John Downer (1951- ) is a sign painter, type designer and letterer living in Iowa City.
Born in Tacoma, Washington, the oldest of four boys, he developed an early interest in letterforms based on mechanically drawn majuscules. Following that, he was influenced by the variety and quality of Tacoma’s signage, particularly in its tenderloin district, where the “brash, gaudy” carnival- and circus-lettering appealed to him.
Downer’s formal training in calligraphy and graphic design “occurred sporadically,” but included courses at Washington State University. He had already begun to work in the first of many sign painters’ shops when he began to delve into the history of classical letterforms.
He began graduate studies in painting at the University of Iowa in 1973, earning both an MA and MFA in the subject, after which he devoted his time to sign painting, glass gilding and silkscreen printing. In the 1980s Downer began to work seriously and primarily as a type designer “first focusing on display faces, then venturing into text faces.” In 1987, he moved to San Francisco and started a five-year “sabbatical,” during which he freelanced on-and-off for Emigre in Berkeley, Roger Black in San Francisco, and Bitstream in Cambridge, Mass. He experimented independently during a period of hybridization within the discipline of traditional typeface design, and investigated the possibilities of fonts conceived and created digitally.
After more than thirty years in type, John Downer is one of the most revered and influential designers of type, having the rarer expertise of understanding letterforms from a mastery of brush manipulation.