Making Avona: Fonts For All Your Fantasy Things!

This is the story of how the Avona family of fonts came to be. (Please read in your best dramatic movie trailer voice) From the beginning, they were forged from the ideals that compose the fantasy genre. They came from a place where magic is practiced, dangers and deities lurk in the unknown, and life is vastly different from what we are used to. They were created from the act of plunging ourselves into another world to escape from this reality. They were born from myth, legend, lore, and our collective imagination. They came from another universe known as Fantasy.

Video Game Typography

The idea for Avona came out of discussions with my husband about video game typography. During our time playing video games together we had both noticed that many often lacked good typography, especially in the fantasy genre. When we took a closer look, typographical choices ranged from games using fonts that were very stylized and sacrificed functionality to games using a functional font that didn’t add any atmosphere to the game. There are a few that get it right and when that happens, the immersion feels magical. [see this article for a general overview of the effectiveness of video game typography]

Searching for “fantasy font” brings up a lot of options that are overly decorative and pretty much unusable for the demands of user interfaces. This leaves very few choices that add a fantasy visual tone while remaining functional. The type designer part of me saw this as a challenge and so I set out to capture the essence of fantasy in a typeface that would also meet the demands of good user interface typography. I also put thought into how to make it easy for a game development studio to find and use it. From the start of the process I planned to create two typefaces; a display family and a user interface family that were both based on the same skeleton.

Avona and Avona Serif were crafted to be used together to get maximum fantasy vibes and function. I originally envisioned it for use in games and fantasy content but have found that the serif, in particular works in many other environments where a humanist font is desired.

What Is A Fantasy Typeface? A Rabbit Hole Of Exploration

How did I go about capturing the fantasy genre in a typeface? I began with a question, “if a typeface were magicked into existence, what would it look like?”

gif of Merlin from Sword in the Stone loading his books into his travel bag
Wizards love their books! They have that in common with type designers.

Imagine if a wizard conjured a document. What determines the look of the letters on the page? Does the magic draw from the wizard’s own knowledge and imagination, or does the spell itself contain the DNA that determines the letterforms? In the case that the wizard’s own knowledge contributes to letterform characteristics, the letters are going to be influenced by the culture and world around said wizard.

So what does this world look like? It’s likely pre-industrial because who needs technology when you can just magic things into existence. There are probably not very many printing presses so day-to-day samples of writing would be calligraphic or written. If this world follows a similar pattern of typeface development to our current reality it puts it somewhere in the realm of early letterpress.

Again referencing the history in our own reality, written forms developed from the writing tools available and the culture surrounding the scribes who wielded them. For this project I referenced Carolingian minuscule as a foundation for my forms for a couple reasons.

The first was just a gut feeling that these letter-shapes were connected to an ancient magic — if it ever existed in our reality. It was derived from scripts used in England and Ireland which are areas close to the setting of Arthurian Legends and Pagan religion.

The second reason was because Carolingian minuscule forms are very circular and rounded, which—in works of modern fantasy—is an often-repeated shape in relation to the arcane.

A sheet of paper with many small lines of calligraphy and a hand holding a broad nib pen near the bottom

I studied images made by other calligraphers who wield the pen better than me. Calligraphy and image by @karenscribbles on instagram

The Third reason is that Carolingian script is also very closely related to modern letter forms making it very understandable for modern readers.

Research highlight, I had the pleasure of visiting the Letterform Archive in San Francisco and seeing a sample of Carolingian minuscule from the 9th century in person, pretty neat!

A book bound with parchment that has early Carolingian minuscule on it
A book bound with parchment holding early Carolingian minuscule. Viewed at a trip to the Letterform Archive in San Francisco.

Turning Calligraphy Into Typeface

New letter designs are based on the forms that came before. Calligraphy turned into typeface designs, which were then built upon and changed many times over. For this project, I felt that it was important to return to the calligraphy and try to create modern-looking letterforms straight from that. My process was not devoid of referencing historical samples from the humanist genre (typefaces that are transitional from calligraphy to typeface) but I tried not to rely on them too much. I wanted these forms to have their own growth and trajectory from that calligraphic starting place to retain as much of the calligraphic character as possible.

Practice calligraphy that says 'hamburgfonsiv'
I broke out a broad nib pen and experimented with some Carolingian calligraphy.

The obvious place to start was to try out some Carolingian calligraphy. It was useful for getting a better understanding of the shapes but I certainly wasn’t going to get any great samples to work from my shaky, untrained hand. I studied some other calligrapher’s work and then moved on to sketching. These helped me decide on some guiding principles like flowing in and out of a line but having a straight section in the middle. I also wanted to make the 30° pen angle very obvious in terminals and crossbars.

Pencil sketches of calligraphic letterforms
Early sketches exploring some of the main features of the letter forms

I moved pretty quickly into vector drawings after that and the shapes changed quite a bit over the nearly 3 years I worked on it. in June 2018, the shapes were very calligraphic and as I refined proportions and termination details it became more regular. A big change happened in February of 2020 where the stem became very straight and the terminals very thick which I decided was a bit too far away from the calligraphic foundation.

I struggled with how much calligraphic flavour to keep through the process as I have a tendency to perfect to the point of removing all the interesting parts. I discovered that the serifs were adding the most character and I quickly returned to thinner, longer serifs and a bit more detail on the bottom of the straight serif. I ended up with a very regularized calligraphic form that is somewhere in between calligraphy and a serif design.

A series of 5 n characters that change slightly with each drawing
The progress of the ’n’ shape

Another challenge I encountered was that traditional proportions of calligraphy don’t play well with modern readers and UI design. Large x-heights with relatively short ascenders and descenders are preferred for many reasons but Carolingian calligraphy generally had fairly long ascenders and descenders. It took a bit of work to retain calligraphic flavour without using the traditional proportions.

The word "leap" set in traditional proportions having long ascenders and descenders next to a version with more smaller ascenders and descenders
Traditional calligraphic proportions were way too old school

Another thing to address was the uppercase. Modern readers are used to uppercase forms that are based on Roman carved letters which are created by a chisel on stone resulting in something very different than broad nib pen on paper. I wanted the flowing roundness of calligraphy to continue into the uppercase and had to dig into uncial forms to find inspiration. The proportions here also needed attention, I loosely followed the concept of Roman proportions but it is adjusted to a more subtle rhythm.

a line of letters set in very calligraphic Avona serif compared to a line set in chiseled Roman forms of Trajan
Calligraphic uppercases can have some different forms than what we are used to. They are generally more round.

Having no straight crossbars proved challenging and I had trouble getting the “wiggly-bits” to feel unified. When I shortened or elongated the shape it just looked off. Late in the process while I was streaming live type design on twitch and trying to unify the wiggly-bits, John Hudson of Tiro Type suggested that I try to keep the centre part of the wiggle at a consistent angle. Then I could use weight and tightness of transitions to manage the length. This was a great help to making the wiggles look more consistent (thanks John for the help with the “schwoops and schwings!”)

An early version of the "E and G" characters with angle indicators on the wiggly-bits next to an improved version
Unifying the angles of the Wiggly Bits

Avona is still in progress at the time of this writing as I add language support and refine the characters to a more finished state. Avona Serif, as I will go into next, is at a point where I consider it done (I mean, as done as it can be for a type designer, which is never). I’ll probably be adding more features and italic styles in the future.

Avona Serif

Avona Serif brings the same calligraphic flavour on a more subtle level. I achieved this by using the same skeleton and trying to keep as close to the shapes as I could. I also tried to stick to the same proportions.

Avona on the top row and Avona serif on the bottom row showing how similar the shapes are
Same skeleton but dressed up a little differently

Displaying hints of the pen angle was a guiding principle for the design. The serifs are all angled and crossbars and joins all keep a consistent angle as well. They do not strictly follow the 30° angle of calligraphy as that made the shapes too severe, but I chose an angle that communicated that pen angle.

close up on the upper and lowercase "N" characters to show all their angled details
It was a lot of angles to keep track of but it was worth it!

Shout Outs!

Thank you to The Alphabettes Mentorship program who partnered me with the wonderful Robin Mientjes of Tiny Type Co. Her feedback was incredibly valuable for pushing this project forward. I learned so much about the technical aspects of font production, got direct feedback on character set and language support, and the forms themselves. Plus our chats gave me so much motivation to finish this project (especially through a Pandemic).

Thank you to David Johnathan Ross for being so available for Type Crit sessions. His critiques gave me so much to think about on the direction of the forms.

And thank you to my Twitch followers. To all of you who showed up in chat to offer advice, thoughts, ideas, you are amazing! I’ve never had so much fun making fonts.

What’s Next?

I took a new approach when I first let the Avona family out into the world. I released it in Beta once I thought it reached a point where it was usable. I want to keep working on these and releasing updates as they improve. In particular, you can look forward to:

  • A decorative drop caps set
  • A rune set
  • An uncial cap set
  • Italics!
  • Small caps

Thanks For Reading!

Thanks for sticking around! If you want to check out Avona and Avona Serif yourself head over to my website. I offer a Pay-what-you-can personal licence that you can also use to trail the fonts and play around with them. I hope they make all your Fantasy projects come true!

♡ Alanna