Lessons from a Green Typographer

So last week I completed my first project from my Typography class and I can say that I have emerged with a new found appreciation for the work of actual  typographers. Prior to this I had a generic idea of why some typefaces maybe more aesthetically pleasing than others, but I did not know why some were considered vastly inferior to others and why others were not.  Perhaps now I can understand what those critiquing eyes are scrutinizing. I only have to look at my first sketches compared with my now almost adequate version  to see how many details must be addressed in order for a typeface to be considered well conceived and unified.

The assignment was to take some graph paper and create our own characters using either dots of squares. The goal was to show how letters are really just made of elements. (The instructions are here) We were then to draw the polished versions onto tracing paper. I decided I would do mine in circles because I already knew most people were going to use the squares since it’s just easy to fill in the boxes, and I wanted my rounder anyway. So I thought this would be simple.  However I found not really.

alphabet1  alphabet2


First off, I have to say the first letters one chooses are critical. I realized only at the very end of the whole thing that it was a bad idea to start with a ‘B’. It’s a nice, dignified letter when written, and I had created a nice diagonal crossbar which I absolutely wanted to use. But setting it as the standard for the rest of the alphabet to be measured against was not good foresight. Trust me, when using a grid system, it is much better to start off with either of the three letters that I now know will have the longest width when set against  graph paper: the Z, M, and N.  I only realized my true dilemma when I had completed the whole rest of the alphabet and had to create my Z.  I had managed to work out a M, and force created an N,  but it was only at the Z that I finally saw the folly of my really tall measurements set down by my ‘B’. It’s  impossible to create a capital Z when your height is too tall and your width is too small! Really, it seems obvious, but it just won’t work. (My Z makes you go “wah?” But I took liberties and improvised!)

Second I found, once you create your set height and width, you then have to figure out what to do about the rounded characters like O, and C. As in, on a graph, how many units get you your height and then how many give you your curves. Once you have your”O’ though, you pretty much have your ‘C’, and then pretty much your ‘G’, unless the intention is to create them greatly different, which in mine it was not.

Third, I found if your going to use serifs, you have to factor in how many squares the serifs will take and how that will set off you initial measurement.  I suppose the widths should always be the widest letter with outward serifs, which I think is the M. So use an M when creating a serif typeface.

Fourth, if you’re going to be use diagonal crossbars in a traditionally horizontal bar (like my B and R), you have to decide if all your letters will be using that crossbar, particularly the ones where the start looking weird like that. I found this to be particularly true of my A and H, which I decide I wanted to continue the theme, and saw that A was beginning to look like my R, and my H was beginning to look like my N. But again, design liberties set you free.

And lastly, I now know why they say some typefaces were meant to be big and some were meant to be large. If a computer screen needs to divide a typeface into pixels, then I can think of my graph paper as maybe a very simple pixel graph. And looking at how many squares my type took up I realize I would have to consider the math and size ratio when increasing and decreasing size. The graph paper allowed me to see that a simple division by four would quickly ruin my typeface, while an increase could be adjusted. These easy visuals allowed me to see how the original type size is important since it affects everything.

So completed it may not be, and unified I would say, awkwardly. But the true value I’ve gotten out of this clunky first attempt is what not to do. And looking  back it now, I have come to notice that my characters looks like they have wings, and not really serifs. I tried them out as an airline sample, but even putting those letters together required I revise for inconsistencies.




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