Episode #20:

Typeface Design and Inspiration

typeface design


Geek out on typography with me and typeface designer Fábio Duarte Martins. Learn a bit about typeface design and discover how it can be a great source of passive income. Plus, find out Fábio’s beef with Helvetica and the one instance he says Comic Sans was used well (yes, really!).


Show Notes


Fabio Duarte MartinsFábio Duarte Martins has been a freelance graphic designer on and off for almost 20 years. He’s worked in fashion photography and in television doing motion graphics. He’s also done lettering work, including title designs for comic books, logotypes and collaborated in many branding projects with other agencies and studios as a consultant and/or type designer.

Fábio started selling type 10 years ago, when he created Scannerlicker. Writing and lecturing about typography in Portugal, he has released 12 type families on retail and produced another dozen on demand. He can be found at scannerlicker.net.


Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Fábio. It’s great to have you here.

Fábio Duarte Martins: Thanks for having me. Hi.

Colleen: First off, I’ve got to ask, what does “Scannerlicker” mean?

Fábio: Well, pretty much that. It actually was a joke, because I didn’t start it as Scannerlicker. I did start a foundry as Loligovulgaris, which was a very complicated name, so at some point I changed the name. I was looking for names, and there was this project that I did for a theater company that basically I was just scanning everybody’s faces, so out of the joke, I got the “Scannerlicker” name.

Colleen: That’s funny. It’s funny, because I came across you and your typefaces after finding out about the font that you created called Optician Sans. It was a share in a design forum, I went and saw it, I liked it, I looked you up.

So Optician Sans is based on 10 historical optotype letters that are seen on eye charts.

Fábio: Yes.

Colleen: What are optotype letters, and are they more readable than other types of letters?

Fábio: Oh, it has nothing to do with readability or legibility. Optotypes are made to test visual acuity. So they’re constructed in such a way that you can actually pinpoint how much photoreceptive cells are working in your eyes.

Basically, if you have 20/20 vision looking at an optotype, it corresponds to one arc minute of vision. So you can calculate how many cells you’re using for each line in an eye chart. So they’re built to measure how good your eyes are and not necessarily to be easily distinguishable. In fact, it defeats the purpose if they’re highly readable, so you just want to be able to see really tiny details and test them out, if you’re able to distinguish them or not.

Colleen: And what made you decide to create that font?

Fábio: Well, it was actually a commission. ANTI Hamar is an agency in Norway. They were working on a branding project for an optician called Optiker-K (it’s a Norwegian optician). And Simen, which was the person I was working with at ANTI … I think I found him on Reddit, tinkering with optotypes, and I commented something because at that time I was also researching about optotypes for class, because my students go through some theory of optics.

So we did exchange some messages and at some point they decided to hire me. So it was kind of a serendipity going on.

But, yeah, it was a commercial project, a commission, a bespoke typeface for a client, and that’s how it ended up—as a regular commission. Then at some point the client decided to release it for free. So yeah, that’s the backstory.

Colleen: I noticed on the website for Optician Sans that you mention Herman Snellen and Louise Sloan, and that this font was influenced by some work that they had done.

Fábio: Yes. Herman Snellen introduced the eye charts that we know, the one with the serifs—and this was in the 1860s. And then Louise Sloan, who was actually American, from Baltimore.

Colleen: Not far from me.

Fábio: There you go. She came up with another set of letters. So the Sloan letters ended up being adopted in the ’70s by, I think it’s the National Vision Research Institute of Australia or something like that. I don’t remember precisely. The contemporary version that we know is actually that LogMAR chart, that one from the ’70s, with the Sloan letters. So we were used to the design. Optician Sans is actually based on the Sloan design. It’s not a facsimile of it; it’s actually an interpretation of it, but it’s inspired by the Sloan letters.

Colleen: I saw on your website, you said, “… by definition, legibility is not the same as readability, although in practical terms they are particular focused lenses of the same thing.” Can you explain that a bit?

Fábio: Well, when we’re talking about legibility, we’re talking about fast letter recognition. But when we’re talking about readability, we’re actually talking about the environment and how we read in a more complex way. For example, I think everybody knows identical twins, and at the beginning usually we have some difficulty telling them apart. But as time goes by, their differences are obvious and we’re able to recognize them quite instantly.

We read somewhat in the same way … I know this is kind of a loose allegoric example, but when we’re reading, we’re not actually looking at text as letter by letter. We’re actually reading chunks. We go letter by letter if we need to, if we have some sort of ambiguity or we’re dealing with something new, or if we’re starting to read. Then we’re putting letters together and then forming words. But we actually read word by word, or big clusters.

In this process of reading clusters of words, and the environment is how it’s typeset, how big is the line height, the line width … These macrotypographical concerns are readability concerns. While we’re talking about legibility, we’re talking about how efficiently can we recognize a given letter or a given letter form as being such. So, it’s just at two levels. We make this distinction for science purposes but, in the end, it’s just reading. Like everything happens at the same time.

Colleen: When you were talking about we don’t read letter by letter, we read in chunks, it reminds me of … I’ve seen some different images where some people are trying to say, “Okay, if you remove like every other letter, or certain letters in words …” And they show a whole paragraph like that, you can still read, you can still make out that paragraph and tell what it says.

Fábio: Especially if you keep the first and the last letter intact.

Colleen: Interesting. So when it comes to designing typefaces … I mean there’s thousands of typefaces out there.

Fábio: Oh, probably more than thousands, yeah.

Colleen: Yeah, true! I realize that some of your work is commissioned, so what would inspire you to design a typeface, or why would a client want to commission someone to design a custom typeface? What kinds of situations?

Fábio: Well, we can recognize people by their voice or by their haircut, or by the way they walk. It’s the same with typefaces.

As long as we need voices and we need faces and we need variety on them, we need typefaces. Every typeface has its own tone or their own emotional tone or subjective tone.

Colleen: Sure.

Fábio: The goal when we’re choosing typefaces or when we are designing them is to actually use that tone as an amplification of what we’re trying to say.

It’s like we’re hypnotists, and we just want, in a very silent way, to induce people while reading to the right context or the right tone. So that’s why we choose different typefaces.

There’s this idea, especially from Massimo Vignelli, that you can go around with 10 typefaces or something like that. I find this a little bit lazy, with all due respect. I find this a little bit lazy because I think we just want the recipe, we just want a way of doing things the easy way.

I think when you’re doing something or typesetting a book and you want to respect that author and you don’t want to scream something, you just want to induce a little bit of that tone. I think it’s important to be careful with it. When you’re doing a typeface, you have a brief and you have that emotional brief also. You’re trying to get that vibe basically.

Colleen: Yeah, right, right. Now I also read on your site that you have a beef with Helvetica. I guess Apple said it was one of the most legible typefaces, and you disagreed with that.

Fábio: Oh, my goodness, no. No, not at all. Not at all. That’s a marketing bluff. Especially because of the counters. The counters are the … Let’s call it the insides—the white spaces—of letters. They’re too similar and too close. It’s really easy to, from a distance or in bad reading conditions, to mistake an 8 with a 3 and with a B, or just a C with an O.

But my beef is not just that. My beef is I think that Helvetica is overused. Also, it’s a political thing. I think that people use Helvetica a lot because of this idea of neutrality. I don’t know that if it’s a good idea, especially in graphic design, to go for neutrality, because neutrality is a stance, and it’s a kind of mischievous one. I’m not a big fan.

Colleen: I’m tired of seeing Papyrus everywhere. In one of my podcast episodes, I said, “Leave it in Egypt where it belongs.” You know?

Fábio: Well, it’s everywhere, yeah.

Colleen: It’s used on like everything. It’s everywhere.

Fábio: Well, I’m hoping for the moment that someone has the courage to use Comic Sans in a film.

Colleen: Oh, wow.

Fábio: At least it’s not neutral. It’s something, conveys something. Even Papyrus, for example, there’s the whole “Avatar” thing, it works beautifully there. It’s in agreement with the whole visual language of the film.

Usually, the problem with typefaces is their misuse of tone.

I mean, let’s go back to Comic Sans. It wouldn’t be a good idea to do the branding for a lawyer with Comic Sans, right?

Colleen: Right, right.

Fábio: But for what it was done, it was beautifully done. It was made for a Windows application that was actually an application to teach kids how to use Windows, and it was very comic like. And it works beautifully there. So props to Vincent Connare—really nice typeface. And for what it’s done, it’s beautifully done.

Colleen: I see Trajan used in almost every movie title. That’s another overused one.

Fábio: Trajan mostly works because it’s based on the Trajan Column in Rome. The Trajan Column is basically our cannon for Roman capitals, so it also gives a hint of this already seen and familiar vibe, because it’s been there for centuries. That’s important; it became a standard for films.

But still, yeah, I do agree in the sense that maybe nowadays it’s probably a lazy choice. But, still, it has that imperialistic “I’m here” stance, so …

Colleen: Right, it definitely does. So when a designer is considering creating a typeface, what kinds of things do they need to consider?

Fábio: One of the most common problems that I see when people are starting out in type design is actually to try and do everything mathematically or geometrically.

Type design is more about cheating than fitting everything into a very mental plan.

Most of it is adjustments or—

Colleen: I thought you were gonna say the opposite actually, that it was very calculated and mathematical.

Fábio: No, not at all, not at all. It’s more akin to clay modeling than architecture. It is a system, it is a highly technical … Nowadays, it’s a pure digital process but then you have to make up a system where everything works together in whatever combination. But the actual form, it’s pretty much like bi-dimensional sculpture. There is stuff that you have to measure, that you have to be careful of. In fact, there’s a lot of it.

But trying to set this or grid-fit this into a very strict system usually doesn’t work. Our brain isn’t a computer, or our eyes or … It’s to please our brains and our eyesight, not our rationality, in that sense. So one of the first things I would do is play with freeform, and try to know as much as you can about type history, how calligraphy works, how form works, and the rest is just training, training, training. I usually separate this in between two things: subjective concerns and objective concerns.

The objective ones are quite easy. You have to end up with the software, the font software. And you have to do it on the computer, through Bézier curves, you have to space it, you have to kern it, you have to hint it. There are technical particularities that you have to comply with.

But on the subjective side, there’s history that you have to respect because you don’t do things out of the blue. Take the Latin alphabet. We have centuries upon centuries upon centuries of forms. Fixed forms that were slowly mutating and they ended up stabilizing into something that we know today. If we are not aware of this history, we don’t know exactly what to do. This can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. It depends on how free you can be. But knowing history, I think, is one of the most important things, because if you know history you know the calligraphic heritage, so you know how, for example, calligraphic tools work and that means that you know how modulation or stroke modulation works—I mean, how the thicks and thins vary.

Then you have to be able somehow to translate into form this sort of feeling that you want to put out with that typeface. I think this is the thing, especially my students … It’s the thing they struggle with the most—how subjective this can be, because nowadays with technology we have this thing that everything is automatized. We just do it and it appears. This is not true. So we still have to educate our brains to be able to see form and distinguish little nuances and to see how that affects the whole block of text.

Colleen: Now when you’re approaching a typeface design, are you just sketching stuff out on paper first and then drawing it? You said some font software, so I don’t know what you use for that, but how are you starting the design process for that?

Fábio: The application I use, I use FontLab VI. It’s a beautiful piece of software, and I’m very happy that I actually got to work with them at some point to develop some of the tools, which was really, really nice. I’m privileged in that sense.

Colleen: Oh, wow. Do you sketch stuff out typically, like on paper? Then you go to the computer? Or you just start with FontLab?

Fábio: Nowadays, it’s pretty much all digital. I do sketch whenever I’m on the go and I just have ideas and I want to keep them in notes. So I draw just to make notes. They’re very rough sketches, just of this serif will work like this, this modulation will work like that. It’s just mental notes.

But I do encourage, beforehand, drawing, especially calligraphy, or wanting to understand how form works. Because if you know mentally how it works, how a given pen would produce a given shape, it’s not that hard. If you’re proficient with the tools, it’s not that hard to get onto what you need. Besides, type design is quite different from calligraphy. What you can do with it, it’s quite different. The way of thinking is different. It borrows from history and it borrows from the act of doing calligraphy, but it’s something else. It’s another way of thinking.

Colleen: And when you start creating the letters, do you usually start with certain letters instead of like ABCDE?

Fábio: Yep.

Colleen: Like do you start with, “Okay, I’m gonna do something with a descender, and then I’m gonna do something with an ascender, and then rounded letters,” and does it matter?

Fábio: Yes. No, it matters, it matters. There are different approaches, and even me, I’m not saying that I have always the same approach. It depends on what I’m doing. But let’s say really, really early on you want the control characters. Okay, so the control characters would be something like the N, lowercase N and lowercase O and uppercase H and uppercase O. Why? So you know the metrics. That way you will know how the horizontal rhythm will work.

For form, I think the lowercase A is usually a really good tell, because you can extrapolate a lot of things from there. If you turn it around, you’ll have the curve of the N or something very close to that. You’ll have some terminals and how they work. You will have like most of the flow. So the lowercase A, the encapsulation lowercase A is an encapsulation of a lot of elements that are distributed throughout the rest of the lowercase. If you know your N, you know your H, you know your M, you know your U, or you’re very close to these fonts. If you know your uppercase H, you know your I, you know your L, you know your E.

These control characters are enabling you early on to be aware of certain characteristics of the form—or of the letter form overall—on the typeface. Also, at some point, you will have to deal with proportions, meaning what’s your x-height, what size are your ascenders, your descenders, what’s the caps height? This involves just basically testing. It’s testing stuff and printing it out.

I usually do this before I start with the control characters. I just have some sheets that I print out with different proportions and different sizes, so I know what to choose, because usually you’re also working for specific sizes, so you know that you’re designing something that is going to be used at 9, 10 points—body copy size. So then you can make choices there.

But, yeah, I think early on you would start with control characters, getting the proportions and trying to get the vibe, what’s the vibe of the typeface. The rest is just extrapolated from that.

Colleen: Okay, that’s interesting. Now I saw that you have fonts that are called Electrica, Grafista and Catorze27 Style 1. And they’re really cool, I like them.

Fábio: Thank you.

Colleen: So what inspired you to design those?

Fábio: Okay, let’s start with Catorze27-1. Actually, that started as … Well I’m from the north of Portugal, and there is a lot of modern lettering that was done with wrought iron. So I was just starting to collect photos of those things that I would travel by. At some point in my hometown, in Espinho, there were these store numbers in a house that I was really fond of.

That’s actually how I started the first style of Catorze27. There’re two other styles. They are not done. They will be done eventually, so it’s part of something bigger. It’s sort of an homage of this period in between the ’40s and the ’60s, of architectural lettering applications, made in iron in northern Portugal.

Colleen: Cool.

Fábio: As for Grafista, Grafista is … I don’t know. For whoever has been in Portugal, they know there’re tiles everywhere. There’s a lot of variety in these tiles and how you can use it. And Grafista initially was to be another typeface, but the letters weren’t working properly, so it was just there in the drawer waiting for something. It initially was just this proportional typeface, but it didn’t work. It was something else, it didn’t work with the tiles.

But the idea is thinking that a typeface is not just letters. There’s a lot that you can do graphically without drawing letters, hence the idea of the tiles. You can do textures and have different kinds and different colors. What I mean with color is the proportion in between black and white or positive and negative space. The core thing were the tiles. That’s why it has only one font.

Again, the letters weren’t working, and at some point it struck me. If you’re doing tiles and everything is square, this is a monospaced font, right? So why wouldn’t I just do a monospace font that would go well with the tiles? Basically each letter is half a tile, so you can assemble a combination in between letters and tiles with the typeface.

Electrica is inspired by two different typefaces in the IBM Selectric. It was this typewriter that you could change the typeface. They had these balls with different letters so you could choose in your typewriter which typeface you were using. There were two that were really nice. So I was trying to get the vibe of the typewriter into the screen, which is … Even though it looks like something that was done for print, it was actually done for screens.

Basically, it’s this idea of taking those typefaces that I enjoyed in IBM Selectric, being inspired by them and trying to get that sort of feel to the screen. That’s why you have some weird things in Electrica. Like, for example, the weights expand from the stroke, and the baselines aren’t aligned in that sense. Because when you have a typewriter, you would make something bolder by stroking it harder. So the imprints would just spread instead of having a proportional bold the way we do these days.

That and also the ink traps are not really ink traps, they’re just to control the amount of mass in the intersections, and a way also to cheat the hinting rasterizers. Okay, I’m getting a little bit technical, but, yeah, basically the ink traps … Because its goal is not to trap ink. The ink traps are made to compensate some optical illusions and to also cheat the technology.

Colleen: Okay. So what are the ink traps?

Fábio: Sometimes when in typefaces you see, at intersections especially, you see that there’s a little bit of a dent. So ink traps are made so when you print something and the ink spreads and you want to preserve a given shape, you make an ink trap so the ink penetrates there and stays there.

You can see it especially in typefaces done for very small sizes or for rotating presses like newspaper presses. I think the best example is to look at typefaces done for phone books, because you usually have like really crappy paper and a high-speed rotating press, and very small sizes, so you need a typeface that can handle that.

So if you look at them—the digital drawing of them—and then see the printed version, the digital one seems something very grotesque. I don’t know how to explain this without images, but if anyone searches for “ink traps,” they’ll find how they work.

There’re actually ink traps and light traps. In photo composition, we put it the other way around, because photons will spread. White is photons and black is the lack of photons, so it means that white space will always penetrate black space.

In photo composition, the typefaces would have to be drawn … Actually, one way to preserve, for example corners, you would have to exaggerate those corners a little bit out, so it seems that you have that corner.

Colleen: Gotcha, okay. And have you found that that’s been a good way to get some passive income?

Fábio: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Actually, when I started, I wasn’t planning on being a full-time type designer. I remember being really scared about it for no absolutely rational reason. But I just gave it a go, and I had the contract with MyFonts sitting for a year, because I started doing typefaces because I couldn’t find what I wanted for specific projects or because I didn’t have the money for it, because back then I was pretty naïve, even about budgeting or about doing a proper quote.

I ended up doing some typefaces for a project, and at some point, I thought okay, maybe if I finish this off, I can sell these.

Then I had the contract with MyFonts laying on my table for one year, and I would look at it and think, “Should I do this? Should I not do this?” Then I just did it because I thought … Basically I got angry with myself, saying like, “Why haven’t you done it?”

SoI just signed the contract into MyFonts and started selling. Then people were buying it, and I was very surprised about it. At some point, I was doing way more money than I was doing with graphic design jobs.

Colleen: Oh.

Fábio: It was lots of fun for me, because I’m not a good graphic designer at all. So yeah, it was these things coming together and working out.

Colleen: So you designed the typefaces, and then what did you do? Did you just go to MyFonts.com and any of these other different—

Fábio: Yes, resellers, yeah.

Colleen: I imagine they don’t accept everyone, so—

Fábio: Well, they do accept everyone. They just don’t accept every typeface.

I worked with MyFonts for a lot of years. I don’t know how it works with the other ones because now I know how to troubleshoot some technology things. But the guys at MyFonts are impeccable on helping you out, saying, “Oh, you have this problem? You should check this. You need to expand this character set.” So they actually help you out to have a proper typeface coming out to the market. Some of the resellers are more picky when it comes to style and they curate their collection more.

Then some others basically don’t. It’s just free market and we can find fonts pretty much everywhere these days on sale. So I think it’s just a matter of knowing if you want to work with the reseller, if you want to sell it on your own because today it’s quite easy to do so or if you want to work for another foundry. It’s a matter of choice. There’re multiple ways that you can come about selling typefaces.

There is a community actually. A really nice community of type designers. So ask people about it and they will help you out, either on Reddit or on TypeDrawers. We’re not that many, and it’s kind of lonesome not to talk about typefaces, so whenever someone wants help, I think most of the people will be more than glad to help out.

Colleen: Are there any books that you recommend for somebody that wants to get started with typeface design?

Fábio: Yes. First and foremost, learn about typography. Not specifically type design, but typography. For that, I think The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. It’s beautifully written. It’s delightful to read, even for people who are not into studying typography at all. It’s a really delightful book.

As for starting to design typefaces … It just came out this year, the English version of Cómo Crear Tipografías. The English version is called How to Create Typefaces, From Sketch to Screen, and it’s from Cristóbal Henestrosa, Laura Meseguer and José Scaglione. It talks about different things to consider while developing a typeface.

Then there’re a lot of articles and some other stuff. But I think at entry level, without getting too geeky, I think these two are actually a very good start.

Colleen: Okay. And you have some really helpful articles on your site too.

Fábio: Thank you.

Colleen: Thanks for being on the podcast, Fábio. I appreciate it. You can be found at Scannerlicker.net, and that’s also where they can get some great information about typography and also they can see your fonts and purchase them there if they’re interested.

Fábio: Well, thank you for having me, and this was fun.

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