For graphic designers beginning to experiment in type design, a geometric or modular typeface is a natural starting point. Illustrator and other programs offer a simple collection of elements such as circles, squares, and triangles which can be combined to create a passable alphabet. This is the same route I took when dissatisfied with the limits of commercial fonts at the time. I twisted and distorted each character to fit into a few simple, incredibly strict rules of construction. Invariably this produced a wide range of exotic letterforms, some more legible that others.
The intention of creating an entire alphabet from a few shapes is a design challenge — problem solving at its purest. For those with minimalist tendencies, the temptation is to strip away all the decoration and produce a simpler form. With software such as FontStruct and Font Constructor — which allow the user to quickly assemble a font from a set of geometric elements — this approach is now easier and more accessible than ever.
Luckily for those who make a career from type design, the Latin alphabet is not simply a collection of modular elements. A purely geometric solution in a short passage of text, with a certain combination of characters, may work, but once set in several lines of text the faults are much easier to spot. A typeface composed of strict geometric rules can lose subtle details and relationships between white space and stroke widths that have developed over centuries. Quirky characters that look great in isolation can snag the eye when repeated in a block of text.
Attempting to apply exactly the same set of rules to each letter is similar to handing out the same size clothes to a random selection of adults. Some will have excess baggy sleeves, others will be skin tight, and some will barely squeeze over their heads. To solve this problem the pattern has to be adjusted for each character, without losing sight of the overall design. As you make adjustments to the new characters, these changes echo back through the letterforms already designed. For example, if you started drawing a font created from a simple set of circles and lines, this may work perfectly for ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘d’, ‘e’, but then throw in a ‘v’ or ‘z’, or even an ‘s’, and you meet a dilemma. Should the letter be squeezed into the current template or adjust the template for the new letters? It’s best to start with a group frequently used within the English language such as ‘a’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘n’, ‘p’ and ‘s’, and later try diagonals such as a ‘v’ or ‘x’ to test the design.
This is not an argument against all geometric or modular typefaces, but simply some guidance on how to make them more readable, work effectively and be visually consistent.
This is an example of a typeface created some years ago, based on a very strict grid of squares and circles. Many characters look quite presentable, but these few look particularly top heavy. Both counters of the ‘8’ are identical in size, but optically the top looks bigger. The ‘5’ has a squared-off counter on the top half, which creates larger area of white space than the bottom — making it look ridiculously unstable.
By cutting and pasting modular elements it’s common to make many characters the same width, but this creates widely different white spaces inside each character. Take the ‘b’ and ‘h’ for example — the squared-off counter of the h makes it appear much larger than the ‘b’s.
At the point where two strokes meet or cross each other, the join is liable to “clog up”. A typical example above, shows a circle attached to a vertical line to create a ‘b’. A heavy area appears where the curve tries to pull away from the straight. By trimming a little from the inside, it pushes the curve down in the right direction.
The ‘S’ is a difficult character to get right, it relies on a careful balance of two open counters both horizontally and vertically. The classic “cut and shut” technique of pushing two semi-circles together leaves a tell-tale kink in the middle. This meeting point has to carefully smoothed out to give the impression of one long stroke.
The horizontal and vertical strokes should not be the same thickness. If they are, the horizontal strokes will look heavier. An example above shows how a visually monolinear typeface such as Futura, has subtle adjustments to the horizontal strokes to make them appear even.
Unfortunately, lining up straight and curved edges using guidelines does not work. In the above example, the circle is the same height as the two squares, but appears to be significantly smaller. To compensate for this optical illusion, the curve needs to increase in size so it seems level with the horizontal lines.
Spacing can be a huge challenge to those new to type design, and only gets easier with practice. The example above shows rounded and straight shapes, all equally spaced apart. However, the two squares appear much closer than the two rounded shapes. By adding extra space to the straight edges and less to the curved shapes a good balance can eventually be achieved.
These examples are only an outline of the issues you will face when designing type, but will draw your attention to the most common mistakes. A strict set of rules at the beginning can produce some very interesting ideas, but they need to be flexible. This will not only to make your type work better, but will help differentiate yours from the others being churned out every day. The simplest rule to remember is: trust your eye more than the grid.
Ian Moore works as a full-time graphic designer and in his spare time as a type designer for The Colour Grey. This is an updated version of an article originally posted on Design Assembly. It’s been re-edited and expanded for Typographica.