I have to start this with a quick story: when I was a kid (maybe 10 or so?) I used to make worksheets for my two younger siblings in the summer. I would set up a small school in the basement and pretend I was the teacher. I even marked the worksheets with a red pen and gave them stickers for doing a good job. I’m not sure they enjoyed this but I sure did (my siblings would remind me at this point in the story that they thought I was so bossy).
This typeface felt necessary for me to create, like it’s been hanging out in my brain for a very long time just waiting for an opportunity to surface. I hope this font finds its way to the people who need it and maybe surprises some others by adding some happy, round, educational shapes to their design work when they didn’t know they needed it.
The purpose of writing
My own personal experience of learning how to write happened a long time ago and the memory has faded but my 6-year-old son has just started his journey. It’s been fascinating to look at the available resources and compare them to the understanding of letterforms I have gained through type design.
But what is the purpose of learning to write? Why not just type everything with our fancy computers? There is evidence that learning to physically form the letters (writing) is a part of learning how to read. These two activities use different parts of the brain which creates more connections resulting in faster and more accurate letter recognition.
With writing and reading so intertwined in early education, shouldn’t our model shapes for writing be closely related to the shapes we will read—typefaces?
In the summer before my child started kindergarten we received a package of learning materials including an alphabet poster. I had a hard time ignoring the flaws in this poster that was supposed to be a model of the alphabet for my child. This got me thinking about how I would design the poster from the point of view of a type designer.
It’s all in the proportions
The concept was to create a set of letters that were easy to draw or write while retaining the connection to typographic tradition. The Formulate alphabet has proportions based on modern typographic construction with higher x-heights and uniform widths. This makes the letters more closely related to the letters we typically see in everyday life and as I would later find out, how people with neat handwriting tend to form their letters.
There are a couple Reddit forums (Penmanshipporn and Handwriting) where people post their neat handwriting. I looked at quite a few samples of what others considered “neat” and found that they were often proportioned evenly and the round forms seemed close to circular. The x-heights were typically super high and I went with an x-height at 65% of the cap height for Formulate instead of the traditional 50% that is common in learning materials.
One thing I noticed in many existing learning materials that used guidelines was that the uncommon proportions came from trying to force the letters to line up with the guidelines. Any type designer will tell you that some crossbars and parts of letters just don’t line up mathematically with the 50% mark if they want to look “correct”. This is one of the ways in which Formulate is more closely tied to typographic tradition.
Calligraphic, not geometric
Formulate is not a geometric font made of pure circles and lines but is based in calligraphy and the subtleties that come with it. Referencing calligraphy naturally made the shapes feel more handmade and created differentiation in letterforms that would be simply flipped in a geometric design. This was in part to mitigate problems with getting letters mixed up in young learners and learners with challenges such as dyslexia. While there is very little evidence that any particular font helps with dyslexia, sometimes differences in similarly shaped letters can help, so I felt it was worth including.
The base style comes in 5 weights and a dotted style. These are all multiplexed, which means that each letter is the same width no matter the weight. Text will not reflow if the weight is changed and every style can be stacked directly on top of the other, which is super useful for the decorative styles below!
In my research, I found that the outline style is frequently used for young learners and children with learning challenges who are just starting to grasp the basic shapes of writing. They can colour in the shape or practice tracing inside of it to get familiar with the shape of the letter.
While the outline style has a very practical use in the educational community, it is also just fun to work with and can create a more decorative look, especially when inline layers are added. (This is the part where you add a bunch of fun into learning!)
The inline and outline styles shown above come as their own separate font files so they can be layered as desired in professional layout software. For those who don’t have access to this kind of software, I have also included precomposed outline and inline styles.
A font for writing wouldn’t be complete without guidelines! Typing four equal signs (====) in a row will use the magic of open type to create seamless guidelines!
There were some characters that didn’t fit in the base set that I wanted to include. For more editorial uses, double storey a and g are useful. I also have alternate l, t, and q that have tails and create more variety of shapes. An alternate capital I and J without serifs can make the text feel a bit more mature. And finally and alternate 9 that is more like an upside down 6.
Formulate is available under my general foundry licensing. I kept in mind that the font is intended as a resource for teachers who generally don’t have a lot of funds available for resources. A teacher wishing to use the font in their own classroom would fall under my pay-what-you-can personal use license. If you are a teacher wishing to share the font with a colleague, please direct them to my site where they can get a copy for themselves. If you are creating and distributing worksheets, please get a commercial license for Formulate.
Thank you to my son’s kindergarten teacher for the feedback! Thank you also to David Jonathan Ross for looking it over and helping me work through some technical questions. And thanks to my two little kids, James and Tristan, who had little choice in being my testers but seemed to enjoy it anyway.
Features At A Glance:
- 5 weights
- 17 styles
- Styles are multiplexed for easy layering or switching of styles
- Guideline ligature (==== 4x equal sign)
- Alternate character sets for other common forms seen in writing education
More Ways To Use Formulate
Of course, the origins and intention of the typeface shouldn’t be a limitation, so even if you are not involved in projects with teaching materials, Formulate is great to try out in any design where you need friendly, rounded forms. Try it out and surprise me!