How to create new typefaces: Two design pros share their process

The Alphabet of Sleep

Image credit: Miriam Martinic.

The development and design of typography is driven as much by available technology as it is by artistic motive. Serifs, for example, are believed to have originated in Roman type to smooth out the edges of lettering that had been chiseled into stone. Modern ligatures inherited their formation from the letterpress, as written contractions between letters (like æ, œ, and fi) made for an easier fit into metal typecasts. Kerning, which comes from the French word for a projecting corner or hinge, was defined by how metal overhangs on scripts could physically fit together.

Today, type designers and artists are using everything from 3D to motion graphics to digital illustration to expand on how we read what we’re reading. Adobe Stock recently partnered with 36 Days of Type to celebrate the incredible diversity and creative breadth in the field of typography. To help us understand the mechanics of creating type and to demystify the technology behind it, Adobe Stock reached out to illustrator Miriam Martinic and 3D designer Erin Kim for a step-by-step breakdown of their creative processes.

Miriam Martinic

Miriam Martinic Miriam Martinic has a BFA in fine arts from Columbus College of Art & Design, and an MFA in sculpture from Ohio University. Through the years, Miriam has worked as a gallery artist, swim coach, teacher, and graphic designer. She is currently a teaching professor of graphic design at Iowa State University.

Step 1: Stimulate your imagination

Listen to what moves you and be ready to run with an idea.

I look at a ton of amazing illustrators, designers, and lettering artists every day, but it’s direct experience — physical and emotional sensation — that moves me to create. My figurative art practice is strongly connected to my love of movement — competitive swimming and gymnastics when I was younger, tai chi and tango now.

Alphabet of Sleep examples

Image source: Adobe Stock / MiriamDraws.

The “Alphabet of Sleep” was inspired by a conversation about sleeping positions. My brother said he slept in the “K” position. That was the first letter. And why stop there? As the alphabet developed, some of the letters became couples. It was important to me to be inclusive in representing sexual orientation. In general, the letters are loosely based on friends.

Step 2: Get physical

Use the process of sketching to capture ideas as they come to you and keep them as reminders for when you get to drawing digitally.

I sketch for everything I do. My initial sketches are not always pretty. They are picture notes that say, “Hey, remember to draw this thing!” The final drawings for the alphabet series were drawn lightly in 6H pencil and then inked with rapidograph pen.

Early sketches of the alphabet series

Image source: Miriam Martinic.

Sketching is the first step of efficiently working from general to specific. However real and specific ideas may feel in your imagination, they are intangible and general. You won’t see the missing pieces until you start sketching. Sketching is also a way of planning. Not sketching is like building a deck without a blueprint: You just go to the hardware store, buy some cement, concrete forms, lumber, and fasteners, and have at it. How well is that going to work?

Step 3: Bring it online

The scanning and editing process is never routine; always pay attention to what’s in front of you and use each step as a chance to tweak.

Next comes the scanning and photo editing. I use batch processing to speed up the work, but I can’t go on autopilot. For example, I made this project in the summer in fluctuating humidity, which had a huge effect on paper. This meant that, on humid days, drawings had thicker lines.

Once everything is scanned, I do image editing in Photoshop. I individually adjust levels and curves to achieve more uniform line weight among the letterforms.

Step 4: Draw again!

Digital drawing is your chance to play around with options whenever and wherever you feel inspired.

It’s actually the (unfun) scanning and editing process that brought me to digital drawing. I now draw almost exclusively on my iPad in Procreate. Working digitally maximizes my creative time and makes me super mobile. I used to pack tons of art supplies for vacations or trips. Now, I just take my iPad.

I make multiple sketches and revise until I’m satisfied. Then I reduce the opacity of the final sketch and make the final drawing in another layer.

A digital letter S

Image source: Adobe Stock / MiriamDraws.

Step 5: Give your project legs

Keep playing around with your work, even once it’s “done.” There are always opportunities to make your work scale or adapt in new and interesting ways.

I tend to return to themes. I recently started spelling words with the “Alphabet of Sleep” as birthday cards for my nieces and nephews. While the delicate lines in the original drawings are charming, I wasn’t happy with how the letters scaled. I redrew the letters for “Alphabet of Sleep,” adding racial diversity, alternate characters for the “e,” and robust line work for scalability.

Step 6: Keep some perspective

An important unmentioned part of the creative process is the unsung supporters. When I was in college, I remember learning about “Day Without Art,” a response to the loss of artists during the AIDS crisis. At the time, I remember imagining the world without artists and their art. Years later, this makes me ask another question: “What would the world be like without supporters of the arts?” An immense thank you [goes] to my parents, teachers, partner, sister, other artists, friends, and fans. Without you, none of this would exist.

Erin Kim

Erin Kim Erin Kim is a senior product designer on Adobe Dimension. While she loves designing user experiences for her day job, at night, she becomes her own user, exploring her creativity through Adobe Dimension. She also enjoys writing articles and tutorials to help graphic designers make the jump to 3D.

Step 1: Set the scene

Look for stories in the world around you.

I usually start a new project when something inspires me to think of a scene, a sort of moment that feels part of a larger story with its own mood, tone, characters, etc. In the case of 36 Days of Type, I did some brainstorming by thinking of a word that begins with [each letter of] the alphabet, and what that word means to me. This exercise would help me think of which story I want to tell with the hero object (which is a letter, in this case), and what kind of set up or environment I want to use.

Image source: langmunt.

For example, this piece was designed during the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The number “0” reminded me that I have no one around me due to social distance, which inspired me to place the character in a desert, looking lonely and sad.

Image source: langmunt.

Sometimes I’ll be inspired by materials, which are an essential aspect of 3D design. I fell in love with some paper arts and started creating a series that mimics paper artwork. I’ve recently been in love with children’s toys, and you can see the influence in this series.

Step 2: Find your light

3D modeling combines a lot of elements, so find ways to pull these together into a narrative or mood.

3D scenes require some planning ahead, as there are so many aspects [that] you have to design: the model, material, light, composition, camera, etc. I start by gathering mood boards to plan my scene. I play music that reflects the vibe of my artwork, which is usually cheerful and bright. My apartment has large windows that give me lots of daylight, and I love working with the sunshine coming through.

I don’t sketch. I start right in the 3D software. When I model something, the process is something like sculpting, where you plan on the bigger shape and then you start going into details.

Step 3: Move from geometry to wear and tear

Start with a clean form you like and then use specific programs to add your desired elements.

Sometimes I’ll start from a stock model, like this Adobe Stock series, as it has good, clean geometry to start off from. Then I use Blender or Cinema 4D for modeling, ending up with pieces like this and this.

Image source: langmunt.

Once I’m happy with the customized shape of a model, I export it as an .obj or .fbx file to take it to either Adobe Dimension or Substance Painter, to work on material. If I want to go very graphic with material, or use clean material, I bring it right into Adobe Dimension. The app is very user friendly and you can easily bring your own graphic files in from Photoshop or Illustrator into Adobe Dimension. If I want to paint material or add wear and tear to make material more realistic, I bring the model into Substance Painter.

When I’m done with the material from Substance Painter, I’d bring my model with the material back into Adobe Dimension to set up the scene with lights and environment. This is one of the biggest advantages of designing in 3D, rather than 2D, along with the material. However, I heavily rely on models and material rather than light or camera angles to tell the story, and it’s something that I’d love to be better at. Once I’m happy, I render the scene as a .psd file and bring it to Photoshop to do post-processing.

Step 4: Finish in 2D

Once you’ve rendered your scene, make your final adjustments in two dimensions.

I take my final renders to Photoshop to do some post-processing; some of the things are easier to fix in 2D in Photoshop than 3D, such as adjusting color tone or contrast. I feel at home when I use Photoshop, as it was the very first Adobe software program I learned as a creative. Even though design is mostly done in 3D, it’s comfortable and easier for me to make finishing touches in 2D.

At this final stage, the biggest challenge is knowing when to stop. I always see flaws and have regrets, which makes it difficult for me to say goodbye to my artwork, as I wish to continuously improve it. As I make the decision to move on, I can’t help thinking [of] the quote by Leonardo da Vinci, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” However, I remind myself that I should end one journey to start a new one, where I can do better.

Parting thoughts

With many of us spending a lot more time in front of our computer screens, reading, the joys and clarity that come from elegant and playful typefaces will be even more necessary. As the two demos above show, it’s clear that there’s room to work with type, whether you’re a pen-and-paper sketcher or a digital scene-smith. Browse Adobe’s collection of 3D type from our recent 36 Days of Type event for great inspiration from the community of artists already improving how we read what we’re reading.