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Some of the biggest names in type design recently descended on Sheridan College to discuss the history, creativity and nuances behind the art and skill of type design. The opportunity arose as part of Sheridan’s ongoing Creative Campus Series, which brings together distinguished presenters from interdisciplinary fields to elaborate on the creative process.

Panelists included MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Matthew Carter, whose designs include ITC Galliard and Helvetica Compressed, and whose typefaces are housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Rod McDonald, an educator, designer, writer and historian who digitally revised Canada’s first Latin typeface — Cartier by Carl Dair, designed the Laurentian font for Maclean’s and has accomplished every aspect of the typographic arts; Allan Haley a consultant and former director of words and letters at Monotype; and Charles Nix, senior type designer at Monotype, Chairman Emeritus of the Type Directors Club and educator at the Parsons School of Design.

On the Impact of Technology

“Typography has always been impacted by technology – how it’s made, how it’s imaged, and the environments it’s used in,” whether those are Fitbits, eReaders, automotive dashboards or web pages, said Haley. He suggested that typography merges aesthetics and technology, likening it to architecture – another discipline that constructs form, relies on creativity and encompasses good design.

Carter, who is one of the few type designers in existence who has spanned the continuum of designing type in metal, photo and digital form remarked that technology has helped to “make the process more compact”. He suggested that a watershed moment was the invention of the laser printer, which gave designers the tool to see their letters output in real-time, rather than waiting for them to be produced in a foundry or photographed by a type house, a process that could take weeks or months at a time. “The printer democratized the ability to make choices” Haley concurred.

Sheridan Gallery typography display

Sheridan Gallery TypeForming exhibition

Carter also pointed out that “when you open a book, you see text and you say that’s type – but it’s not. What you’re looking at is the marks made by type, the impression of type in a book or the projection or rasterization of type on a screen. That’s something which still means a great deal to me. There are a whole lot of technical considerations that go into the making, designing, usage and imaging of type.”

Fascination and Frustration

Carter suggested that he thinks of himself as more of an industrial designer than artist. “We can’t arbitrarily change the forms of the alphabet – there’s a pact with the reader. All industrial designers work with constraints. We have to design type that’s readable. What keeps me coming back is this sense of tension between the conventions of the alphabet, for which I can do nothing about and the rather arrogant feeling of getting one more shot to find a bit of yourself in a rendition of the alphabet. The fascination has to outweigh the frustration.”

“The minute you make a letter, you know instantly why that letter has that shape and then you can play with that form” – Rod McDonald

In his role as an educator, McDonald notes that the process begins with “getting young people to understand the basic formation of letters. The minute you make a letter, you know instantly why that letter has that shape and then you can play with that form.” For McDonald, the frustration arises from the fact that he has a hard time getting current students to draw. “I stopped the drawing process, and I don’t know if that’s correct. I felt awkward about it because I grew up drawing letters. In the last 10 years, the majority of students I had in design classes didn’t know how to use a pencil.”

Rod McDonald addressing the audience

Rod McDonald addressing the audience at Sheridan’s Trafalgar Campus

In his work as a book designer, Nix defined his work as a graphic designer as a “constant conversation with Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet” – the idea that typography should be invisible, allowing a person to see the contents inside without getting in the way. “Typography should do its job and leave the stage,” he added. At the same time, he noted “I want to thwart that ideal” and live up to my mentor’s advice to pursue “lunacy over logic”.

Process over Product

While Carter admits that not many of the Master’s level design students he teaches at Yale will make a living in type design, he reflects that the art of studying the process “imparts knowledge, teaches critical discernment, the ability to choose between typefaces and what’s appropriate for different purposes.”

As Nix puts it, “I’ve come to realize I’m in love with the work not the product.” While he once used to obsess about the production flaws he’d recognized in the books he’d designed, he has instead learned to “not to get beaten down by the mishaps” and to take great pains to make sure the books he designs provide a pleasurable and useful reading experience.

Striving for Perfection

Haley suggested that “type is a very human thing – there needs to be an element of humanity to draw us in. If it’s too perfect, too cold, too sterile, it’s off putting. A typeface must be warm and inviting to resonate.”

“Type is a very human thing – there needs to be an element of humanity to draw us in. If it’s too perfect, too cold, too sterile, it’s off putting. A typeface must be warm and inviting to resonate” – Allan Haley

“The subtle touch of typography helps to communicate thought to a reader,” said Nix, of his work to design books for eReaders and take them out their “typographic wasteland”. By focusing on type choices, line counts and the “fitness of font for a particular job” he joked that if he were at the Westminster Dog Show, he’d be what’s known as a “bitch of quality”.

“Nothing excites me more than making a good text face,” agreed McDonald, who spent the first half of his professional career working as a lettering artist at agencies and studios. But he cautions that “perfect is a scale on a meter that keeps shifting.  When people ask ‘what’s your favourite typeface’, you always have to say ‘the next one’.”

The panel discussion was preceded by both an exhibit in the Sheridan Art Gallery and the world premier screening of a digitally restored and expanded film, both of which told the story of Carl Dair’s quest to create Canada’s first Latin typeface as well as Rod McDonald’s redesign of Cartier for digital technology.


Pictured at top of page (left to right): Charles Nix, Allan Haley, Rod McDonald, Matthew Carter

Written by: Christine Szustaczek, Director of Communications and External Relations at Sheridan.

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