How to start a new typeface, with Margot Lévêque, Nolan Paparelli and Playtype’s Jeppe Pendrup
At The Brand Identity, we love to hear the process behind typefaces and delve into the creative minds behind them. Well, who doesn’t? For those considering starting a new typeface, the beginning can be daunting; creating a full alphabet of characters is often long and tedious, after all. To shed some light on the first few hurdles, we asked type designers of varying styles and at different stages of their careers how they navigate the early stages of a new typeface, what mediums they start with, and how they make the crucial decision to continue or leave it behind.
For designers, inspiration can often strike in the most unexpected places, and typography is no exception. When beginning a new typeface, do type designers go digging for sources of inspiration, or let the influences occur organically? It’s rarely that clearcut, as Jeppe Pendrup, Senior Type Designer at Playtype, points out; we carry a wealth of inspiration within us, from our collected experiences. “Inspiration is a result of accumulated visuals impressions from all kinds of consumed content,” he explains, “be this the millions of typefaces we’ve looked at in books, the infinite scroll through Instagram, an art show, a vacation in Italy and probably more often than not, an intangible mashup of all the stuff that we have subconsciously registered.”
For Margot Lévêque, visual stimuli is key to sparking ideas. “I would say, I never tried to create a typeface until I was inspired by something that I’ve seen,” she tells us, noting examples of, “a cool shape or a cool letter, in an old book or specimen.” For Lévêque, old references also hold the key to finding something exciting.
Creative influences aren’t just limited to books and social media though. An abundance of typography is literally everywhere, and for type designers, taking a walk outside provides many techniques and styles to learn from. Nolan Paparelli likes the idea of “seeing some vernacular type in the street, and then trying to revive it, make it new, make it your own.” Lévêque also finds herself inspired by signs on the street, restaurants and churches, particularly in Europe and France, to which she adds, “engraved stones are always a good idea!”
Unifying the three designers we asked is the shared idea that finding the spark for a new typeface is never an on-demand situation. It can be a natural result of being surrounded by creative ephemera and references, as Paparelli points out – “I have various references, and inspiration comes from a lot of different sources. It is rather unusual to sit at a desk and say ‘ah, I will start a typeface now!’” Lévêque concurs, “I never said to myself ‘come on, I have to create a font, what can I do to complete my catalogue?’”
There’s a more direct connection between thought and pen.
Let’s say you’ve been struck by a wave of inspiration. Okay, the creative juices are flowing – time to get the ideas down! What medium do you start with? For Lévêque, the answer is clear: “Pen and paper, of course!” Going analogue with these trusty tools is a popular, and reliable option. For Playtype, it’s still important to do a lot of initial sketching by hand. “We feel as though there’s a more direct connection between thought and pen,” Pendrup notes, “which makes it easier to play around with shapes and visualise and test rough conceptual approaches.” Then, once the idea has begun to have “some sort of fathomable shape,” the team can bring it to a digital setting, where testing and further development occur.
Despite mostly starting ‘on-screen,’ this tangible connection, for Paparelli, is why he finds pen and paper useful to work with. “I’d say that drawing the shapes on paper, understanding the tension of the curves and feeling the letters manually is a good thing to start with. Some things might happen in an analogue way which on-screen would be impossible to reproduce.”
Once ideas for typefaces have gone from mind to matter, how do you know which to continue with, and which ones to leave behind? This is a dilemma Playtype find relatable. “We think most type designers have a drawer full of unfinished typefaces that they would love to finish,” Pendrup points out. Although perhaps Lévêque may be an exception, claiming to not have many unfinished fonts. “I have a few (two, I think),” she reveals, “and I know that’s a small number compared to most type designers!”
It’s always good to remember that, even though all ideas may not become finished projects, the ideation and sketching process have their own merits. As producing a typeface is a time-heavy experience, Pendrup suggests that prior to committing to a design, “it’s nice to let the project settle and figure out if it’s worth spending time on. Maybe start with a very limited character set as a proof of concept.” Taking the time to evaluate the project at this stage ensures happiness in the long term. It’s not all visual though, as Playtype take into account a mix of “functionality, originality and personal satisfaction” and, also importantly “there is a financial aspect,” notes Pendrup. “Will anyone really be interested in purchasing this typeface once it is done?”
Will anyone really be interested in purchasing this typeface once it is done?
Paparelli finds that much like positive feedback from peers, personal enthusiasm is essential – “if there’s a sort of spark happening while designing it, then it’s a good sign.” Likewise, if there is a lack of interest, or even boredom at the prospect of continuing – then perhaps it’s best not to continue. “It’s a gut feeling, trying to understand if the idea of the typeface might have some potential or not.” Sometimes there doesn’t even need to be an explanation for abandoning a typeface-in-progress though. “I can share a more honest reason,” Lévêque reveals, “I don’t know. I just didn’t like it anymore.”
One thing that’s for sure is the process is quite instinctive. From the initial spark to developing the full typeface, a lot of the magic happens when you follow your feelings. Yes, it can be hard work and maybe not work out in the end. Whatever happens, there is always something to learn from.