Today’s ever-expanding digital world has made it possible for anyone with a computer to try his hand at undertakings previously left to the skillful hands of highly trained artists, designers and technicians. Typeface design and font creation have been democratized, so to speak, by the availability and affordability of a wide range of type development software packages.
While knowing this software does not automatically endow the user with the talent, skill, visual acuity and experience necessary to create professional-level fonts, it offers a starting point that can take many directions — or, at the very least, give the user a better understanding of what goes into a well-designed typeface, and ultimately, a quality font.
Exploring the Possibilities
There are a number of font production and editing tools—all with varying levels of features and complexity, intended for different purposes. Before you decide which is right for you, you need to know what your goal is. Do you want to:
- Design a professional-quality typeface for commercial resale and/or distribution?
- Design a proprietary typeface for a client?
- Design a typeface for your own personal use, such as a font based on your handwriting?
- Edit the glyphs or spacing of an existing font for a client or your own personal use, and not for resale? Take note: Make sure the font’s EULA (end-user license agreement) allows this.
Once you know what your objective is, you’ll be better able to decide which tool is best for your needs.
If you prefer to begin by dipping your toes in the typographic waters, TypeTool is a good place to start. TypeTool is an economical, basic font editor without a lot of bells and whistles. It’s an especially good option for students, hobby typographers and creative professionals who only occasionally create or customize fonts.
With TypeTool, you can modify an existing font and alter an existing glyph — such as reducing the size of a trademark, register symbol or the width of an em dash. You can edit the spacing of glyphs. Other examples: converting tabular figures to proportionally spaced figures, adding extra space around a dash, editing the kern table (such as closing the spacing between a period and a close quote), adding a company logo or graphic, and including a Euro or other symbol, dingbat or flourish. You can also create new fonts and generate PostScript Type 1 and TrueType font formats.
Keep in mind that TypeTool does not allow you to edit advanced typographic OpenType layout features, edit bitmaps, do manual hinting (digital instructions that have been incorporated into a font to improve the look of the type onscreen and in print at small sizes) and other more advanced features too technical — or not significant enough — for the nonprofessional type designer.
Version 4.1 for Windows and 4.7 for Mac OS X
If you want a professional-quality font editor but don’t plan to work with or create OpenType fonts, Fontographer might be the way to go. This venerable program was once the professionals’ program of choice. After FontLab licensed Fontographer from Macromedia in 2005, the company updated the application for Mac OS but didn’t include OpenType support, reserving that for its premiere font editor, FontLab Studio.
Both intuitive and easy to use, Fontographer has all the tools needed to make type manipulation easy for both beginners and professionals. With it, you can easily expand existing fonts to include fractions, symbols, foreign characters and logos in both Type 1 and TrueType fonts, or create an entire typeface from scratch.
Fontographer does contain many more advanced features than TypeTool, but since it cannot open or generate OpenType fonts — which have rapidly become the format of choice for designers — it is no longer the standard.
FontLab Studio 5.0.4 ($649)
If you want to create full-blown, professional fonts, FontLab Studio is the way to go. Foundries and typeface designers alike use this professional font editor. It is the only program that fully supports advanced OpenType features, including extended character sets (which can include standard and discretionary ligatures, small caps, lining and old style figures in both tabular and proportional spacing, swashes, alternates, dingbats, ornaments and flourishes), as well as advanced kerning and hinting capabilities, expanded foreign language support and complete Unicode support. FontLab Studio allows you to design type, create and modify fonts in all major font formats, including Type 1, TrueType and OpenType.
Ted Harrison, president of Fontlab, explains the differences between the three programs: “With our TypeTool product we have a font editor for beginners, hobbyists and students. FontLab Studio [is] our high-end product with a certain degree of technical complexity, aimed at professional type designers. Fontographer fills the gap between those products—a font editor for graphic designers and desktop publishers, powerful enough for real-world typography but without the learning curve of our high-end products.”
FontLab’s three programs offer additional benefits. Students and educators can take advantage of the hefty 20- to 45-percent educational discounts. And all three products carry a 60-day satisfaction guarantee.
If you have more time and courage than money, you might want to check out FontForge, a free font editor developed by George Williams. This is an eternally beta software with a lot of bugs (by the developer’s own admission), but users are invited to report and post bugs as they find them. There is a tutorial in simple language available on his website, as well as in PDF format.
FontForge is quirky, a bit inelegant and even awkward, but it’s a powerful tool with much potential for those bold enough to “brave its rough typographic waters.”
No matter which tool you use, you still need to develop your eye along with your technical skills. Giving a person a guitar doesn’t make him a musician, nor does having a tennis racket make one a good athlete. Font editors are just tools; it is the person controlling the tool who is responsible for the quality of the end product. “There are some areas in which software simply cannot replace the human, and one of them is designing shapes that are beautiful and arranged in a harmonious way,” notes Adam Twardoch, product and marketing manager at FontLab and a typographic consultant at MyFonts. “Yes, a font editor such as FontLab Studio, Fontographer, TypeTool or FontForge can assist you, but you need to do your part as well.”