Tutorial by John Selvia (June 22, 2006):

Tutorial PART VII


For the sci-fi modeler, graphic designer or the interface designer, coming up with convincing runes, letters, or other alien alphabet-type concepts may be challenging.
I’ve been creating alien/fantasy/ancient alphabets for years, influenced by Japanese Kanji, Mayan symbols, Egyptian hieroglyphics, my own fascination with line, and of course, all the different runes and Elvish alphabets created by Tolkien.
Eventually, this “hobby” crept into my illustrations, interface designs, sci-fi modeling and even sculpture and ceramics. Here’s 10 symbols I made in Photoshop:

Here’s those 10 symbols used in a block of “text”, to show how the letters form “words”:

This tutorial explains some techniques on how to create your own symbols/alphabets in Photoshop (the techniques are similar for other graphics programs), but its purpose isn’t to teach you Photoshop, but you should have at least a basic understanding of that program’s drawing tools.

Here’s an interface example where I used the symbols above to make monitor readouts, console panel readouts, etc. The interface shape is a rune itself, and I used the symbols above on the monitor readout:

The next one is a ship console panel design which, when printed on transparent media, would allow light to show through where you see white.

Here, I’ve used some different symbols on the front edge of my Dropship Model.

Here’s some runes on the front of my alien temple diorama, made from balsa foam.

And here I’ve made some ancient runes to decorate the bottom of my Wounded Spirit Vessel.

Early Signs of Geekness

When I was a kid, I used to chisel exotic symbols and letters on rocks and in caves, thinking perhaps, someday someone would find my “runes” and wonder what they meant – of course, they meant absolutely nothing, but it was something fun to think about as a kid.

I haven’t cleared this tutorial with the “Official Alien Alphabet Creation Consortium”, but as an artist and a thinking person (I’m a Geek!) who has made numerous symbols in his life, I feel somewhat qualified to discuss this with others.

You can follow these techniques in Illustrator or Photoshop (or similar programs), but I’ll be using Photoshop since I own it, eh?

The English Alphabet

Before we can start creating alien alphabets, let’s talk about the English alphabet. Not because I’m some “English-only” bigot who wants to force English on the world, but because it’s what I’m familiar with.

We’re So Lucky

The English alphabet is only made up of 26 letters (like you didn’t know that). Some cultures have thousands of symbols in their “alphabet”, so we can consider ourselves lucky I guess. I can’t even imagine singing an alphabet song with thousands of letters. Yikes! 🙂

Those 26 letters can be broken down into angular letters (no curves), round letters (all curves), and hybrid letters (angular and curves). Obviously, it can also be broken down into vowels and consonants, but we’ll deal with that later.

Here’s the angular letters:

And now the curved letters:

Here are the letters that are hybrids (curves and angles):

Of course all this really depends on which font you’re using. The “Q” for example is a circle with a short straight stroke, but in some fonts, it’s a curly stroke instead. For our purposes, we’ll assume this alien civilization has developed something like good ol’ Helvetica. Plain, simple–gets the job done.

Why do we care whether a letter is straight or curved, since an alien alphabet might have hundreds (thousands) of symbols with exotic strokes?
Part of what I’m trying to accomplish when I put alien symbols on a ship, or on a ship’s console interface, is to make it look like it says something. By mixing up angular, curved and hybrid letters, we give the “text” more of a sense of readability.

Technically, you don’t need dozens or hundreds of letters to make something appear to be text.

Here’s an alien font based entirely on a box and a circle (sort of a cross between morse code and binary). Although it says nothing (or does it?), simply because I mix up the length of “words” and use double (and triple) combinations of “letters”, it almost looks like it does say something.

See? Just because we have varying word length and spaces and repetition of shape, we get the feeling this is some kind of ancient text (or future – I’m not picky), waiting to be deciphered.

Now, people who’ve studied alien culture and alien alphabets their whole lives (you know who you are) will immediately point out: “Hey, why do aliens have to have spaces between words anyway? Why do they have to have words? Why would an advanced civilization even use a written language? Wouldn’t they just communicate telepathically? Your logic is obviously flawed and you are totally wrong, so get off the web!”

To which I would reply, “As soon as you prove me wrong, I’ll retract the article.” Ahem…

Look at any of these sentences. They have a certain flow, created by variances in height, width, upper and lower case, angular and curved letters, etc.
For this tutorial, I’ll stick to “uppercase” letters, which helps make our job easier since we don’t have to do 2 versions of each symbol, and I’ll keep most letters roughly the same height. So to create a flow, I’ll mix angular and curved shapes similar to our own alphabet. In fact, to make the symbols feel more like an alphabet, we’ll steal some techniques from English sentence construction. No one will be able to read our text, but it’ll feel like it says something if we pay attention to established sentence construction methods.

This is similar to when you make a spaceship model, even if it’s a completely alien model, the modeler will still include things like doors, hatches, cockpit glass, engines, etc., so there’s a familiarity with the ship. This familiarity creates acceptance and suspension of disbelief.

“Let’s look at a really simple sentence. Like that one. Or that one. Or…”

Let’s look at a really simple sentence.

Note that we have a mix of short words
at a
A few medium length words:
Let’s look
And a couple of longer words:
really simple sentence
We have 2 words that start with the same letter:
simple sentence
A word with a double vowel:
And a word with a double consonant:
Plus, there are 6 spaces: See, there they are, all 6 of them. 🙂

So in a typical sentence, we have some spaces, we have words that start with the same letter, we have short, medium and long words, and we have double consonants. This will help us construct a convincing sentence once we get our symbols drawn. Speaking of which…

Working Off The Grid

The very first thing you must do is construct a grid. This helps keep the letters roughly the same size, helps establish a half-height point if needed, and just helps provide continuity in all our letters.

In Photoshop, you can easily create a grid by dragging out guidelines from the horizontal and vertical rulers, spacing them equally. Or, you can simply use Photoshop’s Grid option under the View Menu/Show/Grids.

And here’s my preferences for that grid.

Whichever way you do it, determine whether you want a tall letter, or a square letter, or a fat squat letter. I’ll do a square letter by defining a 160 x 160 pixel document and establish an 8 x 8 grid.

We’ll start with angular shapes to keep things simple. Make sure you put each symbol on its own layer, otherwise you end up with a jumbled mess.
This first character is going to be a symbol that might appear in not only alien alphabets, but alphabets on Earth as well-a single stroke, reduced to a rectangle. It represents first or one in so many languages (alien and non-alien alike). To make it more interesting though, we’ll cut a chunk out of the middle.

By the way, if you’ve done any of my Photoshop tutorials, you know how easy it is to cut a piece out of another piece-make a selection, then hit the delete key! So here, we used the Elliptical Marquee tool to create a circle, made sure it was centered, then hit the delete key.

Our next character will also be a common character-a two stroke character representing second or one + one.

Alright, the universal 1st and 2nd character are now out of the way, so let’s get a little more complex.

But still keeping it simple. See how easy this is using our grid? We can make thin strokes with a single vertical column of grid squares, and thicker strokes by simply using 2 or more columns.

So, basically our 3rd character is a 1-stroke, like our first character, but we’ve added a cross-bar on the top and bottom, and a balancing stroke on the left side. I centered the balancing stroke, but you could raise or lower it to vary it if you’d like.

Next, we’ll modify that character a little to create one a bit more complex by adding a second vertical thinner stroke.

Now let’s do a pair of letters that look like the same letter but with a single tiny stroke making them distinct.

Perhaps the second letter is a stressed version of the preceding one or merely the same letter used only on the end of words or something. Here’s our next 2 characters.

Simple, but with enough hooks and angles to be interesting.

Split and Hybrid Characters

The next 2 are kind of reminiscent of an English i or j because of the dot above the characters.

And a variant of the last letter.
Note we’re now doing hybrid letters that combine curves and angles. To create the curves, use Photoshop’s pen tool and make sure Snap To Grid (or Snap to Guide) under the View menu is turned on–this will guarantee junctions of curves and straight lines match up perfectly.

Now, we’re going to get a little looser with our shapes, with more curves and a more exotic look to the characters, while still keeping unity by making them feel like they belong to the other characters already created. Here is our next 6 characters. 

And that’s about it for our alien font. Oh, we could create hundreds more, but I think we have enough to make a convincing block of alien text. Here’s all our letters used in some alien text.

And here it is used in a computer screen.
Perhaps it would look better on ancient paper.

Modeling Uses

To use this font on a model, arrange the letters and fit them to the space required on the model. Print out the arrangement, then using a hobby knife, cut out the letters and use as a stencil, spray with appropriate paint. I would suggest if it is a dirty greasy spaceship, that you spray with light strokes to give the appearance that the paint is fading, then spray another light coat of a different color over that to create discoloration.

How To Use Your Symbols 

Once you’ve created your symbols, one per layer in Photoshop, create a new document that is larger than your grid size. To start, make a new document that is 1024 x 1024 pixels.

Now, drag each symbol from your grid to the new document at the bottom. This is kind of like a pasteboard, where you’ll have all your symbols ready for placement.
Once you have all your symbols in the new document, turn on Rulers (View Menu/Rulers), drag out guidelines from the horizontal ruler, equally spaced, and drag each symbol to sit on the guideline to form sentences. You can use OPTION-DRAG (PC: ALT- DRAG) to drag copies, which speeds up placement considerably. Also, you may want to turn on Auto Select Layer which will also speed placement and duplicating up.
Here’s a shot of my pasteboard, with loose jumbled symbols at bottom, and the horizontal guidelines and placed symbols at top.

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