Project 2

Typeface Design


Custom alphabet design inspired by the aesthetics of outer space and galaxies. This work was completed for DTC independent study in spring 2017.

For this project, you will custom-design a typeface, or font. Your design idea should come from a specific point of inspiration, which will be a text of your own choosing. Your typeface design should embody the spirit of that text, which could be a poem, a work of fiction, an essay, an instructional text, a screenplay, song lyrics (the sky’s the limit here as long as you are excited about the text!). Depending on the spirit of your text, you will choose either a modular design method or a design method based on a physical material or environment. Once you have designed the full alphabet—using Illustrator, Photoshop, or a combination of the two*—you will design a large format poster that showcases all the letters of your alphabet in alphabetical order, as well as in a relevant sentence, phrase, or paragraph from or related to your source of inspiration. Your large format poster design should be printed on your own time at BCU in time for the DTC Showcase on Thursday, April 26th.

You should consult with your instructor immediately if you feel you need specific technical instruction in either Photoshop or Illustrator for the completion of this project. Some beginning to intermediate tutorials will be recommened and scanning help will be available at the CDSC.

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Choose and Analyze a Text

Choose a text that you’d like to use to inspire both your custom typeface design and your poster design. It may be poetry, fiction, nonfiction, screenplay, essay, or even an alternative type of text, such as a shopping list, a recipe, instructions, directions, etc., as long as you think it will compel you to make interesting visual choices, and as long as it is of decent length (several paragraphs or equivalent is ideal).

Consider the subject matter and spirit of your chosen text and write an analysis: What story does it tell? What mood does it set? How does it make you feel? How do you want it to affect other readers? What visual choices do you think it will inspire you to make? You will use these ideas to develop your own set of rules for creating a new alphabet design, or typeface. As noted in Lupton/Phillips, “a well-defined constraint can free up the thought process by taking some decisions off the table.” This is your chance as a designer to explore creating your own rules and sticking to them. (Remember that your design should be either modular or materials-based: See next section and your assigned readings for more info.)

Bring printed copies of your text (just an excerpt if it is long), as well as your own written analysis of the text to class on Tuesday, 3/6 (we meet in the library this day) or Thursday, 3/8. Your written analysis should address the questions posed in the previous paragraph. (An alternative hand-in method will be announced on the class schedule if your instructor goes on maternity leave.)

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Write Your Design Proposal

Develop a set of design—or alphabet-building—rules according to either a modular method or a materials-based method. Choose carefully, considering how your method will affect the appearance of your typeface. Regardless of which method you choose and what your unique rules say, you will strive to create an alphabet with common characteristics such as weight, proportion, and density, as described in your Letter reading from “Thinking with Type.” How will your method affect the intrinsic proportions and visual impression of your alphabet (this is related to your rhythm and balance reading as well)? And will this visual impression be appropriate for the spirit of the text you have chosen? Why?

Bring printed copies of your design proposal / set of design rules on the Tuesday (3/20) after Spring Break. (An alternative hand-in method will be announced on the class schedule if your instructor goes on maternity leave.)

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Design Your Alphabet, then Your Poster

First, you will design all 26 letters of the alphabet. Your final presentation on your large format poster will include a full alphabet, A to Z, as well as a relevant sentence, phrase, or paragraph from or related to your source of inspiration. However, first focus on the design of the letters, keeping in mind type anatomy concepts (see next section). You may choose to design uppercase or lowercase letters, or both if you are feeling ambitious.

If you choose a modular method: you will define a fixed element to be used within a larger system or structure, such as a grid. Choose what your fixed element(s) is/are and how they may fit together to build the 26 letters of your alphabet. Make sure you can articulate the rules you follow in writing, as you will hand them in with your final poster.

Here are some examples of modular methods:

“Modular Lettering” with strong figure/ground relationship from Lupton’s gdbasics website.

If you choose a materials-based method: Use a physical material or environment to build the 26 letters of your alphabet. Allow the limitations and opportunities offered by the physical nature of the material/environment to help you define alphabet-building rules. Make sure you can articulate the rules you follow in writing, as you will hand them in with your final poster.

Here are some examples of materials-based methods:

“Ready-Made Alphabets” from Lupton’s gdbasics website.

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Guidelines & Requirements

Typographic Anatomy. As you design your alphabet, make sure your remember the type anatomy you read about in the Letter chapter from Thinking with Type:

  • Uppercase or lowercase? (if lowercase, consider x-height, ascenders, descenders)
  • How do the letters sit on the baseline?
  • Serif or sans serif?
  • Height: Top of capital letter to bottom of lowest descender
  • Set width: Condensed, compressed, normal, wide, extended?
  • How much contrast within each letter? (Thick parts and thin parts, or all the same?)
  • Upright or angled posture?
  • Humanist/organic? Geometric/abstract?
  • How do the curved parts of the letters relate to the straight parts?

Technical Requirements:

  1. Regardless of which method you choose to create your alphabet, you will need to bring your letters into the digital realm, even if they are based on physical materials. If you choose a materials-based method, make sure you can work with scans or photos at a high resolution. You may use Illustrator and/or Photoshop as you develop your alphabet and as you layout your poster design. Make sure you are prepared to print at a high resolution regardless of which program your are using (make sure raster effects are set to high in Illustrator). You may contact the CDSC at if you want to use their large format scanners for this project.
  2. Your poster design should be large format, at least 18 x 24-inches, oriented horizontally or vertically. You will need to pay for large format printing through BCU printing services on campus. This will be $15-$25. Remember there is at least a 24-hour turnaround time after you call to confirm your order has been submitted, and they are open Mon-Fri.
  3. You will turn in your final design file(s) that show 1) the layout of your poster and 2) the work you did to design your alphabet. Make sure your file(s) is/are well-organized so they are easy for your instructor to navigate. Files should be saved as AI or PSD, and as high res PDF for printing purposes. Put them in a folder on your thumbdrive called “yourlastname-typefacedesign”. I will not open any files that are not in this folder. (An alternative hand-in method will be announced on the class schedule if your instructor goes on maternity leave.)
  4. You should also turn in a set of finalized design guidelines that you followed to create your alphabet (updated from the Typeface Design Proposal you turned in after Spring Break). Put this in the “yourlastname-alphabetdesign” folder as well, saved as a Microsoft word document or a PDF.
  5. Finally, include a copy of the text you used as inspiration, saved as a Microsoft word document or a PDF, if it is not reproduced in its entirety on your poster design.

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Required Readings

  • Letter chapter (pgs 11-84) from “Thinking with Type” by Ellen Lupton
  • Rhythm and Balance from “Graphic Design: The New Basics”
  • Formstorming (this is the first chapter from the newest edition of Graphic Design: The New Basics)
  • Organic/Geometric” from “Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual” by Timothy Samara (link to PDF provided)
  • Modularity from “Graphic Design: The New Basics”

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Field Trips

We will have two field trips to help inspire your work on this project and your understanding of type anatomy. We will go to Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections to view historic examples of handwritten and printed letters on Tuesday, 3/6. We will go to the WSU Art Museum on Thursday 3/22 to view more artistic interpretations of letterforms. If your instructor goes on maternity leave, you should still plan to attend these field trips. Blog posts will be due after field trips have occurred.

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Guest Critiques & Small Group Critiques

You will be asked to meet in small assigned groups and with guest critics for this project while your instructor in on maternity leave. Keep a close eye on the class schedule and on your email so you know what you need to do. Your instructor will be in class as much as possible in the weeks between Spring Break and Finals Week, but you will need to work independently during some of this time.

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Recommended Tutorials

If you are using Illustrator:

If you are using Photoshop:

  • TBA

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Additional Resources

  • Emigre, (digital type design studio and criticism on typography, art and design through Emigre Magazine)
  • Rent and watch the documentary Helvetica by Gary Huswit
  • Marian Banjes,
  • Spiekerblog, (German typographer Erik Spiekermann’s Blog)