Here is a brief run-down of the creation of my sophomore typeface, Relax. As stated in the post title, this isn’t meant to explain how to create a typeface or font. More missteps than I can mention in this post were taken. This is just a summarized story of the creation of one typeface. It involves a foggy recounting of a series of non-deliberate moves toward (and at times away from) building a working font.
This typeface had two different, largely unrelated, lives before it became a goal to bring the face into fruition. One was that it was a series of custom letters that I had toyed around with, based, I’m pretty sure, on a sketch of an R that has mysteriously disappeared, and tossed onto dribbble to see if people actually give feedback. (They largely don’t in my experience.) I only created a few more letters so I could use them on a friend’s thank you card. I never actually finished that card, and I drank the Ten Fidy that I bought for him. (He’s the first one to receive a copy of the font, so hopefully that makes us even.) The other life was that it was the subject in a low-pressure experiment to freshen up on the tools so I could finish out the weights of the Franchise face I’d made before.
As you can see, there were some pretty funky things going on in the earliest iterations. The T was terrible, as was the head serif attempt on the N. But I really liked something about that Q and the G, so I kept it around and mostly forgot about it.
Hard Drive Failure
I’m an instructor at the college in my home town. I often talk about backing up files, and get pretty annoyed when someone tells me that they just lost their files and didn’t save them anywhere else. Well, right in the middle of introducing a project one day, my hypocrisy was laid bare for all to see. My hard drive did indeed crash, and the files were all corrupted. I hadn’t backed up everything in about 6 months. Terrible. I didn’t get the screen of death shown; if you’ve seen this before, I’m sorry for you. It means your hard drive is dead, and you’re probably gonna have to pay thousands of dollars to maybe get the files from it. I was working on an external hard drive, but the loss of my files and months of work was still an unwelcome blow. The rest of the semester (I was only about a month in) involved rebuilding files so I could continue with classes, since I had 4 separate preps and had changed nearly everything about them since my last backup.
Hey There, Old Friend
I ran a piece of software on the hard drive, and surprisingly was able to salvage a lot, although there are now thousands of cryptically named files to sort through still sitting in a folder. While searching for a project, I stumbled upon the Thank You file and pulled it out.
Inspired by Numbers
On a whim, I opened the file one day and started playing around with what the numbers of the face would look like. This mostly involved finding ways to put together circles, lines and diagonals in a way that still read properly. I really started to like the numbers, and was disheartened to see that the numbers didn’t really look like the letters I had created. So I redrew a few of the letters based upon the numbers’ characteristics. For example, the top of the R took on an actual circle curve rather than the more rectangular shape of the previous version.
Hey. This might work.
A few subtle changes made them jive a little better, and looking at the letters I’d made, I realized I had the typographic information to create most of the rest of the letters: there was a W in the M, a U and Y in the A. So I did it. In the span of about 4 hours, I made the numbers and the alpha characters up to around T, with a good idea of how the rest would look. I was at a loss for the S and the J; I won’t even show some of the earlier attempts, as they nearly caused me to throw this away or just settle for the numbers. At a birthday party that weekend I saw those two letters on a poster and thought I’d found the solution for both, so I took a blurry picture of it. It turned out not to work, but it did give me the boost I needed to keep chugging.
So I guess this is happening?
I finished out all the letters and some punctuation and had what I thought was a nice set of letters. But all this pen-tooling so far had been highly non-committal. At this point, I realized I needed to make this happen. The letters had grown on me as I’d toyed with them for a week or two on and off. And that meant that I was only about half way through the characters, as I needed more language support given that this face isn’t exclusively American in its style. So began all the technical challenges.
Oh, brother. What have I done?
This is the point at which it became apparent I’d done everything wrong now that I actually wanted to create a working font, not just a typeface. These are all things I knew already. I just decided to ignore them. This was partially because I hadn’t committed myself to the task, but also because I was just moving from one letter to the next in Illustrator and didn’t want to start over, doing things the right way. Here’s how I hadn’t done things in the right way: if you are creating a font, you should either (a) draw the letters in a program like FontLab that is meant to generate fonts or (b) set your file up in a very specific way so that there is no loss of integrity of the face because of rounding errors from one program to the other. I had done neither of these. Importing a letter of non-integer dimensions into something that only works in integers results in one of two things: your letters are slightly changed against your will, or your letter looks like it has been run through a lawn mower. Previous experiments had given me the latter result.
Math to the Rescue
When you set a file up properly, dimensions are fixed at the outset and default to integers, so you don’t really have to worry about it later on. I’d just been drawing letters with no regard for this. One saving factor was that I’d at least drawn all the letters in proper proportion to each other. So I did some math to get things in order.
If all letters were of the same height, this would have been a really easy task. But they are not; rounded letters extend past the bounds of their neighbors. So I noted my target cap height (the distance from the bottom to the top of non-rounded capital letters usually) and the cap height of my corresponding vector letters. I did some math to find the scaling that would need to be done. The letters in their current state had to be scaled up a really precise amount (to seven decimal points, actually) and brought into my import-ready version of the Illustrator file where I ran a handy little script of mine to get the little buggers who still wanted to be situated at 243.24 or some unholy non-integer. And by golly, it worked.
Finishing it Out
The rest of the font creation process is pretty mundane on paper. (Yes, even more mundane than the above, if you’re asking.) The creation of the full typeface really didn’t take very long at all. The conversion of the letters into a working font took a little longer, mostly because of the silly approach I described above and because kerning is a beast. About half the time from the beginning of the project until right now has been spent dealing with issues of font formats, web font security as a private distributor, and building a proper avenue (this website) to offer up my type to you all on my own. The last part – building the site and the market place – has been the most time-consuming and tedious, but that’s the subject of another article.
As I was finishing the font and considering formats and web availability, I emailed Mark Simonson, whose Proxima Nova is one of the most-used faces in the country right now. I had some really specific questions about his approach. Not only did he promptly respond to my questions, but he went above and beyond in offering up his experience with some of the issues I was addressing. He also did this several years ago when I was creating Franchise. I mention this because it’s refreshing when folks are willing to offer up their hard-earned knowledge just to be helpful.
That’s the story. Now go get the font, and make some friggin’ sweet work with it.