According to the late designer Hermann Zapf, who created typefaces that are still used by leading brands and publishers today, typography always comes down to two essential elements: imagination and readability.
Imagination without readability results in an unusable type, while a type without imagination leaves no memorable impression, regardless of how legible it might be. Think of your favorite logo, or envision a page from your favorite magazine. It follows Zapf’s rule, doesn’t it? It’s easy-to-read, but it’s also unique.
Creative types are on-trend this year, so we wondered how great illustrators design letterforms that are at once distinctive and practical. By sharing a bit about their own process with us, these fifteen talented Shutterstock Contributors revealed some unexpected tips and tricks for making intriguing work with a wide variety of potential applications in the real world.
Some of the artists we interviewed prefer simple updates on traditional classics, appealing to those in search of the right font for lengthy text, while others take a more whimsical or unconventional approach with letterforms more suitable for short logos, headlines, or even invitations. Together, they cover all the bases, providing a sturdy launching point for your next adventure in typography, wherever your imagination takes you.
1. “The main thing is to always try something new. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and love what you do.”
The important thing when creating a font is to have an understanding of how it will ultimately be used by customers. The font by itself is useless, but the context makes it valuable. That’s why I usually create fonts with labels, illustrations, or other design elements incorporated. That way, the font looks more complete, and customers have the opportunity to see how it looks in action.
Of course, it’s also important to keep an eye on modern design as well as historic designs created hundreds of years ago. I find it’s better to look not at other font designers’ works but rather something else related to the themes I’m working with. For example, vintage posters, old and new packaging, contemporary and vintage signboards. Seen through your eyes, you can transform these influences and ideas into a new result that is both classic and modern.
I also like to experiment with different tools. For example, I like to draw my font ideas with a flat pen, a brush pen, various markers, and roll pens. Sometimes I can achieve an original and unexpected result. Unconsciously breaking centuries-old traditions and rules can bring something new and interesting to your work. Nevertheless, it’s important to know the historical heritage of typography and to remember why each stroke in each letter is placed where it is.
The main thing is to always try something new. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and love what you do.
2. “I believe that any good font needs to have a good rhythm, and all the letters need to harmonize with one another.”
I created this “Poster” font family a few years ago. I think these fonts are some of my best for a few reasons. First, all the fonts in this family have the same structure and mood. You can incorporate various different fonts from this family into one design, and it will look stylish rather than chaotic.
Secondly, these fonts are simple. If a font is too complicated, it can only be used for typing one word or headline; past that, the text will look jumbled and confusing. I am proud that my fonts can be used in headlines as well as in long text.
I have continued to experiment and push the boundaries more with my latest fonts, and that’s been cool, but in the end, my favorites are still my Poster font family. I believe that any good font needs to have a good rhythm, and all the letters need to harmonize with one another.
3. “Your knowledge of classical techniques and tools will form the basis that allows you to understand how a letter should look.”
Take a look at the traditional, non-digital methods used to create letters. After all, the style of each font depends on the tool used to create it. Your knowledge of classical techniques and tools will form the basis that allows you to understand how a letter should look. By combining this understanding with modern methods and trends, you can get a unique and useable result.
4. “In my opinion, my most successful typefaces are the ones that incorporate graphic elements that convey emotions.”
One of my rules of thumb is “Keep it simple.” Focus on one idea per typeface. If I have several ideas, I would rather draw several letter sets that try to cram them all into one design. Additionally, don’t forget about the readability of your typeface in different sizes; it’s important to ensure your fonts look just as good in a small size as they would in a large one.
The typefaces that I upload to Shutterstock are display ones, and they are generally intended to be used as a small piece of text—for example, titles, logos, emblems, apparel prints, you name it. Think about where you’d like to see your types used, and make sure it’s relevant to that niche or market.
Consider the shape of the letters, the graphic style, the historical context, and the emotional tenor. In my opinion, my most successful typefaces are the ones that incorporate graphic elements that convey emotions. I personally like the handmade style. Hand-drawn letters are unique, and their imperfections give them a soul. And although they are all different, good fonts have a kind of rhythm that incorporates each letter into a coherent system with a clear and consistent style.
5. “Especially when it comes to developing a script font, I suggest you start out by writing words instead of individual letters.”
The best way to learn how to create attractive typography is to study existing typefaces, but remember to stay unique at the same time. Don’t think of typography as simply “letters” or “body text.” Start thinking of it as a piece of art, and think about how you can incorporate it into your artwork. Sure, you must keep in mind the basic rules (size, spacing, kerning, readability, etc.), but add a personal touch.
Practice, practice, practice, and don’t be discouraged by your initial results. Behind all the hand-lettering I create, there is a lot of sketching with real ink and a pen or brush pen, and I enjoy this part of the process.
Especially when it comes to developing a script font, I suggest you start out by writing words instead of individual letters. It helps you to get a good flow into your typography, and you’ll see immediately how the letters work together. There is plenty of time to perfect and digitally polish any individual letter afterward.
6. “Usually, I try out different shapes and styles on a piece of paper and then review the elements with the help of a light table, looking for the best composition.”
Sometimes, it’s more difficult to create something simple, and often, taking away extra elements can be more interesting than adding them. For example, this minimalistic font is a favorite of mine. It is both stylish and simple.
Usually, I try out different shapes and styles on a piece of paper and then review the elements with the help of a light table, looking for the best composition. And one last step is to convert the image to a vector graphic in Adobe Illustrator. But this time, I used only my computer, and I ended up creating quite a geometric and rounded font. Through trial and error, I realized that if I removed just one small element from each letter, it wouldn’t lose its recognizable form.
7. “One of my favorite lettering techniques is to combine simple, flowing lines with a bit of texture.”
One of my favorite lettering techniques is to combine simple, flowing lines with a bit of texture. I find this approach makes elegant calligraphy feel more informal. And with the help of small swooshes, I can add a touch of uniqueness and balance to some of my work.
When creating this kind of lettering, I always use plain paper, ink, and brushes. After a few hours of meditative work on sheets of paper, I transfer my work to an electronic format and refine the lines on the computer. The result is a great combination of practical modern technology with classic creativity.
8. “My number one piece of advice is to look at as much great design as you possibly can.”
My number one piece of advice is to look at as much great design as you possibly can. After all, it is difficult to create something new without a historical foundation. Do not copy the works of others; instead, study them, build your knowledge base, and gather your thoughts. Once you understand the generally accepted rules and the history of typography, you can experiment and even find your own original style. For example, above you’ll find a vector set based on my own original font, called Walpurgis Night.
9. “My only advice is to start with something that really inspires you, and from there, you will find a way to make your creative idea come to life.”
My only advice is to start with something that really inspires you, and from there, you will find a way to make your creative idea come to life. This font, for example, is from my “Hipster” series, and I had a lot of fun developing it. I was inspired by Tribal cultures and also by the Millennial/Hipster culture that has made this aesthetic more popular.
The one thing that separates this font from all the others is its decorative aspect. At the same time, you can use it in many different concepts, and it will bring the perfect playful touch to any design.
It started with just a few simple lines, and I ended up creating a lot of different shapes and merging all of the elements together. This font is both minimalistic and elaborate, simple yet dynamic, which makes it even more unique.
10. “My best tip is to start with something familiar and natural for you personally.”
When I was creating my first font, I used my own handwriting, and I wrote every letter about fifteen times. I think it was a really helpful process, as it taught me that creating a font is a hard and tricky thing to do!
My best tip is to start with something familiar and natural for you personally. It will make the process easier, and as a bonus, you will end up with unique characters. Try out different materials and see what tools you like best, whether it be pencils, ink, paper cutouts, or anything else you can imagine.
This is my first hand drawn font, Neva. I use it a lot in my illustrations because I find it works quite nicely for headers and small text blocks. In order to make a font more dynamic, you should forget about any fears you might have and just jump in. Get some ink and a simple blank page and just enjoy the process, the movements of your hand, and how beautifully the ink interacts with the paper.
11. “In my opinion, you first need to have at least some basic knowledge of the formal ‘rules’ of construction in order to create successful fonts and alphabets.”
In my opinion, you first need to have at least some basic knowledge of the formal “rules” of construction in order to create successful fonts and alphabets. Even just a little bit of theoretical study and understanding, combined with a lot of practice, will help to make your letters easy to read, and, at the same time, pleasant to look at.
After that, it all comes down to imagination and inspiration. Once you fall in love with letters, you’ll start to see ideas everywhere—in music, in nature, even in cloudy weather. Artists express their moods and feelings in their paintings, and I am convinced that fonts can also convey their own emotions.
12. “Search for inspiration everywhere, every single day. Take photos, take notes, and create sketches.”
Search for inspiration everywhere, every single day. Take photos, take notes, and create sketches. The ideas that come to you randomly are often the best ones. Find what works best for you, and explore all your options. For example, I personally don’t enjoy using physical materials, but I love using software. Experiment!
One unconventional trick I always use is to think about the type I’m creating as if it were a person. How would he look? What furniture would be in his apartment? Does he read books? Paper or e-books? Just ask yourself any questions you can think of about the character or personality of your type. Collect references and create a small presentation for yourself.
One last step that always helps is to imagine how your type will be used in real life. Think about what kinds of projects could potentially incorporate your type. Design your types with specific projects in mind, whether it’s for a coffee shop, a bookstore, a high school, a surfing club, etc. And think where you want it to be used as well. Will it be screen printed on t-shirts, used for logo designs, or sprayed on walls?
13. “Always look for new trends. Even if it doesn’t help you generate original ideas, keeping up with trends will definitely help you identify unusable ideas.”
Both typography and type design are fairly conservative areas of design. They have a set of strict rules, so, in most cases, if you want to achieve a fresh and unique look for your font and at the same time keep it practical, you need only one main idea. In other words, don’t try to combine all your cool concepts in one typeface if you want a practical font.
The success of your work depends on the consistency with which you’ve applied your main idea to the font. Continuously test and tweak your work throughout the creative process to make sure it looks perfect.
If you’re low on ideas, here are a few of my tips:
- Draw inspiration from unexpected sources. If you aren’t already, use Pinterest.
- Analyze what makes a specific font special and unique. Take a note of that quality and keep it in the back of your mind as you work.
- Ask yourself “What if?” What if I make Bodoni monospace? What if I make the ink traps exaggerated? The list goes on.
- Always look for new trends. Even if it doesn’t help you generate original ideas, keeping up with trends will definitely help you identify unusable ideas.
Designing a typeface is a big commitment, so if you’re just beginning in this field, try starting with small projects so you don’t give up halfway.
14. “For your professional growth, you should explore different methods and delve deep into the history of types.”
Types, lettering, and calligraphy require a great deal knowledge and a ton of practice, but, at the same time, it’s important to work with a sense of ease and creativity. In order to maintain this balance, you need to be able to stay focused and flexible.
Try to work with different tools, techniques, and materials. For your professional growth, you should explore different methods and delve deep into the history of types. Finally, get your work out there and into the marketplace. It’s okay to be afraid to show your work at first, but entering the professional community will allow you to grow.
15. “My best advice is to choose your own style and to portray what is interesting to you as an artist.”
My best advice is to choose your own style and to portray what is interesting to you as an artist. Drawing what interests and excites you personally can yield more interesting results than simply following the popular styles set forth by others.