Font design – Because I felt like doing it the hard way.

So a few weeks back I wanted toget crankin’ on some cover art. I had a thing or two in my head about how I wanted the title to look. A litle heavy metal – but not incomprehensible like European black metal band logos. A little steampunk, but not just clockwork brass and leather. And the story isn’t steampunk. [Magi-punk elements (machines powered by magic), but I don’t think anyone uses the term magi-punk. I’d say magi-tek, but that’s ripping off Squaresoft.] I like a lot of Baen books, so I even throught of doing big blocky letters in red and yellow… but that didn’t suit.

It started to gel. I’d done doodles with letters formed from heavy, sketchy black pointy triangles when I was a teenager. Pretty much just ripping off Jhonen Vasquez, cuz that’s what you did when you were a timid geek in the late 90s trying to get the cool goth and punk chicks to pay attention to you. At some point I added some circular cutouts (to the lettering, not to the goth and punk chicks), thin lines balanced between circular and right angles, looking to me like mystical circuitry.

Fast-forward many many moons to a couple of weeks ago, and that old concept burrowed up through the dust-motes of my mind. If I took that, replaced the maddened, angry black triangles with something more mechanical, and it’d be perfect! Bit of clockwork flair, some mystical lines and circles, that would be great to fit in with the way magic lives in mys stories.

So I opened Gimp to try to start making shapes for the letters, and kinda hit a wall. I’d done image manipulation in Gimp. Creation, not so much. Drawing on-screen still feels wrong, mostly, through I’m getting used to using a stylus and touchscreen. So i started trying to draw the stuff out with bezier paths and such, but the process just seemed too hard, arduous. I wanted to make common components for all the glyphs, and copy paste and reposition as desired. But Gimp didn’t seem like the right tool, Or I didn’t know any easy way to do what I wanted. It was like trying to chop up a stump with a hoe – maybe it could be done, but it wasn’t going to be easy.

If only I could type and have my funky letters appear! I thought. Wait, didn’t I just read something about font programs? That’d be soooo easy! Lemme check it out!

Oi, god, what a pain in the butt. Don’t get me wrong – FontForge is an amazing programs, another new favorite on my shelf of open-source super-tools. No, it’s the process of making a font – regardless of the program – that I think is a nit-picky, persnickity, tedious pain in the ass. So many quirky, tiny little details. So many visits to discussion boards across the web.

I kind of loved it.

Thanks to Font Forge for providing a pretty solid manual – starts off with a lot of good general info on font design – how to balance things, what letters to tackle first and why, how to create consistency. Really good primer, with a good balance of “why” stuff and “how” stuff at the beginning. But I still haven’t figured out kerning. I think my build of Fontforge is missing something  I should tell the dvelopers that. I cheated my way around kerning for this font.


On the left – a faithful re-creation of my old fav hi-skoo gutter-goth script – sharpies are my frieeeeends! On the right – CogNode – with some glowie highlights, cuz I can – showing a few years’ worth of refinement.

So I made my font – CogNode – and it’s funky and beautiful, and I put it to work on my cover art. Mission accomplished. I actually achieved way more than I intended. At first all I wanted was a graphic logo for the book’s title, but by doing it the hard way – making a whole working font, instead of just an image of 5 funky letters – I now have a tool to use to bring the visual thematic elements into the whole book – chapter headings, title page, etc. And I can use it for any future projects that tie in with this universe. Like many good Ideas, took a lot of work up front, but will make life way easier later on.

The takeaway? making a font isn’t easy. There’s a steep learning curve. But what blows my mind is that I can do it. You can do it.  There’s a whole smorgasbord of powerful tools out there for everyone, enabling all our creative output. People who want other people to create wonderful things are creating the tools that allow us to create wonderful things… and they’re giving them away to everyone. I don’t know if it’s really sunk in to everyone what kind of renaissance we’re heading into. Anyone who can read and get online can create amazing things, and distribute them everywhere. This is bigger than Gutenberg. A printing press was hard for an individual to own – comparatively much harder than it is for an individual to get online nowadays. Think beyond goofy little me and my funky little font. Look at the big picture. If our species is ready for it, our new renaissance could also be an equilizer. We’re all getting great big voices.

Gotta sign out, before I wax even more poetic. This post kinda got out of hand at the end but, yeah, wow. Wild man.  Let’s get into a future of vibrant, creative power for all.


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