To create a font, a true typeface, with families, weights, variations and all that is one of the most technical and advanced things in graphic design. To get to make it a functional and flexible and usable in many areas you need a lot of skills and a lot of hard work of attention to detail.
Here are the basic steps to better address the process of creating your own font, of any kind, using Adobe Illustrator.
The ability to develop a skill in the field of font design is a process that requires years of study and experience; however, this should not discourage those who are beginners because, once you have learned all the necessary notions, it is very simple even for a beginner to be able to create a custom typeface.
The introductory phase of creating a font implies the knowledge of some fundamental factors such as the anatomy of the characters and the styles to apply the character, which include terminologies and definitions such as Roman, Bold, Ascendant, Stem, Extended, Baseline, X-Height etc.
Let’s start by first understanding what the different variations of your character may be to get an idea of what you will have to design.
The weights and variants of a typeface
Every modern typeface has weights and variations. The most common and main variant is Italic (or italic). The weights are instead the different thicknesses of a character that, depending on the font, can be few or very many (the modern font families also have more than 20 weights with as many variant cursive).
Roman or Regular weight
It always starts from the Roman or Regular. It is the basic graphic form.
The name, “Roman” is not born, as is often claimed, because the ancient Romans used these letters but because they were the letters used in Italy in the fifteenth century, during the explosion of the movable type printing. We still use these letters precisely because the press had its cultural center in Italy (particularly in Venice). In manual writing it is commonly referred to as “block letters”.
When designing a font, we always start from its regular version.
Starting from the shapes and proportions of the Roman, all the other weight variants are designed. These are some of the most important:
Light: it is a lighter version, thin and thin compared to Roman.
Bold: is a type of style that has a greater thickness of the letters than the Roman.
Black: it is a typographic style with greater thickness than the Bold.
Other subtle variations such as Thin, Extra-Thin, Extra-Light, etc.
And other heavier or intermediate variants like Semi-Bold, Ultra-Black / Extra-Black, etc.
The main typographic variants
Italic: it is the cursive version of the Roman.
Condensed: is the compressed version of the Roman. It is a condensed style, narrow and crushed. It is exploited when there is little space available.
Extended: unlike the Condensed version, it is an extended and extended style.
Well, now that you’ve got an idea of what variations of style your font will or should have, let’s learn about the basic terminologies most used by designers to describe the anatomical details of the individual letters.
The elements of the typeface
Baseline: an invisible horizontal line on which upper and lower case letters rest. The baseline does not include the space occupied by the descending elements.
Mean line (midline): it is half the distance between the Baseline and the Cap height.
X-height (height of X): is the height of the lowercase letters that make up a font. It refers to the distance between the Baseline and the Mean line.
Ascendant (ascend): it is any element of a font that extends above the X-height.
Descendant (descended): is the portion of a character that extends below the Baseline.
Stroke (line): means the single line used to compose a character. Some fonts are characterized by a single uniform stroke while others alternate thin to thick lines.
The elements of the single glyph
Stem: means the vertical lines of a typeface. They can be perfectly vertical (letter T or M), or diagonal (letter V).
Tail: this refers to the terminal part of a letter that often assumes an ornamental and decorative character.
Eye (eyelet): this is the space inside each letter as the inner area of the letters “a” and “e”.
Arm: it is the horizontal, upper or lower part of a letter. (E L F T)
Bowl (curved rod): means the curved line that makes up a closed section of a letter
Crossbar (bar): it is the horizontal line that unites one or two lines of a letter as it happens for example, in the “e” and in the “A”.
Terminal (terminal stretch): the final part of a portion of a character that extends below the baseline.
Cap height: the distance between the Baseline and the upper part of a capital letter.
Kerning: this term indicates the reduction of excess space between appropriate pairs of characters.
How to create your own font with Illustrator
If you are about to create your own font for the first time, you will need to equip yourself with the right tools that allow you to optimize your work and obtain a serious and professional product. Contrary to what you might think, you do not need to spend a fortune to get good equipment and it is also undeniable that having the right tools makes the work much easier!
Here is the list of tools of the trade that cannot miss to create a custom font:
- A pencil
- A black or stroke-pen marker (with a 0.5 to 1 mm stretch)
- A ruler (optional)
- Some sheets of graph paper (downloadable below)
- The Fontself plugin for Illustrator
- A scanner
- A lot of imagination and creativity.
To find the right inspiration I suggest you take inspiration from existing typefaces. If this is the first time to draw a font, it can be very useful to have a few examples at your fingertips in order to stimulate your creativity better.
Within my collection “The best tools for graphic designers” you will find an entire section dedicated to the best font services.
If you already have an idea of the type of character to be implemented and the related styles to implement, you can finally start sketching your first concept.
How to create a complete font: draw letters and symbols
As I explained to you at the beginning of the article, in most cases, professional fonts include a standard character map plus additional alternative styles like Bold, Italic, Light, etc. For now I suggest you focus only on the basic version or Regular or Roman.
First define a maximum width for both uppercase and lowercase, considering that each typeface can have a variable width.
Start drawing from the Baseline and moving up or down depending on the ascending or descending elements.
Implement the numbers from 0-9 and any symbols such as points, commas, semicolons, exclamation marks and question marks.
Review and fill the typefaces with a stroke-pen or black marker.
Now that your font has been traced on paper, it’s time to digitize it so that it can be optimized within Illustrator.
Step 1: scan and refine the image
First, scan the sheets of paper at a resolution of at least 300 pdi. Then, before moving on to vectorization, quickly fix the contrasts of the scans with Photoshop.
Open the files in PS and from the Image menu click on Adjustments> Remove saturation (Shift + Ctrl or Cmd + U), to desaturate them.
Now again from the image menu choose the item Adjustments> Tonal Values (Ctrl or Cmd + L). What we’re going to do is correct the tonal range of the scans in order to increase the contrast between blacks and whites. All you have to do here is use the dropper on the right under the options button: the first is used to select the black point of an image, the second for the gray point and the third for the white point. To begin, select the first eyedropper and click on the image at the corresponding point (a letter) to set the black point. Then define the white dot by using the third dropper.
Step 2: create your own font with Illustrator
Once you’ve saved the images in Photoshop, it’s time to import them into the Illustrator table, then open AI, create a new A4 document and click on File> Insert. Now, you need to trace the images to convert the letters into vector format. To do this you have two ways:
Automate the process using the Image Tracing function: a faster, but less accurate option, inevitably needing to be touched up and cleaned.
Manually redraw letters using drawing tools like Pen and Pencil. If you are drawing a very simple and straightforward character, you should choose the second path and will therefore rely on manual tracing with the Pen tool. In this way you will have the possibility to take advantage of the width profiles of the track to obtain quickly variable line thicknesses.
FontSelf: the plugin to create fonts with Illustrator
What we are going to do in this paragraph, will generate an OpenType.otf file containing the new font that you can later:
- Install on any Windows or Mac computer;
- Use within all applications (Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Word, Excel, Power Point etc.);
- Share on Social Networks;
- Offer a free license on Dafont or Fontsquirrel;
- Sell on dedicated services like Typekit, Creative Market, Myfont etc.
You can do all thee with the FontSelf plugin. It is a very powerful extension for Adobe Illustrator (and Photoshop) with which you can transform any vector element into an OpenType font.
It also allows you to:
- Create a font in seconds with drag & drop;
- Convert any vector form into a typeface;
- Preview the font before exporting;
- Save files in OpenType format (compliant with standards);
- Manage kerning and binding fast.
Personally, I think it’s one of the best add-ons ever invented for Illustrator, in fact it’s already used by thousands of creatives all over the world. The Plugin, if fully exploited, can lead you to great results especially from an economic point of view, given that, compared to a small expense, the correct use of FontSelf, combined with the techniques described in this article and a component of creativity can allow you to generate potentially infinite profits, in case your font obtains the desired effect with graphic designers and creatives.
How to install and use FontSelf
The installation procedure of the plugin varies depending on the version of Illustrator present on your computer. I will show you the installation procedure on Illustrator CC 2017, but inside the FontSelf package you will find all the instructions to make the extension work even on previous versions.
Start Illustrator, go to the File> Script> Other Script menu and select the installer.jsx file from the Fontself Maker X.X.X folder
After closing the installation message, restart Illustrator and access the menu item Window> Extensions> Fontself Maker X.X.X
Open the Fontself Maker panel will appear a welcome screen in which, after clicking Ok, go it, you will need to enter the license code received via email.
Start doing some practice with the Fontself Maker panel. All you have to do is drag your letters into the prepared area, considering that:
- If a letter is composed of several elements, you must first group them using the Object> Group function:
- You can enter characters individually and then associate them with the correct letters;
- You have the ability to import all capital letters (A-Z), provided they are aligned on one line and you order correctly from left to right;
- The extension also allows you to import all lowercase letters (a-z) and numbers (0-9) as long as they are aligned and ordered from left to right.
Little adjustments should be made before proceeding with final exportation.
Check that each letter is resting correctly on the Baseline. Otherwise, manually reposition the letters with a drag.
Perform write tests within the white field to verify that the space between the characters is correct. You can optionally adjust margins manually or using the letter spacing + and – cursors.
If you want to remove something from the panel, you can do so by clicking on the X icon that appears on the right side of each letter.
How to export a font from Fontself
Before proceeding with the final export, it is essential to click on the “Font infos” button and fill in the information fields of: font name, style, name of the creator, website of the creator, license, copyright and so on. You just have to click on the Install button to immediately install the Font inside Illustrator, or press Export to save the typeface in .otf format on your computer.
Of course, creating professional fonts is another matter, requiring months and months of work and obsessive attention to detail. But at least with this method you can get to create a custom font in a simple and fast way.