Designing a typeface, with illustrator and fontlab, from start to finish – part 3

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In Parts 1 and 2 of this tutorial we designed out buts off, now its time to bring it all together. FontLab is a powerful program, in the right hands, and can be pretty complicated and challenging at first. This tutorial will simply skim the surface of what is possible within FontLab. I am simply showing the basic steps in-order to take the characters designed in Ai, and export a usable typeface. It's FontLab Time!

Step 1a

Go to File > New. And then go to File > Font Info and under Key dimensions enter the numbers you established in the 'export' Ai file. (Cap Height: 700 x-height: 441 Descender: -269 Ascender:700) Hit Apply and Ok.

Step 2b

Click and open a glyph window, here I have the 'A' glyph window open. You can see that the guides that were set up in Ai are now automatically set up in FontLab.

Step 3

Now all you have to do is to go back to your 'export' file and simply copy and past (back into FontLab) the character (or glyph) into the open glyph window. It should automatically be positioned correctly, with the Cap height, x-height, descenders, etc.. all situated nicely on the baseline.

Step 4

After importing all the characters, you need to take a closer look at all the letters, this is the final stage where you will be able to edit/refine the points (or shape) of the characters. To do so, zoom in (Z) with the magnifying glass and navigate around using the grab tool (spacebar). Use the Edit Tool (black arrow(1)), select the point and simply click + drag to manipulate. To Delete a point use the Eraser tool (2).
For more advanced editing in FontLab you can use the Drawing, Add Corner, Add Curve, Add Tangent tools (3). And if needed the Rectangle, Ellipse, Rotate, Scale tools (4). Don't forget to save (Command + S) each glyph.

Step 5

The last main hurdle, and it can be a painstaking process, is the lettering spacing and kerning. The basic idea is to achieve a visually equal or correct white space between all characters. This process can be extremely tedious because of all the possible combinations of characters. Every character should look visually correct in every possible combination with every-other character. To adjust toggle the side-bearing (dotted lines) to outside of character shapes.

Step 6

Once you have characters important enough so that you can make a word, go into the metrics window (Window > New Metrics Window) and you can adjust using the side-bearings. There are mathematical formulas, often very complex, that can help you derive a system for kerning/letter spacing, if you decide to go that route you can enter them in the metrics table.

Step 7

Kerning defines the exceptions of regular spacing. Take the letter A and V for example, even if A and V have minimal width values for each side, both characters will look wrong. They are too far apart. In-order to fix this you have to define kerning pairs. Switch to kerning Mode (on the left) and move the space between the A and V to an optically 'good' distance (1). Notice, you will also have to define 'VA' (2). Obviously, this opens up to an incredible amount of kerning pair possibilities.

Step 8

To preview the font, go to Window > Panels > Preview. Keep chugging away.

Step 9

Once, if ever, you come to a point where you are happy with everything you need to apply information before generating the font. Go to File > Font Info and enter all applicable information (Name, Weight, etc...). Be sure to go through the list of options. There are very important details to include like copyright info, which is made easy by the 'Build Copyright and Trademark Records' button. Be thorough and when done hit Apply.


Finally go to File > File > Generate Font, name your font and choose font format.


With a bit of time and perseverance you can expand on your font and add different weights and special characters. Have fun! This may not be the 'expert' way to go about designing a typeface, but its a good way if you don't like drawing directly in FontLab. The final image is below.

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