In 2009, after 13 years as a self-employed graphic designer, I decided to abandon the professional world and go back to school — this time to pursue a field that seems related, but is an entirely separate discipline: typeface design.
Although a lot of type designers are self taught and quite successful, I was looking for the opportunity to study letterforms and their construction for an intense and uninterrupted period of time, something you can’t do while working full-time. After attending three type design courses over the last four years I’d like to share my experience with others who are considering a career in the field.
I won’t dig into much detail about individual projects. (They are heavily documented on other blogs, they often change, and it’s nice to have some surprises if you attend.) Instead, my intent is to give you a quick insight into what you might experience from each course, so you’ll be in a better position to decide which one or two might be best for you, and to help answer some of the questions I had before applying. There are a few handy tips in here, too.
The following three courses are a part of my journey to pursue type design as a career path.
Undergraduate: The Warm Up
My first experience with designing letterforms was when I enrolled in the undergraduate Digital Font Design unit VCO3305 at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. You join the Bachelor of Communication Design students that chose the type design unit as an elective for a four hour class each week for one semester — approximately twelve weeks. You begin each class with an hour lecture, then you have three hours studio time to work on your project. A minimum of an extra nine hours during your week is required to complete the assignments.
This unit teaches the basic skills of using a font editor (at the time we used FontLab, now they are using RoboFont), an introduction into type construction, spacing, and some type design history. Our assignments included creating a modular font (A–Z, 0–9), a brush- or pen-inspired font, and finally a self-initiated project. In each you are encouraged to expand the character set to include upper and lowercase, numerals and punctuation. A research assignment on an existing typeface to present to the class was also a part of the assessment. For our final submission we designed a small specimen for each font we created.
If you are living in Australia, I highly recommend this course as a good introduction to type design while still having the ability to continue your freelance work. And for those living elsewhere, the good news is that undergraduate courses with a focus on type design are becoming more common. Check in with your local university or art school.
[email protected]: The Sprint
For those seriously interested in creating type, the T[email protected] Condensed Postgraduate Certificate in Typeface Design might be for you. This course, based in New York, is a five week type design bootcamp for fifteen selected participants from around the world. The course is setup especially for international students, so be prepared to benefit from new lifelong friends at your future travel destinations.
[email protected] is an intense course from day one. It compacts the contact hours from the yearlong Extended program into five weeks! You will work around twelve hours a day, seven days a week to keep up with these guys. The moment you arrive at Cooper you start drawing type. We worked with the broad nib pen and brush to learn the basic structure of roman letterforms before moving onto developing our own typeface.
History and theory is taught with visits to many of New York’s famous libraries and museums and the amazing Herb Lubalin Study Centre of Design and Typography located in the beautiful Cooper Union building.
This course will truly test your interest in type, giving you the opportunity to work on your own typeface for the duration of the course. You are required to present your progress to your teachers and fellow classmates on a regular basis while learning how to constructively critique the work of others. Your teachers at [email protected] are among the best type designers in the world, so you are in extremely good hands. My experience at [email protected] gave me a solid understanding of history, construction, spacing, digitization using RoboFont, and some basic font production and Python coding. I highly recommend this course if you are ready for a challenge and prepared to put your working life aside for five invigorating weeks.
The application process is seamless and you will find out if you’ve been excepted before or on the date they publish. I submitted a folio of typographic work, including my first attempts at type design from the course at Monash University. I showed I was able to find my way around a font editor and had an understanding, and a substantial interest in creating type.
Once you’ve been accepted you will need to find accommodation in New York, which is not cheap and is a little bit of a challenge. I arrived in the city and stayed in a hostel for a week while looking for a place, but I would recommend trying to secure something before your arrive. I finally found a share-house on CraigsList in East Village within walking distance to Cooper Union which proved to be very handy after a long day of drawing type. It’s also good to be close to other classmates so you can work together on weekends and grab a beer and a meal after class. When you’re accepted, try to link up with each other on Facebook and Twitter before you arrive.
KABK: The Full Marathon
Type and Media at The Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague, The Netherlands, is the granddaddy of type design courses. It’s like [email protected] on steroids. The yearlong master’s study is intense, and the intensity expands the full year. They offer you the chance to put your life on hold and focus purely on type, learning from the best type designers in the field. Holidays are really not holidays and weekends are pretty much for working. This is the first time in my life where I lost track of days, and where weekends blended into the working week. Having said that, if you like type you will enjoy every minute!
Taught in English, Type and Media is a combination of experiences designed to allow you to distill your own way of working and producing typefaces. It’s not a course where you are hand-held and shown “the way” to do things. Each teacher has different (sometimes conflicting) ideas and methods of working. It puts you in a position to find your own direction. Looking back, it feels like every experience had a purpose and the structure was a truly tested one.
Pen work and sketching is a big part of this course. The broad nib pen, flexible pointed pen, and hammer and chisel were tools we got to know from the start. Sketching, sketching, and more sketching was encouraged for exploring ideas before any digitization. The TypeCooker website was a tool we used often for pushing the limits on what you can achieve when mixing different type parameters. We had a lot of fun and many wild ideas were hatched during these classes.
The research side of things is not forgotten. Trips to libraries and museums in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, and the UK led us to the elusive names and history of forgotten pre-nineteenth-century typefaces.
The major project in the second half of the year is where all that you’ve learnt and experienced during the first half of the year is focused. This is your opportunity to put it all into practice and develop a fully-working typeface of your choice. Presenting your ideas and progress is an important element in the process. We met regularly with our teachers and classmates to show where we were at and to explain our journey. Your classmates’ experiences are also important to your own progress throughout the year.
Many hours are spent with your fellow classmates, and they become your family. Students from eleven different countries were plucked out of our everyday lives and placed in a pressure cooker for a year. Not only do you learn about type here, you also learn about different cultures, personalities and a lot about yourself. Don’t expect to come out of this course the same person as when you went in. There is not much time to meet outsiders, so operating as a team, functioning happily and productively, is an important part of this unique experience.
Getting into Type and Media is a battle in itself. With over 150 applicants each year being one of the twelve selected was a great honor. The application process involved submitting a letter of motivation to attend. Basically you have to convince them that you have enough interest and experience to be considered for the enduring time ahead. After submitting your application, don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear back from them immediately, or if at all. But waiting to hear if you’ve been accepted is quite painful. It will not necessarily be on the date that they publish, but you will hear back from them eventually. Keep an eye on the @typemedia twitter account — sometimes this hints at where they are in the application process. If you’re not accepted, but you’re still serious about attending, don’t give up. Improve your skills and try again the next year. You won’t be the first person to have applied a couple of times before getting into this course.
Once accepted, you will need to organize your big move to The Netherlands. This can be quite a task if you don’t speak Dutch (Nederlands) as all governmental and business correspondence is written in the local language. Having said that, most Dutch-speaking people are also happy to speak in English, and Google Translate will become your best friend for all written documents. Be sure to get in contact with the graduating students as they can help you with any questions you might have, including lodging. There are a few “unofficial” Type and Media houses that have been passed down from previous students which makes life a lot easier — especially if you are not from Europe.
Type and Media is truly an experience you will carry with you for the rest of your life. I highly recommend this course if you intend for type to be a big part of that journey.
Choosing Your Own Path
I decided on these three courses over other type design programs because of the hands-on experience they offer. While there is a different level of theory included in each, making type is what they are all about.
One important distinction is that they focus mainly on designing Latin typefaces. Still, at Type and Media I spent some time designing a Greek and my revival project was a Javanese typeface. Whatever your interest in non-Latin type, in my opinion, learning the principles of type design and exploring shapes initially is most important. Once you have this under your belt, exploring other scripts become more about understanding the language, its script, and how it’s used.
But my path may not be yours. Before you choose a program, check out these other specialized type design courses around the globe:
Universidad de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires)
CDT-UBA, Carrera de especialización en Diseño de Tipografía
École Estienne (Paris)
DSAA Création Typographique
École supérieure d’art et de design, ESAD (Amiens)
Post-diplôme Systèmes graphiques, langage et typographie
Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, HGB (Leipzig)
Klasse für Type-Design
École cantonale d’art de Lausanne, ECAL (Lausanne)
MA Art Direction: Type Design
Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, ZHdK (Zürich)
MAS Type Design and Typography
Centro de Estudios Gestalt (Veracruz)
Maestría en Diseño Tipográfico
University of Reading (Reading)
MA Typeface Design
How many of the type designers graduated from t]m make enough money from type to live off? I think it would be nice to study this but it is too competitive to be worth the money, sadly.
It’s not just about being a full-time type designer. For many, it’s about improving yourself as a designer in general. I think most graduates would tell you that the skills they learned at Type and Media or other postgrad programs are useful in a general design practice and other creative fields. Those who can draw and produce competent typefaces are a rarity in the graphic design workforce. Custom type, for instance, is an increasingly valued part of identity design.
Nice article, thank you for sharing your experiences!
Another great primer is the traveling workshop called Crafting Type. It’s run by graduates of Reading, runs for a weekend and is a great way to immerse yourself in type design quickly and find out if you love it.
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Hey, this was a really great read. Very inspiring! I’ve been thinking of doing a type design masters myself and have my eye on The Hague. I was just curious though, did you have to save up or were you working to support yourself on top of your Masters course for that year long course? i’m sorry if this is a personal question I’m just trying to work out how to afford a year without working at this stage in my career.
Do I have to own a postgraduate diploma to apply for the MA courses?