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Given many characters in a typeface build on others and even just a couple of characters can reveal a lot of the features of a given typeface, what characters are good to start with when designing a typeface?

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this was the #1 "good example" question for the Fonts & Typography proposal on Area 51 before it was merged with this site. A type-design tag would be good but I don't yet have the reputation to add it. –  James Tauber Jun 21 '11 at 0:24

6 Answers 6

I think upper & lower R, S, O & lower-case g & f are good to start with.

  • R will give you a good start for what the serifs (if you are doing serifs) will look like for straight & slanted letters (eg, T, X, A, etc). A good beginning for B as well.
  • S obviously a good start to B, while also showing you all the curves.
  • O gives way to Q, C, G & sometimes D.
  • g helps you see what the descender will look like while giving you a good start for most of the other letters with rounded bodies.
  • f allows you to see the relationship between the main part of the letter & it's ascender.

After these, I would work on upper & lower M.

My reasoning is when you work with these letters you get a feel for what the character spacing should be. Pay special attention to letters with large spaces next to letters that take up more space (L next to O, for example: LO) as well as the width of the letters (hence starting with, say O which takes up one space & then moving on to M, which could possibly take up 1.5 or 2 spaces, depending on how you design the typeface.

I'm by no means an expert, but I do enjoy fonts! Have fun with it & I hope this helps a bit!

Cheers!!

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I got interested in the question (I don't design type, I just design with it), asked around folks that do, and did some research. There doesn't seem to be a consensus -- every designer works with his/her own natural creative process, and many start with a sketched idea that could be any letter or a combination.

Here are some interviews from ilovetypography.com (an excellent resource, btw) that will give you an idea of the diversity of approach: Ludwig Ubele, Nikola Djurek and Alice Savoie. Ubele says, in particular:

The nicest part is to start: sketching randomly, finding an idea and a general construction or characteristic; drawing the first letters and making the first words. As I said before I don’t have a specific letter which I usually start with, but there are some key glyphs which show the basic forms: n, b, o, v for instance for lowercase, A, H, O for uppercase.

I try in the begining not to concentrate too much on single letters but work on the whole alphabet and balance the single letters in relation to each other. That way I can set text very early on, and see how the typeface looks in small printed text—that’s usually very different from what you see on screen.

The best typographic resource I know of on the web is typophile.com. There is a terrific "How To" section in the wiki, and you can branch out from there. This site will take you as deep as you want to go into typeface design.

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Great links and included quote. I futzed with fonts a while ago, and that was my experience as well. Start where the spirit moves you and then work on some standard characters. –  Philip Regan Jun 23 '11 at 13:04

I disagree with joshmax's suggestion to start with R, S, O & lower-case g & f. I appreciate the reasoning, but the /S and /g are among the most difficult letters to design, so it's probably not a good idea to start with those to get a general feeling of the style and proportions of the typeface. In case of a serif typeface with a diagonal weight distribution the /O and /o are also deceivingly hard to design.

I recommend you start with /n, and keep a copy of the stem to use to for /i, and to extend to make /l, and then copy /l and combine with /n to get /h. The /n is very important because it gives you the x-height and the width and it gives you a main element to use for b/d/f/h/i/j/k/l/m/n/p/r/u. The /l and /h are the first letters to define the ascender height. The first letter for the capitals is /I, so you can define the capital height and use the letter to create B/D/E/F/H/J/K/L/M/N/P/R/T/U/Y. The capitals are not necessary to get a quick idea of what your typeface is going to look like, but I guess designing /I and /H won't be a problem because they're quick to do.

In conclusion, it's probably best to start with n/i/l/h/r and I/H.

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I think it will come down to preference, though, once he gets in and begins the design process itself. While R, S, O, g, and f, are difficult to design, they (and the letters I mentioned that followed them) are also the letters that can show off the 'design' of the typeface the most. At least in my opinion. That being said, your points were very good, too. I agree that n may be a good starting position, too, for your same reasoning. GG! :P –  joshmax Mar 28 '13 at 21:20

The most commonly used letters in English are, in order, etaoin shrdlu. Having never designed a typeface, I would start with those letters purely because they are the most common.

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The first two rows on a Linotype machine! One of the very few typography-related SciFi stories (by Frederic Brown, if I recall correctly) was about a Linotype machine that became self-aware and started setting its own text (intending, naturally, to take over the world). It's name (the machine, possibly also the story) was Etaoin Shrdlu. –  Alan Gilbertson Jun 22 '11 at 20:01
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@Alan If only SE had a badge for esoteric information that is simultaneously off-topic and invaluable. ;-) (Not the Linotype machine bit, but the sci-fi reference) –  Farray Jun 22 '11 at 21:37
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LOL! For some reason, that story has always stuck in my mind. I must've read it 40 years ago, maybe more. –  Alan Gilbertson Jun 22 '11 at 21:41
    
YAY! someone else knows the Frederic Brown story! I read it about 20 years ago, but it's always stuck with me too. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 23 '11 at 0:49
    
There's a movie in the making about Linotype: vimeo.com/15032988 -- Looks quite fascinating. –  Alan Gilbertson Aug 14 '11 at 7:41

I really like to start with lowercase "a", "e", and "g". To me, these are the letter that vary the most, not only in style, but also general appearance. A's are either hooked at the top (Arial), or simply a bowl with a stem (Century Gothic). These can be identifying factors of your typeface, and give it a completely different feel.

In general though, I'm not sure the letter choice matters much, but rather the steepness and roundness of your curves (O's, D's, G's, etc.), the length of your stems, and the x-height of your letters. Once you have established these characteristics, the typeface should start to design itself, with you just assembling the pieces. If you place two fonts side-by-side, you'll understand what I mean regarding these characteristics. Unless you're going very stylized (Magik Marker, etc.), then these should be your primary focus, in my opinion.

Enjoy it :) Admittedly, I've never designed a typeface before, but I am a long-time designer and typographist (if that's a word), so these are just my two cents. Just develop a style and run with it!

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I'm surprised no one has mentioned hamburgefons, a word which was used in type samples of the 70s and 80s by some of the big foundries.

It was what I was taught to use in my two type design courses. The fact that it looks like a legible word even if it's not gives you a good feel of your font to be and letter space. It also contains most of the basic strokes you'll need to design your other letters.

There are other known variations like hamburgevons, hamburgefonstiv or hamburgefonts.

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