Editor: Bill McCool
Creative Direction: Jessica Deseo
2023 has barely come into vision, but a new objective in typography is clear—type empathy.
That is, the ability to widen the lens—historically, culturally, orientationally—on how we teach typography and create it. Can we further our awareness and create more meaningful dialogue with one another through more diverse typography choices?
Our world faces catastrophic issues that need attention. As global warming viciously plays out, it’s not enough to visualize its disasters in tidy, bold headlines, as the Nordic region’s largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, discovered. Working with Eino Korkala and Daniel Coull, the team created Climate Crisis Font based on Arctic Sea ice data. The heaviest font-weight represents the Arctic sea ice in 1979, while the lightest—mere amoebic slivers—represents the IPCC’s 2050 forecast when that same ice will shrink to 30% of its 1979 mass. The typeface provides a window into our bleak future—unless we act.
In 2023, typography promises to kindle dialogue and action from us. Graphic design history has been written primarily by straight, white men of European descent for so long. “This idea of empathetic type is very real,” says artist, designer, and educator Jon Key. “As people who are more diverse and have different backgrounds start to get more power in various institutions, there will be narrative change, of course.”
Key was one of one Black graphic design students at RISD, where at the end of his Senior year, he started writing and asking himself some big questions. What does it mean to be a Black graphic designer? What does it mean to be a Queer graphic designer? What does it mean to be a designer from Alabama? “It gave me my own personal agency over the work I’m doing, why I make this work, who the work is for, and what stories I’m trying to tell,” Key says.
Words matter. And how words are presented—and represented—counts even more today in design. When the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers protested low wages and unsafe job conditions, they carried the now iconic “I AM A MAN” posters set in a bold condensed typeface in all caps. The phrase came from Ralph Ellison’s prologue to Invisible Man (1952), in which the author states, “I am an invisible Man.” By omitting “invisible,” their new statement asserts their existence in a world determined to ignore their basic human rights.
Classical type is making way for a more nuanced type that not only carries what we are saying but how it’s said and who is saying it. It’s not only condensed, all-cap, bold type (which we adore) shouting into the air — type is creating a new dialogue.
Hand-Wrought Type: Penmanship, Notebooks, & Cut-Out Paper
Concerning who is saying it, we primarily craft typography through machines. Of course, there’s still an actual human soul breathing behind the clicks and drags (and, thankfully, AI isn’t all that great when it comes to spelling, at least not yet).
But how do we fully connect in the digital space which keeps us at arm’s length? Keyboard strokes have replaced pen strokes, and as the debate for cursive in grade school curriculums rages on, it’s no wonder designers are returning to hand-wrought letters and numbers, even if they produce them digitally.
Educator, designer, and author Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton is interested in creating typography that is born from hand-lettered writing or cut out from paper, which lets the material dictate the form. Being an educator,” Arceneaux-Sutton says, “I’m always surprised when students want their final [Capstone] artifact to be a zine, magazine, or book…something tactile.” Whether it’s Risograph printing or selecting card and paper stock, they are turning to tangible methods. It’s something younger designers are removed from, but they have a desire to make it with their hands, a reverse reaction to always being on the screen.
The tradition of hand lettering reaches far, from chiseled Roman letters and calligraphy to Spencerian script and graffiti. Designers are now finding new ways to be analog and loyal to their own handwriting or personal aesthetic. You can thank stylus tools like Apple Pencil, the process of scanning, and even digital download packages, which provide a specific effect or filter that mimics physical materialities in the real world (more on that later).
Like the many forms of blackletter which emerged in the Middle Ages in print, when Johannes Gutenberg and his peers purposefully mimicked the appearance of manuscripts, type inspired by hand flourishes is surging. For the 42-line Bible, Gutenberg’s workshop developed Textura, carved from the handwritten style of liturgical books at the time.
Built for penmanship efficiency in business, Cursive (or Spencerian script) is our contemporary blackletter, with a similar twisting history that spans a lengthy timeline, making for fragmented styles and variations based on region and usage. Brands are turning to cursive penmanship because it’s suave—but it’s also human. It’s why Coca-Cola still mostly looks the way it did in 1866.
Nike, known for innovative advertising as much as shoe design, recently celebrated 40 years of Air Force 1 in their vibrant Join Forces campaign. Pairing an elegant condensed cursive font with a condensed, collegiate-inspired sans serif, the campaign combines sophistication with street style in a series of short films featuring dance troupes Memphis Jookin, The Council, So Dope Dance Academy, Lit Hip Hop, and Rhiehatatokyo.
The type choices make plenty of sense because today’s AF1s continue the legacy of Bruce Kilgore’s original 1982 design, codified into culture by DJ E-Z Rock on the cover of the album It Takes Two.
The gravitas of streetwear fashion today is built on E-Z Rock’s AF1s, which were altered by the iconic Harlem designer Dapper Dan. Then, AF1s reflected the shoe of inner-city youth, especially in Harlem; now, AF1s stand for absolute individuality on a global scale. Dapper Dan’s refashioning of E-Z Rock’s AF-1s ushered in future collaborations, notably with Louis Vuitton under creative director Virgil Abloh.
W Magazine also opted for a beguiling cursive script font for their 2023 Best Performances Portfolio, profiling actors Jonathan Majors, Michelle Yeoh, Danielle Deadwyler, and others. Pairing the artistry of photographer Jamie Hawkesworth with styling by Sara Moonves, the modern script selected for the covers is influenced by dignified historical letterform variations as seen in Matthew Carter’s 1966 Snell Roundhand, named after 17th-century calligrapher Charles Snell’s 1695 book A Tutor To Penmanship.
Modern typefaces are leaning into calligraphy-based letterforms as well. Boogy Brut, designed by Julien Priez, features contemporary letterforms sharply modeled to reveal the structural qualities of the written version but without any imperfections caused by an analog process. The result is a typeface that can shapeshift from polished and intentional to completely wild and artful.
It’s not all precise penmanship and laborious “phantom threads,” though, a sensation Victorian seamstresses felt after emerging from repetitive, long hours in the workshop. Hand-inspired types are becoming increasingly experimental, taking the shape of notebook scribbles and cut-outs.
Based in Chicago, Jonathan Sangster is a Black, non-binary designer and educator working heavily in the hand-done aesthetic. Their “Contradictions” pieces were included in RISD’s First Black Biennial and grapple with the unnerving contradiction of appropriating Black culture but not standing up for Black culture.
“These pieces are about this contradiction that’s saying you appreciate me as a Black person but not really because you’re not okay with the entirety of my Blackness,” Sangster explains. “You’re okay with the compartmentalized version. It’s the same operating on a societal level. People will appreciate, which generally means appropriate, when it comes to how white people treat Black culture. You’re benefiting without actually supporting Black people, protecting Black people, standing up for Black people in any way, shape, or form in your life.”
Sangster scanned writings from their notebook for the image’s background and distorted them digitally. “It’s a type of layering and texture that feels like frustration, like something grating at my skin, like an itch,” they add. For the statements in the foreground, they utilized Vocal Type’s Bayard, a typeface inspired by the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom.
In Sangster’s art and design practice, they also research how Black artists use text. Looking at people like Glenn Ligon, Adam Pendleton, and Allana Clarke, Sangster can reference type specimens created by Black people. They often turn to folks like France’s Velvetyne Type Foundry, not only for the imaginative type designs, but because it’s run by Frank Adebiaye; exposure to Black creators is critical in Sangster’s work as a designer and educator.
“If there is a line between art and design in my life, it’s very, very thin. For me, it’s about visual communication,” they explain. “Type is the inanimate object or tool being used. So it’s bizarre that there is a strict definition between type that’s used for art and type that’s used for design. I’m benefiting by researching how type functions in the world. That’s what’s important.”
So while designers may not be picking up quills, there is a rebirth of penmanship, calligraphy, script, and cursive in type across creative content because those disciplines have a knack for highlighting the personal.
More modern fonts inspired by old-school hand tricks:
Gnasher by Yeahright Type Studio is a blocky font reminiscent of the block letters that covered your notebook in high school. The lowercase and uppercase have variations between each letter that offers a “hand-rendered” quality.
Signifier is a Brutalist response to 17th-century typefaces designed by Kris Sowersby. Signifier’s digital immateriality draws on a deeply material past. Acknowledging the processes and tools of digital form-making, Sowersby worked consciously with the computer to recast the lead, antimony, and tin of the 17th-century Fell Types into ones and zeros. Signifier emerged from this alchemy with Bézier curves and sharp vectors determined by machine logic and a Brutalist ethos.
Retro Motifs: Give Me Nostalgia or Give me Death
Retro typefaces will continue to emerge, but in 2023, historical mash-ups will merge old with new in ways we’ve never fathomed to invoke more interpersonal, accessible connections.
Tan Type Co. is a foundry whipping up exquisite display typefaces that are wholly contemporary yet highly receptive to inspiration from vintage fonts. Spring has crisp forms but considerable groove in the heavily stylized crossbars, giving it a 60s waviness seen in psychedelic rock posters of yore.
Tre Seals of Vocal Type recently designed Janie Hendrix and John McDermott’s monograph JIMI. Released on November 27th, 2022 (which would have been Jimi Hendrix’s 80th birthday) by Chronicle Chroma, Seals designed five custom typefaces for the book inspired by the electrifying career of the beloved musician. For the cover, JIMI gets set in a custom type inspired by the gig posters of the big five (Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin, and Victor Moscoso), but also the flare of bell-shaped sleeves and pant legs flapping to the music.
Seals also did the complete design for Chronicle’s monograph on director Spike Lee (naturally titled SPIKE), including the typefaces.
“I had to get Spike’s approval on the final design and the font history page because it uses his name,” says Seals. His uncle in Louisiana introduced him to the director’s films during summer visits growing up: Love and Basketball, Malcolm X, and He Got Game. After communicating digitally (and through Spike’s purple heart emojis of approval), Seals finally met the man behind the name, which led to future collaborations on upcoming projects. He also created an accompanying SPIKE typeface inspired by the work for the book.
Because the 90s are officially back, there will also be a resurgence of that era’s type—from Nike’s Never Done Playing campaign which employed a chubby bubble type that was puffy and shiny, to a resurrection of David Carson’s self-taught, experimental layouts that broke the grid. Zac Shiffer is a designer based in Philly reviving the Carson mixed-media cannon, which he grew up with in the 90s, through personal projects where unexpected genres of type collide with layers of textural disturbance. He repurposes printed ephemera from history, combining these references with historical and modern type mash-ups—creating wholly contemporary compositions.
“Being formally trained in the Swiss style, I gravitate toward sans serif typefaces like Neue Helvetica, Akzidenz Grotesk, Neue Haas Grotesk, and Univers,” Shiffer says. “However, I have always loved unique, modern serif typefaces like 1089 Display by Hardal Studio. In addition to that, who doesn’t love a great blackletter with whimsical flourishes, dramatic weight changes, and sharp, tribal-like edges?”
Hand-wrought elements are also integral to his work. “As design has become increasingly digital, there has been a massive response by designers to bring back analog, tangible elements into their work. Print is not dead,” Shiffer says. For the ABYSSVS piece, he used the burn pack and reactor assets by blkmarket to create an active fire.
“My work uses real analog textures and combines them into a digital—and sometimes— mixed media process,” he explains. “Sometimes this means printing out a physical copy of the work, modifying it through analog means, by using scrapes, tape, burns, folds, cracks, and then scanning it back into the digital space, in which the composite is worked further. From these textures, I also create displacement maps, which get used to add subtle, imperfect qualities, such as ink bleed, misalignment, repetition, and distressing, which happens naturally over time.”
That also means that the “shitty graphics” of Y2K are back. Just ask the luddite teens featured in The New York Times, opting for flip phones over their smarter counterparts. Ryan Haskins and James Marshall are two designers working in this aesthetic. Earlier this month, the Times reported that young people are reaching for point-and-shoots digital cameras and blurry photos over their camera phones to achieve the same principles—anti-aesthetic, raw, unfiltered, and maybe even a little ugly.
Tre Seals points out a rise in monotype fonts like Logic by Jeremy Mickle. “They’re easier to make, and it has this level of nostalgia that we are getting back into, whether it be typewriter or the coding aesthetic,” Seals explains. He also calls out how ASCII-type imagery popped up in recent years by way of fashion brands like Off-White, JW Anderson, and Dior.
So, whether it’s a fun, sturdy font like Deli Fresh Type’s Big Chub, an old-school, super-heavy font inspired by retro Italian advertisements, or Tan Type’s exuberant Daisy that’s full of funk, typefaces with a note of retrospect evoke nostalgia in us and capitalize on shared visual cues from type’s pop past.
Cultural origins infused in typefaces as a means of connecting to one’s heritage is growing. Look at the work Synoptic Office created for The Chinese Type Archive. Because many historic Chinese typefaces were not named, the archive includes conventional names and a stable ID number to help designers locate and easily use them.
Jimena Gamio is a Peruvian designer and educator who recently completed a fellowship after recognizing the gaping hole in Peruvian design typefaces and publications. She’s also a contracted senior designer for Public Library, doing recent work for the pop duo Sylvan Esso.
The fellowship led her to research the Quechua language of Peru, a dialect never recorded in writing. Today, it’s an endangered language due to rising discrimination in the 90s when Peruvians wanted to send their children to school in the cities without them bringing Quechua with them as it’s spoken by Peruvians in the mountains. Despite this, she notes, “lingerings of the actual language stayed in the form of slang. Peruvian slang coopts many Quechua words—wawa means baby in Quechua but is also used in Peru as it mimics the sound a baby makes.”
Gamio is working on a publication called Root Words that will celebrate her research and forthcoming custom typeface softly called MAMÁ, based on the doors and arches found in the architecture in Lima. MAMÁ comes from the Peruvian saying “Pachamama,” meaning mother earth gives to you, and you should give back. Since there is a lack of representation in Peruvian publishing in America (which she observed over many years going to the LA Art Book Fair), she hopes her project nurtures this.
Tre Seals is still recuperating from what Vocal Type has become. “When George Floyd happened, Vocal Type went from 3,000 followers to 12,000, and I was getting emails from HBO, Facebook, and all these companies I could have only dreamt of working with because they all wanted to do something,” he mentions.
“I’m sad that it took George Floyd to make Vocal what it is today, but I’m honored to see how people have used my fonts to carry on his legacy,” he adds. Seals has built a foundry based on activism. Each typeface represents an activist and a specific event within that movement, which means the letterforms get crafted from specific artifacts or posters of that campaign or event that hundreds of people carried, so the audience has the broadest reference for connection.
Activism-related type projects and scholarship have risen since 2020, including the free, downloadable BLACK LIVES MATTER font and Juan Villanueva’s scholarship for BIPOC designers in his Principles of Typeface Design: Display Type course.
“Since then, we see more BIPOC designers exploring their culture through type, which I think is really beautiful,” Seals says. Seals curated the Characters: Type and Progress exhibition, reported on by Steven Heller. Centered around Black history and typography, it’s a nonlinear presentation of seven typefaces designed by Seals. Starting with Colin Kaepernick (created for an upcoming Spike Lee documentary, Da Saga Of Colin Kaepernick), an athlete and activist who has voiced how the draft process shares similar methods as slave auction blocks, the exhibit seamlessly moves to Harriet Tubman’s specimen. He’s in awe of how the project came together, and hopefully, the show can travel to more institutions when it closes this March.
With the help of Dr. Cheryl Miller, the graphic designer and artist who founded one of the first Black-and-women-led design agencies in New York City, Seals found the type foundry that created the runaway slave image (part of a whole book the foundry published). “Once upon a time, foundries sold stock illustrations,” Seals says. “Through Instagram and the Brooklyn Museum, I won a Black Design Visionaries Grant and purchased an 1850 type specimen book with the runaway slave images in them.”
Used for abolitionist publications with illustrations designed by enslaved artisans, rare books like these represent the foundation of Black American design. Miller also pointed Seals to a history of advertising book, where there is a reference to a runaway slave named “Anthony,” a man described as an expert pressman who may be selling forged freedom passes. That may be the first recorded mention of a Black American designer.
Overall, Seals sees himself as an ally and has ventured into activist-based font design representing cultures he is not a part of. Tatsuro was born during the Stop Asian Hate Movement. The type’s influence dates back to a sign reading ‘I AM AN AMERICAN’ hung by Tatsuro Matsuda at the Wanto Co. grocery store in Oakland as part of a response to the Pearl Harbor bombing. WWII prompted the U.S. Government to create internment camps under Executive Order 9066, affecting the lives of 120,000 Japanese Americans, many of whom were American citizens.
As a designer, type empathy means understanding that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ voices are underrepresented in design curriculums. Additionally, some typefaces have been used historically to oppress BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.
Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton addresses this issue of type empathy in her forthcoming book, co-authored with Pierre Bowins and Silas Munro. It’s a text that aims to rewrite the completely overlooked legacy of Black design. Black Design in America: African Americans and the African Diaspora in Graphic Design 19th–21st Century will be designed by Polymode and published as a paperback in the fall of 2023.
Born from the lack of representation of Black design in our historical canon, it avoids “a clothesline of heroes,” as she puts it, but uncovers a history that is both vibrant and comes from pain and oppression. It calls out the use of Bodoni and Baskerville, typefaces frequently used in runaway slave reward posters, while also shining a light on designers like the late Pedro Bell, whose Funkadelic album cover designs still inform our visual decisions.
Arceneaux-Sutton’s book seeks to give all of us the framework to speak about Black design, something severely lacking today. While in grad school at CalArts, one of her instructors tasked her with selecting ten images that represented them as designers. After a bit of what she described as “personal embarrassment” at the lack of Black representation in design books, she landed on Ron Eglash’s African Fractals, which featured a section on braids of the indigenous Yoruba and reminded her of the cornrow braids she knew growing up in New Orleans.
Morcos Key is the Brooklyn-based studio of designers Wael Morcos from Beirut, Lebanon, and Jon Key from Seale, Alabama. They met at RISD in a self-portraiture class, which is poetic because their design work is firmly rooted in who they are as individuals.
“One of the reasons we started the studio was our thirst to create work we can see ourselves in,“ Key says. “There is a lot of agency and power in being involved in the conversation and attracting clients that [we’re] interested in.”
In 2021, Jon Key and Julia Schäfer worked with The Black Wall Street Times Magazine to design a special issue, Tulsa 1921, commemorating 100 years since the Tulsa massacre. In the piece, contemporary and historical personal essays span 60 pages, along with stories about the founders, changemakers, activists, and policymakers of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. Archival photography and contemporary interviews tell the story of the birth, destruction, and rebirth of the community, a visual library of resilience and Black life.
What is interesting about the project, says Key, is that it broadens the story of Greenwood and its heritage. “There was a whole community before that moment, and there was a whole community thriving afterward,” Key explains. “There is a past, present, and future lens on this project.” Typeface selection included Elephant, Gloucester MT Extra Condensed, Rubis, and Bayard by Tre Seals of Vocal Type. “I love that [Tre Seals] brings to life typefaces used in protest signs and ephemera painted by Black people and Black hands and makes it a useful tool for today.” Heritage revival type brings the past forward in a new way.
Wael Morcos and Minneapolis-based Mizna (in partnership with the Asian American Writers Workshops) imagined I WANT SKY. The collection of poems honors the life of the late Egyptian socialist, writer, and lesbian activist Sarah Hegazy—and the lives of all LGBTQ+ Arabs and people of the SWANA region and its diaspora. Typeface selection included Lyon Text (Arabic/Latin) and custom lettering.
With illustrations by the gifted Haitham Haddad of Studio Mnjnk, Morcos customized typography that could flex from page to page, taking on new shapes and movement like concrete poetry. Choosing newsprint meant the poems would take up physical space, according to Morcos, which became an area for expression, healing, and love. That is the intent of all heritage revival type—to give agency.
More Heritage-inspired type:
Public Library’s (with partner agency Industry) Typography for Nike’s Somos Familia campaign pairs a customized angular “Somos” with the personal handwriting of their brand ambassadors. According to the website, they “built a custom typeface, illustrative grid, and imaging-making systems inspired by the notion of future Latin heritage.”
Apparat by Botio Nikoltchev is the result of historical research and design experience, supporting more than 80 languages, a Cyrillic extension, as well as the Greek alphabet—all through a humanized, geometric serif that has plenty of features and variables that are perfect for contemporary usage.
Shorai Sans from Monotype gives us a new vantage in Japanese typography. Blending traditional hand-drawn brushstrokes (subtleties and all) with clean, geometric outlines we crave, Shorai’s letterforms are simple yet intellectual with several weight ranges.
Lakota Letterforms from Bobby Joe Smith III is a typeface drawn from forms found in traditional Lakota quill and beadwork. The endeavor found inspiration from the linguists that have worked with fluent Lakota speakers in recent years to create a standard orthography (a method to read and write the language). These letterforms pull directly from the culture’s visual language.
Ajoure from Struvictory is a thin font that relishes folk art aesthetics and comes decorated with geometric patterns.
The Big Bang
We are just beginning to approach typography—the foundation of all our visual communication—with the same graciousness we exhibit when asking a person what their pronouns are or giving trigger warnings on broadcasts, social media, or a lecture.
Whether it’s elegant penmanship, Matisse-like cutouts, lo-fi printing techniques like Xerox and collage, or bringing the palpable into digital space, there is a movement to infuse real life into our digital world. For Jonathan Sangster, the presence of the hand comes down to connecting the viewer to something real. Adding texture, creases, and handwritten elements creates something human and tactile. “It helps bridge the digital and real world for the viewer,” says Sangster. “It helps enhance the experience. It’s really important for people to feel like they’re a part of something in a very tangible, sensorial way.”
On top of this, Black designers and educators are filling long-lost gaps in Black design history, and BIPOC students are calling out design curriculums that exclude them. Take Jerald Cooper, who lives in Cincinnati and runs the Instagram account Hood Century. Cooper has been bringing into focus mid-century modern architecture and interiors that have shaped Black communities for decades. While The New York Times recently caught on, his account has provided a Black POV on an entire chapter of our architectural heritage.
Studios like Morcos Key are reviving Arabic typography (Morcos) and giving type design a Black, queer lens (Key) to offer a voice to a perspective lacking in the design field. “In Lebanon,” Morcos says, “a lot of the design programs are adaptations of Western curriculums. They were never fully customized, supplemented, or reconsidered from a local perspective to add courses specific to the country.”
“There was not a lot of excitement around Arabic type. That’s slowly changing,” he adds. “The personal satisfaction I get from doing something you can see yourself in when you hold a book and see a beautiful cover with Arabic on it, and it’s done in a beautifully-crafted way that has a conceptual kick to it, and you can see your history in it is really rewarding.”
So if you do not see yourself represented in typography, it’s time to act. Pick up Vic Rodriguez Tang’s MFA thesis publication, Pink Circles Blue Squares: A Practical Guide to Help Fight Gender Bias In Graphic Design; seek out lectures and books by experts like Tasheka Acreneaux-Sutton and Dr. Cheryl D. Miller; read Sylvia Harris’ essay Searching for a Black Aesthetic in Graphic Design; find or be someone forging paths where there are no roads. The more we act, the more the aperture becomes clear on how type operates beyond a limiting white-hetero-western-male view.
“In thinking about this canon of Graphic Design history, the work we are making can reshape the canon just by being an Arab, Black, Queer studio in New York,” Key points out. More specific and distinct perspectives mean more representation in type design and—universe willing—graphic design curriculums.
We’ll need a James Webb Space Telescope lens as type continues to modernize and become more heterogeneous, and type empathy is the big bang to this new typographic universe.