One of the things I have struggled with as a type designer is explaining what I do for a living. This was especially true when I was starting out. I might be at a party with my girlfriend, now my wife, and we would be meeting some new people for the first time. At some point, one of these people would ask, “So Cyrus, what is your job?” I lived in particular fear of this question. I knew it would involve a lot of explanation about what a typeface is, how drawing them really is my job, and that it really is all that I do.
However, I am happy to report it is getting easier. In the last couple of years, I have noticed that when I tell someone I am a type designer, it requires less explanation than it used to. People will say, oh you mean like the fonts on my computer. Or I think I read about someone who did that in the New Yorker or something. At least some awareness of typefaces has become common knowledge.
I enjoy talking about type design to people who aren’t designers. At a barbecue in someone’s backyard on a summer night in Providence, I met a mathematician. (I bet he hears a lot of uninformed questions about his job also!) He asked what I did for a living. I replied that I was a type designer, and he was quiet for a moment. His brain was up to something. I prepared myself for the worst. Finally, he said, “Wow, that must require a lot of non-linear thinking.” I nodded enthusiastically and we talked about the kind of systems thinking involved in type design. A typeface is a kit of parts, designed to be combined in any order. The networks of relationships between the parts, and the parts of parts, form the structures that hold the typeface together.
The most common question I get about being a type designer is this: “Aren’t there enough typefaces already?” The best response I have ever heard to this question is, “You know, I heard the same thing about people!” It is quite funny but probably comes across a bit rude, especially to people you have just met. For a long time, the best response I could come up with was a more diplomatic, although less articulate, “Oh well you know ha ha.” And then I would try to change the subject. “Aren’t there enough typefaces already?” isn’t a bad question though. There are a lot of typefaces. Even to a type designer, it can seem like everything has already been done.
In addition to learning how to make small talk about type design at parties, I had to learn some other things about being a type designer. For example, a type designer has to get used to losing control of his work after it is published. I can spend months or years drawing, spacing, perfecting a series of typefaces. Then I release them into the world. The next time I see them is on a page created by a graphic designer that I probably have never met or communicated with. A graphic designer has a lot of control of how a typeface looks. They can make it look great. And they can make it look terrible. One day, you might find your typeface, beautifully set. The next time you see it, it might be squeezed and tracked to within a point of its life.
Even when I work on commission, when I work closely with the art director and I know how the typeface will be used down to the point size, tracking, and leading, even then, the final result, the printed page is not something I have created. I created one of the elements that someone else used to compose the page. There is that gap between my final product and the way it is presented to the public.
Often when I see one of my typefaces in use, on the cover of a magazine at the newsstand, or on a book on the shelf of a bookstore, I don’t recognize it at first. There is a second when it catches my eye but I am not sure why. There’s something familiar about it. Then finally, I recognize my drawings. I usually find myself smiling and wanting to say hello.
My students seem to have a similar experience when they bump into me off campus. At first, they just cannot figure out who I am but they are sure they know me. Then, a second later, they figure it out—hey, that’s my teacher. They always think it is so funny and ask, “What are you doing here?” A teacher’s existence away from school comes as a surprise to them. What could I possibly be doing outside? I wonder the same thing about my typefaces when I see them out in the world, away the shelter of my studio, doing their own thing.
It reminds me of what some novelists say when they are talking about their characters and how they can almost seem to have a life of their own. Stephen King says that when he writes, he likes to “put a group of characters in a predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. Characters do things in their own way. I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out.” I like to imagine my typefaces in a similar way. After a while, a good typeface takes on a life of its own almost, and I watch what happens as the letters leave my desk and then make their way into the world.
I like Stephen King’s detachment about his characters. He is comfortable losing control. He enjoys it. I have tried to adopt this attitude when it comes to seeing my own work in use. In fact, I have learned a lot of tricks for being a type designer from novelists.
I think there are a lot of similarities between being a novelist and being a type designer. You might not think so at first because on the surface it seems like writing and letter drawing have so many fundamental differences. For example, the job of the novelist is telling a story. In contrast, type designers create abstract symbols. Drawing type is a mostly formal exercise, not dealing in content the way writing a novel does. Another difference is in voice. The author’s name is on the cover of the book, we hear his voice throughout the story. In contrast, type is largely invisible. In a single paragraph, drawings I have made will be reproduced thousands of times. The reader thinks about it differently though. They think about the text. But I don’t mind—in fact, that is usually how it should work. Type design is a great occupation if you are a private person yet have the urge to publish and see your work everywhere.
The popular image of the writer is of a drunk. They write in explosive flurries of inspiration, then sink into despair until the next idea magically appears to them. They fit into the classic romantic image of the creator as the tortured soul who is visited by the mysterious muse. I have never been able to relate to this style of working or seeing yourself. In reality, most writers are plodders. They write every day. They don’t wait for inspiration. They just keep their fingers moving. My daily routine of drawing is quite similar.
The other thing about plodding along is that by working almost every day, it is easier to remember what you are doing. Both novelists and type designers, when they are in the middle of a project, are holding complicated structures in their heads, networks of relationships and details.
The joke at Font Bureau is that drawing typefaces is easy. Keeping track of all the details is the hard part. A typeface’s success depends on how well all the parts fit together to form words and lines on a page. The designer has to keep track of the relationships between all the parts so they fit together and form a strong structure.
The novelist plods away, usually in a quiet room, away from distractions. Writing has traditionally been a solitary occupation. At some point, an editor needs to be involved, and all the apparatus of a publisher. But a writer still spends most of his time in his own head, alone, at his desk at home.
Factory and staff
I think most type designers have a similar temperament. However, it is only recently that a type designer can really work at home, in the way that most writers have always done. In the old days, you needed a whole factory and staff of letter drawers to make a typeface. It took a really long time, it was expensive. You couldn’t be a type designer full time and work on your own, from a home office.
I have tried to think of a type designer, pre-digital, who worked at home. Perhaps William A. Dwiggins came closest to being able to. He dreamed up his innovative designs and methods for working by himself from his studio in Hingham, Massachusetts. However, the majority of work was done by the staff at Linotype in Brooklyn. Dwiggins had to wait weeks for the drawing office to translate his sketches of a few characters into production drawings, then make a prototype and proof it. Finally, Dwiggins would receive the proofs in the mail and he could assess his progress and decide what to do next. When the design was finalized, Linotype’s drawing office would go to work on the production drawings for the complete character set and the drawings for additional point sizes. Many people were involved. It would have been impossible for Dwiggins to produce a typeface all on his own.
The computer has changed all that. The computer put the means of production of typefaces in the hands of individuals. If Dwiggins were alive today, he could make typefaces on his laptop as fast as he could draw them. If he were lucky, he would work with other people to help with technical issues, trademarks, marketing, and publishing. However, the vast majority of the production of a typeface today can be done by one person, working alone, just like a writer working on a novel.
There are some risks in working alone though. And these risks go beyond forgetting to leave your house for three days to get some fresh air or keeping odd hours. When there is no need to involve other people in the creative process, it is easy to forget about the audience. You risk falling into the black hole of your own narrowly defined personal vision. Both novelists and type designers need an audience for their work.
I have heard some novelists say that when they write, the audience they imagine is small. Often it will be someone they know. For example, J.K. Rowling said she writes the Harry Potter books for her daughter. She is the author’s most important reader. Other novelists have spoken about their one reader. It could be a spouse or lover, a son or daughter, a mentor, a parent. The reader could be alive or dead. The important thing is that the novelist always has a specific audience in mind for his product.
A type designer’s audience is usually not as intimate as the novelist’s, but I think we also work with a specific audience in mind when we are creating something. Often the most loved typefaces are the ones that were originally drawn for a single client or purpose. For example, there is Matthew Carter’s Bell Centennial drawn for setting the phone books, DIN and Interstate for roadway signage, Meta for the German post office, or Frutiger for De Gaulle airport, among many others.
I like to create new typefaces on a speculative basis, without an official commission. If I don’t have a real client, I will create an imaginary one. Sometimes it will be for a publication that I think could use a new typeface, whether they know it or not. Other times it will be for a designer who I think could use this typeface in an interesting way. Often it will be for a publication that doesn’t exist, but if it did, I would be interested in reading it. My hope is that if the typeface is out there, someone will create the content to go with it. They will see the sum of the ideas that went into making it, and realize it perfectly reflects a powerful zeitgeist that they always knew but until that instant never were able to express or define. But now, thanks to that typeface, they have the voice with which they can articulate it. So far, this hasn’t actually happened.
Fortunately, I usually have a real client, a specific magazine or newspaper, who I am working with. The client and I discuss the personality of the publication, the identity of the readers, how the typefaces will be used, and the other typefaces in the palette. All these things drive the design of a new typeface series.
It isn’t always exciting to focus on skill and serving the audience. Can you imagine that happening in an art school today? There wouldn’t be enough time left to discuss theory. All those big words and indecipherable essays would be wasted. And the poor critics—they wouldn’t have anything left to explain to the rest of us. But real or imaginary, audience is important. I believe that thinking deeply about the audience and being serious about craftsmanship leads to innovative and imaginative work, original work.
Recently, I drew a new script for Brides magazine. I was discussing the different options with the art director when she said to me, “I want a typeface that makes me feel pretty.” What a great way to think about it! A typeface is for more than just reading. There is an emotional side of typefaces also.
When the art director was talking about wanting a typeface that made her feel pretty, she was talking about the tone of the magazine’s voice—this is who we are, this is how we feel about ourselves, this is how we feel about our readers. The readers who buy the magazine identify with the magazine’s tone. They are saying, “This is how we feel about ourselves also.”
The audience of Brides magazine is young women who are planning their weddings. A wedding is a special event, an emotional event. To not address this in the design of the magazine and the typography would be a disservice to the reader, and a disservice to our craft. But this kind of attention shouldn’t be limited to magazines about weddings or stressed-out young women.
We all identify with the publications we consume. I think this is why readers, who aren’t typographers, can get so emotional when publications change their typefaces. It isn’t just that their favorite publication is suddenly speaking to them in a different voice. The shock is also that the readers are suddenly forced to see themselves differently. Part of their identity has changed too.
The technology of type design has changed since Dwiggins was working. We don’t need factories to produce fonts anymore. Thanks to digital tools, one person can do it by themselves at home. But where does this get us? In the New York Times, Stephen Heller wrote, “During the ensuing digital typographic revolution of the 90s… typeface design became something of an expressive art.”
I like to compare today’s type designer to the solitary novelist who plods away, working daily, writing his story, writing for an audience. However, as Mr. Heller observes, maybe even promotes, today’s type designer could also be compared to the fine artist, toiling away in his studio, creating beautiful works of art. There is a lot of appeal in this romantic image of the lone artist. The current low status of fine art shows us that we should be careful though.
As the act of producing art becomes more individualistic, the artist’s vision becomes more singular. The artist retreats into his studio, away from the world and into the world of self-expression. He creates work only for himself, instead of producing something for an audience. The artist is seen as the lone tortured soul. Art’s purpose becomes more therapy for its creator than for satisfying the emotional needs of the audience.
This romantic image of the lone tortured artist endures today, in one form or another. The critics like it because it is their role to explain what inaccessible art means. The art academy likes it because when you are dealing in self-expression, you don’t need to get bogged down in things like skill and serving the audience. And some artists like it because it appeals to their ego. But art’s marginal status is the result. If it seems the artist isn’t interested in anyone else, most people will not be very interested in art. And this is a shame because art has potential to do more.
Black hole of self-expression
There is a negative side to all the control that the computer has put in the hands of the individual. It is great that we have so much creative control. The danger is getting too wrapped up in your own head, and forgetting about the audience. In the old days, because of the amount of money and resources needed to make a typeface, a lot of people were involved. You had to convince them it would be worthwhile. Therefore, the focus was on the audience—would they like it? Would it sell? How would it serve the reader?
Don’t get me wrong; I am not yearning for the old days of being dependent on a huge company to produce a font. I don’t think the factory method is superior. Just look at all the crappy movies that come out of Hollywood every year to see how badly an expensive collaborative process can go.
Digital tools have led to an explosion of creativity and innovation in type design. In my opinion, in the last ten years because of this democratization, we have seen maybe some of the best typefaces ever. And also some of the worst. These are interesting times in the world of typography. There are more typefaces available now than ever before and there are more different kinds of typefaces available than ever before. It isn’t just that graphic designers have more to choose from, the average reader is exposed to more different kinds of typefaces than the average reader twenty years ago.
We have to figure out the role of the type designer in all this. I don’t think type design has to fall into the black hole of self- expression that art has fallen into, if we don’t want it to. The work of novelists has shown you can make creative work, full of personal vision, without losing sight of the audience.
Our audience is diverse and has strong ideas about what it wants. Typefaces can address these identities and needs. This is why there is still a need for new typefaces. And if we respect our audience, there will continue to be a need for new typefaces. So in other words, no, there are not enough typefaces already. I do have an answer to that question finally. I really should try to remember all this for the next time I am at a party and someone asks.
Lecture given by Cyrus Highsmith at TypeCon, July 2006, Boston, Massachusetts, USA