An introduction to experimental typography - break away from structure or meaning and create art with letters.

This tutorial is part of our guide to the world's best type tutorials. See the rest here.

Letterforms


The selection of digital letterforms or fonts currently available is amazing, and font designers are constantly adding new styles and families. There are almost infinite permutations to the shape of the 26 letters of the alphabet.

As the architect Mies van der Rohe once wrote, ‘God is in the detail.’ There are at least 22 different terms for the individual parts of a single character of type. They range from the ‘x-height’, ‘descender’, and ‘serif’, to the ‘spine’, and ‘ear’.

Together, these terms allow us to name and describe the elements that make up the design and construction of each letter – thus helping us define what gives a font its special character, and what distinguishes one font from another.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between fonts is that some are ‘serif’ while others are ‘sans serif’. Serifs are the short strokes at the end of the stems, arms, and tails of a letter.

Even serifs have a wide variety of different forms: beaked, bracketed, hooked, slab, spur, or wedge. Fonts generally come in ‘families’. These are essentially variations on a theme, with each face in a single family sharing the same design characteristics.

The most common families are: roman, italic, light, light italic, bold, and bold italic. Roman faces are upright, italic faces are sloping, light faces have thinner strokes than normal, and bold faces have thicker strokes than normal.

Of course, there are many further variations: condensed, ultra light, ultra bold, heavy, fat face, and so on. If this wasn’t variety enough, the technological changes of the last 25 years or so have brought type into the digital world.

Fonts are now designed, used, and output on computers. Type is no longer physical. Each letter no longer exists as a solid block of metal. This means that the possibilities for further manipulating letterforms are virtually unlimited.

They can be squeezed, stretched, flattened, elongated, twisted, twirled, inverted, or otherwise distorted in every imaginable way. And they can be coloured, textured, patterned – and even animated.

There are many traditional rules that are supposed to limit the way we present typographic information on a page. For instance – in body copy, serif type is more legible than sans serif, and headlines set in all caps are less legible than those set in upper and lower case.

Smaller pieces of information sometimes need to be made more interesting, or they will be missed. For the digital artist using type as a ‘medium’, these rules can be forgotten.

Play as many tricks as you like with scale, position and shape. Set type vertically or diagonally instead of horizontally. Run it along flowing, irregular lines to create patterns on the page. Use colour and texture as imaginatively as you can.

Type can be combined with illustrations, photographs, and other graphic elements, or used to create pictures from the letterforms themselves.


Right: A word or phrase can be typed in a word processing application, then copied and repeated several times. The size (known typographically as ‘point size’) can be altered to create lines of different weight, and individual words coloured to create a powerful graphic image.

This piece, based on a design by John Maeda for a cover for the New York Times Magazine, was created in Illustrator using colour blends and the distort filter.