Frequently Asked Questions

What made you choose to become a type designer?
While attending Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, I often worked lettering into many of my design projects. When I joined House Industries I attempted to translate my lettering into typefaces. I had to learn everything as I went along since courses in lettering and type design were not offered at Tyler. I suppose it was by chance that I became a type designer.

What is it about letterforms that makes you get up and go to work in the morning—what drives you?
I suppose it’s my inexplicable attraction to letterforms that keeps me going. It’s something of a compulsion; I am just drawn to shapes of alphabets—no matter which script it is: Latin, Cyrillic or Devanagari.

How did you study to become a type designer?
I studied graphic design in college. None of my professors were letterers, but a fellow student Allen Mercer (one of the original partners of House Industries) became something of a mentor to me, encouraging me to letter course projects. Later, I tried adapting the lettering to work in a typographic framework. I had no formal training to speak of and consequently learned type design by studying specimen books, speaking with other designers and lots or trial and error.

How would you describe your creative process?
When designing a new typeface, I consider creating something with purpose, as opposed to just making something for the heck of it. I’ve learned that most things done with intention are better than those done without.

Initially, I try to define what I intend to accomplish: do I need a text face or a display face; what aims do I plan to achieve with the design that previous types have not already fulfilled. Do I need a face that works under certain conditions, like on screen or with a particular printing process. Maybe I need a type that has a stylistic flair not addressed by existing retail faces. If there is a typeface that already answers these questions, then I know that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel and I’ve just saved myself a lot of time and trouble.

The research phase, during which the direction of a typeface’s development is decided, is the first and, in my opinion, the most important stage of the design process. As mentioned previously, ideally the need and purpose of the face will drive it’s development.

Next, during the sketch phase, general characteristics of a typeface are worked out, such as the weight of the face, the amount of contrast in the strokes and other mechanical or engineering considerations (for example, how script letters might connect). If I am going for a particularly animated appearance, I will normally try to determine how defining characteristics might be formalized in order that the letter forms seamlessly fit with one another. Although I tend to make preliminary sketches relatively tight, most often the letters’ outlines need to be altered during the next phase.

Pencil renderings are then painstakingly traced using Bezier curves in FontLab, a font editing program. It is during this stage of production that the overall color of the forms is balanced, each letter properly spaced and contours of the forms finessed. Missing characters, accented letters, ligatures, and alternate glyphs are also added.

Before a typeface will function ideally, it generally needs to be kerned—a process during which specific letter pairs are individually spaced. Typefaces offering OpenType capabilities require further testing. When specified in OT-savvy applications, fonts can make pre-determined decisions —like automatically replacing less-than-ideal combinations with connecting forms or alternate characters— based on the contextual position of specific letters. In cases where I want a hand-lettered appearance, I utilize OpenType programming to give an additional boost to a font’s typographic performance.

Sometimes, the final typeface can differ considerably from its starting point; happy accidents and unforeseen obstacles can turn into blessings, shaping the course of a typeface’s growth in unexpected ways.

How does typography act within graphic design?
That really depends upon the intention of the type setter. Carefully chosen typefaces can educate, entertain, inform or simply add aesthetic value to design.

What are the significant difference between type design and graphic design?
Type design is a microcosm of design. It relies on the same principles foundational to practically all related fields of visual communication. Issues such as composition, spatial balance and rhythm, to name a few, all figure heavily in type and graphic design. Their differences lie in their ultimate goals—graphic design: to compose visual elements in such a way to communicate an idea; type design: to create one of those elements to help designers do their job more effectively.

Where do you find inspiration?
I personally don’t consciously go looking for inspiration; rather, it seems to find me. Sources of inspiration are all around you—it’s just a question of how cognizant and receptive one is to those sources. It also seems to be a matter of timing. Someone may be inspired by a sign, piece of lettering or something else only years after initially being exposed to it. Sometimes it just takes a while for it to sink in and take effect. I take a lot of photos of signs and street lettering for reference in addition to collecting common hand-writing specimens—it intrigues me to see what everyday people do with letter forms.

How much do you let technology form your approach?
There is an element of technology in contemporary type design which is practically inescapable. However, I don’t look to technology as an answer to all my problems or to add gimmickry to my types; though certain advances like OpenType have allowed me to solve problems more effectively. Actually, I’m quite technically inept; I rely on the expertise of colleagues to help me with fancy feature programming and other tricknology.

How is it being a type designer in today’s digital environment?
Advances in digital technology have certainly aided type designers while also providing new challenges. Despite this, I still spend a fair amont of time articulating ideas with pencil and paper. For me this is the most immediate and honest approach to problem solving; it also ensures a human touch that seems to be sorely lacking in the digital world of today. Depending on the demands of the project, I use whatever means necessary to best complete a job—this might include, but not necessarily, using digital means. Each assignment is different and with it comes a unique way of approaching it. Most often, the final product must work within a digital environment at some point, but it doesn’t have to begin there nor must it be driven by it.

How do you think your situation differs from typographers in the past?
Tools change, as do production methods and other circumstances. However, problem solving is at the root of type design—a constant which I don’t see changing anytime soon.

How important is historical knowledge of the craft?
Knowledge of any craft which one is practicing is indispensable. Naturally, the more you you practice the more you learn, and hopefully, the more you improve. A little background in any trade will go a long way in applying what you’ve learned more intelligently and effectively.

What can we learn from the long history of typography?
What can’t you learn? What have others done before you? What were their goals and what were the challenges faced over the centuries? How were problems overcome and what methods were implemented to do so? What’s next?

What qualities should fledgling type designers possess?
I think one would need a genuine interest in and attraction to letter forms and typographic systems, bordering on an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Clear thinking, originality, some latent talent, lots of patience and a good work ethic wouldn’t hurt either.

Finally, is Helvetica still relevant?
I think Ben Kiel sums it up best: “In today’s decontextualized media sphere, Helvetica connotes a brand image and message of sturdiness and purity. Much as the Great Wall of China stood as a symbol of power, security, and monumentality, Helvetica is a modern symbol of power. For these reasons, it is relevant to the cultural purveyors of brand image and message, as a cultural tool to project this feeling to the public.”