Techniques for designing with type characters

~ 15 April 2008 ~

After weeks of code speak, let’s totally shift gears and talk exclusively about visual design in all its splendor and beauty.

Typography and typefaces, without a doubt, are two of the most fascinating aspects of visual design. Great designers can execute great designs with typefaces and nothing else, if required, and certainly if preferred. Design legends Saul Bass and Paula Scher have proved this many times over, and they comprise only a fraction of a very long list of luminaries who can wield type brilliantly.

Examples of great design using little more than typography are virtually numberless. Some of the favorites I’ve spotted recently include designs by John Arnor G. Lom, Coudal Partners, and NB:Studio, linked respectively:

Twisted Intellect
Seed Conference
Illustration showing map of London

But of all the work I’ve seen recently, few have captured my attention as much as that of Veer’s Type City Prints. “Each portrays an urban facet, illustrated character by character with a typeface that evokes the image itself,” Veer’s website explains. “Illustrations are letterpressed onto archival, acid-free paper using brass dies mounted type high.”

Veer's Type City Prints

Absolutely stunning.

Inspired by Veer’s work, I had the privilege of creating a Type City-esque design of my own for an in-house poster contest. Designed in tribute to one of the buildings that adorn the organization’s headquarters (and one of the most compelling edifices in the state), the entire design was created solely with characters from the Bickham Script Pro and Engravers MT typefaces.

Illustration of an edifice designed solely with type
Detail shot showing edifice designed with type

I’ll speak more about the design soon, but for now I wanted to share a few things learned during my first attempt to design with type characters. Luckily, in the course of my project, I was fortunate enough to correspond with Veer’s Justin Lafontaine, the talented designer behind the Type City Prints. (Correction: Christina Huber’s artwork is also featured in the set. Thanks Anders!) Below is shared knowledge from our experiences.

1. Use characters from the subject’s description. What better starting point and technique for conveying meaning than to use characters from the name of the building, location, object, or person? “The first thing I did was spell out the phrase, such as locations for the buildings, and copied it a few times at varying sizes in both upper and lowercase,” Justin explains. “This gives you a really good palette to start from which you can quickly grab different sizes depending on what you need.” (Regrettably, I learned about this tip only after I had made substantial progress, and therefore my design uses random characters and lacks that extra bit of meaning I could have given it.)

2. Take advantage of symmetry for both speed and beauty. For objects or buildings that are symmetrical, use symmetry to your advantage for creating the design with less effort. As Justin describes, “I usually built one side, then flipped it to complete the building.” As a result, symmetry also enhances the aesthetics of your work. “The symmetry in these can be pretty beautiful.”

3. Scale the characters to convey perspective. Justin: “In lots of them I used the scale of the characters to give the illusion of perspective, like larger characters closer to you, and smaller as they become further away. That helped a lot!”

4. Repeat sections whenever possible. This is probably the most important tip. You’ll find sections of the piece which you’ve meticulously built can be copied and pasted elsewhere in the design, and the duplicated section isn’t really perceptible without closer inspection. This is a real time saver. “All you need to do is some minor swapping, and it looks like a totally new texture,” Justin adds.

5. Don’t attempt this in one sitting. I take it back — this is the most important tip. Not only is type character designing extremely time consuming, it’s also monotonous work that requires a constant zoom in, zoom out dance to get things right. My design required a total of about 16 hours to complete. That’s just two full-time days worth of work, but don’t even attempt to do it two days back to back. Spread it out over a couple weeks to allow adequate time for correction, detailing, and simply to give yourself a break. (Mine was spread over three weeks.)

In retrospect, type character designing isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s extremely gratifying if executed well. (A big thanks to Justin Lafontaine for sharing his advice!)



Veer Veer: Visual Elements for Creatives.
Stock photography, type, and killer tees. Genuinely recommended by Authentic Boredom.

1   Luke Dorny ~ 15 April 2008

This is so great and un-boring.
When i saw the site i nearly dropped to teh floor like a wetnoodle.
Thanks for this post.

2   Kyle Meyer ~ 15 April 2008

Excellent article Cameron. I completely agree and work hard to convey my message solely with typography when I can because of the impact such designs have when executed correctly. It’s also the reason I started Typesites. :)

Absolutely love the Veer posters, I think I may have to place an order for one today…

3   SpotOn SEO ~ 15 April 2008

Excellent post Cameron! These are amazing!!! I really like what seedconference has done with HTML & CSS.

4   adelle ~ 15 April 2008

this post is so attractive! I saw the seed conference one a couple weeks ago and it sparked my typographic juices!

5   Ty Hatch ~ 15 April 2008

Beautiful work on Cameron! Care to share the complete image?

6   Ty Hatch ~ 15 April 2008

Gah. Should have been: “Beautiful work Cameron!” Even previewing doesn’t help a tired brain sometimes. ;)

7   Kirk ~ 15 April 2008

Holy Shamoly that’s beautiful.

8   Joey ~ 15 April 2008

Really beautiful, Cameron. Thanks for the inspiration!

9   Cameron Moll ~ 15 April 2008

Care to share the complete image?

Soon, yes.

10   Hasnain Syed ~ 16 April 2008

I was blown away by the simplicity, minimalism and the direct impact of the seed conference website. I haven’t seen as elegant an illustrative type work as the creations in Veer’s Type City gallery.

But honestly, what I found most profound was the music used on Veer’s Type City gallery. Simply superb, beautiful and elegant.

11   Andrew ~ 16 April 2008

Interesting - I was recently encouraged by my boss to do a similar project. He loved the Veer Type City designs on my desktop.

Now, thanks to your direction, I might give it a try.

12   John Faulds ~ 16 April 2008

The Veer work reminds me of a piece I saw at our gallery of modern art a while ago which was a 8-foot high traditional Chinese-style sketch which had been made up completely of tiny Chinese characters.

13   Dan ~ 17 April 2008

Please tell me you would consider selling your letterpress temple print…

14   John Athayde ~ 17 April 2008

Some of these are quite reminicent of arabic calligraphy. Geometric patterns are at the core of a lot of art in that part of the world due to restrictions of visual displays of people, etc. An example is here:

15   Cameron Moll ~ 17 April 2008

Please tell me you would consider selling your letterpress temple print…

Actually, yes. Details soon.

16   John Dilworth ~ 17 April 2008

Its nice to see the details. I’d also like to hear more about the letterpress aspects of the project…taking it from concept on the computer to the finished product.

17   Cameron Moll ~ 18 April 2008

Ha, that’s actually article #2, John. “Soon” seems to be the word of choice for my replies to this article…

18   Brian Sweeting ~ 21 April 2008

For a fun take on designing with type characters, check out this new PBS kids show WordWorld, and the YouTube video.

19   Marty ~ 23 April 2008

It’s not quite the same thing as these, but you might find this interesting, too:


20   Ryan Unger ~ 26 April 2008

Nice job Cameron—really great post. I got hooked on type after reading Pioneer of Swiss Graphic Design my freshman year ;).

Have you checked out Experimental Jetset? Their firm is almost exclusively working with type-only design solutions.

21   michelangelo ~ 01 May 2008

The “London’s Kerning” map by NB Studio is very similar to something I did for my own entertainment a few years back. I downloaded a PDF map of Dublin, opened it in Illustrator and removed everything but the street names. I’d love to try that with a world map too; since place names cluster around certain physical features (coasts and rivers, mostly), the map would probably remain quite intelligible.

22   Eric ~ 03 May 2008


I really liked your art work. What prorgram did you use to design these beautiful prints? If I had to guess, I’d say Illustrator.
Thank you for sharing your work.

23 ~ 05 May 2008

This is something that can be incorporated into many different design projects for a lot of different results. Definitely something to get creative with

24   Dan ~ 19 May 2008

Details soon???


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