Type Design Briefs

The Type Design Brief

As far as I can tell, it takes three things to create a typeface:

  • Purpose
  • Planning
  • Patience

(I didn’t intend for that to be three nicely alliterated points. It just worked out in my favor.)

But this really is worth mentioning here, because a brief is important. I have started a type design once before without finishing it because of a lack of a good brief. Not this time!

It’s critical to note that this all starts with the purpose. That’s what a design brief is—a purpose statement. If I just want to make a type design for kicks, it’s going to be a lot harder to get specific and narrow down what I’m doing.

What I learned from trying to design a typeface without a brief is that there are far too many places to get lost. There are way too many questions that arise to which I can only answer, “Doesn’t matter.” And that makes it very hard to pick a direction, to know where to go and when to stop.

Once I have a purpose, I can plan for that purpose. This give me the patience to see it through, because I know when the typeface has achieved its purpose.

So how do I figure out the purpose?

A type design brief should answer 4 questions:

  • What should it do?
  • Where does it do it?
  • For whom does it speak?
  • In what tone does it speak?

There are quite a few sub-questions to make this practical, and that’s what I’m going to detail here.

When building a font, I like to think of it as finding the perfect candidate for a job. I’ve got a position I’m hiring for, and if I were to imagine the best person to fill that position, what would that person be like?

I’ll walk through each of these four questions (and the related sub-questions) for the font I’m designing.

What should it do?

Does this job description require someone to be able to lift 100 lbs? Solve complex equations? Model underwear?

For a font, this means determining if it’s for text or display, long form reading or short headlines.

I’m designing a display face. It’s meant for short headlines. That’s a good start.

My typeface is based on protest signs. My original thought was to do a single face, but protest signs are as varied as people. It would make more sense to have a set of faces for different sizes and different writing implements. However I realize this means I’m talking about multiple type designs doing slightly different variations on the same task.

Since my goal is to get this typeface finished, I don’t want to add any more work than is necessary. So I will focus on only one of these fonts for now.

This typeface should be able to fit the biggest message in the least amount of space, so it’s going to be somewhat condensed.

It needs to grab attention and stay visible, so it’s going to be relatively bold.

This is based on a handwritten implement, so it should probably have alternate glyphs for each letter in order not to look too much like a font.

Where does it do it?

Does this job description call for a person who can fit down really narrow shafts while spelunking? Does it require someone who can block a doorway in front of a club?

Is this font meant for print or screen? If print, what kind of paper? If screen, what resolution(s)?

This might also be a good point to address specific design requirements. There may be functional elements that need to be taken into consideration. Is this a typeface for a dishwasher display with a specific screen size and resolution? Is this type going to be used vertically on banners or signs? The more specific I can go, the better.

My font is meant to be printed at large sizes but viewed from a distance. So it needs to be very legible, but not necessarily readable. (Legibility gauges how recognizable the characters are; readability gauges how much text can be read or for how long.) It will also need to work well at large sizes on all screens, including small screens.

For whom does it speak?

Does this job require the candidate to speak Czech, Arabic, Mandarin?

What is the required character set for this font? Thinking in terms of languages is very helpful for answering this question. But there are other things to consider as well:

  • What kind of numbers will be used?
    (Tabular figures for spreadsheets? Text figures for numbers within texts?)
  • Do there need to be any special characters?
    (Dingbats? Swashes? Alternates? Ligatures?)
  • Are there any market requirements?
    (MyFonts has a minimum character set for fonts to be accepted on the site.)

The font I’m designing is a display face, with a largely western market. The MyFonts minimum includes a light and easy 128 characters. I’d like to do a bit more than that. I also don’t envision a whole lot of use for mathematic operators or special punctuation. However, that’s not to say some of them won’t or shouldn’t be included.

What I’m interested in the most is having a font that provides a visual voice for as many people as I can reasonably design for as an English monolingual. (I know. Only speaking English is sad.) Which means I have to stay Latin-based.

I’m going to use the Underware Latin Plus character set, minus some of the lesser used mathematic operators. This is a character set put together by the type foundry Underware, which includes the fewest characters possible to support the largest number of Latin-based languages possible. It contains 446 characters, about half of them the Latin alphabet with various diacritics. I’ll be using about 430 of them.

Plus I’ll add at least one alternate glyph for each of 66 base characters (ones to which I can’t just add a slash, stroke or diacritic mark). That will add 287 glyphs to the set, for a total of around 717 glyphs. That’s a lot of glyphs. I just have to remind myself that many of these will be generated by combining diacritics with base characters.

However, I reserve the right to cut the number of glyphs if the proposed number will prevent me from finishing. This is a luxury I have designing my own font for my own purposes. If this were a client, that would not be the case. Needs are needs, but I just want to have a lot of glyphs.

In what tone does it speak?

This question addresses the personality of the job candidate, the temperament, demeanor, and dress code.

In terms of the typeface, the questions are similar. What is the personality, temperament, and demeanor of the typeface?

For this I would ask the same kind of questions I ask when lettering an idea. How did someone feel when writing or drawing the letterforms? What kind of body language should be associated with the forms? What historical period is associated with the forms?

For this typeface I want the tone to be resolute, imperative, and even somewhat angry. I don’t want it to be sloppy, but deliberate. These letters should be written by someone who wants to be heard loud and clear. That might involve a certain amount of expressiveness, but not to the point of being abstract or sacrificing legibility.

Finally, I have to consider the tool making the forms. Some typefaces don’t show the tool, though they may reference a form that once did. This one is meant to look hand lettered, so the tool is critical. I’ll most likely be using a Sharpie® Magnum®.

* * *

Now that I know what I’m aiming for, I’m going to do research to inform what my letters could or should look like. In the next post I’ll show the research I’ve done, and lay out how that research will shape my letters. Then in the following post I’ll get started crafting the letters themselves.






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