The Making Of Malice Stencil
Phoenix-based type designer Scott Biersack takes us behind the scenes to reveal the craft, collaboration and attention to detail involved in the making of our first ever typeface release, Malice Stencil.
I early 2018, I drew a custom blackletter-inspired logotype for myself to utilize on my portfolio site. I continued drawing and documenting the process of other logotypes for clients to see the variety of styles I am capable of. This blackletter stencil logotype became an instant favorite from the collection and there it lived on my site.
Later on, in April of 2018, Andrew at True Grit Texture Supply reached out about developing an exclusive "True Grit" typeface. Needless to say, I took this project on in an instant and after a few discussions we settled on taking my original youbringfire logotype and building it out into a complete typeface.
Looking back, this typeface actually began in 2015 while I was undergoing the Extended Type@Cooper program where we explored humanist forms while drawing with a parallel pen. I began drawing large forms with a Copic Wide marker to create a typeface named Ganon Broad. That process eventually helped guide the overall look and feel of Malice Stencil.
The finished state of “Ganon Broad” in 2015
The wavy nature of the vertical stems was the one characteristic I kept as I continued onward revising this type. The process followed the typical motion of forming serifs when calligraphing, so this felt very natural and created an interesting effect. That undulating motion sure was a pain with certain glyphs, but I'll get into that later. The goal of Malice was to create something very true to the pen/brush and the motions of my (left-handed) calligraphy.
"I BEGAN DRAWING LARGE FORMS WITH A COPIC WIDE MARKER. THAT TOOL HELPED GUIDE THE OVERALL LOOK AND FEEL OF MALICE STENCIL".
As Always, My Process Begins on Paper
Since I have a hard time iterating digitally, nearly every project I start begins on a piece of paper. Most of the time, that consists of quick and rough sketches to get the idea out of my head into something more tangible. It's a quick method of exploring what's working well and what may cause problems down the line. The early process of Malice Stencil was mostly calligraphed with a Zig calligraphy marker because of the nature of the forms and how quickly I could iterate in my tiny sketchbook.
Some initial sketches on paper but plenty of further editing needed in vector land.
As I continued drawing, I learned how each letterform needed to be slightly tweaked in order to look and function properly. Like many things in type design, what I discovered is the exact same stencil pieces could not be copied / pasted throughout. The stencil pieces appear quite similar when not concentrating on them, but most characters are unique to themselves and their construction.
Each glyph needed subtle edits to nail down the correct letterform width. This, in turn, helped the letterforms posture feel more upright and created a subtle nod to how the same personality occurs within calligraphy.
Notice the slight difference in curved strokes compared to the control character, "o" in the comparison below.
Reaching Out for Feedback
Thankfully, the deadline for this typeface was not urgent and got pushed which allowed me time to take a step back from this project. I didn't touch Malice for a good month or two at one point. This break was crucial to help improve the overall design as I began to notice things I didn't before.
Pushing onward, I reached many points where certain characters or decisions left me stuck. When I noticed myself getting frustrated, I knew it was time to reach out for help. Friends like James Edmondson, Andy Clymer and many others across social media provided thoughtful feedback to remove my roadblocks and present a new perspective.
With that said, let's talk about (some) of the darn problems I encountered! Nearly all of the capital letterforms gave me grief. Most importantly, the E, F and T drove me nuts. Those forms constantly felt out of place and disrupted the overall texture. Early on, I felt they weren't stencil-y enough, and had evolved into something very forced. The day I solved those characters was a glorious day.
Here's the process of the foul beasts (E, F & T) up until final release.
Of course, the process of the M and N sure gave me hell. I wanted to approach those caps with a little more thought rather than repurposing the lowercase "m" and "n" that is seen in some blackletter families.
Time Away to See the Unseen
I hit pause on Malice Stencil for a few weeks as I took a little type design sabbatical in Paris over the summer. That little break really helped clear my head for things to come. The one major design flaw I noticed was the entry strokes among many lowercase forms were too sharp and also too light in weight. This posed a decent amount of reworking since it occurred across so many characters. It's something so minuscule but obviously makes all the difference when you see the before and after. Pay attention to those entry strokes in the below image.
Another optical flaw I was noticed across many glyphs was a strange tilting/rotating effect. You can see that happening in the "p" below. So many characters were either falling forward or leaning backward...I never noticed this up until I returned from Paris! I'm glad I caught it early on because yet again, those slight edits make all the difference in the end.
Entry stroke edits were needed for many of the lowercase characters.
“Malice is a Dark Name for a Typeface”
You bet your sweet booty Malice is a dark name! For those of you that know me, I certainly have an obsession with darker imagery — skeletons, flames, occult stuff, you know, the usual. During the typeface production, I constantly jammed one of my favorite bands, Bad Omens. Well, their song Malice inspired the lineup of fun "evil" emojis, inspired in part by a friends halloween pumpkin carvings. While I had a lengthy list of other potential names, this inspiration combo culminated in the perfect name.
A collection of homies carved Malice emojis into pumpkins.
P.S. the stencil emojis were also drawn initially on paper with the same Zig Calligraphy marker to help them feel more cohesive with the typeface.
The Nuance of a Textured Typeface
As with every True Grit release, Malice needed a textured companion. I contemplated the easiest way to get this done effectively and efficiently without duplicating an insane amount of tedious production work.
Here was my thought process:
- Export the clean typeface.
- Open every glyph in Illustrator to texture.
- Somehow import it back into Robofont (whilst maintaining the same scale and positioning so the spacing, kerning, etc. remained identical).
Easy right? I knew some kind of custom python script could potentially save me time...the issue was, I have very, very little knowledge or experience in this realm still.
The exported gridded SVG file containing every glyph needing to be textured.
Gridding (and Andy Clymer) save the day.
An email was sent off to Python wizz Andy Clymer requesting a cost estimate to write such a time-saving script. Andy was excited by the idea and generously lent his time to create an entire functioning extension for Robofont.
This beautiful extension allows a user to export the entire glyph set gridded out as a large SVG file, ready for processing in Adobe Illustrator.
So, with the Robofont extension installed, the gridded SVG was exported then sent off to the team at True Grit to begin the texturing process.
Not all textured fonts are created equal.
Most textured and distressed fonts on the market look "good from afar but far from good". The process used to distress is often rushed and based on Adobe Illustrator's default live trace settings or free "vectorizing" plugins. The resulting fonts look passable at small sizes but on close inspection, the characters are a mess of sharp anchor junctions and straight paths.
What's the point of a textured font that you can't enlarge enough to show off it's distressed detail? We wanted to ensure that Malice Rough would hold-up well under the scrutiny of extra-large typesetting and even wide format printing. The catch was how to avoid hand-drawing hundreds of thousands of distress relief shapes to achieve such high standards.
"WHAT'S THE POINT OF A TEXTURED FONT THAT YOU CAN'T ENLARGE ENOUGH TO SHOW OFF IT'S DISTRESSED DETAIL?"
To solve this, Andrew and Sarah at True Grit developed a custom process for distressing each character individually using a combination of analog print samples and live-trace presets designed to recreate an aesthetic somewhere between vintage letterpress and low-fi photocopying.
The grid size was a little too small to allow for such a large amount of detail so each character was numerically scaled, then processed multiple times to pick the best distressing result. To finish, each chosen character was reduced (again, numerically for accuracy), and placed back into the SVG grid in the exact same location as the original.
Malice Clean vs Malice Rough (after some minor manual node pushing).
With the distressing complete within Illustrator and saved into the same grid as the original export, I utilized Andy's extension to import the new "distressed" style back into Robofont while maintaining the same spacing and positioning! Voilà! Behold the miracle of Python Script. Chefs kiss!
While I still had to complete minor clean-up work (textured typefaces sure have a ton of anchor points), Andy's extension saved me an immense amount of production work. And that, kids, is the importance of learning code. Highly recommend.
A Few More Thank You's
I'll try to keep this brief! A massive thank you to Matthew Smith for helping with additional production work on this. He's the reason everything functions so nicely — especially those beautiful emojis. Can't thank that dude enough. Thanks to Andrew and Sarah at True Grit for production assistance, pushing me into unknown territory, and having faith in me and what I can deliver. Thanks to the many folks that tested Malice out before the official launch. Your thoughts and feedback helped immensely.
Scott Biersack is a Phoenix-based designer specializing in custom lettering, logotypes and type design