A Color Fan Invades TypeCon 2012

Color fans, I write having returned from TypeCon 2012 in Milwaukee, presented by the Society of Typographic Aficionados; the five-day conference wrapped up last Sunday. Welcome to the arcane land of typographers: a mental topos animated by kerning, sustained by curlicued visions of ampersands, and firmly worshipful of the humble beauty of gray mousetype.

What could a color fan possibly learn from a convivium of type junkies? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Here are some surprising commonalities I observed.

Type- and color-fans agree: gray (and brown) are the most fabulously complex colors. 

Unshockingly, a type conference’s color palette is dominated by rich browns (industrial metals, raw syrup-like inks, woodcut letterforms) and black-and-white with grays. You’d think this might be off-putting to a color fan— but less so than you’d suppose. (And I’m not just talking about the chromatic typefaces, those letterforms designed to be completed by an element of colored shading.)

Draining the letterforms of brighter colors settles the mind, focuses one on forms, and prepares you for the animating power of change, when the right color is applied to a dull-metal form and pressed into paper, then emerges suffused with—in fact, actually made from—a glowingly specific color. It’s a basic transformation, but always a miraculous one.

I found it super agreeable to dwell in the dun-chiaroscuro world of typography—it made the colors stand out so much more boldly and decisively when they did arrive.

Letters, like colors, are surprisingly physical.

If you know anything about type, you know it celebrates physicality. Typographers revel in wood blocks, sticky inks, sore muscles from manual printing, the sting of hot metal as it wafts up the nostrils. (I missed the screening of Linotype the Film: In Search of the Eighth Wonder of the World, but I gather it’s a real humdinger.)

What’s less well-known is that color fans get similarly physical. We love how a color wavers with tricks of the light, how it’s responsive to neighboring shades, how substrates and paper types can impact color fidelity more than you’d ever suppose. Those inks that delectably stain your fingertips, type folks? We color fans would eat that if allowed. (A helpful tip for your next press-check.)

Of course, our shared love of physical design reveals other shared obsessions. We are texture-seeking missiles, always looking for a whorl or stubble of Actual Objects to bring to our work.

Both of us prize thingliness and surprisingly sturdy ephemera, like this silent-auction prize, white plastic letterforms that you could pin—with entrancingly high levels of satisfaction—into a green foam backing:

These stamps of decorative print elements (typographers, what’s the correct term for these babies?) got a real workout during conference breaks:

Ampersands are to typographers what highlighter-yellow shoes are to me.

Never have I seen such a glorious efflorescence of ampersands: as earrings, as tattoos, stamped on every type of fabric and scrolled around conference-goers’ bodies like lucky talismans.

Like my uncontrolled penchant for acid yellow, ampersands are what Font Bureau’s John Downer called a “standout character”. Like a lowercase g or uppercase Q, some glyphs are inevitably peacocks: the characters that demand flourish. These either define the typeface convincingly or torpedo it by overshooting somehow. (Among the conference’s marvelous quotables, I loved Downer’s critique of a young typographer’s lowercase g for its overly jaunty upper handle: “It’s like a topknot on a quail—too much plumage. Simple bowler hats will do for a text typeface like this.”)

A silent auction prize. Designed for StateTheatreCompany of South Australia

A silent auction prize. Designed for StateTheatreCompany of South Australia

They ain’t ever inventing new letters (or new colors). 

Typographers and color fans are Houdinis: we love an extreme constraint in our work. Just as the letterforms in English are largely fixed, so the rainbow of colors can expand accordion-like with new shades, but ultimately ROY G. BIV is the extent of what we’ve got to work with.

Even so, TypeCon was chock-a-block with fascinating explorations of unusual languages’ alphabets and how designing type for those poses different challenges. I caught Steve Ross’s awesome presentation on Mayan script (two million speakers strong today, to my surprise). I could only hanker after the sessions I missed on Cherokee and Mongolian.

Sequoyah with the Cherokee syllabary, c. 1830. Image via cliff1066 on Flickr

Sequoyah with the Cherokee syllabary, c. 1830. Image via cliff1066 on Flickr

Genius for both disciplines lies in smart combinations.

I was entranced by the main program sessions I attended: a gloriously prolific pangrams writer (nonsense phrases that employ all the letters in the alphabet), an exploration of the cognition perception of typefaces, a trip around the world spotting customized versions of the highly idiosyncratic face STOP by Aldo Novarese.

STOP by Aldo Novarese, $35 at MyFonts: http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/linotype/stop/

STOP by Aldo Novarese, $35 at MyFonts: http://www.myfonts.com/fonts/linotype/stop/

But perhaps the most eye-opening part was TypeCrit, a session I attended as an afterthought (before hitting the extraordinary Milwaukee Art Museum). John Downer, Akira Kobayashi, and Roger Black reviewed young typographers’ sample faces and provided live, public critiques.

Listening to them, it hit me: anybody can make a decent-looking alphabet of letters. But typographic chops shine through when you can make any random string of letters look lovely in combination. And you can’t limit yourself to the letter-combinations that prevail in English; you want your typeface to succeed with any language that gets thrown at it.

Similarly, any casual color fan can admire a clear sky-blue we haven’t seen for a while, or a rich plummy puce that’s currently making a comeback. But true genius emerges in wielding those colors judiciously, marrying them up with brand constraints, printing methods, and audience color-associations to make the whole business work.

Thanks to my TypeCon buddies, new and old, for opening my eyes to the world of beautiful letters. You’ll be seeing me and my yellow shoes at a future event, for sure!

For more Jude Stewart, check out her webcast on Nailing the Perfect Color Palette for Your Project at MyDesignShop.com.

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About Jude Stewart

Jude Stewart is a PRINT contributing editor. She has written on design and culture for Slate, Fast Company, The Believer, I.D., Metropolis, and Design Observer, among many others. She has authored two books, both published by Bloomsbury: ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (2013) and Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage and Other Graphic Patterns (2015). Follow her tweets on color at twitter.com/joodstew.

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