Typography for Topography: BellTopo Sans Typeface & Free Font

In 2018, I made a few maps that were inspired by the design of the earliest USGS Topos. I had a lot of fun doing it too. I tried to pick areas with large bodies of water, since the concentric shorelines that were popular in maps from the 1800s & early 1900s are super enjoyable to make (my tutorial here!) Much of the time that I spent on these maps was hunting for the right typeface. Specifically, the upright sans serif delicious typeface that was used on much of the physical features like mountains, valleys, beaches, meadows, etc. (Like you, I too see the irony of serif italics for that phrase in previous sentence.)

When you see this typeface that I’m referring to on these old beautiful maps, you may think it is nothing special. It’s simple. It might even be very similar to a common font that you already know. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why didn’t she use that font?” But for me, the beauty of this typeface that I see on old USGS maps exists within its subtle differences. I included some screenshots at the end of this post highlighting some of the beautiful characters from this typeface in the early USGS maps. I will elaborate more on these characters later. But I am soon leaving for a month of work travel, and I want to release this font into the world before time becomes too sparse.

While making my own USGS-inspired maps, my search never returned the exact type of font I was looking for. The fruitless search was serendipitous however, because it provided the push to make my own. It was designed for map labels that are no larger than 80-100pt, but usually much smaller. I decided to name it BellTopo Sans with the plan to create a serif version. Currently, I’m getting BellTopo Italic ready, and adding more special characters and glyphs to the sans version. There might be additional tweaks too, so keep looking for those updates!

You may download BellTopo Sans here and use it for free.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

hillshade map with sample of typeface throughout
Sample of BellTopo Sans on a hillshade I drew. Manually drawn. Digitally “distressed.”

To be quite honest, I’ve never released a font into the world. With all the wonderful type designers out there, it is a bit intimidating! Although I did spend a lot of time on kerning, I am still discovering letter pairs that can be improved. There are also some characters and glyphs that I plan on adding to this font. Nevertheless, after all those hours of kerning, it is rewarding to see a font that you’ve created in paragraph form. While it was designed specifically for map labels for some maps that I’m making, it does pretty well in lorem ipsum.

Some lorem ipsum in blue. Here is how BellTopo Sans looks in paragraph form.

The appearance of “Vermilion Valley,” “Bear Ridge”, “Bear Dome,” and “Infant Buttes” inspired Bell Topo Sans.

The appearance of “Vermilion Valley,” “Bear Ridge”, “Bear Dome,” and “Infant Buttes” inspired Bell Topo Sans.Mt Goddard, USGS. 1912

The “g” in “Mt Morgan” and Mt Hilgard, the high cross on the lower-case “t,” and that lovely squishy “S” in “Sierra” are all major draws to this typeface for me.

Mt Goddard, USGS. 1912.

What’s not to love about this image below? Firstly, there is a place in California called “Evolution Valley,” and it is gorgeous. Also, check out that word’s lowercase “y.” and the “k” in “Emerald Pk” is so deliberate yet soft. The uppercase “M” is so fantastic.

Mt Goddard, USGS. 1912.
Inspired by the USGS’ catalog stamps, I created my own “stamp” with vector artwork.
The “Seattle Special” USGS Topographic Map, 1909.

UPDATE! New characters and glyphs added

These updates require that you re-download your copy of this font. You will probably want to delete your old copy too, since they have different file names. Here are the changes:

Map with font preview of new characters and glyphs

Check back for updates on this font. Happy labeling!

BellTopo Sans is free for anyone to use under the Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Comments (10)

  1. Pingback: BellTopo Sans is is a free typeface based on maps from 1800s - IQ Software Services

    • Sarah Bell

      Reply

      Thank you. Continuously evolving, as this is my first public font. It was probably a good choice to start with one that is intended to be charmingly imperfect! I’m still discovering how to best design for purposes beyond display, but I’m a designer at heart.

    • Sarah Bell

      Reply

      Hi, Lee. I sure did! Exhaustively. I spent a lot of time trying to find out who made the typeface, or if it was some sort of standardized hand technique. No information turned out after this search, which was the impetus for making this font. If you find out the person(s) who either made the typeface or did the hand lettering, please let us know. Take care.

  2. Reply

    The typeface looks quite nice—and I love the historical examples. They remind me of some similar lettering I found on diagrams from the formation of the internet. My best guess at the moment is that they are handmade with a router or (indirectly, mechanically) traced from a template (such as Keuffel & Esser’s Leroy Lettering Set). That might be why there’s so much subtle variation in the letter shapes. See also: https://nationalparktypeface.com/

    • Sarah Bell

      Reply

      Such great information, Joseph. It is that hand-made look – the imperfect qualities – that make the USGS lettering so wonderful, imo. I really love that NPS typeface. Thanks for passing it along.

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