Early in type designer Tré Seals’ career, he identified homogeneity as the kiss of death for creativity.
As a young Black artist fresh out of college working at a staffing agency in 2015, he experienced firsthand the extreme lack of diversity in the design world, and he felt compelled to do something about it.
Seals’ drive to diversify design was also fueled by an essay he came across by Dr. Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller from 1986, which he found in none other than an issue of PRINT. Entitled “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action,” the article served as the final push to propel Seals toward launching his own font foundry, Vocal Type.
Working from his studio in his hometown of Prince George’s County, MD, Seals designs fonts inspired by historic movements, events, activists, and protest signs within Vocal Type. He’s also been commissioned by the likes of Spike Lee, recently designing his book SPIKE.
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with the incredibly grounded and warm Seals recently, where he talked about his personal history, his mission of diversifying the design world, and what he’s reaching for next.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
I read that you converted a stable on your parents’ farm into your Vocal Type studio. That strikes me as a unique work setup! Can you share the story behind that?
The farm was built by my great-great-great-grandparents back in 1911. It’s the same stable built by my great-great-great-grandfather. He was the carpenter, my dad added a garage to it in the 70s, and then I converted it into my studio.
I had always dreamed of running my own company. I always wanted my own studio, but I never really saw it in a big city. I didn’t know where I saw it, but I didn’t see it in a big city. Then my family lost our last horse in 2016. Once they were gone, I came up with the idea to convert it.
Knowing that so much history is behind your design work at Vocal Type, it’s fitting that the studio you’re working out of has all of this history behind it as well. Do you find that inspiring?
Oh, definitely. It just all ties together really well. Compared to finding an office somewhere that I have no connection to or doesn’t have any history.
Yeah, I bet working out of a WeWork wouldn’t hit the same.
Did you grow up on this same farm?
I did! My dad was born and raised on it, I was born and raised on it, and I’m still here. My house actually used to be the chicken coop!
I grew up watching my parents run their own business on the farm my entire life. They own and operate a soil manufacturing company—a.k.a., they make dirt. They have a compound—I hate the word “compound” because it sounds like a cult. They have their house, and then next door is the chicken coop. There was also a garage my dad turned into his office, and my parents run the business together now. Now next to their office is my office, the stable.
It’s clear from what Vocal Type is about and your other work that Black culture and your heritage are important to you. Were you raised in an environment where that was always celebrated?
I’ve always felt a strong connection to my heritage. We have an ancestry room with all of these old portraits of family members that I either grew up with, who had passed not long before I was born, or who I had never even met from the 1800s. So I’ve always been surrounded by all of this history.
You didn’t want to follow in your parents’ footsteps in the soil industry, so what brought you to design? Were you artistically inclined from a young age?
All my life, pretty much! My parents put me in a Montessori school where they only teach you to write in cursive, so I’ve always loved cursive. I just fell in love with it. I’m a two-time brain tumor survivor, and drawing and cursive were my means of working through the pain or expressing what I felt when the tumors were gone.
By the time I was in second grade, I was trying to copy Monets, drawing Venus de Milo and David, and Greek columns in the third and fourth grades. Then in the fifth grade, I realized I could make money doing art. So I started my first business then, graffitiing people’s names on index cards for $3.00. That inspired these other creative pursuits that I would then try to sell. In middle school through college, I designed everything, from bead jewelry and tattoos to t-shirts. I designed the comic book section of the school newspaper and yearbook posters. Anything I could think of, I would try to sell, and that just carried over to the rest of my life.
You shared that one of the main catalysts for your mission to diversify the design industry came in the form of an issue of PRINT Magazine featuring the essay, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action” by Dr. Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller. What was it about that essay that spoke to you?
The story behind that starts a little bit further back. I graduated from Stevenson University in 2015, and I took a full-time position at a staffing agency in Washington DC. Over two years, I worked for eight or nine different companies through them. So I got to experience a lot of different work environments—studios, agencies, in-house, everything. Every place I worked, there were never more than two or three people of color in an office of 30 or 40 or even 60. The only time I saw people who looked like me was behind the lunch counter where I’d go to eat.
I felt awkward in office environments like that, where the office wasn’t diverse. I wasn’t able to put that into words until I read Cheryl’s article.
She dove into why the industry isn’t diverse and how it became this way, along with the implications that this lack of diversity has on our industry going forward. All of that just really inspired me. That was the first article of hers that I read. Then two or three weeks later, I got the issue of PRINT Magazine with her updated article from 2016, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action?” It seemed like her way of passing the torch to the next generation of Black designers, to find a way for us to raise our voices. That’s when I wanted to come up with a way that I could somehow diversify design.
I looked back on my life and thought about my days designing my first fonts and tattoos, graffiting names on index cards, and practicing my penmanship; starting a font foundry just made sense.
When I looked back on my racial experiences and this legacy that my family has left behind, I realized that type could be more than just a design tool, but a tool for educating and sharing stories. I could diversify design by telling these stories of underrepresented cultures through type. So Cheryl started all of that for me. I reached out to her before I formed Vocal Type to get her thoughts on the idea, and we’ve had a mentorship relationship ever since. As it turns out, she went to school with all of my aunts and uncles on my dad’s side!
How did you come up with the specific idea behind Vocal Type?
When I started Vocal Type, the first font I knew I wanted to make was Martin. I knew it immediately. As I was researching Martin, I didn’t even have the name for Vocal Type yet. But I came across this quote (which I later found out MLK didn’t even say): “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” That’s what inspired the name Vocal Type.
It was a huge lightbulb moment for me. I joke with my friends sometimes, though, because I do a lot of public speaking—I’ve given over 30 talks since April of 2020—and I joke that I named Vocal Type after the activist the first font was named after, but I am not the vocal type myself. This name doesn’t mean you have to keep asking me to speak!
Ever since Martin, I decided that I might as well continue this idea of making fonts inspired by different protest signs and protests in general; then I could not only tackle the diversity issue but all sorts of issues.
It must be so rewarding and affirming for you to see the fonts you’ve designed used within the Black Lives Matter movement (like Martin being used to write out “Abolish White Supremacy” and “All Black Lives Matter” on the streets of Newark, NJ) and other places. It’s very full circle considering your fonts found inspiration in those historical moments.
It definitely was. To make fonts inspired by the civil rights movement and have it become part of the Black Lives Matter Movement—it’s been so surreal.
Of the fonts you’ve designed through Vocal Type, are there any you’re particularly proud of?
VTC Dubois is my favorite so far. It’s the largest font family I’ve ever made, and I’ve never made something like it that not only works for display but works for text. There were a ton of learning moments during the design of that family. For example, I ended up having to start from scratch when I was halfway through because I realized I had made a huge mistake; I’d completely messed up the weights. I had started with the bold weights, and when going from the bold weight to the lighter weights I realized that my measurements were completely wrong, and they no longer represented the source material. So I had to start all over again. But I’m glad that I learned from it. Working on that font family just taught me a lot.
What’s the typical process like for how you come up with your next font? Do you hit the history books and see if there’s a moment in history that jumps out at you?
There’s a process, but it varies depending on my starting point. I might identify an activist and find an event and a movement associated with that particular person. Then I try to find a piece of type that connects all three of those things. Or I might have a movement and try to identify an activist and an event associated with it. Or, I’ll identify the event first. So the starting point can always change, but the process is always the same.
I also try to find type that multiple people have a connection to. I’ll never make a font based on one protest sign that only one person carried. It might be one sign that 100 people carried or a banner that ten people carried, but it will never be about one person. Because I want to reinforce this idea of unity.
Have you seen a shift in the diversity in the design world over the past couple of years?
I think there’s been a huge shift, especially in the younger generations with upcoming designers. When I was coming up, I remember everyone for their personal portfolio projects was doing corporate rebrand concepts, like reimagining Coca-Cola’s identity. Now for personal projects, more people are doing cultural exploration. Whether it be downloadable protest sign sites or coming up with identities for protests like The March For Our Lives or the Women’s March. People are just more conscious in general of their design decisions overall.
Do you have any long-term goals for Vocal Type or yourself that you’re working toward?
A lot is swirling in my mind right now. A big short-term goal that I have is designing fonts inspired by protests or movements from other countries. I find, living in America, that it’s difficult to find a lot of information about movements in other countries. I would love to create a font made from Gandhi’s Salt March, but I can’t find a lot of imagery related to that.
But I have been doing a little bit in that regard. I’ve been working on a font inspired by this banner from the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. I’m also working on a font family inspired by the Japanese Internment Camps in the 30s and 40s.
I have a bunch of ideas for different directions to take Vocal Type. Like what if Vocal Type became a design studio? Recently designing the book SPIKE and five custom fonts for Spike Lee got me thinking about that. I’ve also thought about what if Vocal Type sold stock images? Font foundries used to sell stock illustrations, not just fonts. I’m not sure how that would work, but I think it would be interesting.