearly mark the base line and the superior ones gives us its exact height.
Not to mistake the height of X with the body of the letter, as this last one does include ascendants and descendants.
The "height of X" affects the readability of our lettering directly, as big heights of X are usually more readable letters, especially in small bodies.
THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THIN AND THICK STROKES. Another aspect to keep in mind is the connection we will leave among the thick and thin strokes of our lettering. This feature is so strong that often fonts designed throughout history are classified under this aspect, and with good reason, as other features depend on its placement and inequality, which we have already seen, as modulation or the weight of the letter.
The Garamond font is on the left as an example of Renaissance design in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with a contrast between thick and thin strokes and moderate oblique modulation. In the center and as a font example of the Romantic period, we have Didot, which has a great contrast between strokes and a vertical axis. Helvetica is shown on the right, with homogeneous strokes, belonging to the Grotesque type of fonts which arose in the late nineteenth century. If we choose to design a font with high contrast between thick and thin strokes consequently we obtain a more dynamic lettering, which gets more attention from the viewer.
“Love Script” typography by Positype.
If on the contrary, we choose a font with little or no contrast between strokes we will have a more homogeneous and uniform composition, but also more monotonous as result.
“Shelby” typography by Laura Worthington.
“Flirt Script” typography by Positype.
THE RETOUCHES OR SERIFS The serifs, also known as "gracias", retouches or finishing touch, are strokes almost always located at the edge of the characters and that have a great influence in the final aspect of the letter, due to the presence or absent thereof. The form of the retouches is so decisive when establishing the style of a letter that already in 1921 the French typographer François Thibaudeau performed the typographic classification under this criterion. Edward Catich stated in his book "The Origin of the Serif", 1968, that the emergence of serifs goes back to the process of stone engraving in Roman times, when the letters were outlined before being set with chisel in stone and these marks were placed as alignment guides. When the person in charge of chiseling the letters arrived, they unconsciously chisel this guide lines, creating what we know today as serifs in this way. Whether this is or not the appearance of the retouches, it is sure that in the drawing of our lettering we will need to keep in mind the possible presence of these elements, and in case it is part of the design, they all must keep the common aspect that, unconsciously, will make us classify each of the character within the same hypothetical typeface.
NEITHER WITH YOU NOR WITHOUT YOU. The importance of tracking and kerning. We will see in this section an often underestimated feature when designing a lettering and which is vitally important, the character pitch. Making a good character pitch among the characters of our lettering is as important as their very own shape designs, as a bad
character pitch would have a direct effect over the readability of the group. Some characters with a Excessively reduced character pitch will make its reading difficult as our eye will not easily determine where a character ends and the other one begins, likewise, an excessive character pitch will also have a negative effect over the readability, making it difficult to link a character to another even forming new words in our reading.
When talking about the character pitch among our letter we have to talk about two Anglicisms which you must have probably heard at some point in the design of fonts or you have seen them in our favorite design software, such as tracking and kerning, but what are these terms exactly? Tracking, which could be translated into Spanish as "prosa", is the letter-spacing added systematically between two characters depending on its aesthetics and aiming for a good readability.
There are certain characters in our Latin/Spanish alphabet that create certain optical problems when combined with other ones which cannot be solved with general tracking, and this is when kerning comes in In spite of having tried to translate "kerning" into Spanish in several occasions, there is no translation that would entirely fit, as kerning is the value applied between two pair of characters to optically compensate their different shapes and so it does not look like they are closer or further from the other ones.
Kerning of the typography "LAMaña" designed by Fidel Lopez.
There is no a math formula to tell us which is the perfect letter-spacing for a group of characters, this will depend on how trained each one has their typographic eye. There are designers who are more comfortable with tighter compositions and there are others who prefer the spacing between characters to "breathe" a bit more. In 1986, font designer and director of the department of design of the typographic font Linotype, Walter Tracy, decided to settle the basis for a correct letter-spacing in a chapter of his book Letters of credit, a view of type design. In this chapter, Walter tells about the system that Linotype had used for more than 30 years to adjust the tracking of the new fonts out in the market. Though this method is a good start, it is always advised to review that it works correctly.
We adjust the tracking and kerning in the design of fonts through number values, both, positive and negative, which we add to our font creation and edition software, but in the hand-drawing of letter we must add these aspects to our design through a the sketching.
PLAN THE ATTACK. The dreaded blank paper. Doubtlessly, the allied forces of World War II were not part of the Normandy landings just like that, without planning it, right? Then, we shouldn't face the hard blank paper without planning the attack. Before starting with the design of our lettering, we must keep in mind certain standard patterns:
Before sketching. - If the lettering is a request from a client. In this case, we must have a good briefing before starting our design, where certain criteria are determined, such as, what the company does, the type of products, market, competitors, target audience, what they want to transmit with this design. - If it is a personal work or self-request. We must keep in mind that though the lettering we are going to make does not have a real client or we are the very client, it is still advisable to imagine a hypothetical briefing, as this will help us clear some ideas before starting sketching, improving our abilities with the different lettering stylers and getting more professional works.
When sketching. At this point, we already have the style we will give to our lettering clear, the target audience and all the aspects we have seen in previous paragraphs, thus, now it is time to work and start sketching. Whilst making a sketch after sketch, we will apply all of the guidelines from this book, but here are some little advises that will turn out very helpful in the sketching process: - Depending on where our lettering will be used, we can try out more linear, square, round styles, among others. This will result in more creative and customized designs.
- Adding different sizes to the elements that form the lettering will make our designs more dynamic and will help keep certain hierarchy in the reading.
- You don't have to always repeat the entire design. You can focus on repeating, for example, only one letter or some retouching or shape whose result does not please you.
With this exercise we will get more practice when sketching and we will be able to quickly view different options to choose from. - Show the lettering to other people. Sometimes we are so into sketching, (curving this, retouching that, this is thicker, this goes more separated...) that we have no global vision of it and we could easily apply that old saying "Do not let the tree prevent you from seeing the forest." Find a partner, friend, family member to whom show it, even if that person does not know about this subject, they can offer you brilliant advice, I, for instance, ask my partner most of the times without explaining anything about the lettering I'm designing, I ask "What do you read here?". This helps me see if the lettering I am designing fulfills the minimum of readability, or which parts of it cannot be correctly read.
THINK NEGATIVELY. Drawing with the blanks. Easy, I do not want you to become a pessimist. In this chapter, we will talk about the importance of the negative side in font design. The negative side is a concept used in many artistic disciplines, such as photography, painting, architecture or graphic design. In the Gestalt psychology, from the early XX century in Germany, this concept was discussed within its "Principle of background and shape", confirming that the human brain cannot see an object as figure and background at the same time. which is why the image will be one thing or another depending on the perception each person has of the object.
We surely remember all of this famous examples where the relation between shape and background is clearly understood, because if we see the white stain we will see two faces in front of each other’s, but if we look closer to the black stain we will discover a cup in an almost magical way. If we move these concepts to font designing we will find that it is fundamental to keep in mind the negative aspect when creating letters, as this one will always be the combination between the shape of the letter and the background it appears on, or said differently, between the shape and its counter shape. There are designers who consider the negative side even more important than the positive one. This is the case of Massimo Vignelli where, in the Helvetica Documentary firmly says: "We believe typography is black and white. Typography is actually white, it is not even black. It is the space between blacks what forms the truth". This is a very decisive statement, but it is certain that the negative side is, at least, as important as the positive one when designing fonts, as all letter have a set counter shape. The shape and the counter shape are values completely reciprocal which is why we cannot conceive one without thinking of the other.
When making a lettering we find whether the font type has an excessively thin stroke, its counter shape are too wide and open, even becoming difficult to find.
New Dennis Script Typography by Fidel López.
If, on the contrary, the type of font has a thick stroke, this one will offer some more reduced counter shapes which will provide the feeling of being drawing with full strokes.
Typographies of Rodrigo Type.
Typographies of Rodrigo Type.
When some letters are combined with others and get new "neighbors", this create in a irremediable way new counter shapes among them. This is an aspect to think of as in this new case, the letters interact with each other keeping a conversation. Blank spaces will come up from this dialogue between the letters which will determine the final aspect of our lettering. If the space among the letters is little, the counter shapes in it will stand out, as if though the space between the letters is big the individual counter shape of each shape will be more emphasized.
Mina Chic Typography by Resistenza.
GIVE IT THE FINISHING TOUCH. Know your resources. Given that the characters we design in a lettering are completely created for the occasion and one of its characteristics is that in lettering said characters "only" have the obligation of working in the order we set for them and with the nature that precedes them and follows them, we can take the liberty of venturing into altering our design with the purpose of getting an even more unique and customized result. We can achieve this by incorporating a "gag" or typographical flair in our lettering, but always taking into account if this one is significant or not to our design. Some of the resources we can use to give a step further in our designs are:
- Introducing ligatures. The ligatures are the union between two or more characters which normally work separately.
This is one of the most interesting resources when smartening up a text as with a simple touch the aspect of our design can be changed, in a great way.
- Adding Swashes.
This resource, which is normally translated into Spanish as florituras, consists of adding ornamental details to our characters. Some of the most common word painting.
- Surpassing the height of X. This happens when one of the characters that are part of our lettering goes over the height of x standing out from the rest.
- Overflowing the base line. Sometimes our letterings are very linear and monotonous which is why we must search a way to break that uniformity. A good way to keep going is getting one of the characters to surpass the base line of our design achieving like this a more dynamic and entertaining solution at sight. The "R", the "K", the "M" or "N"are some of the letters that, because of their structures, can easily be
modified, but with a bit more of work we can find the correct way to alter any character so it surpasses the base line.
- Word ending options. This resource is one of the most used as we can close our lettering with it. For it, we modify the last character of our word or phrase getting the lettering to look more personal and unique.
- Exaggerating shapes: This modification can give some good results, but it has to be made with lots of tact as the line between what looks visually well and what is excessive is really thin, but relax, we can always go back. This transformation consists on altering the logical proportion of one of several shapes of our lettering.
We can elongate an ascending or descending one, stretching a horizontal side, magnify a serif, etc.
SKETCH ME AGAIN. The importance of sketching. We live in a technological world nowadays, where we carry the computers in our pockets and where the design-related professions cannot function without certain informatics tools. I feel embarrassed when a I see said designers posting typographies, logos or any type of graphic element that have not met a pencil, which have not been created from a manual creative process and that have not seen a human hand during their first steps. It is also hurtful when I hear that just by mastering an informatics program one is already a great designer, and nothing further from reality, knowing how to use all the options of Photoshop does not make you a designer. Software tools are that, tools that help us present or prepare our designs to new formats, but are not to design alone. I strongly believe that many people with creative professions should hit "pause" and take into account the manual creative process which are sometimes passed by. It is important to recover the process that come from a sketch as there is where we can be really creative. The importance of the sketch is multiplied by ten when talking about letter designing, as it is the only way to apply the aspects we see in this book.
In order to get a good lettering we must understand what sketching provides to us: - It allows us to correct the mistakes as we go improving this way our sketch after sketch.
Alan Ariail, Tattoo Logo.
- It makes us have complete control of the shapes. - It teaches us that we should not keep the first sketch we make, and re-do the design until it is perfect.
- It helps us improve our manual skills.
- It makes us have a quick view of the idea we have in mind or of some change we think could look good in our design. Do not tell, draw.
- It helps us improve our perception of the volumes that form our design.
- It offers more vocation and trade. Luis Aragones, soccer player and coach, said once, that soccer was "winning, winning, and winning again, and winning, winning and winning..." well, friends, lettering is sketching, sketching and sketching again.
BE CAREFUL WITH THE CURVE. Train your typographical eye. The first time we try something new we feel some fear due to the uncertainty and we feel we have nothing under control, but as our experience with the machine increases we discover how to solve the problems the come up. The same happens when we start with the hand-designing of a letter, which is a sea of doubts and when see the world guides' works of this field we think How did they do it? If you have felt this at some point you can calm down, it is normal, remember that practice makes perfect and in lettering, it won't be any different, as we make more and more letters, we will wake and train our "typographic eye". The typographic eye is a quality we get with time and practice and allows us to known when, for example, a curve has a mistake or is incorrectly designed. It might come a day when without noticing it, you will say "this curve is not right...", you might not know why it does not look good but you will see it, though I must also tell you that as your typographical eye develops you will find that a lettering and any other design of fonts in general, never end, you will be the one who concludes it, as there is always one more detail to improve or an element to modify.
AND NOW TO THE SCREEN. Digitalizing our drawn fonts. At this point we already have the necessary keys to get a correct lettering, but having been drawing for many hours and improving a lettering and it adopting a not so good look when going digital and onto the screen happens very often situation. This happens because many designers are truly scared and insecure when facing the vectorial drawing of the letters, and it is no wonder, as the digitalization of these characters is not something to take lightly as it specifies a very exact control of the vectorial drawing. Next, we will name some guideline that will greatly ease the digitalization of the handdrawn letters:
1- Less is more. This famous phrase most be followed as a commandment if we want to get perfectly digitalized letters. An excess of dot will cause our curves to not look clean and get dirty when finishing the design.
With the experience we get know the number of necessary dots to design a shape correctly, but a good exercise, especially at the beginning, can be reviewing our design looking for unnecessary dots or surplus.
2- Orthogonality. When one has no experience on digitalization of letter we go crazy looking for a way to place the controllers so the design looks good but we can't just get it. Something we learn over time is that if we place our controllers in an Orthogonal way, meaning, that these are adjusted to the horizontal and vertical side, it will be easier to find the visually correct shape.
With a little of practice we can digitize more complex shapes with orthogonal controllers.
Luis Miguel. Letmetype
3- Placing correctly the dots. We have the least amount of dots possible to trace our design and we have them placed orthogonally, why does my design still look bad? It can be because the dots are not placed where they should.
This is not something with a set rule that we must follow, it is more something our typographical eye has to decide.
4- Compensated points. This is an aspect marked by the previous guideline. If we place the dots correctly, our controllers will have the same distance on both sides.
We can turn this criterion around for it to be really helpful, if we notice the controllers have the same distance on one side and on the other one from the point we will know for sure our dot is well placed and that said curve will look good.
5- Choosing the correct type of dot. This criterion could be obvious for someone who knows the vectorial editing programs but still we must take it into account.
We find three types of different dots in these software, the one on the corner (1), on the curve (2) and the tangential one (3). Depending on the selected dot the curve will have an aspect or another one.