Practical Steps in Designing a Typeface; Overview of Tobias Frere-Jones Design Details Podcast

While on my long commute earlier this month, I listened to Design Details podcast 85: Lettering Liaison (feat. Tobias Frere-Jones). I’ve experienced many interviews about creating typefaces but I found this one to be the most practical so far.

Typically, I’ve heard the basic steps:

  1. Draw alphabets in uppercase, lowercase and with some extra characters.

  2. Iterate a lot (perhaps detailing some basic considerations), digitize it. Some mention the painstaking and repetitive assessment and re-drawing phases, and often, tips are mentioned about using the basic variety of letters first.

  3. Digitize.

But this one was the most helpful interview I’ve heard so far, and it outlined more detailed considerations.

My suspicion as to why this particular interview extracted more practicalities revolves around not only Tobias’ prestigious work, but also the designers conducting the interview with admittedly less experience in his specific field. Often, type design interviews are conducted by those with specific experience and deep knowledge about typography. These interviews are surely inspiring, but this mix brought forth a fresh perspective that dug into more practical items out that many type folks may take understanding for granted.

Tobias pulls from his teaching experience and really brings to light the practical considerations of typeface design process. Getting down to workflow steps that can be automated with code, he outlines some challenges that come about for every project no matter how much experience the designer has. He also has some suggestions on improving faster than many have been able to in the past with the use of online communities.

He begins by explaining that you have to think of designing a typeface as designing a system (words, letters, other characters, weights, sizes, media). It’s not like lettering where you’re designing a focused message and combination that fit into one composition. Everything has to fit together in unpredictable arrangements and still be first and foremost legible, and also still fit its visual identity to complement the message. Media usage is a consideration depending on the initial brief.

Notes and Tips from His Interview:

He starts with 3 main “camps" which have everything you’ll run into with regard to shapes that he prefers to start out designing with.They are: Square, round and angles.

Though there are a few varieties out there, he uses "hamburgafontstivin” in lowercase to continue after basic shapes are defined. This brings in a large variety of forms to concentrate on.

Next is the uppercase alphabet, which needs to draw a similarity with lowercase. This is a challenge, but important to get right early.

I found it surprising that Tobias uses digital iteration as early on in the process as he can. His reasons made sense though. He knows that he can view his sampling in many contexts very quickly and make decisions on what to focus on next. The font software called Robo Font is one he recommends, where you can use Python to code and customize actions that you take often. His example was the calculation between weights, and there are many others that save a tremendous amount of time to have programmed to re-run in the typeface design process.

When asked about places to get started in typeface design, Type Drawers was suggested. There is a community of designers that writes a lot there to learn from. It’s also a great community for critique, which didn’t exist when he was getting his start. It’s a lot easier to get better faster these days due to access to critique in many forms. Apart from the more obvious practice, early critique is the way to truly improve.

Something else I realized is often missing in basic type design conversation is word spacing. Tobias cited this as a smart focus within a holistic typeface system design. During development, each word space is its own glyph (using space bar). Since it is consistently the same space, lots of care is taken to ensure that that chosen unit works in every possible combination.

Some scenarios he starts out with testing word spacing are: Between two lowercase words and between lowercase ending and uppercase start.

Usually he starts with Regular or Book weight because you can always build up or down from there. Web and print are considered  all the way through, in addition to trying out weight ranges. He cites limits for each style that must be adhered to, in order to keep its visual identity, as being an indicator when things go too far out in left field. You have to be careful to keep the look of the face while you build out varieties.

After two years of hard work, the newly single Frere-Jones studio has launched their first retail typeface, Mallory. This is a microplus series, with a version meant to work in really small sizes in print. For more information, visit

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