Strange Animals 18jan2020: Playing Against Type

This is now three whole newsletters actually sent weekly. Fingers crossed the streak continues. It would genuinely be a delight for me if I managed to send a newsletter every week of the year, but I don’t wanna jinx it, so it’s just between you and me, okay?

Current Reading: On Photography – Susan Sontag

1. Notes

I missed out on mentioning last week that, in the months of December and January, I won the Broken Frontier Award for Best Letterer, and was nominated for the Tripwire Award and’s Golden Issue Award for Best Letterer. As with the Best-Of lists, I’m gratified to see so many of the books I worked on and the collaborators I worked with nominated for these awards as well.

Hass and I have recorded more episodes of Letters & Lines, in an informal segue into Season 2 of our podcast. This time, we want to have a bank of episodes before we start releasing, so there’ll be some time before the next one drops. In the meantime, those of you who miss it and those of you who didn’t know this podcast existed can go back and listen to Season 1.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had a new comic come out, and surprisingly enough, I’m still not too jittery about it. The retreat from workaholism is going well enough, I suppose, although in daily life it still feels like I’m falling behind on things I’m already supposed to be doing. I wonder how many things in my real life I just let slide while I was working 14-hour days.

2. Q&A Part 2

Continuing from last week, here’s a couple of more questions I got about my work (and some other stuff):

Hi Aditya! I would love to read more about your process for making fonts for lettering. How do you go about doing it? What kinds of character sets do you include? How much are you able to automate? What are your challenges?

P.S. I love your newsletter!


First of all, thank you!

Second, I think the way I work might look kinda frightful to people who have studied type design, and I’m still a newbie at this, but a type designer friend looked at my work, and told me I could call myself one, so I’m owning it.

This is a long answer, since I’ll be pointing anyone else asking something similar here. Strap in!

I start by first doodling the letters either on paper or on my iPad. At this stage, I’m building the skeletons of the letters, and the instrument* – roughness, thickness, stroke angle, all of that stuff gets worked out here first. I can change my mind on a few parameters later, but this is where I decide what the function of the typeface is going to be.

* Mostly this means the physical device I’d like my typeface to imitate, but that depends on the kind of typeface I’m working on, so “instrument” feels more accurate.

I then move these into Illustrator and trace the outlines and try and build words from them to smooth out the way the letters function alongside each other. I’ll also fill out any letters I didn’t work out initially on paper, but that’s not too difficult, because by this time I’m reasonably sure of the logic of how the typeface is supposed to work. A lot of letters might be entirely reworked at this stage if they don’t go well with other letters.

I might do a few print tests at this stage to make sure a) that my original design is maintained – again, the skeleton, the instrument, and so on – and b) that it’s legible at the size it’s going to be actually used at. I might beef up/tone down certain elements at this stage, like the thickness or the roughness.

Once this is done, I move the typeface into Glyphs (in a rather painful copy-paste procedure I’d love to simplify), and start working on the metrics. I might still tweak letterforms here, especially since I do 3-4 variations per letter, and I might find stuff that I didn’t quite predict when I was designing. Once that’s done, I’ll do the features – contextual alternates and autoligatures – and then kern the whole thing, mostly manually.

That’s the regular weight. I also build italics, bolds and bold italics, and depending on the typeface, how I work on those differs. There’s one typeface I’ll be working on this year for which each of these will be drawn and developed independently, but there are others where I’ll actually draw the bold (like Sitting Duck up there) and then generate the italics and bold italics via Glyphs, or I’ll actually draw the italics (like Mighty Mouse) and then generate the bold from the regular version, and the bold italics from the italics.

This is the closest I’ve gotten to working from masters or using automation. I think I could use BubbleKern to automate the kerning, but I haven’t actually explored this yet. Speaking of automation, I’d love to find a way to automatically copy-paste all my letters from Illustrator into Glyphs, because I really hate that I can’t run an action and have it happen like magic.

As far as character sets go, I’ve only worked with a Latin character set – as mentioned above, I do multiple versions of all the letters, and most of the punctuation, and two versions of European characters. I think I’m going to stick to this for the next few years at least. I would love to design a Devanagari typeface from scratch, but I don’t know how much I’d be able to charge for it, so I’m keeping that on the back burner.

I’d love to hear from an actual type designer what I could do to improve either the process or the results. (My metrics have already gotten much better thanks to the awesome Tanya George, who also told me about BubbleKern.)

1) What is the name of your nail polish? Bonus: maybe you could letter it/with the brush (though it might ruin it).

2) What is your current desk setup like? What was the logic behind/what were problems with conventional desking that had you setting it up so?

3) What is the strangest tool you have used to letter? 


1) I use Nykaa’s nail polish. I started out mostly using mattes, but have started enjoying the glossy stuff too. Favourite colours are Blue Jellybean, Black Sesame Pudding and Black Licorice!

And no – I can barely paint my nails properly, so not lettering with these brushes just yet. :)

2) Before I set up my home office, I worked from a shared workspace, where I had a nice L-shaped desk setup, where I could have my computer in one section, and my drawing board in the other one. When I set up my home office, I replicated that, but with two separate desks that could be combined into an L, or which could be placed on two different sides of the office. My one other priority when having it made was that it needed to be deep enough that my pen tablet didn’t stick out into the air like it did at the old office.

I have a 2K photography/design monitor – the 4K ones available in India when I bought it didn’t have accurate colour reproduction, so I settled for that. I use an Intuos Pro tablet, and a 15-inch MacBook Pro which lets me work while travelling. Both the laptop and the monitor have stands to ensure a good posture on my part, and I have an ergonomic chair with a footrest so my knees don’t suffer.

I’m getting older and my priority, more and more, is to take care of my body while I work. Past me was stupid about this. Present me wants to limit the damage.

3) At a type workshop, I lettered on a skateboarding half-pipe with a mop. Also using bindis on the outside of a lamp. In real life, I’ve lettered with twigs, and once, with a chipped fingernail taped to a pen holder. That last one did not go well.

3. Recommended App

Honestly, I figured by this point everybody who’s ever used a smartphone to surf the net is aware of Pocket, but in this month alone I’ve talked to three people who weren’t aware of it, so I must recommend this one. It’s one of the first five apps I install when I get a new phone/device, and I don’t think I could live without it, honestly.

Before Pocket, I’d use Gmail drafts to store my bookmarks (this was before browsers had cross-device syncing, kids), but after Pocket, I haven’t had to think about this once.

The best thing about Pocket is that it’s a reading app that doubles up as a bookmarking app. I know things like Pinboard exist, but Pocket fits my personal use case a lot more, since I mainly use it to drop articles into that I can then read at my leisure, and, at a pinch, I send links to it that I want to deal with later.

It’s got great tagging, a decent selection of fonts (the free version of Instapaper has a better selection of free fonts than Pocket, sure, and Instapaper has better pagination, but Pocket takes the gold for the bookmarking end of things), and is very robust even in the free version. I used the pro version for a while because I wanted to give them money, but I’ll be honest, the free version’s good enough for most people.

Here’s the link again. (And if you’ll notice, I sneakily recommended two other apps for people with slightly different use cases than mine. Have at it.)

4. From the Commonplace Book

David Stubbs, from Mars by 1980, as quoted by Warren Ellis in his newsletter a couple of years ago:

‘4’ 33”’ is not about silence at all, in fact, but the impossibility of it. This was something he discovered on visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, supposedly a sensory deprivation experience, but during which he was aware of two droning sounds, high and low. These were, the duty engineer told him, the sounds of his nervous system and blood circulation respectively. And so the point of ‘4’ 33”’ is that it is the ultimate ambient piece: it consists of whatever sounds happen to fill the listening space while the musicians do not play – a passing car or overhead plane, perhaps, a shuffle, a cough or simply the sound of the venue’s central heating system. These sounds are now in the frame, just like the reflections of the observers of Rauschenberg’s black and white canvasses became their (albeit transient) subject matter.

Filed under #music and #art.