The best tools for creating your own typeface

Béla Frank Knowledge share
23 Sep’14

Type is hype, type is fashionable. There has been a boom in type design recently, it’s still happening. More and more people are trying it out, teaching it, learning it, crafting fonts to make a living out of it or just for fun. This process is definitely fuelled by new tools on the market. It seems like a win-win situation to everyone involved.

I can still recall the very moment when I fired up a font editor the first time, back in 2007. It was Fontlab Studio, seemingly the obvious choice for a budding type designer. It felt magic, even if one coming with a greyish, boring interface, slightly confusing menu wording and hell of a lots of options. Type design seemed the most off-beat and the most exciting thing to do. I felt like entering a solitary, special place. This memory seems to be so dated today with type design being everywhere.

While the design part may still be done with pencil on paper, that design has to be turned into a working font. It has always had to be. Type was carved into wood, molten in lead. The design always had to be turned into matter, always in accordance with the rules and possibilities of that material or medium. It had to be encapsulated into a meticulously engineered font eventually. These days this font is a digital one, usually in more than one format, which is seemingly easy to produce—especially if you know what to do. This can be misleading – just try to fire up any type tool and create a font. Click and run? Far from it.

The process of type design is a complex one. You draw or edit the letterforms. You set information and data to make your font work consistently on all platforms, hint it to look good on your printed page and on screen and finally export it to the appropriate file formats. I bet you suspect by now that you need something that makes it all easy for you.

So let’s take a look at some major font editor tools available out there – Fontlab Studio, Fontographer, Glyphs and RoboFont. This’ll help you to make an informed decision that will affect your workflow and results before setting out to create a font.

Fontographer and Fontlab has long been the de facto tools of type design and while it isn’t exactly true anymore, they’re still around due to the fact that many individual designers and companies based their workflow on them during the years. They are powerful enough to create robust, commercial-quality fonts and they run on Mac as well as on Windows.

Using Fontlab, you can fine-tune everything you may need from OpenType features (advanced typographical features like small capitals) to manual TrueType hinting (for superb rendering in screen). Workflow can be automated with Python scripting (the type designer favourite programming language)—you can access the most of its internal objects via Python but lack of proper documentation can be daunting. Its Multiply Master support is powerful but not intuitive nor easy to set up. Despite these issues, Fontlab is probably still the most used type design tool for font production (it’s something about to change, I guess).

For a beginner, Fontlab’s interface may be confusing and look dated compared to modern apps. Its steep learning curve can be disheartening. Go for it if you definitely need that extended range of tools and feel ready for the challenge.

Fontographer suits a novice type designer’s or a digital designer’s needs more. Its interface looks more fun, the tools you may need are there, the font naming is easy (this being one of the toughest challenges for a beginner, you’ll praise any software that makes it any easier of you) and its feature like Auto Space and Auto Kern features might be tempting to use and save some time for you but it’s not something you may want to automate. Fontographer lacks some of Fontlab’s advanced functions. There’s no OpenType feature editing in the app (although you can write your code and import it), neither hand-hinting.

While they have been really good tools, Fontographer and FL seems to be dormant while new tools have appeared and been flourishing like the more designer friendly Glyphs App or the highly scalable Robofont.

The desktop computer has liberated the typography and make it accessible to everyone—for the better and worse. Glyphs and Robofont, which can be considered the type designer’s modern tools, are changing the face of type design currently.

While both project looked exciting right from the outset, many designers might have been reluctant to take them seriously but those days are long gone. Both apps are evolving, have a fast-growing and dedicated community of users and developers. Latest versions are user friendly, easy to learn and capable of producing high-quality fonts. Both Glyphs and Robofonts natively support the popular UFO format whose popularity is ever-growing.

“The font editor for everyone. Glyphs... helps you draw new typefaces, modify existing fonts, and sculpt your letterforms hassle-free” as it goes on Glyphs site and they are bang on. Glyphs has turned type design into an enjoyable process with its integrated interface for drawing, spacing and kerning. It can auto-generate OpenType-features even for complex scripts like Arabic. Planning a font family? Crafting it is easy as it gets using Glyphs Multiply Masters!

Glyphs are scriptable using Python. Adding new functions is easy as the whole system is well-documented.

Glyphs lets you focus on the design process — you do not have to be aware of technicalities before drawing and exporting OpenType fonts in order to get everything right. As an extreme example, one can open up, modify and export an .otf font preserving everything with no previous technical knowledge about fonts. Easy? Yes, it is.

While Glyphs is for virtually everyone from absolute beginner to experienced type designers, RoboFont is a flexible font editor written entirely in Python. It allows total customisation of its interface and structure so one can create brand-new, tailor-made solutions depending on the project on hand. You can customize and expand your app like never before as Robofont gives you control over your workflow down to the smallest details. Robofont can be run from command line.

Glyphs and Robofont may lack of some functionalities right now but they are evolving fast. Biggest drawback could be that they run on Mac only—no Windows version is planned.

All this sounds exciting? You feel you can do type design? So what are you waiting for? Why not start and create your very own typeface right now!


Fontlab Studio for almost everything from making a font to crafting a whole type library of your own

Pro: imports and exports fonts with up to 65,535 glyphs in a wide range of font formats; has an extended toolset, can be used to a wide range of tasks from outline editing to TrueType manual instructing; scriptable; runs on Mac as well as Windows.

Con: you better know what you're doing, not really for a beginner; steep learning curve; updates come rarely; buggy; documentation is less than satisfactory; limited OpenType (no support for Arabic features, for example); no native UFO support; updates come rarely.

Fontographer for smaller type projects

Pro: quite easy to use; intuitive interface; automated processes; imports and exports fonts with 32,000 glyphs in a wide range of font formats; runs on Mac as well as Windows.

Con: OpenType features are not preserved upon opening a font and code cannot be edited in the app, only imported as feature-file; no native UFO support.

Glyphs App for casual user to beginner to seasoned type designer for any kind of project

Pro: easy to learn, easy to use; combined text and drawing views, layers, automatically generated (not only) basic OpenType features which can be previewed. Scriptable, expandable. Extremely fast updates, amazing support. Comes in two version.

Con: Mac only.

Robofont for those looking for a scalable tool

Pro: built in Python and scalable; loads of extra functions already available from a dedicated community; full scripting access to objects and interface; perfect base to to build additional tools on.

Con: Mac only; not the tool for quick jobs.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts, Issue 229.

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