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Type design is the art and process of designing typefaces. It is often used synonymously with the term "font design"; technically, font design is the rendering of a typeface design into an entire available family of keyboardable characters, while typeface design is the shaping of individual glyphs, albeit with an eye to the eventual incorporation as a font. For the purposes of this article, the term typeface design will include the design of fonts.
A typeface differs from other modes of graphic production such as handwriting and drawing in that it is the mechanical storage and dispensation of alphanumeric characters. Each of the characters is stored in a master archetype form and then a user, by means of hand picking (handset metal type), a keyboard (linotype and desktop publishing) or other means (voice recognition) selects individual characters to "set" into the text.
The technology of printing text using movable type was invented in China, but the vast number of Chinese characters, and the esteem with which calligraphy was held, meant that few distinctive, complete fonts were created in China in the early centuries of printing.
Gutenberg's most important innovation in the mid 15th century development of his press was not the printing itself, but the casting of Latinate types. Unlike Chinese characters, which are based on a uniform square area, European Latin characters vary in width, from the very wide "M" to the slender "l". Gutenberg developed an adjustable mold which could accommodate an infinite variety of widths. From then until at least 400 years later, type started with cutting punches, which would be struck into a brass "matrix". The matrix was inserted into the bottom of the adjustable mold and the negative space formed by the mold cavity plus the matrix acted as the master for each letter that was cast. The casting material was an alloy usually containing lead, which had a low melting point, cooled readily, and could be easily filed and finished. In those early days, type design had to not only imitate the familiar handwritten forms common to readers, but also account for the limitations of the printing process, such as the rough papers of uneven thicknesses, the squeezing or splashing properties of the ink, and the eventual wear on the type itself.
Beginning in the 1890s, each character was drawn in a very large size for the American Type Founders Corporation and a few others using their technology—over a foot (30 cm) high. The outline was then traced by a Benton pantograph-based engraving machine with a pointer at the hand-held vertex and a cutting tool at the opposite vertex down to a size usually less than a quarter-inch (6 mm). The pantographic engraver was first used to cut punches, and later to directly create matrices.
In the late 1960s through the 1980s, typesetting moved from metal to photo composition. During this time, type design made a similar transition from physical matrixes to hand drawn letters on vellum or mylar and then the precise cutting of "rubyliths." Rubylith was a common material in the printing trade, in which a red transparent film, very soft and pliable, was bonded to a supporting clear acetate. Placing the ruby over the master drawing of the letter, the craftsman would gently and precisely cut through the upper film and peel the non-image portions away. The resulting letterform, now existing as the remaining red material still adhering to the clear substrate, would then be ready to be photographed using a reproduction camera.
With the coming of computers, type design became a form of computer graphics. Initially, this transition occurred with a program called Icarus around 1980, but widespread transition began with programs such as Aldus Freehand and Adobe Illustrator, and finally to dedicated type design programs called font editors, such as Fontographer and FontLab. This process occurred rapidly: by the mid-1990s, virtually all commercial type design had transitioned to digital vector drawing programs.
Each glyph design can be drawn or traced by a stylus on a digitizing board, or modified from a scanned drawing, or composed entirely within the program itself. Each glyph is then in a digital form, either in a bitmap (pixel-based) or vector (scalable outline) format. A given digitization of a typeface can easily be modified by another type designer; such a modified font is usually considered a derivative work, and is covered by the copyright of the original font software.
Type design could be copyrighted typeface by typeface in many countries, though not the United States. The United States offered and continues to offer design patents as an option for typeface design protection.
The design of a legible text-based typeface remains one of the most challenging assignments in graphic design. The even visual quality of the reading material being of paramount importance, each drawn character (called a glyph) must be even in appearance with every other glyph regardless of order or sequence. Also, if the typeface is to be versatile, it must appear the same whether it is small or large. Because of optical illusions that occur when we apprehend small or large objects, this entails that in the best fonts, a version is designed for small use and another version is drawn for large, display, applications. Also, large letterforms reveal their shape, whereas small letterforms in text settings reveal only their textures: this requires that any typeface that aspires to versatility in both text and display, needs to be evaluated in both of these visual domains. A beautifully shaped typeface may not have a particularly attractive or legible texture when seen in text settings.
Spacing is also an important part of type design. Each glyph consists not only of the shape of the character, but also the white space around it. The type designer must consider the relationship of the space within a letter form (the counter) and the letter spacing between them.
Designing type requires many accommodations for the quirks of human perception, "optical corrections" required to make shapes look right, in ways that diverge from what might seem mathematically right. For example, round shapes need to be slightly bigger than square ones to appear "the same" size ("overshoot"), and vertical lines need to be thicker than horizontal ones to appear the same thickness. For a character to be perceived as geometrically round, it must usually be slightly "squared" off (made slightly wider at the shoulders). As a result of all these subtleties, excellence in type design is highly respected in the design professions.
Type design is performed by a type designer. It is a craft, blending elements of art and science. In the pre-digital era it was primarily learned through apprenticeship and professional training within the industry. Since the mid-1990s it has become the subject of dedicated degree programs at a handful of universities, including the MA Typeface Design at the University of Reading (UK) and the Type Media program at the KABK (Royal Academy of Art in the Hague). At the same time, the transition to digital type and font editors which can be inexpensive (or even open source and free) has led to a great democratization of type design; the craft is accessible to anyone with the interest to pursue it, nevertheless, it may take a very long time for the serious artist to master.