How does writing and research improve your design process?

Tanya George, a typeface designer talks about how you can incorporate writing and research into your design process.

How does writing and research improve your design process?
Last Edited :
Expert Interviews
Q: What is Masters in Typography? Is it a field only for designers and artists?

In 2015, there weren’t a lot of colleges which were offering a master’s degree in typography. I did my masters from the University of Reading where the course trains you to be a typeface designer. That required learning a type of design software but also many ways how to evaluate the design.

You have to come up with what typeface are you designing for - is it for a screen, is it for a dictionary, is it for posters and hoardings, etc., as all of these different typefaces have different jobs, and you design them differently. The University of Reading allowed for a specialized focus on word scripts. It has this huge archive of a lot of typefaces and printed materials, especially stuff from back when they were physical objects. You could look at them for letterpress fonts, you could also do letterpress printing and other kinds that are no longer in use, which allowed me to understand the technology that went behind all of this.

Q: How do you design a typeface? What’s the process like?

Typefaces are very subjective, everyone has their own approach. The recent designs which I made starting from the first digitizing signages I saw in Mumbai. I started with a vector form of the letters I saw. Once I start drawing those vector forms, I started to see them within a system. Then a lot of experimentation ensues with those letters. I test for where I might want to use that typeface. Is it going to come in a small size on paper? Then you can print it and see it appearing as you’d like.

Another place I love to explore is specimen books, especially ones from letterpress and the early digital era. Having been designed for a different printing technology they become really interesting cases to revise or re-interpret as digital fonts. Interpreting source material in a way that is relevant to where you might be using that typeface today is always a fun challenge.

Q: How do you research effectively?

It's a mix of knowing the subject and a little bit of detective work. I don’t think it's always an intellectual endeavour. Sometimes sheer curiosity is what drives me to find out more and more about what I am researching and this could be a person a document or signage. In terms of research for a type walk, it also really helps to have a deadline and think of the audience. I scope out the route and the signs that stand out and then it's a mix of Google, books and talking to shopkeepers and people in the area to tell its story in an interesting manner.

If I ever get stuck, while writing something, especially about design, articulating just what I see is a great starting point for me. It helps me get those cogs moving and I can always build from there.

Q: How did you transition from a person who does not write to a person who uses writing as a way to clarify your own design process? Any tips for someone who is just getting started?

I started off with a basic blog just as a personal practice where I wrote about what I was making as a designer. I was describing my process in a very focused reflection of practice for daily pieces of designs. I remember getting myself to write for 30 consecutive days when I first wanted to build the habit. This helped me recognize what was informing my decisions and also filter out what designs would work and which might not. If you don’t want to do it publicly or for design, just keep a journal of the things you experience in a day. Writing is more of a muscle that needs to be exercised and I try and find opportunities that let me do that. Deadlines are very helpful in this case.

Q: What are the tools that you use to construct your typeface?

The software that I use to design typefaces is called Glyphs App which is a font editor. I start with rough sketches on paper and then digitize them once I found explorations I want to take ahead. After that, they get tested by print and web testers. Once I start using the typefaces to design something that leads to more ideas which then inform my typeface design and might get added to it. Writing feature code helps with certain designs and Python scripts speed up some repetitive processes. 

A lot of times you can ‘pre-design’ certain combinations, especially in Indian scripts to make them appear a lot more nicely. I also have been experimenting with variable fonts. The more traditional use for it is to have multiple styles on one file. I have an experimental design where there are multiple scripts in one file.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out fresh as a designer to build a typographic muscle over a period of time?

Spacing and layout exercises will seem mundane and painful, but it will help you grow your practice in the long run.

Look at who you’re designing for. Figure out whether there are other ways to solve that problem, rather than doing what was done already. Tap into a whole wide range of sources, and not just one person who’s got a lot of followers on Instagram. Also reading widely will help you experience what other typographers did well or how you could improve on the reading experience. Small iterative steps might not be great for that social media grid but will pay off in the long run.

At the end it’s a mix of pace and practice that will get you to be a better designer.

Q: How do you expand your palette for fonts? How do you go about that process of building your understanding of fonts?

It comes down to a lot of playing around. You have to find what works for you and then articulate that. A lot of foundries have trial fonts which can be downloaded for free and used before committing to them. Try replacing fonts in a previous design and then see what that does to your design. In the end, your experimentation will lead you to a better understanding of fonts.

Q: How do you find a solution when you’re stuck with a creative block and have a hard deadline?

Type design can be a very solitary job. But getting a fresh pair of eyes lets you see the solution that was in front of you the whole time. The ensuing conversation helps you relax. A technique I’d love to see more of in use is having a conversation with your client to extend the deadline by a couple of days if needed, that time will give you that space to think more clearly which in turn will produce a much better result.

If you’re a designer, you can join our Product Design Fellowship. The next cohort begins soon!

For regular updates, please follow us on TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Join the Product Design Fellowship
Based on mentorship, community & outcomes. Designed in collaboration with industry leaders.
See program
For Designers

Unlock your full potential in design

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Tincidunt sit venenatis, vulputate tristique fringilla ut. Vitae pulvina.

Request an Invite