How to Create a Script

This guide was originally written by the user Clawgrip on the CBB forum, with a small contribution from the user Salmoneus. It has been reorganized, edited, condensed, and supplemented for its presentation here.

Contents

Step 1 Decide how your script works
1.1 Type of writing system
1.2 Glyph inventory
1.3 Writing direction
Step 2 Choose an aesthetic
2.1 Basic letterforms
2.2 Common graphical motifs
2.3 Limited graphical motifs
2.4 Effects of physical media
2.5 Effects of practical usage
Step 3 Refine your design
3.1 Proportions: width and height
3.2 Ascenders and descenders
3.3 Structural alignment
Step 4 Choose a typographical style
4.1 Line thickness
4.2 Serifs
Full script creation demo


Introductory Videos

This guide is shorter than the original despite adding lots of content, but it’s still a lengthy read. If you want a quick video summary first, the YouTubers Artifexian and Biblaridion have great introductions.

It’s still highly recommended to read the full guide. It goes into more depth and examines many real world scripts, which will give you a much more robust knowledge.

Artifexian – Creating a Writing System

Artifexian provides a wonderful introduction to writing systems. It’s not exactly a how-to procedure, but this video quickly and easily covers a lot of info and advice to help you create a script.

Biblaridion – Writing Systems

Biblaridion provides excellent information and guidance. The only caveat is that he approaches it as a language-construction and worldbuilding project, which involves many details that, although fascinating, are not relevant if you’re making a script for a natural language like English. He also uses more technical terms.


Step 1: Decide how your script works

You can skip to creating glyphs if you want, but generally it’s best to figure out up-front how it works. You need to choose three things:

1.1 Type of writing system
1.2 Glyph inventory
1.3 Writing direction

Purpose and objective

You’ll benefit from taking a moment to define your goal for creating a script. Is it for a realistic fictional language, or to protect secret notes, or to write quickly and conveniently?

The purpose of your script affects how you’ll use this guide. The guide is best suited for creating a realistic fictional script, but scripts of all kinds will benefit from these principles.


1.1 Type of writing system

If this is your first script, it’s easiest to create an alphabet or a type of writing system used in a language you’re familiar with. If you’re unfamiliar with these options, see the types of writing systems page.

Tips for designing other types of scripts for English

Alphabets work well for English, but some other types aren’t well suited. If your script is for a different language or a conlang, it’s recommended to pick a suitable system for that language.

That said, you can probably find a way to hack any combination of language and writing system if you’re determined. Here’s how it can be done for English:

  • Abjad
    Without vowels, English will have lots of ambiguity. The words bad, bed, bid, bead, bide, and booed won’t be distinguishable, for example. A true abjad is unavoidably a poor fit for English, but the similar alphasyllabary works fine.
  • Abugida or Syllabary
    English uses about 15,000 different syllables, so creating a glyph for each isn’t feasible. However, a syllabary can work if you accept imprecise transcription, like writing English with Japanese Katakana where quick brown fox might be rendered like kuwiku buraonu fokusu. Abugidas have the same challenges and solutions.
  • Alphasyllabary
    This works well for English. You can think of it as an an abjad with vowels as diacritics or consonant modifications, as an alphabet where vowels are placed above or below or inside consonants, or as an abugida with no inherent vowel.
  • Semi-syllabary
    This is basically an alphabet supplemented with an arbitrary number of syllabograms—ideally for the most common syllables—so it works well for English.
  • Alphabetic syllabary
    By its alphabetic nature, it works well for English. Just be aware that English can cram more phonemes into a single syllable than Korean does; strengths is seven or eight versus Korean’s upper limit of five.
  • Logography
    Logographies work well for analytical languages like Chinese, and not as well for synthetic languages like English. However, it can be adapted as a Japanese-style mixed system where logograms are used for content word (like nouns, verbs, adjectives) and a supplemental phonetic script is used for function words (like articles, prepositions, conjunctions) and word inflections (pluralized nouns, conjugated verbs, and so on).

Your options aren’t limited to these writing systems. You can mix or blend different types, add in a small number of logograms for common words, and experiment with new ideas of your own.


1.2 Glyph inventory

Figure out how many glyphs your script will have and what sounds, words, or functions they represent.

For beginners

If you’re new to this, there’s no shame in starting with a simple cipher: creating a new glyphs to substitute for the 26 letters of the English alphabet. This has some downsides though:

  • If your script is designed for secrecy, a simple cipher will prevent people from reading at a glance but is still very easy to decode.
  • It’s unrealistic in a fictional setting.
  • It will import all the oddities of English spelling, although that could be considered an advantage because it’s easier to learn.

Here are some things you can do to spice up a simple cipher. These sorts of changes obscure English spelling, which makes it harder to decode, and are a gradual path to more advanced glyph inventories.

  • Omit redundant letters: ⟨c, q, x⟩ can be replaced with ⟨k, kw, ks⟩ respectively.
  • Add new letters for sounds that don’t have their own letter in English, like the digraphs ⟨th, sh, ch, ng⟩, or all the different vowel sounds.
  • Add new letters for common letter combinations, like ⟨st⟩ or ⟨sp⟩.
  • Replace doubled letters with an accent over one of them. For example, you might write letter accent as ⟨leṫer aċent⟩.
  • Add glyphs for common words, like the, and, and so on.

Also, don’t feel obligated to create capital and lowercase versions of each letter. Letter cases are used in European scripts, but many scripts don’t have such a distinction. And if you do have two or more cases, you can be creative about what they’re used for. For example, German capitalizes all nouns no matter where they are in a sentence, and Japanese has a whole different version of its syllabary just to write foreign words and names.

More advanced

If you’re making a script for a constructed language, the script should suit the phonology of that language. Otherwise, you can use the basic English phonology. You can learn more about phonetics on the Phonetics and IPA page.

You’re not obligated to create a cipher of IPA. You can create letters for specific affricates or diphthongs, or combine letters that would rarely create ambiguity, like /θ, ð/ or /s, z/. You can sprinkle in a few logograms for common words, or glyphs that indicate grammatical inflections like pluralization, definiteness, tense, and so on. Thus, you might write the mice ran as mouse.PL.DEF run.PST. You’re the creator and you can tweak it however you want.

If you’re making a logographic script, I admire your bravery! In analogy to a phonetic inventory, you must assemble a semantic inventory. This is beyond the scope of this guide, but it’s similar to the process of creating vocabulary for conlangs—constructed languages—so you can research their methods. Consider doing this piecemeal because logographies can require hundreds or thousands of different glyphs.


1.3 Writing direction

Scripts can be written in a variety of directions, meaning the direction of a single line of text and then how those lines are arranged.

It’s important to choose a direction early on because it can affect the shape of your glyphs and how they interact with each other.

Basic directions

If you’re designing your first script, it’s recommended to use one of these:

  • Left-to-right rows
    Top-to-bottom arrangement
    Most of world scripts are written in this direction, including the Roman alphabet which you’re reading right now.
  • Right-to-left rows
    Top-to-bottom arrangement
    This is used in Middle Eastern scripts such as Arabic and Hebrew, along with many ancient scripts associated with that area.
  • Top-to-bottom columns
    Left-to-right arrangement
    This is used for some scripts, such as Mongolian.
  • Top-to-bottom columns
    Right-to-left arrangement
    This is the traditional writing direction for East Asian languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, so that the right hand could write while the left hand unrolled a scroll. Nowadays, they generally write left-to-right, top-to-bottom due to Western influence.
  • Bottom-to-top
    Whether we’re talking about the direction of vertical lines of text or the arrangement of horizontal rows, the bottom-to-top direction is extremely uncommon. But there are real-world examples, like ancient Tifinagh.

More complex directions

  • Partially diagonal horizontal
    The Nastaliq form of Arabic script, which is the standard form of writing Urdu, is written with overlapping diagonals. The letters are connected in a string that moves downward, and when a new word starts, the beginning of the word often appears above the end of the previous word. This fills up space and makes it more aesthetically pleasing.
  • Boustrophedon
    This is when lines of text are alternately written left-to-right and then right-to-left. In some cases, the glyphs themselves are mirrored in every second row. In other cases, they’re rotated 180° because the scribe rotated the whole writing surface to write each line. For practical reasons, no modern scripts are written this way, but that shouldn’t stop you if you want to use it in your script, especially if it’s supposed to be an ancient script.
  • Variable directionality
    Many scripts could be written in more than one direction. Ancient Egyptian was most commonly written right-to-left, but could also be written left-to-right or top-to-bottom, with the glyphs mirrored for left-to-right writing. Modern Chinese and Japanese are frequently written both in rows left-to-right and in columns right-to-left.
  • Mixed directionality
    Some scripts are written in more than one direction at the same time. Many Mayan inscriptions are written left-to-right, but only for two glyphs before starting a new line. So the writing direction is effectively a zigzag: left-to-right for two glyphs, top-to-bottom columns, arranged left-to-right. Sumerian Cuneiform was similarly written with mixed directionality. Phrases or sentences were written horizontally left-to-right within cells, but the cells were arranged vertically.

  • Syllable or word blocks
    Some scripts write syllable or word units in a simple direction, but the syllables or words themselves are formed from a complex arrangement of letters or ideograms. Korean Hangul, for example, classifies letters as initial (I), medial (M), or final (F) and arranges them into square syllable blocks. Many Chinese characters are also compounds of other characters arranged into a square block.

Step 2: Choose an aesthetic

So far, we’ve picked the type of writing system, the glyph inventory, and the writing direction. Now we can begin to work on what the glyphs actually look like.

This is a creative endeavor. You need to design your aesthetic on your own, but there are concrete suggestions to guide you and numerous examples of real scripts to inform your design choices. This is all broadly discussed in five parts:

2.1 Basic letterforms
2.2 Common graphical motifs
2.3 Limited graphical motifs
2.4 Effects of physical media
2.5 Effects of practical usage


2.1 Basic letterforms

If you’re feeling creative, you can dive straight into drawing your glyphs. But if you’re not sure where to start, you can begin by imitating the natural course of writing systems’ evolution.

The earliest writing systems—proto-writing—were pictographic, and evolved into ideographic and logographic systems. From there, smaller subsets of glyphs were often used for the phonetic value of the words they represent, forming the first alphabets, syllabaries, and so on. Scripts become more abstract as they evolve further. For example, the capital letter A originates from a glyph of an ox’s head, although it was rotated during its evolution.

To apply this approach, just begin with simple drawings. In natural scripts, the subjects tend to be basic, everyday things like tools, body parts, animals, figures, places, and so on. If you’re still not sure what to draw, you can use the rebus principle, where pictogram-derived glyphs have a phonetic value that matches the word. So a pictogram of a dog might evolve into the /d/ glyph. You can draw whatever you want, but it’s good to keep in mind, especially if you want your script to be realistic.

When you have enough basic drawings for your glyph inventory, make simpler, more abstract iterations of them until they reach the level of graphical simplicity and abstraction that’s appropriate for your script. They don’t need to be beautiful now; this is just a starting point.

Let’s explore this with an example. Here’s a small script with eleven characters:

I know I just said it doesn’t have to be beautiful right away, but this script sucks. To design a good script, it’s not enough to know that it sucks; we need to understand why it sucks. This script looks bad because it’s full of beginner mistakes. There’s no consistency or guiding aesthetic. Every letter looks like it was designed separately without any relation to the others, so it looks like a collection of random clashing shapes.

How can we resolve this problem? There’s no universal or guaranteed procedure, but we can learn from real world scripts to inform better design.


2.2 Common graphical motifs

All modern scripts have certain shapes, lines, angles that appear frequently. The glyphs are similar enough to feel related while different enough to be distinguishable.

Your choice of common graphical motifs will determine the look of your script, both of the individual glyphs and the texture of your script as aggregate text.

Let’s look at some examples:

Roman

The majority of Roman lower case letters are built either out of vertical lines, circles, portions of circles, or a combination thereof. Six letters also include diagonals. The diagonal angles differ slightly, but they’re as close to parallel as possible while remaining aesthetically pleasing.

Georgian

Georgian is similar, but has fewer vertical lines, many more curves, and very few hard corners.

Odia

Most Odia letters have rounded tops. There are also a lot of circles, n-like shapes, and angled or very short straight lines.

Thai

Most Thai letters have a small circle or two attached somewhere. Also, every letter has at least one straight vertical line in it, and most have two. And similar to Oriya, most of them have rounded tops.

Arabic

Arabic has many large cup shapes, small vertical hooks, and lots of dots.

Chinese

Chinese has many straight vertical and horizontal lines, as well as gently-curving diagonals.

Glagolitic

Glagolitic has circles and triangles everywhere—stylized as squares and triangles in this particular typeface—but oddly no letter that is just O or Δ.

Egyptian

Even visually complex Egyptian hieroglyphs share common patterns. Looking closely at a lot of glyphs reveals many curves, including many s-like curves, that gradually become wider and more open or flat on one side, sort of like part of a Fibbonacci spiral.

Mayan

Mayan, by contrast, favours blunt curves. Nearly every round shape is squarish but rounded off. As a result, there are few real circles in Mayan, and all that do exist are small.


2.3 Limited graphical motifs

Common graphical motifs help make scripts feel uniform and cohesive, but forbidding certain graphical motifs also helps to unify an aesthetic. All glyphs in a script still need to be distinct from each other, though, so limited graphical motifs are an effective way to achieve a balance between cohesive and distinct glyphs.

Let’s look at more examples:

Roman

No Roman letters have wide-open curves, like (. There are also few horizontal lines; horizontal strokes appear only in lower-case ⟨e, f, t⟩ and in upper-case ⟨A, E, F, G, H, L, T, Z⟩.

Chinese

Chinese characters entirely lack circles and tight curves, although some corners of continuous strokes are rounded.

Buginese

Buginese script, also known as Lontara, has exclusively diagonal lines: no vertical or horizontal. The script has no curved lines, but all corners are rounded.

Futhark

Futhark has no curves of any kind; all strokes are completely straight lines. It also entirely lacks horizontal lines.

Khmer

Khmer has many small hooks, as well as flat M‑like shapes on the tops of letters. Some letters also have W‑like shapes on the bottom. Although these shapes are diagonal strokes, the script lacks longer diagonal strokes that cover the height or width of a character.

Tibetan

Tibetan has many elongated descenders and many curves with one end lower than the other. Many letters have horizontal lines on the tops, but horizontal lines are otherwise very rare. The most likely locations for non-top horizontals are instead occupied by the lopsided curves.

Hiragana

Hiragana, one of the syllabaries used in Japanese, has relatively few straight lines, mostly favouring curves.

Javanese

Javanese never allows an entirely vertical line on the left side of a letter; it always curves in at the bottom. It’s also rare for a single vertical to occur on the right side; usually there are at least two verticals close together.

Some scripts don’t have stroke types that they outright forbid, but there’s always a tendency toward certain strokes over others.

In an aesthetically cohesive script, most glyphs share certain graphical features, while few glyphs have unique features. It’s okay to have a one or two with characteristics that aren’t found in any other glyphs, like the bottom hook in ⟨ɡ⟩ and ⟨j⟩ or the hook on ⟨Q⟩. You just want to limit the unique elements because the script will lose visual cohesion if there are too many of them.

Applying these principles

Let’s revisit the example script from earlier: 

Can you apply any of the patterns we just saw to this? Do any guiding principles seem to govern the formation of the characters? The answer is no. These characters were designed on purpose without any attempt to unify them, resulting in an ugly, fake-looking mess.

Fortunately, we can improve it by applying graphical motif patterns like we’ve just looked at:

Graphically unified version A
  • Horizontal lines exist only on the top
  • Diagonals are roughly parallel
  • Curves have consistent radius and endpoints

Graphically unified version B
  • Curves are mostly removed, but corners are all rounded
  • Diagonals are roughly parallel

Both versions of the script still have plenty of problems, but they’re more unified than before. It’s evident that there’s at least some aesthetic behind their design. Most glyphs look somewhat related. There’s hope for these scripts yet.

Remember that this is a creative process, so you get to pick which rules to apply, what to include, what to eliminate, and so on. Don’t feel obligated to do anything: just take this advice into consideration and apply what you think is appropriate for your script.


2.4 Effects of physical media

We just discussed choosing which graphical motifs should be in your script based on how they match each other. However, there are also practical reasons for shapes to be favoured or excluded, particularly due to the limitations of the physical medium on which the script is written:

Incision

Carving on wood or stone tends to produce angular scripts with straight lines because curves are harder to incise. Futhark and Ogham are examples. This is not always the case, though; plenty of incised scripts have curves, including Brahmi, Ikshvaku, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Kharosthi, Gupta, and even the Roman alphabet.

Impression

Contact methods, such as burning, branding, or pressing a stylus into soft clay, are likely to use few shapes repetitive so that only one impression tool is needed. Cuneiform uses a wedge-shaped stylus for example.

Brush

Brush strokes are able to have curves, but struggle with sharp angles, dots, and to a lesser extent with fine detail in general. It’s also harder to keep things separate because the brush tends to drift over the page unless intentionally lifted.

Wood

Materials with a distinct grain can have several effects. Some materials favour writing along the grain because it’s weaker in that direction and easier to incise, such as carving straight lines into wood. Others avoid writing along the grain because it can split the material.

Some materials, such as leaves again, prohibit lines that cross one another because writing a line through another line can tear the material.

Quill pens

Some writing tools make certain movements difficult. Quills are inherently directional because writing against that direction can break the quill. Traditional Roman handwriting is always written from the top of each letter, and curves are used to return to the top or to move to the left whereas straight lines can be used to move right or downward.

Pen-like writing tools that can write in long, continuous strokes might also promote quick, flowing writing like cursive.

Moveable type

Movable type encourages uniform heights and discourages fine detail due to limitations of casting metal type, but it can also enable details that would be difficult or tiresome to routinely write by hand, such as serifs.

The physical medium also influence the letterform style. Carving or imprinting will favour uniform stroke widths, and carving will also give distinct shapes to the line-ends depending on the tool and material used. Quills tend to give different stroke widths depending on the angle of the stroke. Brushes can give constant widths or variable widths depending on stroke speed. Changes in the dominant medium used to write a script can change the script as it adapts to the new medium.


2.5 Effects of practical usage

When you sit down and design a script, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that most scripts are meant to be written. Writing things by hand can have significant effects on a script’s appearance. For everyday usage, complex strokes tend to get simplified.

Consider the purpose of your script. If it’s an epigraphic script—used infrequently for decorative or ceremonial inscriptions—then there’s not much you need to consider here. Egyptian hieroglyphs were an epigraphic script; scribes wrote it very carefully to ensure that it was visually pleasing, so any conceivable shape could be faithfully rendered.

However, they wrote less carefully for more daily concerns. Details were abbreviated, unnecessary distinctions were merged or eliminated, and the script was simplified as it evolved into Hieratic and Demotic:

This isn’t unique to Egyptian. Daily, handwritten scripts can get very simplified, streamlined, obscured, or reduced to basic elements:

So the big question you need to ask yourself is: If your script is intended to be written by hand, can it survive being written by hand?

If the answer is no, there are three options available to you:

  1. Avoid designing ambiguous glyphs in the first place.
  2. Differentiate glyphs that are too similar by adjusting their design.
  3. Distinguish ambiguous or identical glyphs with diacritics.

To determine which strokes are likely to get simplified or merged when written by hand, write your script quickly many times and see if any elements are annoying or difficult to get right.

Differentiate similar glyphs

Here are some hints:

  • Avoid letters that are distinguished only by a sharp corner versus a curved corner, such as ⟨∩⟩ and ⟨Π⟩. These similar glyphs could coexist, for example, if ⟨∩⟩ is written with a single curved stroke and ⟨Π⟩ is written in three straight lines.
  • Avoid letters that are identical except for their width or proportions.
  • Go easy on spirals. If they’re too complicated, they’ll probably get simplified. Among real scripts, it’s rarely more complex than ⟨6, ១, ಲ, ಾ⟩, though there are more extreme cases like ⟨இ⟩.

Look at this example of closely-related scripts from the Philippines. Curves are exaggerated into wiggles. This might add distinctiveness to one part of the glyph at the cost of another part’s distinctiveness, so do what you can. Be creative!

Distinguish identical glyphs with diacritics

An alternative to exaggerating differences is to add disambiguating diacritics. In Arabic, numerous letterforms merged and became identical, so dots were added as indicators to distinguish them. Cursive Cyrillic also does this sometimes with a bar above or below certain letters.

Applying these principles

In the original example script, the first and last glyphs were unrealistically similar. In version A, the differences were exaggerated, but in version B they became identical. To distinguish them, we’ve added an extra mark beneath the first one:

Original version
Graphically unified version A
Graphically unified version B

Step 3: Refine your design

By this point, we’ve got a serviceable script, but we really want to push it to the next level of polished design. This might seem intimidating, but we can break it down into three approachable parts:

3.1 Proportions: width and height
3.2 Ascenders and descenders
3.3 Structural alignment


3.1 Proportions: width and height

One of the most obvious problems with the sample script is that the letters all vary in size and there’s no consistent height, width, or underlying structure. There are many solutions to this.

There are several different proportion paradigms that a script can be designed to fit. We’ll look at examples for horizontal scripts, since they’re more common. If you’re doing a vertical script, just rotate the advice by 90°!

Equal height, equal width

This is a simple and visually uniform solution. Although many such scripts are aesthetically pleasing, it can be difficult to achieve. Examples include Mayan, Carrier syllabicsSantaliOriya, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

Notice how they basically fit into the same size squares, though some don’t quite fill it. Numerous scripts have small variations in height and width but come close to square: HmongGe’ezCanadian Aboriginal SyllabicsBatakRanjana, Futhark, Roman capital letters, and several others.

Equal height, variable width

This is found in many Indic scripts. Scripts that follow this pattern—ignoring the occasional ascender or descender—include TamilPersian Cuneiform, BalineseMalayalamCyrillic lower caselower case Coptic, and Hebrew. This is probably the most common style, but your script isn’t obligated to use it.

Variable height, equal width

This is an unusual style. Lower case Armenian comes close, but there aren’t many real world examples.

Variable height, variable width

There are several scripts like this, such as GeorgianArabicRejang, and others.

Width variation

Most scripts with variable glyph width have a bell curve distribution of different widths: medium-width glyphs are the most common, while narrower and wider glyphs are less common.

The Roman alphabet isn’t perfectly balanced, and it varies slightly for different fonts, but you can still observe this bell curve of character width:

Malayalam has significant differences between wide and narrow glyphs, but there are only a couple really wide and really narrow ones, with many in the middle range.


3.2 Ascenders and descenders

Most of the time, height variation comes from ascenders and descenders: lines or curves that rise above or below the main glyph size. Let’s look at some examples:

Hebrew

This script has only one ascender, and five descenders. Notice that the ascender is the same height as the descenders.

Roman

Again, the ascenders and descenders are roughly the same height. Curved or angled descenders all point in the same direction; if they didn’t, they might overlap when side-by-side.

This isn’t the case for all fonts, typographies, and written styles. Some distinguish different numbers of ascender and descender heights, but the important takeaway is that most styles are governed by an underlying structure.

Arabic

Things can get more complicated. Arabic has many different heights, and some don’t quite hit the mark, most notably ⟨ل⟩. Nevertheless, it clearly adheres to a consistent system of heights.

Khmer

Some scripts go crazy with various heights. Khmer has numerous subtleties in ascender heights, but you can still recognize that they all follow a plan. Every ascender of the same type reaches the same height.

Applying these principles

When we adjust the scripts’ proportions a bit, we can get something like this:

Original version
Graphically unified version A
Proportionately balanced version A

The glyphs are now a consistent height, although there are also some ascenders and descenders. There’s also variation in glyph width. 

Graphically unified version B
Proportionately balanced version B

Most glyphs here are the same height and width, though the fifth glyph is slightly wider than the others. 

It’s a big improvement over the original version, but there’s still more we can do to improve these scripts.


3.3 Structural alignment

We can turn our attention to what’s going on within the home row: the space occupied by most glyphs, not counting ascenders and descenders. We’ll look at how to analyze the structural alignment of elements in this region, then how we can make informed exceptions to this structure for aesthetic reasons.

The ‘home row’ structure is easily seen in the Roman alphabet, due to its relative simplicity and uniformity. Look at the lower case Roman alphabet, stripped of nearly all of its stylistic elements and placed within guidelines as before:

This image has one extra guideline through the middle of the home row. Every horizontal line, intersection, and angle change occurs on a guideline. This rule limits how many horizontal strokes a glyph can contain. Some features don’t align precisely with this line, but that’s due to aesthetic reasons that we’ll get to soon.

All letters with a stroke on the middle guideline have something both above and below them: horizontals, as in ⟨a, g, e, s⟩, or diagonals, as in ⟨k, x⟩. This is not the case in Cyrillic, though, which allows letters like ⟨ь⟩ and ⟨ч⟩ that have an open space above or below. It’s not necessarily a formal rule of the Roman alphabet, but principles like this help tie a design together.

Scripts can be more complex and have additional guidelines. Devanagari, for example, has two middle guidelines and seven guidelines in total:

At first glance, Malayalam appears to follow the same five-line pattern as the Roman alphabet. But on closer inspection, this description doesn’t hold up. For example, why doesn’t the loop of ⟨ഇ⟩ connect to the line below it, since they both rely on the base line to govern their position? Why don’t the loops of ⟨ േ⟩ touch, since their position is determined by the middle guideline? How can this system explain the coexistence of ⟨ദ⟩ and ⟨ഭ⟩?

Malayalam allows guidelines to sort of split in two when two features would otherwise both occupy the same line. In rare cases, especially in older ligatures, these can even be further subdivided:

So you can consider guidelines to not be absolute, and add more when they become necessary.

Exceptions to the gridline structure

Some scripts seem to defy this line-based structure, and there are a few reasons why:

The script is too complex

For scripts like Egyptian and Chinese, there are just too many possible stroke positions to bother trying to align them, not to mention that they can be written both horizontally and vertically. Instead, these scripts rely on a different technique…

Glyphs are centered

Instead of aligning to a base line, like Roman or Arabic, or to a head line, like Devanagari or Tibetan, a script can instead align to a central line. Such a script can get its sense of alignment from a sort of balance on either side of the line, without reference to other glyphs. This is common in vertical scripts. Nevertheless, unless the script is a logography, most glyphs are probably going to have a similar density of strokes. 

Horizontal Egyptian text is generally aligned on a central writing line. In Chinese, alignment is not always based on the exact center of the character, but on the perceived visual center based on the weight and shape of the strokes.

The writing direction has changed

Sometimes, script direction changes. This happened with Mongolian, but since all the glyphs were rotated along with the writing line, there’s no need to rethink the structure. However, for scripts like Chinese and Kulitan, the glyphs were not rotated when the writing direction changed. Like Chinese, Kulitan glyphs are aligned on a central writing line.

The writing direction is not linear

In the Nastaliq style of Arabic script—which is the default style for writing Urdu—each word is written along a gradually descending diagonal line that often overlaps with the previous one. Parallel guidelines therefore can’t be applied.

Aesthetic reasons

Gridlines explain how letters are governed at their most basic form, but many scripts make small exceptions for aesthetic reasons. In curved Roman letters like ⟨C⟩, the end points are actually slightly below and above the head and base lines, and in ⟨g⟩›, the upper circle needs a little extra space to avoid looking cramped. Lines may be pushed out of the way a bit to avoid clutter and create a better visual balance.

Specific elements can also take unique heights. For example, if you try to apply straight, horizontal guidelines to the Georgian alphabet, you’ll give yourself a headache because the elements—endpoints, joints, angle changes, and so on—don’t all align neatly on the same horizontal lines. But no glyph has more than two elements within the home row, and every type of element always occurs at the same height. The letters ⟨ვ კ ფ ც ჳ ჴ⟩ all place the middle endpoint slightly above the base line; the middle endpoints of ⟨ლ ო რ უ ღ⟩ all stop at the halfway point of the home row, and the bottom hooks of ⟨ე ვ კ ჟ უ ფ ქ ყ ჭ ჴ⟩ all end at the base line. Also, the presence of a descender shrinks the size of a circle, so, ⟨ფ⟩ has a smaller and higher circle than ⟨თ⟩. 

This means that you can define the basic permissible shapes with the guidelines, but you don’t need to follow them rigidly when designing the final appearance of the script. You can break the rules as much as you want, as long you do it in a consistent or understandable manner.

Other reasons

If you have some design idea that defies this theory of structure, go ahead! Maybe the ascenders of a single letter with multiple ascenders get progressively taller throughout the letter. Maybe glyphs of varying heights stack and are squashed to fit in a consistently-sized home row. We’ve looked at many different script structures, but the possibilities are far broader.

Applying these principles

Here’s how our experimental script can benefit from these lessons:

Version A so far
Structurally balanced version A

This script has been restructured with a single central line, to which strokes are rigidly fixed. Strokes have been rearranged or eliminated as a result.

Version B so far
Structurally balanced version B

This script now has two guidelines in the home row, but the lines are not rigidly fixed to them. Their exact position depends on their surroundings. One letter also has an extra guideline. 

These scripts have developed some character and distinction from each other, but they still lack a strong identity. The next step is where you can add real character to your script and finish it off.


Step 4: Choose a Typographical Style

All modern scripts appear in a variety of different typefaces, fonts and styles. Don’t be intimidated by all the options; we’ll look at different styles and you can settle on whichever is best for your script. We can narrow it down to three main types:

  • Print
    This is the most common style in physically printed media like books and newspapers. It generally has more stylization and detail than the modern sans serif style.
  • Traditional
    This is the traditional presentation style that failed to transfer to moveable type for whatever reason. Chinese is a notable example. Most scripts lack a distinction between print and traditional styles.
  • Sans Serif
    Also known as gothic, which shouldn’t be confused with traditional blackletter. Sans serif has uniform line thickness and no serifs. This is the most common style for on-screen media because it’s easier to read on limited screen resolutions. Some scripts use sans serif as their main style though, such as Odia, Gurmukhi, and even some ancient scripts despite the concept of sans serif didn’t exist back then.

There are many, many other script styles in the world. Japanese for example has a calligraphy style that was designed specifically for writing sumo wrestling rankings, and another for kabuki signs. Don’t worry too much about this decision: you can later derive other styles from your first choice.

So how do you actually decide what all these little traditional-style details will look like in your script? Usually these are artifacts of the physical medium used to write it, which we discussed in step 2.4.

You need to choose factors like the writing tool, line thickness, nib orientation, types of serif, and so on.


4.1 Line Thickness

There are three options for line thickness: uniform line thickness, variable thickness at a fixed angle, and variable thickness.

Uniform thickness

This is the gothic style we’ve already covered. Although it’s uniform in principle, notice how each of these examples nevertheless has subtle variations in line thickness:

This is often done to counteract optical illusions. For example, horizontal lines are perceived as thicker than vertical lines of the same width, possibly because the human visual field is wider than it is tall. You can often see this in ⟨H, T⟩, where the horizontal lines are noticeably thinner than the vertical lines if you look at it sideways. Curved strokes do this too, but gradually change in width.

Here are some more corrective illusions:

  • Lines that converge at acute angles are thinner. If they were really uniform, they’d seem too thick.
  • Larger capital letters have thicker lines. This compensates for their greater negative space; if they had the same thickness as lowercase letters, they’d seem too thin.
  • Curves on top or bottom slightly overshoot the heights of straight vertical lines. Otherwise, they’d seem slightly too short. This compensates for where the perceived ‘mass’ of the stroke is.
  • The vertical stem of ⟨r⟩ is narrower above where the stroke joins than below.

Variable thickness at a fixed angle

This usually results from writing with a pen whose nib is always oriented the same way. The nib is usually horizontal or at a low angle. Vertically oriented nibs are uncommon, though Hebrew and Arabic come close.

The line thickness depends entirely on the angle of the nib and stroke, so the angle you choose will influence the appearance of the script. Small variations are possible if the writer lifts or angles the nib, but not many since doing so is impractical.

Variable line thickness

In this case, line thickness doesn’t depend on direction, but purely on stylistic concerns. This can be due to either a pen or brush that varies width based on pressure or simply aesthetic preferences in carefully written script.

There are many examples of variable line thickness styles:

Armenian

Although it’s nearly a fixed angle style, you can see that angled strokes aren’t wider than horizontal strokes as you’d expect in a fixed-angle style. Look at the angled tops and bottoms of ⟨ա բ ե⟩, the inner curves of ⟨գ զ⟩, the inner parts of ⟨թ Խ⟩, and the rotated orientation of ⟨Հ⟩. It’s basically a fixed-angle script with aesthetic alterations.

Roman

The Roman alphabet mostly forbids thick horizontals. It also forbids directly adjacent straight verticals and diagonals from having the same width, as in ⟨A, M, N, V, W⟩. Rounded strokes are always thick on the vertical and taper to thin on the horizontal.

Tamil

Tamil follows a similar design principle. The left stroke is thin and the right stroke is thick. These alternate, like Roman, and curves follow their own patterns. Javanese has an even more exaggerated alternation between thin and thick vertical strokes.

Chinese

Line thickness is determined by the speed and movement of the brush.

You can do whichever line style you want. As long as you’re consistent, your script should look good.


4.2 Serifs

Serifs are small elements on the ends of strokes, generally a small triangle or rectangle. They originate as artifacts of the physical writing process, but become a standard part of the aesthetic. They can even get conflated with line shape and evolve into fully fledged lines over time.

Your script isn’t obligated to have serifs, but they can add a considerable sense of realism and sophistication.

Notice the various repeating serifs, and the various types of serif within a single script. Look at these two:

Image

In the first sample, Bhaiksuki, the top line—equivalent to the top line of Devanagari—has become a triangle. The entire stroke is dominated by its serif, obscuring the distinction between serif and line shape. Bhaiksuki doesn’t really distinguish top types; there’s only the one triangle, but you can see that the closely-related Tocharian below it has four distinct top serifs and two bottom serifs.

We’ll discuss two cases of serifs in particular: Roman and Chinese.

Rules for serifs in Roman capitals

  • Vertical and diagonal endpoints have horizontal serifs on both sides of the endpoint.
  • Horizontal endpoints on the top or bottom have one vertical serif pointing inward: ⟨E, F, L, T, Z⟩.
  • Horizontal endpoints in the middle have two vertical serifs pointing up and down: ⟨E, F⟩.
  • Corners between a vertical and a horizontal or diagonal line have a single serif pointing outward. Some fonts lack this serif for the bottom-right corner of ⟨N⟩, and ⟨G⟩ is usually an exception to this.
  • Corners formed by two diagonals don’t have serifs: ⟨A, M, V, W⟩.
  • Verticals ending in a curve have a ball-shaped serif inside the curve, as in ⟨J⟩ and many lower case letters.
  • Curved endpoints have one vertical serif that usually points outward: ⟨C, G, S⟩.

Rules for serifs in Chinese characters

  • Vertical top endpoints have wide, angled serifs.
  • Horizontal left endpoints have a narrow, angled flare.
  • Horizontal right endpoints have a thick ovoid, which is noticeably raised above the main body of the line and usually expands below too. If another stroke extends down from it, the serif extends somewhat along the downward stroke
  • Downward right-to-left strokes and upward left-to-right strokes, including short dot-like strokes, have a hook-like serif on the top or left side and taper off at the other end.
  • Downward left-to-right strokes, but not dots, end in a distinct triangle-shaped flare.
  • Downward left-to-right dots become thick and rounded on the bottom right end. In box-like shapes, the outer verticals extend slightly below the bottom horizontal, but any in the middle do not. In some fonts or in handwriting, the bottom horizontal in the character ⟨口⟩ can sometimes extend to the right instead of the right vertical extending down.
  • Bottom-hooked strokes, as in ⟨永⟩ and ⟨滅⟩, usually become slightly thicker around the hook.

Full script creation demo

With the addition of typographical style and serifs, we’ve completed the process of improving a terrible starting script into fairly cohesive and distinct scripts. Some turned out better than others, and some might need more tweaking, but the improvement shows how powerful the principles we discussed are.

Original version
Graphically unified version A
Proportionately balanced version A
Structurally balanced version A
Final typographical versions of script A
Graphically unified version B
Proportionately balanced version B
Structurally balanced version B
Final typographical versions of script B

There was no plan for how this script would turn out. At each step in this guide, principles we discussed were chosen and applied. There’s no one way to do this. Just tinker and experiment until you’re satisfied with how your script looks.

With experience, you can do steps 2‑4 more or less simultaneously. After all, when scripts evolve naturally, they don’t proceed through these steps in order; these principles all apply at the same time. They’ve only been separated and organized in this guide for the sake of clarity.

One final note about the process of creating and learning: Getting invested in your creations or attaching them to your ego can help drive interest and improvement, but it can also lead to frustrations and discouragement when things don’t go smoothly. Remember to be patient when things don’t turn out how you’d want quickly, and keep experimenting and practicing. With every new script, you get better and less invested in each one, which frees your creativity.


The original guide by Clawgrip includes an additional step about how to evolve your script into new scripts or even into a whole family of scripts. This section has not been adapted here yet, but you can view it on the original CBB forum post.