John Downer at The Propagandist

John Downer

Twenty years ago, John Downer and I were introduced by a mutual friend. He’d introduced us as “type designers,” a flattering description of my professional achievements to date (I was a recent refugee from graphic design), and a somewhat elliptic summary of John’s credentials. Whether or not he was intentionally vague, I’ll never know, but it set me up for a very entertaining afternoon.

John visited my studio, where I was working on a set of roman capitals that would ultimately become the Requiem typeface. He had some suggestions about the design, which like most critiques were especially hard to articulate; typography suffers from a poverty of terminology. Eyeing two bottles of Rich Art poster paint in my taboret, John reached for these along with a sheet of typing paper, and the cheap plastic paintbrush that I kept for dusting my keyboard. In a few effortless strokes of black, he perfectly reproduced Requiem’s capital S, waited a moment for the paint to dry, and then reloaded the brush with white to render his corrections. The whole shebang couldn’t have taken fifteen seconds, most of it spent waiting for paint to dry. I just stared: it was like watching someone fold a paper napkin into a remote control helicopter, and then pilot it around the room. The detail our mutual friend had neglected to mention, of course, is that John came to type design through his other profession: he is a master sign painter.

Type design has always been a wonderfully polygenetic field, and a random sampling of practitioners is likely to include calligraphers, graphic designers, stonemasons, letterpress printers, engravers, graffiti artists, and programmers. This mixture produces a marvelous synthesis of perspectives in terms of both technique and culture, and serves to make type design a vigorous and exciting discipline. But few type designers I know bring this particular experience to bear on their work:

I began graduate studies in painting at The University of Iowa in 1973 after working at sign shops in Des Moines for about a year. The chairman of the painting department at the UI was Byron Burford, proprietor of The Great Byron Burford Circus of Artistic Wonders — a traveling art show and circus, in one. It included moving cutouts of exotic animals, motorized trapeze artists, contortionists, and acrobats...

This is from Freshjive’s The Propagandist, which today is presenting a nice slideshow of John’s work in connection with a line of lettered t-shirts. —JH

Fonts on Television

Thanks to a few well-traveled blogs, this clip has been getting some traffic lately: it’s a segment about typeface design that ran on CBS Sunday Morning last summer, featuring us. Correspondent Russ Mitchell spent some time at H&FJ, and speaking with Steve Heller, to introduce non-designers to the strange world of font design.

Now that the clip is easily freeze-framed, a few designers have written to ask about the fonts themselves. (The opening montage features our Shades and Didot families, and the fonts created for People magazine are part of Verlag Compressed.) But two frighteningly hardcore individuals have outdone themselves, writing to inquire about the font shown at left. In this candid scene, which is definitely not staged at all, the camera captures Tobias and I discussing a font proof. Gentle stalkers, you are correct! What appears here is part of our work for The Nature Conservancy, and you’ll find a more extensive look at it here. —JH

Oakleaf: Behind the Scenes

Kathy Willens, Associated Press

The typeface we designed for The Nature Conservancy is an extension of our Requiem font, which explores the work of sixteenth century scribe Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1480–1527). Arrighi is best remembered as an exemplar of the written italic, but his upright roman capitals capture an interesting balance of calligraphic and typographic traditions. The three variations of the capital T on the left offer different ways of reconciling the influences of the seriffed inscriptional letter and the swashed written one, and it was this kind of tension that we hoped to explore further. On the left screen is an enlargement from Arrighi’s 1523 writing manual Il Modo de Temperare le Penne, and on the right are two variations of the capital E in the font we designed. The cursive form on the left was one of the first digital drawings made by designer Andy Clymer, and we all thought it was immediately successful. In the final font, it’s almost perfectly preserved from this initial stage.

Continues…

Oakleaf: Glyphs Gone Wild

This weekend, 107 news outlets around the world picked up this AP story about the custom typeface we designed for one of our favorite organizations, The Nature Conservancy. “What it looked like,” writes journalist Erin McClam, “was not so much an alphabet but a masquerade ball for 26 capital letters that had arrived early, stayed late and gotten into the good liquor.”

The font, which we’ve been calling “Oakleaf,” is a cousin of our Requiem typeface. (These characters aren’t currently available for sale, but keep an eye on this page for updates.) The AP should be posting has just posted more illustrations of the font, but in the meantime here’s the money shot to which the article alludes: the word “Koninklijke,” H&FJ designer Andy Clymer’s homage to his alma mater, the Type & Media program at the Royal Academy of Art (Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten) in the Hague. —JH

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