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  • Writer's pictureMaheen Awan

Broken Type Journey

I've been wanting to have a go at an English typeface design for quite some time now, but it always seemed very intimidating (and rightfully so, as you'll read ahead). When the opportunity arose to design one in the form of a self-initiated "do/make whatever your heart pleases" assignment brief given to my class by our professors, I decided to finally get my hands dirty - both literally and figuratively - and tackle this beast.

Type design absolutely fascinates me. My guilty pleasure is browsing through typefaces and downloading them "just in case I might need to use it somewhere", and, of course, the best ones are always paid, which I can't afford on a student budget. So, I settle for the free ones.

For someone who has never created a typeface before, I did what any novice does - a simple Google search for "how to create a typeface". That ended up being the most disappointing search in the history of searches, ever. I couldn't find anything that teaches a beginner the true basics of type design. Also, a surprising number of content is targeted to just UX/UI web design, something I wasn't looking for.

I then decided to take my search to Instagram - my best friend for all things design inspiration (yes, Behance and Pinterest are both number twos for me). Various combos of #typedesign #typefacedesign #fontdesign led to me Chris Campe's book 'Designing Fonts'. Chris Campe is a Germany-based lettering artist. She runs a type studio in Hamburg and is the published author of numerous books on type design and lettering. The note printed at the top of her book "Have you always wanted to create your own typeface? Don’t know where to start? Don’t be daunted. This book shows you how." was enough to persuade me to buy a copy for myself. A few clicks and I had a brand-new copy in my hands in less than 12 hours, thanks to Amazon Prime.

Type design often has two extremes. It is either presented in such a complex manner that it just confuses beginners, or it is so simplified with the help of apps that you’re essentially learning nothing along the way and producing typefaces that are not practical to use. That’s why this book seemed like a godsend. It showed me how to create my own typeface without all the fancy jargon, complexities, and secrets.

This book is divided into two parts – theory and practical use. It also included tips and tricks to create custom fonts for personal and professional use. I didn’t follow the book to the T and instead used it as more of a guide to help me make the right choices and offer solutions to my dead ends.

The other resource I used for my creation is Jen Wagner’s 'Sans-Serif Design Course'. Jen Wagner is also a type designer - based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her typefaces have been featured in an array of places ranging from lifestyle magazines and books to beauty packaging and even at Nashville airport. She also happens to be one of my mentors for my Industry Partner assignment brief, which I will also talk about further in this blog.

Side Note: For another assignment brief of mine, we were asked to find an Industry Partner who can help us with our works. I decided to combine that brief with this one and find mentors in the type design world. I was lucky enough to find 2 extremely amazing and talented mentors. One being Jen Wagner, whom I have just mentioned. The other mentor is Mat Voyce, who is the best animation type designer there is. I shall brag about them throughout this type design journey blog with details of how their insights were instrumental to the outcome of my typeface.

Back to Jen’s design course – the beauty of this course is that it’s all in video form. You can follow along while watching her videos, at least for long enough to get the hang of it. She starts by focusing on basic elements and terms so that it’s easy to understand as you progress along the course. I highly recommend this for anyone who wants to start and has no clue what to do, just like I did. Her teaching style is extremely to the point, which makes it even easier to follow along, which is ideal for a true beginner.

If you manage to get Jen to say yes to being your mentor, then you might even score some Zoom time with her. And, if you’re as lucky as I was, she’ll even show you a bit of her sketching process when you tell her you don’t even know how to start sketching. So, yeah, my Zoom session with her was a pot of gold. Nothing better than live feedback about how you should start and progress your work, and what exactly you can do to take it to the next level.

Now that I’ve told you about my primary sources (and secondary and tertiary even) of research for the process of type design, let me move on to why I wanted to create a custom typeface in the first place. For my Master's Final Major Project, I have chosen to highlight the bias and gender discrimination faced by women in Pakistan. To represent the same, I decided to make a typeface that represents my take on the issue. I believe that we live in a very broken, prejudiced, and unfair society, where women have lived a disenfranchised existence (won’t go deeper into this right now, as I plan on covering my research and findings relating to my final major project in a later blog post). Hence, I wanted to create a typeface with broken, uneven characteristics – to represent what and how I feel about how women and girls are treated, especially in Pakistan. It had to be an impactful typeface to convey my message in my subsequent works, which I could also use to create a brand identity for my project.

My very first conversation about my project was with Mat Voyce. I sent him a very casual Instagram message, asking whether he’d be interested in mentoring me. Lo and behold, I got a reply within a day telling me to drop him an email. I sent him an email covering details regarding why I wanted him to be my mentor, what my work was focusing on, and why and how I thought he would play a crucial role in my project’s outcome. Mat focuses solely on animated type design and stickers – something I wanted to learn and produce as a part of my project. He has produced works for Adobe, Netflix, Disney+, and BBC, to name a few. So yeah, he has got a pretty impressive portfolio, to say the least. What better person to learn and get critique from? His feedback to my first email was absolutely critical to where I started my research of different typefaces and how to play around with different ideas before landing on a final one. Here’s an excerpt from the email reply he sent me:

So now I knew that 1. I would be challenging, 2. That I needed to focus on legibility and 3. I needed to sketch.

Mat also shared a bunch of links of different typefaces similar to the theme I wanted. One link led to another, which led to another, and before I knew it, I was in a rabbit hole of textured, distressed, grunge-looking fonts. It was overwhelming, to say the least. Here are a few which Mat sent me so I could explore my idea:

Here are the ones that those led me to:

To be honest, all of these just scared me and even discouraged me a bit. I didn’t think that, as a beginner, I could ever complete a task this huge. To take some pressure off, I decided to take Jen’s, Mat's, and Chris Campe’s book's suggestion and start off with some sketching experimentation. For someone horrible at drawing, even starting the process was a feat, but nothing better than a good ol’ pencil and paper to get you going. I used Jen’s sketching techniques and combined those with the one in the book’s workshop section. I thought a little of this and a little of that was a better approach than just rigidly sticking to one path. Of course, my sketching process was heavily inspired by a lot of existing typefaces already out there. Here are a few of the fonts I took inspiration from:

Here is my initial try at sketching:

For me the process was confusing. I had no clue what I was doing and was going along with whatever ideas came into my mind while sketching. During this process, this fear arose that I won’t be able to create an original typeface because everything has already been done. Maybe it’s impossible to create something new because of the heavy influence all the typefaces I looked into had on me. I even communicated this fear to Mat who told me not to worry about it:

So yeah, that’s basically what I’m doing now - showing you guys how I got to my final version because surely it looks similar to many typefaces out there.

After my sketching and experimenting, I decided to start working on it digitally. My next step was to scan a few of these sketches and import them into Illustrator and see where that takes me. Digitally tracing my sketches was not my cup of tea. I learned that I do not have the steadiest of hands or enough practice with tracing to pull it off.

Still, I did keep trying till I became frustrated to a point where I wanted to cry, and that’s when I decided to try an alternate route. I went the font-making software direction. Why not utilize something that’s made for this exact purpose? That’s also what Jen’s course is about. One thing worthy of notice here is that I had to figure out the digital software end of it myself via trial and error, because both the book and the video course use the Glyphs app to create a typeface, and as a Windows user I did not have access to it, as it is an iOS-only software. I was able to find BirdFont and FontForge instead, and by playing around with them, in addition to a few YouTube tutorials, I was able to get the hang of it. Took about a week but I got there. Using Jen's course, I started off by creating a very basic Sans-Serif typeface as a basis. I took an executive decision to only focus on uppercase letters as that aligned most with the brief I devised for my concept. Here’s the typeface I created by following Jen's course:

After creating a basic font, I exported it all and transferred it to Illustrator to further work on it according to my vision for it. I also wanted to keep a random element to my final work, so after opening up the fonts in Illustrator I went on a cutting rage, where I started to slash all the letters at random with the knife tool. Of course, some slashes worked better than others and I had to go back to a few to tweak them to make the randomness look perfect. My next step was to work on the unevenness element I wanted to bring to my work – I was smart about this and went with the numerous effects Illustrator has to offer. I thought being smart about it would be easy too, but apparently, that’s not how it goes. The effects I used gave me some very crazy changes which I wasn’t a fan of. After a bit of playing around, I figured out exactly which effects I needed to use to get the look I was searching for. The rounded corner stylize effect and the roughen distort and transform effect – exactly in this order. After applying these effects, I somewhat got what I was looking for, but still had to individually tweak each letter to get a more cohesive-looking typeface. That was the smart followed by the difficult bit. It was time-consuming and tough, because, as I mentioned before, I do not have the steadiest of hands for random curved tweaking. Even unevenness requires precision. Alas, I did finally get to the end.

My last step was to export the stylized final version of these letters from Illustrator, and re-import them into FontForge to again export them as a final Open Type Format (.otf) so they can be easily used as any other normal typeface.

Here is the final version of my work:

To put it in an easy-to-follow process – here’s a quick overview of how I went about it:

1. Wrote a brief

2. Experimented with sketching

3. Drew a few letters & scanned them

4. Tried to vectorize them on Illustrator & failed

5. Used FontForge to create a San-Serif typeface

6. Transferred the typeface to Illustrator

7. Used Illustrator to bring about the broken uneven aspect of the typeface

8. Transferred it back to FontForge to finally export to a .otf format

Here’s the feedback and critique my mentors have given me when I showed them my final version:

Mat Voyce -

Jen Wagner -

1. Try to have a test run with a cheap printer so you can check the legibility when printed.

2. Clean up the external and internal edges so it looks purpose-driven.

3. I'm so proud. This is so exciting, and the poster is so fun to look at!

Based on this feedback, I guess what I've produced so far isn't my final-est version. I plan on working to improve and clean up the typeface further so it's at its best possible version when I finally use it for my Final Project's brand identity. Jen's and Mat's feedback on my work has been absolutely pivotal to my research and decision-making process throughout. So a big shout out and thank you to them!

A few extras:

I plan on further expanding this typeface later so it can have full usability.

The final version will also be used to create quote gifs and stickers.

Also, I am very proud of myself for pulling this off - I never thought I could. So yay me!

P.S. Check out Mat's and Jen's Instagram page by clicking on their names

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