The Designer’s Guide To

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A guide to help new designers develop bespoke and customised typographic solutions. Advice provided by international industry professionals, edited and curated by Richard Baird.

Look to natural handwritten type for inspiration

I started my career as an assistant to a calligrapher – a real expert with a pen in his hand. I believe this was key to developing my own custom typography – the ability to picture how the type is naturally written.

Provided by @RobClarkeType

Look for creative opportunities

This may seem elementary but one of my biggest downfalls is totally missing creative opportunities or obvious imperfections in my work because I’m so concerned with the details or a technique. The more I create the more I learn not to look at objects in isolation. Instead, I see it in relationship to every part of the design.

Provided by @justlucky

Avoid repetitive letterforms

The rotation and reflection of existing characters to create new ones or the repetitive use of single shapes throughout an entire character set can often make a typeface appear cheap, hastily executed and unprofessional. The best typefaces deliver variety while retaining a consistent and identifiable style throughout.

Provided by @richbaird

Leave yourself plenty of time

Playtime is the most important part of the type design process. Having a period of the project where you’re free of pressures and you’re not trying to ‘nail it’ can really help you come up with something fresh and innovative. If you attempt to find the right answer too quickly you’ll often stifle the typeface’s true potential – so give yourself plenty of time to relax, experiment and have fun.

Provided by @GingerMonkey_TL

Custom type for visual identities

Custom typography is an excellent way of ensuring the visual identity you’re creating will be unique to your client. But before embarking on your beautiful typographic masterpiece, it’s important to understand some fundamental principles of type.

The first, most crucial step is understanding the ‘anatomy’ of type. It’s absolutely impossible to create well-designed type without being able to identify and discuss various typographic components such as ascenders, descenders, ligatures, spurs, bowls, counters, crossbars, etc.

Secondly, one must have a very solid understanding of letterforms and the various ways in which they can be rendered. The same letter can take on very different appearances when displayed as a serif, sans serif, or script. Spend time browsing font houses like and taking note of the individual characteristics that make each letterform unique.

It’s also important to understand that custom typography is not about just the creation of gorgeous looking type; in most cases (like a visual identity, for example) it also needs to be legible. Understanding how certain spatial relationships or letterform combinations can interfere with legibility will enable a designer to develop successful solutions when those situations arise.

And lastly, spend time browsing sites like Dribbble to see what leading typographic designers are doing. Pay attention to their sense of composition, flow, and style, and seek them out to critique your work.

Provided by Jon Stapp

Study the basics

Regardless of the style of typography you’re going for, learn the basic principles of type design: overshoot on rounded letters, optical illusions (horizontals will appear heavier than verticals, curved strokes appear thinner than straight ones), difference between ascender/descender height, difference in weight between uppercase/lowercase stems, dark/heavier spots that appear at stroke junctions, etc. This will give you a better understanding overall and allow you to make more considered decisions.

Provided by Claire Coullon

Find the path of least resistance

I’m noticing many designers (including myself) are really working hard to create complicated, clever work. Clever work is interesting and complicated work is beautiful! However, this kind of work should come out of a natural process. Don’t be afraid of an obvious direction, there is a beauty in simple, well executed letterforms. Sometimes it’s nice to see well crafted lettering on a solid baseline with beautiful thicks and thins. If you don’t believe me look at the masters. As your skills develop you will be able to handle increasing levels of difficulty and intricacy but trust me when I say that I’m less impressed by big complicated pieces than I used to be.

Provided by @justlucky

Study calligraphy

In college, all design students were required to take a calligraphy course before going on to the typography classes. At first, I thought this was ridiculous – but through having to literally draw every letter stroke and physically take into account things like kerning, leading and measure, I learned a lot more about typesetting and how to create and improve on custom ligatures and edit the strokes of letters already drawn.

Provided by @daniKelley

Create from memory

Start by trying to create a word with a few different types of letters (curved, angular) without referring to an existing face, just do it from memory and then try to cover the remaining alphabet. Attempt all uppercase letters, then try lower case – no numbers. Don’t worry about perfection or flawless curves, just get the meat of it clicked out. Think about consistency and balance, but otherwise just let it flow, even if it flows poorly at first. When you’re done, compare yours to whichever font you think it might be close to in style: some subtle, basic rules about typeface design will start to become apparent to you. Once you have that down, try to design a sans serif typeface or word the same way. Don’t fear failure, just dive in.

Provided by @super_furry


For script type, you can’t beat just sketching. Choose a word and sketch it out over and over again, thinking about what makes the thicks and thins work and appear natural. Look for interesting links and ligatures between letters, but allow individual letters to be beautiful on their own and don’t force ligatures that don’t flow naturally from the letters and their spatial relationships to each other. I sometimes have clients come to me asking for a design for their logo “just like the one you did for that other brand”, but the letters in their brand name don’t lend themselves to those same kinds of visual relationships. Designs where links and ligatures are forced simply don’t feel honest or natural.

Provided by @super_furry

Digital execution

When vectoring, try not to have too many anchor points and keep them simple. Try to place them at the most extreme edges of the curve and keep the handles straight. Have a look at the outlines and points of any well-made font to see how they’re placed. Having fewer points makes it easier to tweak the shapes while maintaining smooth curves. Of course though, you don’t have to be really strict with this; sometimes it’s necessary to add extra points, especially to achieve a certain specific curve or when working with diagonals or corners.

Provided by Claire Coullon

Work from scratch

I often see students/juniors fiddling around with an existing font instead of starting from scratch and really getting to grips with how the letterforms should be constructed. I’m not too fussed if they use a pencil to do this – a lot of my work is done straight onto the screen but you can be more creative and expressive when scribbling something down.

Provided by @RobClarkeType

Never ever ever give up

Make. Make some more. Oh, and don’t stop making. The beauty and curse of the internet and tools like instagram is the constant barrage of amazing work. A lot of the time it seems like they are putting out brilliant work multiple times a day. Don’t be fooled, great work comes from doing lots of work and a ton of failure. Bad days, cranky clients, underpaid projects and lots of projects are no strangers to any great creative. Some people do seem to have it easier but do not get caught in the trap of comparison. Your journey and personality will make you unique and attractive to the right people over time if you keep it up. It really does just takes time and practice.

Provided by @justlucky

Take a step back

Remember to take a step back and look at your lettering as a whole (and as different word combinations) to examine its overall balance, it’s easy to get caught up with perfecting isolated letters. This is where lettering differs from type design. What may be appropriate for a single letter may not be appropriate within the context of a group of letters, it may require that the shape (of an otherwise perfect letter) needs to be tweaked in order to feel more at home alongside others.

Provided by @seanwes

A fresh perspective

Designers can often spend long stretches staring at a single piece while we’re working on it. This can lead to errors or inconsistencies being missed so it’s important to get a fresh perspective. The easiest way is to take a break. If time allows, sleeping on it is ideal. You can also try flipping the piece upside down. This makes spacing and balance issues more clear because we’re no longer reading words and interpreting letters, but rather looking at shapes. Finally, getting a second opinion is also helpful. Make sure to have an open mind when asking for feedback. While others’ view may not always be right or take all factors into consideration, their feedback is nonetheless valuable. Thanking them for their input and telling them you’ll take it into consideration is usually a good way to let them know you appreciate their time.

Provided by @seanwes

Know when and when not to customise

There’s often a temptation to customise an existing typeface in the development of a visual identity, but it’s important to consider whether you have the necessary skill to build on something that was quite likely developed by a specialist. There’s a big difference between tweaking the kerning or justification of a typeface and completely re-sculpting the letterforms. Make sure you’re customising for the right reasons, have the necessary skill to pull it off professionally and that it compliments or evolves the communicative qualities of the original.

Provided by @RichBaird

Understanding and appreciation

It’s worth spending time, prior to customising, learning a bit about the origins, inspirations and philosophies that underpin the typeface you’re going to customise. This will help you appreciate the shape and detail choices made by the original designer and guide you in your modifications. To take a typeface like Helvetica and add superfluous detail might seem like a great way to add a unique twist to a saturated typeface but it subverts its origins and likely to deliver mixed messages.

Provided by @richbaird


Try not force letterforms into awkward shapes or compositions that don’t suit them. If you’re building a geometric design following a particular structure, don’t stubbornly restrict every letter to a very specific grid or pattern. Adding some variation in the appropriate places will give the design more depth and visual interest. Similarly, don’t force swashes or ligatures that feel awkward, cramped or unnatural. It can easily result in something that looks superfluous and gimmicky, rather than integral to the overall design.

Provided by Claire Coullon

Optical vs grid based type design

Grid based type can provide a designer with a technically accurate solution but these can often fall short optically. Grids are a great way to start but the weight and detail of some characters can often make appear heavier in places so don’t constrain yourself, try different letter combinations and small off-grid adjustments to create an optically balanced result.

Suggested by Sandro Dujmenovic


Don’t become frustrated or disenchanted by the talent of others: it took them time to get there. Not so many years ago, I was a person who had no idea what it meant to design my own type, and my first attempts were failures. Then, the more I persisted, the ones that weren’t failures weren’t great, but some things were starting to fall into place. Occasionally, there were things that started to look pretty good, and I began to develop an understanding of what was making them work now when they weren’t before. You can read and study all you want (and you should), but doing leads to understanding.

Provided by @super_furry

Study the vernacular

Switch off the computer, get your sketchbook and get out of the office. Sit and sketch signage, menu headers, packaging- anything that catches your eye. Try to get an appreciation for the form of letters and analyse how different angles and shapes convey certain feelings. Copy some carved gothic lettering from a local church or try to get a perfect curve on a sans serif ‘S’. It’s like life drawing, the more you do it the more you understand the subtleties of type. Remember, inspiration is on your door step!

Provided by @gedpalmer

Leave detailing till last

Add the details and colour to your logo-type after you’ve finalised your basic character structure, I always work in black and white to start with. Make sure you’re happy with the placement and number of anchor points – if I can see where these are in a curve then I’m not happy and I’ll revise it. Once you’ve nailed the basic characters (and it’s roughly what you had in mind) then add your final touches (ligatures, spacing, cuts, highlights etc) this way you’ll avoid having to correct them and their finer details at a later date.

Make sure the cake is right before adding the icing.

Provided by @michaeldowell

Don’t be afraid of white space

I have a terrible habit of jamming too many things into tiny spaces. I hate gaps. I hate white space. I guess it just makes me uncomfortable. And a lot of times, it stifles my work. Don’t be afraid of giving those letters a little breathing room or increasing the line height on something. White space helps the viewer to relax a little and it provides new layout opportunities you may not have otherwise noticed. It’s tough to do that when you’re filling every gap.

Provided by @justlucky

Invest in good tools and media

Look towards investing in quality pencils, pigment pens and calligraphy pens (if you are into calligraphy) and sketchbooks. Custom made typography should start on a good foundation which means having good paper. A problem I find is using poor sketch book paper which leaves ugly marks from erasing and ones that have poor texture when you’re sketching. I also recommend buying tracing paper if you are working with detailed pieces, the surface of tracing paper holds pen ink well and tends to cause less bleeding. Tracing is a great way to correct mistakes, and it prevents indented marks and smudging from lead when you are moving on to the scanning stage which your scanner might pick up from your sketchbook (if you do scan your artwork). It also allows you the freedom to try alternative versions to your original sketch without compromising the form of the letters.

If you know you’re going out to places where you have to wait or need to kill a bit of time, keep a small sketch book and pen/pencil handy in case any ideas pop up while you are out. Most of the times without realising we get inspired by things we see while away from work and travelling.

Provided by @FaMz



If you are a designer and have any advice you would like to add to this article, please submit your contribution as a comment below and remember to include your Twitter ID so I can credit your tip.


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