What It's Like To Design A Font From Scratch

Steve Matteson has designed some of the most ubiquitous typefaces in the world, and engineered versions of Times New Roman, Arial, and Courier for Microsoft. Here, he reveals why every letter you see looks the way it does.

Steve Matteson has designed some of the most ubiquitous typefaces in the world, and engineered the original core fonts for Microsoft, adapting Times New Roman, Arial, and Courier, which you've probably used for term papers or resumes or anything else you wrote in Word. He has also created some less-classic designs that he's not too proud of, such as "Curlz," which falls in the Comic Sans camp of typefaces reserved for high school yearbooks, princess-themed birthday party invitations, and mockery.

But that is the plight of a professional font designer: One day you get to make lasting letter sets, the next you have to pay the bills. "Sometimes you have to do work that you're not really proud of," Matteson, the creative type director at Monotype, told Fast Company. "That's why we call it work instead of play."

Steve Matteson

Matteson's interest in words began as a teenager, and he set up a printing press in his basement. In college, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he discovered rare books. He fell out of love with mass printing, and was drawn to calligraphy and lettering as an art form. "You could hold these books and page through them and really appreciate the craft from centuries ago. That really turned me on to the art of the book," he said.

Despite drawing much of his inspiration from what he calls "old-school" Goudy-style fonts and the book arts, Matteson would go on to create some of the most lasting typefaces of the computing age. And, as we enter a new mobile-first, digital-exclusive era of reading and writing, Matteston is also at the forefront of that typeface revolution, designing for major tablet and e-reader makers.

While recreating the alphabet from scratch sounds like an increasingly difficult task--by now, you'd think that every possible permutation of legible letter shapes has already been created--Matteson sees more opportunity than ever to design new, better fonts. "I worried about that when I first started because back then, 25 years ago, resolutions of screens were so limited, the pixels were so coarse," he said. "But now that we’re reading on devices, I have a whole new generation of eyeballs to design for." Fast Company talked with Matteson about how he plans on continuing to make lasting, beautiful, and sometimes wacky fonts.

Designing Typefaces Is More About Restraint Than Freedom

"When designing typefaces, most designers probably find the biggest challenge is exercising restraint in their kind of free thinking as a designer, wanting to just go wild. Typeface design requires so much restraint you have to reign in that impulse to go crazy to make them legible and functional."

If Design Is Like Writing Music; Font Design Is Like Writing Jingles

"I often equate type design to writing music. A lot of work I do is custom work, working with a client, mobile user interface, or a print magazine. It's similar to going up to a musician and saying: 'Write me a jingle. And it has to be written in this key, and it's going to be sung by a male so it has to be low in the register, and we want it up tempo,' and all these other sort of things they might specify for a piece of music. It is similar for specifying what they want in the typeface. That builds the structure."

A Font Generally Starts With An Adjective

"They give me adjectives: approachable, friendly, feminine, masculine. All of these adjectives play into the detailing that we would do to the letter forms to help emphasize those attributes. An example might be if someone said they wanted a 'friendly' design. Somebody might think if all the edges of the typeface are rounded that would be 'friendly.' If they are really round, it can go too far in the friendly direction. If they want subtle, too-rounded would go too far down the carnival direction, rather than a dress-down Friday level of fun."

But The Alphabet Actually Starts With The Letter H

"What type designers do is start with the cap 'H,' cap 'O,' and cap 'V,' and lowercase 'n,' 'o,' 'd.' Those give you a lot of information about what the other letters are going look like. The thickness of the stems and how big the lowercase is compared to the uppercase, that relationship is very critical to legibility and it has a big effect on how elegant the design looks. Then you start filling out the alphabet and adding characteristics to curves. It's a very methodical process."

Outside Inspiration Is, However, Welcome

"I've spent a lot of time hiking and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada; many times I've been to Yosemite. The shape of Half Dome has beautiful soft curvature at the top and abruptly falls straight down. The contrast of that smooth polished granite and sheer cut off always looked like something very graphic to me. I sketched it several times while hiking and I used that in one of my typefaces."

If You Want To Create A Lasting Font, Look To Tradition

"Letter forms can only change so much because the tradition is (based on) the past. As you start adding funky quirks to things, there is less chance that those funky features are going to live as long as traditional timeless things. I will give an example: The Roman capitals, for instance, the Romans inscribed into monuments back in the 3rd and 4th century are considered the most perfect form of the Roman capital alphabet. A lot of typefaces have been influenced by these shapes and proportions.

"If you look at a contemporary design like Helvetica, you'll notice that most of the capitals are designed to look like they are all the same width. You have a very narrow "m" and a wide "e." It's the opposite approach to proportions than the classical proportions of Roman times. Helvetica is its own genre, it defines this reaction against the classical proportions. Helvetica has been around since the '60s and its been pervasive and it's used everywhere. But that’s a much shorter time frame than when you look back to 3rd- and 4th-century letters that look equally at home and legible today as they did then."

Then Again, Not All Contemporary Fonts Deserve So Much Hate (Ahem, Comic Sans)

"When all the Comic Sans vitriol was popular, everybody saying 'I hate Comic Sans' became such a popular meme, I think a lot of people dislike it because it's popular to dislike it. If you were to see it used in a comic I bet nobody would notice or comment. I think the fact is that it's used for so many things that are inappropriate. The graphic language doesn't match how it is being used. That is probably what drives people to hate things--overuse, and then misuse."

We're About To Enter A New Age Of Font Design

"Looking forward so many people are using a typeface specifically on a device where digital is the final product. There are very few typefaces designed with that in mind. Almost every typeface out there, save for maybe 30 or 40, out of 100,00--very few have been designed for reading on the screen. We're designing for the next generation of typography. Let’s think about what makes type comfortable to read on a device like a Nook or a Kindle and use that as our target."

[Images & Video courtesy of Steve Matteson]

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7 Comments

  • Todd Earley

    Ok, this is a good article, but the headline leads one to believe that we'll be getting real insight into the process of designing a typeface. Steps: sketch, scan, outline, fill? -- really this doesn't cut it. You've got my attention with your clever headline, but I feel cheated with the overall content.

  • Laura Frick

    As an Art Teacher one of the Design Element Projects was for my 7th and 8th Graders to Design their own Fonts. I used a different method than described and the results were perfection. It was a Final Project for Students...It evoked rigor for them to see into the future to their own business cards --that they would design and use their own Font...Or use on a shirt pocket or sleeve of a dress shirt--as a Monogram . LF43@aol.com

  • As a retired graphic designer and marketing communications professional for a solar shading product, I have to agree that fonts need to be designed specifically for computer and cell phone displays. Commercial shading systems are designed to deal with brightness and glare control in order to assist in controlling brightness, glare reflections and contrast on computer screens in controlled environments like offices and schools, but they do little to make the word eligible out in our mobile outdoor world.

    Mobile used fonts for cell phones and tablets used over public wifi networks need to somehow deal with better readability in an imperfect environment of glare, reflections and poor contrast. Especially when recent surveys indicate that eBooks have less reading comprehension than do printed books.

  • Jay Miller

    Designing fonts for the digital future is great idea! However, we are still in the age of building brands using various forms of media. The better idea would be to design fonts that will remain consistent across all forms of media including print as well. Fonts designed for digital only just ads to our daily frustration of trying to create brand constancy for both digital and print media.

  • Ryan Holmes

    I think when he talks about designing for digital, he's referring to designing a font for mass amounts of text for a book. As he mentions, there are 10,000's of fonts out there, and only a few for digital.

  • Ike Eslao

    Its nice to see calligraphy still an important part of our digital world. Calligraphy is to literacy as gourmet cooking is to food.