The Unqualified Bookmaker

Firstly, I’ve just opened up pre-orders for my latest book, Twenty Bits I Learned About Making Fonts. It’s my seventh book, and the second one I’m self-publishing. I spent a sizeable chunk of the Great Quarantine learning how to properly make a font—something I’ve long wanted to learn. It started with a decade-old goal of turning some letters on an old sign into a usable font.

Living here in New England, I’m surrounded by vintage signs. There is one particular sign I’d walk past every day for years on the way to my office in downtown Salem. It’s on the side of bank. It’s been a bank for more than a century, and on one of the building’s brick walls is a little cast iron, house-shaped box with thick, white, sans-serif lettering in all caps: VAULT ALARM.

Year after year, I’d pass this sign and admire the bold, blocky type. “Someday, I’d love to make a font out of this,” I’d say. I even posted a photo on Instagram with that exact caption over eight years ago.

So last year, I finally took the plunge and turned this handful of letters into a full alphabet that felt like a family. Then later into a functional display font using Glyphs app (which has been life-changing). The motivation to make it came from wanting to see these letters take on a new life in other projects. And thus began a new obsession of drawing letters based on a small set of vintage type.

Then I kept going, making more fonts. I felt like I hit a stride and was learning a ton by creating different styles of letters I wanted to use in my own projects. I had so much fun doing this that I decided to document twenty lessons I learned along the way and put that into a little hardcover book, much like I did last year with thoughts on being a designer-turned-entrepreneur. The idea being: There are likely other designers out there that want to make fonts, but are stuck on where to begin. Maybe my journey can help.

And I get it. The type world can be intimidating. But one of my twenty bits is, “There are no font police”. I needed to realize I didn’t need permission or formal training or the blessing of anyone to dig in and start making fonts. Call it a bad case of imposter syndrome, but once I understood that letters and fonts can be weird, wonky, and imperfect, then I felt free to start creating them. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for more than just fonts.

Also, I’m no font expert. But perhaps I have a knack at diving into skills I know very little about, then trying to distill that process and explain it to others. It’s that exact thinking that got me blogging about design so long ago. And that led to writing books about web design as I was still learning it myself. I’m hoping to continue that tradition with a goal of self-publishing a little book each year about a topic I’m only marginally-qualified to write about. It’s worked for me thus far.

I’d love to see more casual, non-academic books created in general. Tastefully-designed, hardcovers. Real paper. Hold in your hands. Doesn’t disappear when servers are unplugged. There’s something about a paper book that is incomparable—even with all the technology in the world at our fingertips. The idea that anyone is capable of writing a book is exciting. And I believe it. The more voices, the better.

So, write a book! It doesn’t have to be authoritative. It doesn’t have to be long. It just needs to be your own perspective on something, permanently preserved on paper. This year for me, it was fonts. Next year, who knows?

You can pre-order the new book here, and thanks for reading ✌️

A special shoutout to Jen & Amy Hood for tipping me off on using Glyphs app, Jessica Hische for early help with diacritics and spacing/kerning, and Sally Kerrigan for copyediting the books.