The type lovers of New York

‘Fontastic’: These designers meet to discuss typefaces, serifs and kerning over wine

It can take designers several years to create a full digital alphabet.

It can take designers several years to create a full digital alphabet.

 

At TypeThursday, a monthly meetup in several cities, including Los Angeles, London and Bucharest, font designers critique one another’s letterforms over wine. They hold forth about negative space, consistent strokes and serif experimentation. The group’s website bills the gathering as “three hours of fontastic fun”.

But when dozens of professionals congregate to talk about their craft, things can get heated. “Are those Cs exactly the same?” asks Evan Sult, an art director in Brooklyn, during a recent TypeThursday event. He is examining a designer’s sketches for a Cuban restaurant’s logo. “They don’t look exactly the same.”

“And why should they be?” asks Paul Shaw, a type historian who lives in Manhattan.

“Hey, hey, hey! Don’t make me ask the volunteers to get physical,” Mirko Velimirovic (28) the event’s organiser, jokes.

Typefaces are everywhere. The New York City subway communicates mostly in Helvetica. The lifestyle companies advertising in its cars may use another modern sans-serif font or, increasingly, something more retro. Many large tech companies have designed or commissioned their own house styles, including Netflix Sans, Airbnb Cereal, PayPal Sans, Uber Move and Google’s Product Sans.

Ampersand tattoos

Matthew Rechs, a business coach for type designers, whose arms are covered in ampersand tattoos, argues that a font can be a brand’s most potent signifier. For example, “if you try to imagine a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, or really any bottle, without the type on it, you’re left with very little to differentiate it.”

And it’s not just products. Political campaigns may be remembered or forgotten by their choices of fonts. Many of the 2020 Democratic candidates have picked Gotham-like typefaces, which could be a nod to the geometric font used by Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Though their fonts may be widely recognisable, the designers themselves tend not to be. TypeThursday, which began in 2015 at a Brooklyn bar and has expanded to eight cities around the world, is a place to put a face to a typeface. And to vent. Because even in the digital age, making fonts is time-consuming, human labour.

“Typography passes for being invisible,” says Jonathan Hoefler (49) a star designer who has created typefaces for Apple and the 2012 Obama campaign. “People really don’t think about the fact that typefaces are indeed made by people.”

Juan Villanueva (31) a designer at Monotype, one of the world’s largest type foundries — as they became known when typefaces were forged out of metal — says it took him anywhere from a month to a couple of years to create a full digital alphabet, beginning with sketching letters in his notebook.

“It’s our job to find subtle differences between each design and see what works specifically for one client or brand,” he says. One of his first tasks at Monotype was to create the Bitcoin symbol for Noto, a Google initiative to create a font family that supports every language.

A lot of Villanueva’s work involves drawing the same letters over and over at his desk, obsessing about kerning, the squeezing of space between characters.

“It only feels isolating afterward, when you realise you haven’t talked to people for five hours,” he says.

Social reprieve

TypeThursday, Velimirovic says, is both a needed social reprieve and an opportunity for designers to get positive feedback from their peers. That second part is crucial, he said, because typography tends to be an individualist and hypercritical field in which peers regularly try to outwit one another. At TypeThursday, he has made a point to discourage such behaviour and foster, instead, a culture of constructive criticism.

“It’s a place where you can go and know that people aren’t going to walk all over you,” said Velimirovic, who got his first big contracts through friends he had met at the event, eventually taking the reins of the New York monthly meetup. It now takes place in the offices of the Type Directors Club, a nonprofit that promotes education in type.

Harrison Jude, a graphic designer who attended the event in Manhattan in December, says TypeThursday helped him connect with fellow type lovers whom he would not have otherwise met. At his first meeting, in 2018, a presenter was called out by someone in the audience for a minor typo in his PowerPoint presentation.

“There was just glorious cheering,” Jude said. “I was like, ‘Oh, yep, these are my people.’ ” – New York Times

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