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How To Design a Typeface: Mark Simonson’s Process

By Tamye Riggs

Do you ever dream of designing your own typeface? Find out what it takes in this profile of Mark Simonson, the hand behind Proxima Nova, Coquette, and other popular fonts.

The path to success as a type designer isn’t easy. An aspiring type designer must walk the line between artist and technician, have business savvy, and carry a crystal ball to boot. Making fonts that look good and work well for print and screen takes time, talent, and an infinite amount of patience.

Good type designers are fascinated with letterforms. Some fall in love when they take a typography class in college. Others, like Mark Simonson, are swept away at a more tender age.

commercial typefaces designed by Mark Simonson

Mark’s commercial typefaces.

TYPE FUN WITH DICK AND JANE

Mark can’t remember a time he wasn’t interested in letters, down to noticing the typefaces in primers when he was learning to read. “I remember clearly enough that I can tell you the typefaces, like Century Schoolbook from the Dick and Jane series,” Mark says. “I would focus on details like, why is there this ‘fl’ thing, and why does this ‘g’ not look like what we learned to write?” He would obsess about details like that—and he would draw letters.

Mark practiced lettering and design at every opportunity, from laying out the school paper to creating a custom hand-lettered cover for the yearbook. After a stint at community college, he was hired by a Minneapolis advertising studio on the strength of his portfolio.

Eventually, Mark moved into art directing publications, although type design was always in the back of his mind. He submitted a typeface to International Typeface Corporation (ITC) in the late 1970s, but it was rejected. Undaunted, he began noodling with the idea of a type that would be geometric like Futura without the old style proportions. He named his concept Zanzibar and worked on it every now and then.

A sketch of Mark Simonson's typeface Zanzibar

Zanzibar’s early days.

A PROXIMA BY ANY OTHER NAME

Fast-forward to 1991, when Mark was searching for a replacement for Gill Sans. He pulled out Zanzibar and reworked its basic concept into a hybrid of a geometric and an American gothic, but with the fuller general proportions and stroke contrast of Helvetica or Akzidenz Grotesk. In a nod to its Gothic influences, Mark dubbed the revamped design Visigoth, but then renamed the six-font family Proxima Sans just before its release through FontHaus in 1994. (Name changes are common in the type industry.) By the turn of the century, the family had gained popularity. Rolling Stone magazine chose it as their house sans during a 2003 redesign, prompting Mark to expand the family. In 2005, he released Proxima Nova, a 42-font family designed to take advantage of the advanced typographic features of the OpenType format. 

Zanzibar (later renamed Proxima Sans) in its digital infancy and Proxima Nova Regular toda (typefaces designed by Mark Simonson).

Zanzibar (later renamed Proxima Sans) in its digital infancy and Proxima Nova Regular today.

When web fonts became a reality, Mark embraced the new technology, taking advantage of its business model and expanded market. Proxima Nova’s web font format has been wildly successful. 

Mark says one of the things that helps the type family on the web is the way the strokes join in the lowercase “a” and “n” and similar glyphs. The strokes thin where they come together, preventing the filled-in, blotchy effect that occurs with some types on screen. These thinned joins lend the face sparkle, Mark says—similar to how ink traps work for print fonts.

Proxima Nova’s somewhat rounded shapes also lend themselves better to low-resolution devices, Mark says. Subtler curves might not fit the pixel grid quite as nicely. Proxima has some width to it.

The Proxima family keeps growing, with Mark adapting the design to meet end user needs: A recent update added a medium weight and such new glyphs as the interrobang, Russian ruble, and Indian rupee. Mark is working on further expansion, including a wide variant for Proxima Nova, additions to the rounded styles, and ideas for a serif companion.

Typeface Proxima Nova Soft designed by Mark Simonson.
Typeface Proxima Nova Soft designed by Mark Simonson.

Proxima Nova Soft.

 

The upcoming Proxima Nova Wide may look like this, an in-progress typeface by Mark Simonson

The upcoming Proxima Nova Wide may look like this.

 

A FLIRTY FONT

Another of Mark’s most popular typefaces, Coquette, has its origins in the early years of desktop publishing. In the 1990s, he was working for Rivertown Trading Company, which published mail-order catalogs promoting public radio and television broadcasting. The powers-that-be wanted to redesign the logo, and Mark wanted to experiment. One of his doodles had the feel of a European camera logo, a sort of 1940s script with an Art Deco vibe. Although it wasn’t selected for the new logo, Mark liked the concept and kept working on it.

typeface sketches by Mark Simonson
typeface sketches by Mark Simonson

Doodle from a boring meeting and an early working sketch.

That typeface just seemed to fall into place, Mark says. He had a pretty good idea of what the whole thing would look like in his head from the beginning, and he continued to sketch it during boring meetings. In 1995, Mark tried to turn his unusual upright script into a digital font. He drew it in Adobe Illustrator, using the circle tool and line tool, but it didn’t look right. It was too stiff and geometric, so he put it away for a while.

In 2001, Mark took some time off after his partner, Pat Thompson, won a large sum of money on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? He devoted six months to type design, and Coquette (which he then called Ruby Script after his daughter) received a lot of attention. Mark put pencil to paper this time, drawing inch-tall letters on tracing paper. The design looked lovely. He scanned the drawings, using them as a loose reference in the background while working in Illustrator. He didn’t do a lot of measuring or checking for perfect geometry. He went with the flow of all those ‘s’ curves and French curves. “Everything seemed to click,” Mark says. “The combination of eyeballing it, drawing it by hand, then free-drawing it on screen, trying to capture the same gestures—it just worked. I’ve used this technique a lot since then.”

While it took three tries over a period of eight years to get the design right, Coquette is one of Mark’s favorite designs because it finally came out the way he had pictured it in his head. He has ambitious plans for Coquette’s future: a plainer version of the same style, with more normalized caps and a less script-like lowercase; a hairline weight and a super fat weight; and perhaps a neon version or a simple rounded version.

Type designer colleagues have suggested Mark craft a connected version, but he says part of the reason Coquette works so well is because it’s not connected—it’s a magic trick. He’s also considered a thick-and-thin version and an italic version; maybe a Cyrillic, which would present a tremendous challenge in a typeface so hybridized. “But it would be fun,” Mark says.

Coquette font by Mark Simonson
Coquette font by Mark Simonson
sketches for possible Coquette variations by Mark Simonson
sketches for a possible Cyrillic version of Coquette by Mark Simonson.

Coquette today (top); possible Coquette variations and Cyrillic explorations (below).

 

…AND ALL THE CHILDREN ARE ABOVE AVERAGE

Proxima Nova and Coquette should both see updates later this year, once Mark settles on which ideas to focus on first. He has other ideas for scripts in the same ballpark as Coquette; he likes the tricky typefaces. Some of Mark’s other typeface ideas are related to lettering projects he’s done in the past. One he’s recently put a lot of work into evolved from a 1980s audiotape packaging he designed for Minnesota Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion: a hand lettered thick-and-thin sans that evokes a 1930s style.

The original 1983 lettering.

Mark says he didn’t have to look at references to craft those Lake Wobegon letters. “I was born in 1955, when that style of lettering was still around,” he says. “It’s in my bones.” He always felt it would be a great typeface, but his first attempt in the 1990s looked wrong. “I keep going back to it. I recently tried again, and it’s starting to look right. I’m not sure when it will be ready—probably in the next year or two.”

an in-progress type design by Mark Simonson

A sneak peek at the typeface.

If Mark’s past efforts are any future indicator, he will keep working until he gets that typeface—and any others in the pipeline—just right.