Hamburgerfontsiv and other discoveries at Working Late

Last week we held the first of four Working Late events, a series we’ve put together with generous support and collaboration from Typekit. As you would expect, the subject of the events is typography and design.

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All photos by Ryan Essmaker

Design conversations can be so dominated by the what, the outcomes. Here I made this thing, isn’t it beautiful? But with these events we are putting the creative process. We want people to share the how and why of designing with type.  As designers, how do we make decisions? How can we learn from the way others work?

With Jen Mussari, known for her hand lettering, and Frank Chimero, known for digital and print design, joining us for the first event, Tim Brown of Typekit led a discussion that started with a simple question: “what’s the difference between type and lettering?” Both use letters and letterforms, but type involves typefaces, mechanical or digital, and lettering is done by hand.

This was an easy introduction, and a embodiment of the accessibility of the evening. I appreciate typography but my training is in architecture, and architects are pretty lousy graphic designers (despite what most of them think). I was pleasantly surprised to find that the discussion remained intelligible even to untrained ears. Don’t ask me what “hamburgerfontsiv” means, but other than that it was down to earth — specific and detailed, without being jargony or off-putting. The best kind of expert discussion is one what invites the newbies in.

Frank shared a secret: “I don’t read the text before I typeset it. I just put it on the page.” (Though he does read it before!) According to Frank, the first go at typesetting is more about how it sits. Printing it out afterwards, reading, and making notes in the margins is more interesting. At that point you can see how it makes you feel.

Feeling! What an curious thing to bring up in a discussion of type. How does a particular typeface make you feel? Frank was refreshingly candid about the role of emotion and preference in designing with type. “We want to believe that things are explicit processes, when in reality they’re gut choices” developed and reinforced over years of practice.

Here’s a way you can test it at home, using an exercise Frank does with his students. Typeset the word “party” and then try to figure out what kind of party it is. Use an Edwardian face and the party probably involves people wearing white gloves. Set it in Comic Sans and you’re at a different party, right?

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One of my favorite moments was a discussion of the “straight forwardness” of typesetting versus hand lettering. On first glance, the idea of setting type digitally seems as though it should be easier and more straight forward than literally writing out every letter by hand as a unique composition. Yet digital design now generally exists across a range of devices, and must look good on all of them.

Frank spoke about his strategies for coping in this situation. Local design cues can make something appear consistent even as the overall layout changes “differently on 10 different devices.” Consideration is a more useful strategy than control.

Jen spoke about flexibility in her work from a different angle. Clients who commission her for lettering projects do not always have the final format nailed down, which means she needs to build in a certain degree of flexibility. Designing with black text on white creates opportunity here. The white space can always be finessed to accommodate a format that is not nailed down yet. Her clients don’t always know what they’re commissioning, so she puts effort into managing expectations up front. “You’re not going to get a front from me. It’s not going to look like it came from a machine.”

Ideally more about the context of the final product is known, of course. “Context is the most important thing, “ Jen continued, “especially when hand lettering is so hot right now.” Why? Because the way a designer responds to context reveals the difference between a designer that applies a rote skill and the one who adapts to the situation at hand.

“The world around your work changes,” Frank and Jen said in unplanned unison at one point during the night. Stay contemporary in your understanding of the world, and your work will be better for it. Part of that changing world is the linking up of various roles into networks of collaboration. Here’s Jen:

“I draw, someone next to me vectorizes it, then someone animates, another person turns it into 3d, then someone is doing lighting [in the 3d program]… and then it’s on during the Grammys. This kind of thing only comes from collaborating with people who have other skills.”

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Join us for the next three Working Late events if you also want to learn about typography, both from the great lineup of speakers and from your peers.

For the next event we’ll be learning from Ellen Lupton, Jason Santa Maria, and James Victore. See you there.