Down With Helvetica: Design Your Own Font
By PETER WAYNER
Illustration by James C. Best, Jr.
WHEN Spike Gjerde started to build a new restaurant in an old mill in Baltimore, he did not want a slick menu with crisp, perfect letters. “We’re all totally about salvage and reuse,” he said. The menu had to reflect the restaurant’s goal: presenting local ingredients in a rough-hewn complex that once cast the 36-inch-wide columns that support the dome of the United States Capitol.
So he turned to Mary Mashburn, a designer with an office filled with old type just a few blocks away. Ms. Mashburn set the restaurant’s name, Woodberry Kitchen, with scratched and nicked wooden type from her collection of antique block types and then printed a copy on her old letterpress. She then scanned the result into her computer, where she tweaked a few letters and adjusted some spacing. A new version of an old font was born.
“The fact that the letters were distressed, it was real,” Mr. Gjerde said.
Before the personal computer, most people were oblivious to fonts. Some may have recognized Courier and Elite on the I.B.M. Selectric typewriter ball. Then word processing programs offered a hundred or more fonts, from Arial to Wingdings. More were offered in software packages and on the Internet. Now, many people can recognize fonts by name. Indeed, a documentary about typography and one of the most familiar typefaces, “Helvetica,” played to sellout crowds at film festivals.
People like Mr. Gjerde are realizing that the thousands of fonts available on the Internet are not enough anymore. They can build custom fonts in which the letters are not perfect duplicates of one another. They can mix in other fonts and produce something that is uniquely suited for the job.
Good commercial and free programs make the job easier for a wide range of users. Some people with degenerating handwriting are freezing their script in a font. Scrapbookers are casting their lettering into a font so they can have a personal look. Battle re-enactors are even printing out orders in historically accurate typefaces.
Gene Buban, a DVD producer in the San Francisco Bay area, wanted an urban flavor for a hip-hop music video compilation, so he turned to FontStruct.com FontStruct | Build, Share, Download Fonts, a font design and sharing Web site that is a combination of a drawing program and a social network.
FontStruct runs in a Web browser and builds fonts out of blocks, dots and other elements. Letters are edited on a checkerboard grid by adding or subtracting the marks from boxes. When all the letters are finished, the site will build a TrueType font file that can be downloaded and used on a Mac or PC.
Many designers also share their creations and display them on other social networks. The site lets users choose from among six licensing options, which range from locking out others from using the font to encouraging people to borrow as much as necessary.
While the dot-matrix-like grid rules out some of the curvy, swooping styles evoking calligraphy, Mr. Buban embraced the limitations to create Brickd, a design filled with letters that run together to build a brick wall. Another of his designs, Weaver, echoes the woven patterns of some Celtic illuminated manuscripts. Mr. Buban says that he spends so much time on the site that he wants to start a group for font addicts he calls “FontStructors Anonymous.”
Charles Andermack, a font designer who works under the nom de lettres Chank Diesel, likes to brag that one of his custom fonts has been sitting at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. He created Truck King, the font used to typeset “Jon Scieszka’s Trucktown Smash! Crash!” an illustrated book about trucks. Mr. Andermack’s design firm, Chank Fonts (chank.com), builds custom fonts for advertisers, book designers or corporations looking to capture a special look or style.
While Mr. Andermack’s fees can run into the tens of thousands of dollars for full families of fonts with all the diacritical marks and permutations, he can turn anyone’s handwriting into a font for $200. These custom fonts, also available from other sites like vletter.com, are popular not only with scrapbookers but also with professionals like real estate agents who want to add a personal touch to their letters.
Mr. Andermack asks clients to copy a collection of words in their handwriting, then scans the letters into his computer and produces a font. The only catch is that Mr. Andermack keeps the rights to resell the font to others. He publishes a collection of distinctive handwriting fonts to ad directors who want to capture a particular style or era. Your handwriting could end up in the next bundle. Exclusive rights cost more.
VLetter sells a collection of historical fonts built by scanning the Declaration of Independence and the letters of John Adams and George Washington — something that might be handy if your idea of the pursuit of happiness is to send memos that look like a broadside fired at a monarchy.
Software developers are creating tools that simplify font design. Erwin Denissen, the founder of High-Logic (high-logic.com) just released a tool called Scanahand that will let the user produce fonts from handwriting samples. The basic version is $79; the professional version, which includes more advanced tools for tasks like editing the contours, is $149.
Many professionals use a variety of programs from developers like FontLab (fontlab.com), a company that makes font tools that range from $99 to more than $1,000.
There is also some free software. FontForge, (fontforge.sourceforge.net)is open-source software that permits editing of font files.
Andrew Leman, a font developer from Los Angeles, often builds modern versions that preserve and update some old typefaces. He created a font for World War II re-enactors.
“Many of the people who eventually find me are looking for some vintage documents,” he said.
The price for his work varies widely and depends on the rights and the scope of the project. “If they’re not going to use the letter q, then you can skip it,” he said of some projects for restaurants and logos.
He also works for the movie studios, producing realistic props. One of his display fonts appears on the cover of a textbook in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
Mr. Leman’s Web site also offers fonts like Cablegram, a monospaced font that duplicates the Western Union telegrams from the 1920s, and Satisfaction, a popular retro-script font that, he jokes, pays his rent each month.
How useful are any of these do-it-yourself fonts? Graphic designers have an answer. Old typefaces offer almost subliminal cues for the brain that help construct an aura of reality around a document. “The goal is not to make the font, it’s to make a replica of the vintage newspaper,” Mr. Leman said.
Fonts can shape reality in intangible ways, as Phil Renaud, a graphic designer from Phoenix, discovered when he studied the relationship between his grades and the fonts he used for his college papers. Papers set in Georgia, a less common font with serifs, generally received A’s while those rendered in Times Roman averaged B’s.
While he acknowledges that his study was very unscientific, he wanted to remind all high school graduates heading for college that an element of surprise is important. “You don’t want to fall into the same pattern that the professor sees on every new paper,” he said.
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