Type Drives Culture: Nina Stössinger’s Report
“Type Drives Culture”, the TDC’s second annual conference, took place on Friday, March 23, at the SVA Theatre in New York City. It offered a rich and varied program; we heard about type in music and in fashion, type for branding, type for underground communication and social change — or as Doug Clouse, president of the board of directors of the TDC, put it succinctly in his opening remarks: “Today’s talks are linked by their interest in the ways that type has helped shape our world, from yogurt packaging to gay porn (though not both at once).”
A few welcoming words were spoken by Clouse and the TDC’s Executive Director, Carol Wahler. Clouse stressed how the TDC strives to be “a nexus for discussions about type,” and much in the same vein, a new editorial initiative of the TDC was announced: Typegeist — an online publication scheduled to launch in the summer.
Introduced by the day’s moderator, TDC board member Elizabeth Carey Smith, the conference program kicked off with none other than graphic design legend Milton Glaser, who gave insights into his way of masterfully integrating the visual languages of typography and lettering with illustration; “I consider drawing and illustration the same way I consider typography,” he said; “they can be executed from many different points of view and still retain their functionality.” The visual expression would have to serve the underlying concept, and indeed “I think it’s not so much that type drives culture,” he remarked on the conference theme; “ideas drive culture. Words drive culture.”
How can the identity of a company or brand be emphasized, indeed embodied by a custom typeface? We heard brief presentations by three clients of custom type: Tyler Smart of Sephora described the suite of typefaces designed for them by Mucca Design and lauded how they have helped unify the brand image.
Leland Maschmeyer of Chobani launched into grand brand narratives (“bigger than yogurt”) and laid out how the company embraced a representation of simplicity understood as innocence and warmth, qualities aptly expressed in their new type by Berton Hasebe and Commercial Type.
For IBM, Mike Abbink — a type designer himself, and the lead designer of the company’s new typeface system, Plex — bridged the background of the company’s visual legacy with a more detailed look at the result, a typographic system designed by Abbink in collaboration with Bold Monday. The system covers three distinct type families in a plethora of scripts, and has even influenced a suite of UI icons.
Elizabeth Carey Smith poses question to the “This is My Type” panel — Matteo Bologna of Mucca Design, Leland Maschmeyer of Chobani, Tyler Smart of Sephora, Mike Abbink of IBM, and Christian Schwartz of Commercial Type.
A panel discussion dove deeper into questions of process and communication. These three speakers were joined by two of the type designers behind their projects: Christian Schwartz of Commercial Type and Matteo Bologna of Mucca — making for an all-white, all-male panel, which prompted panel moderator Elizabeth Carey Smith to ask: “What are you doing to foster diversity and inclusion, with the power you have?”
Questions of visibility, representation, and having a voice were at the center of the following two talks. Steven Heller recounted the beginnings of his career and his creative education in the alternative press of the 1960s. “Working on an underground paper felt like learning a new language, a language some of my friends called ‘graphic design’.” He showed a wide range of such early zines, captivating in their raw, fresh appeal, and discussed how they gradually evolved to a more complex, accomplished design language despite their limited resources.
In a similar vein, albeit from a more analytical perspective, Dan Rhatigan spoke about gay erotic magazines and how the increased social acceptance of the gay scene paralleled the increased accessibility of means of production for printed magazines — offerings like Letraset and cheap phototypesetting. “When you have the means of production, you have a way to get your message out”, Rhatigan said, pointing out that this more “democratic” access to production was more than an question of economics, but indeed an existential one for publishing content deemed socially challenging.
After a lunch break, the afternoon program resumed where the morning had left off: with Slash, a punk zine from LA (1977–1980) and the subject of Los Angeles–based designer Brian Roettinger’s book. Roettinger’s presentation swiftly moved on to other aspects of design’s relationship to music, showing a wide range of his own fascinating work — including tales of designing album art, rock-star style, while on a tour bus, and drawing on somebody’s face in sadly-too-permanent Sharpie. He also featured his highly visible work for Jay-Z’s albums “Magna Carta / Holy Grail” and “4:44”.
From music to fashion: Elizabeth Carey Smith illuminated the wide topic of “Type in Couture”. An overview of early fashion magazine covers demonstrated an impressively wide spectrum of typographic expression; but Carey Smith went on to show that in the presentation of the fashion brands themselves, choices get repeated, an aesthetic cemented. “Fashion begets fashion”, as she aptly describes, “style begets style.” We heard about the separate typographic treatments of “uptown” (high contrast) and “downtown” fashion (geometric sans), before the talk segued to fashion itself and the again very varied ways in which clothing works with letterforms.
Emily Oberman spoke forcefully and convincingly about socially conscious and advocacy work, commenting that “at this point in time, just being a woman is a political statement.” Like Carey Smith, Oberman questioned the descriptor “feminine” in design, arguing (and proving) that a blocky sans serif treatment can be absolutely more effective than a seemingly more intuitive purple script for an initiative led by, and centering on, women. After showing multiple impressive designs, she concluded, “I haven’t really talked much about the typography; but it’s there, doing its job.” Reminding us, like Milton Glaser at the beginning of the day, that the more important question is the concept, the ideas, the reasons why we do the work we do.
Debbie Milllman interviews Matthew Carter for Design Matters.
The conference program ended with a special treat: A live taping of Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast with type design legend Matthew Carter. Engaging and well-researched, Millman got right into the interesting questions. Carter told with his signature humility, depth and wit of his humble beginnings (“I could never make a broad edged pen make the shapes I wanted”). He spoke about his work for Enschedé cutting punches, explained what a smoke proof is, and how he got to work with Adrian Frutiger as a young designer (“I arrived there with no credentials at all, but they treated me like I knew what I was doing”). Carter told how, between his work for Mergenthaler Linotype, Bitstream, and Microsoft’s Verdana and Georgia screen faces, he appreciates technical challenges and finding solutions to actual problems. “To me, designing and making are really the same thing”, he summed up; “I can’t separate them.”
Carter and Millman’s conversation was a beautiful ending to a rich celebration of type, design, making, and the power type has to express ideas, make statements, empower voices.
As the crowd gathered for a reception in the foyer, bidding on the Silent Auction also came to an exciting finale. A beautiful selection of posters, prints, books, and original art found excited new owners — and generated new funds for the TDC’s scholarship fund.
Warm thanks to all who joined us on this intense and successful day and to our sponsors!
And we invite everyone to keep the conversation going at #typedrivesculture
See all the photographs of the day here on Flickr.
Photos: Black-and-white event photos by Nina Stössinger; additional photographs by Susan Bednarczyk. Branding and poster design for Type Drives Culture (top of page) by Ana Gómez Bernaus.