One of the most important tools in a letterer’s toolbox is a variety of fonts. You’re probably already familiar with a few of the common ones – Arial, Times New Roman, Wingdings, and Comic Sans. To get just the right effect, a good letterer needs to have access to much more than just the standard font pack. Where do they get these special letter sets? Sometimes they create new ones from scratch, and sometimes they buy fonts made by others.
Nate Piekos, the man behind Blambot, is one of the most prolific font creators today, and he took some time to answer some questions about his craft.
Were comics always an interest for you?
Nate Piekos: Absolutely. I can remember laying on the living room floor with crayons and paper, making my own comics. I was a mostly a Marvel fan as a teen, with a sprinkling of DC, Dark Horse, and the underground works of folks like Marc Hansen, R. Crumb, etc.
You’ve been creating your own fonts since 1998. How old were you at that time? What education or experience did you have in your background to help you get started?
NP: Was it that long ago? In ’98 I would have been 23. I earned a BA in Graphic Design from RIC. My focus was corporate identity. Part of the curriculum was typography – I wished I’d pay closer attention. At the time I had no idea type would become such an important part of my life!
Do you do all your work on a screen nowadays, or do you still occasionally start with ink and paper?
NP: The majority of the work is done in Adobe Illustrator. I have Macs and PCs in my studio, and I use Wacom Cintiq 24HD for almost everything. Basically, it’s a computer monitor at an angle, like a drafting board. You use a stylus on the screen. I couldn’t imagine working with a mouse anymore. I still use pen and ink with a real drafting board, but with the Cintiq it’s so convenient to work digitally.
How have new technologies changed the way you create fonts?
NP: Pretty much what I mentioned above. I love my Cintiq. Best piece of equipment I’ve ever bought. Most fonts start off in Illustrator during the design phase. Once you have all the characters designed, you move everything over to Fontlab to do the technical process of kerning, etc. The software has improved, but the process hasn’t changed much over the years.
Are you usually able to get the effects you want in one attempt, or do you spend significant time tweaking your fonts to get them just right?
NP: It depends. Every font is different. As I get older, I’ve gotten far more picky. There’s usually a lot of tweaking and print tests before it ever even gets to the Fontlab stage.
Since you started 16 years ago, you’ve created an unbelievable number of unique fonts. Are you running out of ideas for new ones yet? Where do you get your inspiration for new ones?
NP: I get that question a lot. It’s like music. Will we ever run out of songs? Lots of people play guitar, and their music may fit into genres, but there’s always a different spin, and a personal touch that can be brought to the music. Same with fonts.
Have you ever stumbled into a great design or effect on accident?
NP: Oh yeah. All the time. I’ll be experimenting and initially think I goofed up, but then sit back and realize, “Hey…that’s kind of cool…” I’ve built whole fonts and logos like that. As the immortal Bob Ross used to say, “We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.”
Comics aren’t your only market for your fonts. Who else has an interest in them, and where else can readers see your work?
NP: I’m really fortunate that you can now see them everywhere. Packaging, movies, TV, video games, you name it. It’s a real kick to go out into the world and see my designs everywhere I go. It’s pretty exciting to think that when I upload a new font, that design is literally being used world-wide soon after.Continued below
How important is it, do you think, for individuals to have good handwriting?
NP: My own day-to-day handwriting is pretty sloppy. So I guess the answer is, “Not very.” My father is an architect, so I grew up seeing that very specific engineer/architect all-caps printing. Which had a profound effect on me. It influenced my developing brain enough that to this day, I print in all-caps. Writing cursive or lowercase requires more concentration. But handwriting and lettering are two very different things. Handwriting is done without much thought. Every stroke when lettering is a conscious act.
After working with letters and design all day, are you able to “turn off” your eye for it? Or are you constantly critiquing every billboard you see?
NP: No, I can’t. Sometimes it’s maddening because I’ll be watching a movie trailer, or looking at a magazine cover and my first thought will be, “Jeez, the kerning on that text is awful…” It’ll take me right out of the experience and all I can see are the mistakes. On the positive side, I tend to notice all the really great lettering, too. As creepy as it sounds, I once followed a guy through a crowded convention until I could get a better look at the awesome lettering on this old t-shirt he was wearing. When I finally caught up with him, he was pretty understanding even though I’m pretty sure he thought I was nuts.
If you could offer only one piece of advice to an aspiring letterer, what would it be?
NP: The difference between a decent letterer and a really good letterer, is the latter is a really good graphic designer first and foremost.
If you’re interested in seeing how Nate works, you can see exactly how he does it here.