• Atomic D

Learning Typeface Design with AD Designer Thavin Rajanakhan

This spring, ATOMIC D Visual Designer Thavin Rajanakhan enrolled in Principles of Typeface Design: Display Type taught by Juan Villanueava at Type@Cooper, the Typeface Design Certificate Program from Cooper Union. Thavin took to the AD blog to share his experience and learnings - and to unveil the custom typeface he created throughout this process. Let’s see what he has to say…


TT-Turf-C by Thavin Rajanakhan
TT-Turf-C by Thavin Rajanakhan

I've always been interested in lettering, but it wasn't until I started doing graphic design and honing in on typography that I began to appreciate typeface design. I was originally teaching myself, just for fun. I would dig through social platforms around the internet and more and more type designers would appear on my radar; that's how I found out type design was a thing. In taking it, I wanted to deepen my understanding of type design, learn best practices in typography, and find breakpoints to help redefine this landscape. There are a lot of POC folks missing from the type design community, and it's nice to see typefaces designed by a wider range of backgrounds that can also be used in everyday visual environments.


ATOMIC D Visual Designer Thavin Rajanakhan
ATOMIC D Visual Designer Thavin Rajanakhan

Experimental lettering and typography are merging more often these days. Typography is one of the first things that we digest in visual messaging. It's everywhere and it creates a kind of rhythm for the project it belongs to. You’ve got folks making city maps for urban design, campaigns for nonprofits, and posters for music festivals, and all of these totally different projects utilize type as a key design element.

When designing a new typeface the process is the same for any project: you build a creative brief, cultivate questions that help inform the concept and technical constraints, then you begin hand-lettering things out with your choice of tool (calligraphy pen, brush, etc.). After that you digitize the designs and begin to lay out individual letters, then words, then paragraphs and sizing. This process helps you to see the cadence of the typeface not just from word to word, but as bodies of texts. Even when reading through this paragraph, see how smoothly were we able to breeze through it? I love that process of going back to the drawing board, digitizing, testing, drawing again.

In this course, we started the design process using Pilot Calligraphy 6mm pens to write basic humanist-style Roman letters - after that it was our tool of choice, but I stuck with my Pilot Calligraphy pen. We used tracing paper to reshape and refine our basic letterforms to best fit the design brief. We weren’t required to base our letter forms off traditional roman letters, but it helped to understand the anatomy enough to then break the rules. To digitize, we brought our sketches into the Glyphs App, where we got into the more technical refinements of our designs. It was a lot more challenging than I had anticipated, which is a good thing, to bring in more organic shapes, apply the strokes from the calligraphy pen, then refine so that sentences and paragraphs can have a nice cadence to them when considering kerning and leading.


Explorations of TT-Turf-C by Thavin Rajanakhan
Explorations of TT-Turf-C by Thavin Rajanakhan

My typeface is (tentatively) called TT-Turf-C. It’s built upon a different typeface I originally called "TT-Turf" that was influenced by arm/hand movements found in turf dancing, liquid dancing, wacking, etc. I wanted to challenge myself a bit and base the letter forms off the actual visual shapes from the arms, not just the movements (a little more literal). So far it's one of the most challenging typefaces I've worked on. Although it's functional now, I would love to continue to refine the smaller details. It looks nothing like the original typeface, which I think I was stuck on for the longest time.


Expression of TT-Turf-C by Thavin Rajanakhan
Expression of TT-Turf-C by Thavin Rajanakhan

I was surprised by a lot of things throughout the course, mostly on the technical side of typeface design. I was taught to ask questions like: How can a typeface be designed for digital and accessibility? What if folks are viewing the typeface on an old monitor? How will it maintain its true character without getting lost? How could the typeface be translated into a different language with particular character accents? How can it be built as a variable font (how will it perform and change its shape in the backend of web design and UI)? Typefaces are now being designed with those questions in mind, and it's interesting to see how they adapt to these needs. This course made me appreciate the practice of typography even more than I already did.


We had three guest speakers come into the class: David Williams (@manchester_type), Romina Hernandez (@ro.hernandezz), and Phaedra Charles (@phaedra.xyz). They all shared their experience and journey with type design and critiqued our designs, which was super helpful. They also shared their enthusiasm for experimentation and the evolution of type design. There is plenty of space for both function and art in this work, and it's great when both resonate together.

From this point forward in my career, I’m applying what I've learned towards anything typography-related. I’m hoping there’ll be opportunities for custom typeface design or even consulting with clients on typeface choice. In my personal life as an artist, I’m excited to share what I know with other folks who are interested in typeface design, share my love for it, and have folks test out typefaces I've made and see what they do with them. You can design and refine as much as you want, but by letting your typeface live out in the real world, you’ll truly see it breathe.