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Typography Fundamentals

Lesson 8 of 13

Think Like a Type Designer

Ilene Strizver

Typography Fundamentals

Ilene Strizver

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Lesson Info

8. Think Like a Type Designer
Print out your typeface templates from the course materials for the next three lessons, as Ilene leads you in a fascinating activity and analysis of letter forms. You’ll participate in an activity as type designers do, breaking down the individual letter and intuiting what optically looks “right”.

Lesson Info

Think Like a Type Designer

Okay, so now for some fun so I know our students here have done there homework and and if you guys at home have done it a cz well, you're going to get more out of this, but even if you haven't stay with us because this is not about even though it's called learn think like a type designer it's not about learning to be a type designer, as I said earlier it's learning how to look at letter forms in a way you've never done before you could be an experience creative director with twenty thirty years of experience selecting type designing with type on until you really look at each letter, form individually and have a better understanding off why type designs air created the way they are this is something that helps you even mohr to help you pick the right type face understand what makes a good time face and understand how type works. So where we started off with a sand saref? Um okay, so this is what everyone had to start and I asked everyone to please draw as best they could the missing cha...

racters okay, so again you were given guys we're given tracing paper and not very sharp marker because the point was not to draw a beautiful outline of the wrong shape, but to get the concept of what the character might look like now, not being type designers again, I don't expect people to get it right, but the way, the way to think of about this on the way a designer thinks about this is how do I create all characters so that they look like they're part of the same typeface? They have a consistency with other characters and kind of the things that that you should start off looking for again if I only gave you twenty minutes, I don't expect you to get it, but I'm just telling you, conceptually, the concept is to look at this and toe look at other characters and to try to gauge what the missing characters might look like from what you see on here, but clearly I didn't pick out the easy ones, so even if you thought like a type designer doesn't mean you got it right, okay, but we're going to have a discussion about a lot of these characters. I really haven't taken a look at what's on the board yet, so I'm going to be looking at things along with yu um, so this typeface is impact. Impact is a very heavy, rather condensed sand saref. Okay, I will tell you one thing that this typeface was designed, I believe it was, er nineteen, sixty two or so ah, way before open type so if you were with us earlier on open type you know open type has the capability of having many alternates well this was designed at at a time in typeface history and type history where there was one solution for every character I mean you couldn't have alternate so the type designer had of pick one design they thought was going to work best with everything okay so let me I'm going to put on the screen okay this is what the actual characters look like what you see on the screen is exactly the same here so this might be a little easier for the home audience to see and let's see okay so the first character that's missing is the lower case g okay so you can see here this is what the g looks like um and um what I see is very very common a lot of you I thought you were that you were thinking correctly but as I said just because you're thinking correctly doesn't mean you've got the right solution but keep in mind this isn't the on ly right solution in the planet this is just one designer's idea of what that character should look like ok so one of the things you have to take into consideration with this typeface is first of all it is narrow so you don't want something that's too wide it also has well I'm not going to tell you more yet because I want you to to kind of help help me with this um okay, so that this one this thiss has the solutions this person just didn't put it on the tissue. What it's? The same missing characters okay, so what I'm seeing if I look at this one this one and this one my guess is you guys thought what is the g look like I'm going to look at the y and the j okay? Correct those of you whose with this more work here than we have soon we had some other people in the building do this for create from creative lives so we have some people are in here too to defend their work but not that anyone has to defend their work. Okay, but did did any of you who did those is not what you were thinking, which is really intelligent thinking? Okay, unfortunately, no cigar for you get that one, right? But it is a smart way to look at it. Okay, so we see that the actual g does have a curve it's sort of a round aggie. It doesn't have kind of like I don't know I guess you'd call this a little bit of a spur here this one they do kind of look like the j and the y um this one as well is like that um this one is incorrect. This person thought, well, maybe it's that two story I mean that's a hard thing to know we're okay, so give me a little bit of of anatomy type anatomy. Okay, this is a two story a as opposed to the one you learn to write when you're in watching sesame street, okay, I was going to say first grade, but that was when I was a kid. Now they learned by two years old or something like that dating myself. Okay, so jeez, also come in one in two story. So this is your typical one story what we call the one story g and and then there's others I'm sure designers people our family with type and visualize that there were other genes that have to lose it's okay double either called a double bowl or a two story g so you might go somebody said why hot? Sure. Okay, um and there isn't no specific there isn't a specific way you would know, except I will say that in general a san serif typeface like this typically doesn't have those kinds of two story jeez, but it's possible so there's no way you automatically know and I will talk more about this with the next one, okay, so this is actually the closest in concept to what's here, okay? What is and again no egos I don't care if you did it or you didn't do it we're not about protecting feelings this is just an exercise to learn so I don't know who did this doesn't matter even though this has the right concept what's wrong with that g it looks like a nine that doesn't bother me at drew up to loan it to her okay, basically the first thing you said that she said it it's too low okay, basically the d sender is too deep how do you know? Look, how short the d senders and the ascender czar in this typeface so one of the big challenges is to draw a character that matches and you can see it more easily on this screen here very short, as senders re sure d centers so that she even though he only had twenty minutes or so to do it would be too deep. Okay, um, so that that sort of covers the g but what I want you to do is I want you to look at the g I want you to look at it critically that I want you to tell me if any of you see something that is unusual or surprising to you, um the top if you compared to, uh like the p or the cue that I don't know what the yeah that side that area that where the dip is that gap it looks like the other one from here more straight down that's not what I'm looking for okay well good try you know that this is ok it probably is very similar not the same is that but look a little lower we'll see if anybody okay you go because you haven't spoken yet yeah the bottom of the curse of the this is tom brown yeah it's it's above the lake baseline exactly exactly right the bowl of the g does not sit on the baseline which is what we normally we were normally taught to draw jeez that way right okay why doesn't that bolson on the baseline do you think the centre would be too low exactly exactly so there is no room to put the bowl on the baseline and have a short d center on the g okay so the ball sits above it you didn't even notice it it doesn't even matter the point being drawing a typeface is not like riding your a b c's and drawing a typeface designing a typeface is a very, very difficult um skill that requires a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge and the main point I'm trying to make with this which I'm going to make with the rest and I'm going to make throughout all you work with design and type is that what's important is not what you think mechanically should be right is not what you think geometrically or mathematically should be right? The only thing that's right is what optically looks right and in many instances in designing a typeface characters have to be drawn in a way that is surprising to everyone else in order to get them toe look right okay this is true with your design and working with type you can't rely on the software and say well it says it's aligned it's supposed to be automatic it's it's everything is flush left so it must be fine the leading is all the same so it must be fine you're going to see later when mostly at the next session that that's not always true you constantly have to use your eyes to find solutions that look whether you call it optically or visually that look correct don't let your brain or the software tell you otherwise okay you becomes a crutch that can lead you down the wrong path okay, so very nice cheap but doesn't do what you thought it should do, right? Okay, next character is the k okay. So once again, the concept is if you know if you're able to toe look at the other characters of the alphabet of this typeface to try to get a clue as to what that should look like, okay, so basically the characteristics of this k r it is pretty narrow ok it does have let's see there is well let's start with some of the others what other people did that might not be right okay so this one has it's very lovely but it doesn't match this typeface curved diagonals ok this one also has a curve diagonal okay so while that might be the basis for a brand new typeface it's not gonna work with this one how do you know these air diagonals look at the diagonals the other diagonals and if you're on here just look look at the v w x y okay that even though the k is not exactly the same that is where you would get the clue as to what the case should look like okay and how it into connects and the thickness there's one solution here with very thin diagonals and that what doesn't match anything there are no thin diagonals in this time faces typeface designed it doesn't have very much weight contrast it all ok so that would not be the correct solution um the other characteristic if you will is that the top of the diagonals are flat okay they're horizontal so they go this way and this way as does all the other diagonals so occasionally people will do a perpendicular sort of a stroke ending like that which doesn't match anything else in the typeface um that's the only one that that has that sometimes people don't really know where the top diagonal goes and the top diagonal does line up with the x height so sometimes it's a little taller thes don't have that well, this one does a little bit and I'll tell you what you'll see what happens with some of the others will be some of the things people do so although not the most difficult character, it still makes you think how do I get the k? So you see, even though this one is it has a good concept it's too wide okay it's too white to match the rest and that's really based on where the two diagonals intersect. All right, now we're coming to one of the fun characters to talk about and that is the lower case are in impact, okay, so some of you like this one, some of you were not not too many, but what some of you might have done was look at the lower case r and then just cut it off a little bit. So you know, some of you might have done that this could have been like that, okay? And that could have been like that this one is just so it takes that these two I don't know they must have been sitting next to each other because they because they have a similar sort of ah flare of flared arm okay there's nothing in this design that has that kind of a flare but what I will ask you if you look at the e r what do you think of that are how does that look to you? Very, very narrow it's very narrow idiots in our what do you think of that ugly I mean something you know it's not right it just looks strange animal animal caricature to me an animal caricature well, we don't want that. Okay? Any idea why? Okay, so see, most of you did ours that are much wider certainly ok, any idea why the lower case r would be that narrow and especially in this typeface me because of how it would uh be used together with the other letters exactly it has to do with how it's spaces out next to other characters. Okay, one of the most challenging characters in terms of spacing is the lower case r because when you put it next to it like an l or a k or be there tends to be a big negative space underneath. Okay, so this is a typeface because it has no sarah ifs and it's very heavy tends to be spaced very tightly. Okay, so if I took this r and I ju boots and I do it l next to it okay the sport is going to move, so look at that huge space that it makes between those two characters we show you something look at some words said an impact what do you think they are now reads pretty well doesn't it doesn't look too skinny looks just right okay? And that's all because it's minimizing this space yet maintaining allege ability okay it's critical in a good typeface or by a understanding typeface designer when they're designing a typeface not to say oh, I like the eh this way like they are that I'm just going to throw letters that I think look could ah critical aspect of designing a typeface is for the type designer early in the process to start setting characters next to each other in words and see how they look overall spacing and if there is one particular letter that causes a problem a trained, knowledgeable type designer will alter the design of the character to create better overall spacing okay that's essential that's why I tell people be careful of free fonts be careful of is if something is you know if it's too good to be true it is because the reality is most typeface designers aren't professionally trained okay there's not a lot of places you can go to learn how to design a typeface unless you go to the hague to university of reading or now in new york there's a program cooper but even so the majority or self taught okay so the other problem is that now anybody can design a typeface because the software is fairly affordable so you have hobbyists, you have people that sale in design, a typeface, and then they sell it or they give it away for free more often the ladder. Okay, so it's really important to all of you and the home audience that you understand the qualities that make a good typeface and that you value a trained designer and that you pay for what you you know what? You get very often and just be super super careful of downloading these free fonts from foundries that are not reputable because you're going to get stuff that you might not be yet able to discern why it might be crappy to the rest of us, but you don't want to do that because you're tryingto work for a bigger audience who might know that difference? Okay, so moving on uh let's, look at the s you don't normally think of the s is the most challenging character, but it is in a typeface like this. Okay, so somebody did a couple here because they put the yet but they are there thes actually r r are not bad because if you look at the s that's actually pretty good, this s is see this is a geometric typeface, so the esses like geometric with rounded corners kind of like the o onda as it turns out the spine this is what we call the spine is thicker than other parts of the character and usually people get to that and it's too skinny so I mean you should just probably everyone you know are are are very very skinny this is actually really good solution okay it's not perfect we're not looking for perfect here this also because this person got the idea that it is kind of geometric it has the right shape this one is sort of halfway there this one's a little bit too round this one it's a little too round but a little geometric so I mean it's challenging like I said you know you've got a sharpie and uh he didn't have a lot of time so this this one didn't really nail it too much it looks like they got the the beginnings and endings okay and then they boxed himself into a skinny corner on that one so that's okay I mean this one didn't get the the personality of the typeface at all um so even the s which you would think would be easy it's still a challenge okay um moving on to the ex um the axes air challenging because a lot of people draw the x like we were taught to draw in school they go ok that doesn't work in most typefaces because if you do that you're either gonna wind up with something that's too wide or you're gonna wind up with something that's um that's skewed off two to an angle so let's see this what is pretty good I'll come back to that in a second so you can see what it looks like here okay? This one they're they're tooth is too thin so I mean by keeping it the strokes thin um they were able to keep it narrow but it doesn't look like the rest of the typeface this one isn't bad this one isn't bad see this one has that skewed off two to an angle kind of feel um that the thing okay, so the thing that I want you to look at and we'll talk about I mean I know this looks kind of funky but there's something smart about the way a person approach this one okay, if you look at this x does it look like the upper right attaches to the lower left? Okay? It doesn't because if it did it would be top heavy or the where high waisted or it would be off to an angle. So does anyone anyone see kind a little bit more about how that's constructed how would you describe it? I think the left side they both look thinner to me and then on the right side they look thicker, okay, that is true but the other thing to notice is it almost looks like two of these that meet in the middle rather than this. Okay, okay, so this and that's actually closer to how it's constructed then then some of the others. So even though this one doesn't look right and his funky looking was this done by anyone here, okay, okay, I was a lot of creative life employees were not designers at all, but a lot of times, people instinctively I have a better feel for it. And again, it's, not a reflection of your skill is a designer. So please don't let anyone be discouraged by this, okay, it's, just an exercise. When I do this in school, you know, when they hear what I'm doing, they groan and I say, I'm locking the doors, you're not going anywhere and, uh, and and and then they they appreciated at the end. So even though this doesn't look right, this person actually had the right concept of howto possibly constructed, even though it might not be one of the best looking ones here.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.


  • Select the best typefaces for your design
  • Work efficiently with OpenType
  • Think and approach projects like a type designer
  • Identify and remedy common type crimes


Typography is an essential element of design: it should communicate your message effectively, and with purpose. Yet, even professional graphic designers can lack the “eye” and deeper understanding of type aesthetics.

In Typography Fundamentals, author, educator, and expert Ilene Strizver teaches you how to take full advantage of the power of type. You’ll learn not only the fundamentals of typographic design, but also how to “see” type through new eyes - all to make more sophisticated type choices that will open doors and set your work apart.

With your enrollment in Ilene’s class, you’ll also receive access to a webinar hosted by renowned designer Gerard Huerta.

Check out Ilene’s related course, Advanced Typography: Fine Tuning & Finessing.


This class is designed for creative professionals of all levels working with type, whether you are brand new, or just want to build on your existing knowledge and fill in the gaps. In-house design teams, web developers, motion graphic designers, recent graduates, freelancers and illustrators working with type: don’t miss your chance to learn from one of the most respected educators in the field.


Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio is a noted typographic educator, consultant, designer and writer. She specializes in all aspect of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Ilene has written and lectured extensively on type and typographic design to both students and professionals in the field. Ilene formerly was the Director of Typeface Development for International Typeface Corporation (ITC) where she developed more than 300 text and display typefaces with such respected and world-renowned type designers as Sumner Stone, Erik Spiekermann, Jill Bell, Jim Parkinson, Tim Donaldson, and the late Phill Grimshaw. She “cut her typographic teeth” by working on Upper and Lowercase (U&lc) and other type projects with such legendary icons as Ed Benguiat, Aaron Burns and Herb Lubalin. Her clients include Monotype Imaging Corporation, International Typeface Corporation (ITC), Adobe, Linotype, Time Inc., Whole Foods, Harlequin Books, Somerset Entertainment, Integrated Marketing, Parents Magazine, MeadWestvaco, Nationwide Insurance, Life is good, and Johnson & Johnson. Ilene authors the popular column TypeTalk for, as well as fy(t)i For Your Typographic Information and the Fontology series for Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition has received numerous accolades from the type and design community. She publishes the popular FREE enewsletter, All Things Typographic, and conducts her widely acclaimed Gourmet Typography workshops internationally. Ilene is an adjunct instructor at School of Visual Arts in NYC. Connect with Ilene online: | Book: Type Rules! The Designer’s Guide to Professional Typography | Facebook | Twitter


a Creativelive Student

Ilene's courses on Typography are jam-packed with excellent information that will elevate the quality of your work in print. She knows what's current, but also what's important in long-time standards, and why. Just an incredible amount of information! you will enjoy watching, but you will want to purchase because of the sheer amount of useful content.

a Creativelive Student

This course is packed full of the answers to questions I've had at the back of my mind for a long time. Ilene teaches with great clarity, her material is well organised, and she teaches at a good pace - with a bit of humor to lighten it up. I found it really useful.


This course taught me very well about Typography. I knew almost nothing before taking it (I barely understood then the difference between Serif and Sans-Serif...). And now, I feel that I really understand a lot. It is a very good starter to learn when, how and why to use type. Plus, Ilene is a great teacher with a big sense of humor and a lot of experience in Typography. A must have for everyone who want to understand something about types and fonts.