A Guide to Font Formats and Type Design Tools

June is Typography Month! Celebrate by entering your team’s type-centric work into the In-House Design Awards.

In the Spring 2017 issue of HOW magazine, Jason Tselentis introduced us to some designers who spend their days creating typefaces for multiple writing systems, looking at the tools and methods they use. From JamraPatel to Typotheque and TypeTogether, among others, these foundries consider type design a cultural service. Read the full article online here.

Designing typefaces for multiple writing systems comes with its own unique set of challenges. Here, we share designers’ recommendations on the best tools for designing typefaces for a variety of writing systems—even ones you don’t know. But keep in mind, type design requires research—and lots of it. 

Some Background on Font Formats

To understand type design, it helps to understand font formats then and now, learning about their history and development.

Adobe created the PostScript graphics model in the 1980s and used it for images, text, and printers. PostScript Type 1 fonts were the beginning of outlines and vectors, making them known as outline fonts. PostScript fonts include two parts, one for the screen and one for printing. Type 1 and Level 2, are still in use, and the most recent iteration, Adobe PostScript 3 is used on computer platforms around the world. But since they are limited to 256 glyphs or less, some consider PostScript outmoded.

Apple developed TrueType for digital fonts and licensed it to Microsoft. TrueType contains screen and print information all in one file, and beginning in the 1990s both Apple and Microsoft used TrueType fonts in their respective operating systems. TrueType fonts are native to each system, meaning you need one for a Mac and a different one for Windows. TrueType allows for well over 256 glyphs in a font—up to 64,000 according to Monotype’s Tom Rickner. This makes TrueType ideal for including expert and special characters, along with plenty of additional glyphs.

In the 1990s, Adobe and Microsoft worked together to end the so-called font wars and developed a platform that combined the best of PostScript and TrueType. OpenType fonts can contain a large number of glyphs, also up to 64,000 according to Monotype’s Tom Rickner. Like TrueType, OpenType allows designers to create a font with Latin and non-Latin scripts plus alternate characters, fractions and old style figures, ligatures, small caps, and swashes, among others, all in one file.

So what’s next? A new generation of fonts is on the horizon, known as variable fonts. As part of OpenType 1.8, variable fonts are the future of typography and allow for a multitude of functions, styles, weights, and transformations—yes, you read that right, transformations—all in one font package.

There are plenty of font formats to choose from, and just as many tools to choose from when it comes to your next typography project—be it one for a writing system you know, or one that’s foreign to you.

6 Tools for Designing Typefaces for Multiple Writing Systems


This free font editor for Mac lets you improve the software with your own contributions to the source code. As part of the FontForge community, you can donate your time, skills, or money to helping advance the platform for everyone.


If you’re old enough to remember Fontographer, then you might want to reintroduce yourself to it at FontLab’s site. Or if you want something more powerful, get what the pros use, FontLab Studio.


This self-proclaimed “Font Editing for Everyone” app is a relative newcomer that has quickly been adopted by type design professionals because of its intuitive user interface, ease of use and rich features.

Google Translate

JamraPatel has found Google Translate helpful when communicating in other languages, something the studio frequently does. But Google Translate is not perfect and Mark Jamra suggests having “a rudimentary knowledge of the language you’re translating to.”


This font editor for Mac lets you draw and edit glyphs. Because it’s written in the Python programming language, you can use Python to create scripts and extend how the app works, making it highly customizable.

Pen, Pencil, Paper

Jonathan Fabreguettes and Laurent Bourcellier of studio typographies.fr always start on paper. Digital drawing tools also come in handy for editing and refining the forms, and sharing them across great distances. Veronika Burian of TypeTogether said that their drafts are done directly on the computer. “Sometimes I would sketch some ideas on paper whilst thinking about a design detail or other shape-related question. We have found that our collaboration over a large distance is helped by digital sketches. We can share screens or font files really easily via Skype and email.” Ultimately, Burian believes that one designer’s tools may differ from another designer’s because “working methods are subjective and defined by preferences.”

The Future of Type Design

PostScript and TrueType may seem like dinosaurs compared to what OpenType and its forthcoming variable fonts have to offer. And then there’s the prospect of designing for a culture other than your own, for a writing system you may know a little about—or know nothing about. If you want to learn more about type design, especially multi-cultural type design, consider studying it at a specialized program, such as the University of Reading’s Master of Arts in Typeface Design (MATD). And above all, know that type design is all about research, knowing not only about the design tools and font formats, but also people, places, and cultures.

Learn more about international design, typography and more in the Spring 2017 issue of HOW magazine. Discover the 292 winning designs from HOW’s largest competition: The International Design Awards. Plus, explore Lisbon’s booming startup culture & learn an incredible lettering trick. Get a copy here, or subscribe.