Torch: Drawing Letters

“What makes you draw letters the way that you do?”

That’s the question I put to a few type designers at TypeCon this year, in the interest of learning about the intangible forces that inspire them to shape letters in unique ways. Understanding this might help web designers and print designers choose type for their projects, and might even provide the creative seed from which art direction can bloom.

Reasons for the design of letters

I don’t draw letters or make type, but I got to wondering about the reasons for such subtleties in typefaces as slope angles, stroke thicknesses, or any particular quality that is left to consider once decisions about history, culture, function, and general aesthetic have been made — those more reasonable decisions come first.

The primary function of a letterform is to represent a symbol. We are bound to certain symbolic structures by the origins of our alphabet and our desire to communicate legibly. “With display type, you have more freedom,” Matthew Carter told me, whereas for text, “if you significantly change a lowercase b, it will not be a lowercase b.”

Then there are stylistic attributes that exist for various reasons, such as the visible influence of the angle of a pen, the cultural footprint of a machined aesthetic, or the residue of raw materials from which the type was hewn.

And in part, the shapes of letters are influenced by compensation for their intended means of production. This is a kind of quality with which web designers and Mr. Carter are quite familiar — Verdana and Georgia were drawn with low-resolution screens in mind, as their proportions and shapes attest. Other examples of compensation are ink traps, and even the thickening or thinning of strokes as a result of knowledge about the environment in which the type will live.

But after all of these decisions have been made – these functional, stylistic, and production-related influences accounted for – what remains in the mind of the type designer? Why does he or she twist the brush, or pen, or mouse just so? What is left to inspire a unique design?

Conversations at TypeCon

Last Saturday night I found myself trying, politely as I could, to eavesdrop on a conversation between Gary Munch and Sumner Stone. I heard them mention “natural object references.” They were talking about pictographs, but if you think about it there are clear references to the natural world in many Latin typefaces. For me, as evidenced by this image of my backyard, Fred Goudy’s work stands out. He drew many letters not far from my home in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Later that night I met David Jonathan Ross, a thoughtful young type designer and producer at Font Bureau, who made an excellent point about stylistic problem solving. The solutions in his work have been very much about exercising subtlety — for instance, in translating exaggerated qualities like thick Egyptian serifs into Trilby. He also made a good point about forming relationships between elements in a typeface. Perhaps, no matter how letters are initially composed, the magic is in editing with a sensitivity toward these relationships?

I spent some time with Jackson Cavanaugh of Okay Type, whose blunt, honest approach to type design can seem flippant until you realize how smart the man is and how seriously he takes the work. His Alright Sans exists because it’s something he hopes clients will not dislike. The absence of attention-getting features was his metric for success. And why not? Eccentric or even subtly playful forms are often the target of subjective veto when a project is on the line.

Which brings me to Doyald Young, a seasoned lettering artist and type designer whose work I had not known before the spotlights of TypeCon and this year’s SoTA award shone rightfully and marvelously upon him — and who, like Jackson, cited clients as a reason for design decisions. When I put my question to Doyald, he first answered, “If they’re asking for Optima, well, then you know what you need to do.”

Doyald went on to make the following points: that he often leans on his practiced, math-based muscle memory; that he often works in a “scattershot” way, trying many things in order to improve his odds with clients; and, most of all, that the success of a typeface design is completely personal. The client pays for whatever he, or she, or the committee, or the “president’s wife” likes.

I did not talk with Jean François Porchez much, but in the talk he gave he articulated a positive sentiment about client work that makes an excellent counterpoint to these truths of Young’s and Cavanaugh’s: client requests offer opportunities to try new things.

Paul Shaw, whose stories my friend Stephen Coles and I were privileged to hear one TypeCon evening, told us that he draws letters because he couldn’t draw trees.

A personal art

Natural references, editing, a practiced routine. Client personalities, opportunities, and the odds of being successful. These are excellent answers, and diverse. It is not hard to imagine a much wider range of influences after having been gifted these insights — and one more, from Stephen: to know, or read about, a typeface’s designer lends much to the meaning of his or her work.

But it was Mr. Carter who gave my favorite answer of all. He said that some designers show their hand, in that an obvious personal touch pervades the design of a particular typeface to the point of recognizability. And that other designers, he himself included, are more chameleon-like and harder to spot. But that a personal touch, obvious or not, is a key ingredient in designing type.

“Certainly there is an element of art involved … a kind of self-awareness, or arrogance if you will. After all, if you cannot lend a piece of yourself to the work then why bother?” On the other hand, asking for a reason “is rather like asking an artist why they decided to use a particular shade of blue in one corner of the canvas.”

I very much enjoyed my time at TypeCon alongside these wonderful stewards of symbols and style. Their art deserves more respect than our design schedules often allow, yet the culture of caring about type is ours to inherit and keep. Let us make the time.

Thank you

So begins this idea of mine for Typedia Torch, a column about honoring tradition in type design and typesetting. Although I do not expect its quality to rival this first installment until I am once again blessed by the company of such heroes as I was at TypeCon 2010, I’ll do my best to keep the intent intact, be thoughtful, and listen with great interest to the experiences of folks such as these, who deserve our admiration and respect.

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