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Cyrus Highsmith graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design
in 1997 and immediately joined the Font Bureau. Over the past 10 years,
he has designed more typefaces than you can shake a composing stick
at, including: Amira, Antenna, Benton Sans, Daley's Gothic,
Dispatch, Eggwhite, Escrow, EW Sans, Loupot, Novia, Occupant
Gothic, Prensa, Quicosco, Relay, and Stainless. Whew! Impressed by
Highsmith's promising talent, Roger Black says, “He is the
antidote to the revival school.” Highsmith also has a strong
command of typographic history, which he borrows from and revises
on a regular basis. Here, Highsmith talks about his own history,
type's legacy and why we need more letterforms, not less.
Heller: You've heard the canard that there are too many
types in the world already. Why make more?
Highsmith: It's true, there are a lot of
typefaces already. But I believe that by seriously focusing on
craftsmanship and the needs of your audience, you can make
innovative and imaginative work. The audience for typefaces is very
diverse and has strong opinions about what it wants. So if you
listen and look closely enough, you will find there is still a need
Heller: Roger Black says you are taking type design away
from what he calls the “revivalist” movement (of which he calls
himself a member). But since many of your typefaces are rooted in
old forms, would you consider yourself a “rebel?”
Highsmith: Yeah! I am a rebel without a Caslon.
I am sorry—that was terrible.
Heller: Uh huh, it was. But do continue...
Highsmith: I've drawn some typefaces based very
directly on older typefaces. What I really like to do, though, is
draw new typefaces. My goal is to be able to draw the things that
just I can draw.
The revivalist is interested in trying to get inside the head of
the person who drew those older forms and trying to understand what
they were thinking. They try to become that person, almost, and
draw typeface as if they were them. The result is a body of work
that doesn't usually have a single style running through it, or at
least a strong single style.
I have a different approach. I have my own ideas about form,
space and rhythm that I am exploring in different ways in all my
typefaces. When I look at existing typefaces, I look at them from
the perspective of these ideas. I look at what I can learn from
them. I don't get inside old typefaces like a revivalist does. I
use them as fuel, burning them so I can get somewhere new. My body
of work is more like a series, you can see more of my hand running
Heller: So, you are more original than the average
Highsmith: That's my theory, at least. Maybe a
quicker way to say it is: “A revivalist copies other people. I copy
myself.” I think I got that from Matthew Carter, actually. He is a
designer who is definitely more in the revivalist camp, and also
one of my heroes.
Heller: In addition to commercial considerations, what
factors determine the types you will design?
Highsmith: It'll sound funny, but I often like
to make up imaginary users or fictitious publications and then draw
typefaces for them. It's sort of like how some architects like to
invent characters and then design buildings for them. And who
knows, maybe someday some one will see one of my typefaces and
somehow recognize themselves as the user and create the content to
go with it.
I think the important thing, though, is that there always has to
be a user for a typeface. That is what drives the design. Of
course, I also like to just sketch whatever comes into my head, and
I love to just experiment with letters and draw and have fun. I
save these ideas in sketchbooks, and later I might find away to
apply them in a typeface for a specific use.
Heller: Let's talk novelty. Many of your faces, like
Benton Sans, are truly work-horse, though elegant; others, like
Eggwhite, have a more superfluous feel. Would you agree? And if so,
why design faces that may have such ephemeral applications?
Highsmith: Yes, I agree Eggwhite is a novelty
typeface. Novelty typefaces can be really fun to draw. That kind of
thing can be a nice balance to doing more serious and traditional
work. I remember drawing Eggwhite especially—it just sort of
squirted out. Of course, then it needed some kind of refining
before I could publish it. But why not publish it? Digital
typefaces don't take up so much space. And I like to see what
people will do with them. Even the novelty stuff has an audience in
Heller: Clearly, you're not a type design purist who
rejects novelties as sins against perfect form. But are there
directions in which you will not venture because they might
compromise your aesthetics? Indeed, are there faces out there today
that offend you?
Highsmith: The philosophy I learned from
Berlow is that a good type designer should be able to draw
everything. We are hired guns in that sense. So, no, I don't think
my aesthetics would prevent me from drawing anything although I may
not always be happy about every project. But sometimes a typeface
that is outside of what I would normally draw is one that I will
learn the most from. Novia is a good example—that's a revival of a
very traditional style of calligraphic lettering. It's not my taste
at all. But it was a challenge to draw, and it got me thinking
about white space in a different way.
There are typefaces out there that I like a lot and others that
I don't like. The only ones that really annoy me are the ones that
are in the “I'm smart so I don't have to draw well” sort of style.
Usually they are based on some kind of vernacular thing, but the
designer seems to be making fun of it, not celebrating it. This
attitude is a drag.
Heller: Naming faces is kind of like a cross between
naming a child and a rock band. How do you brand a type for all
Highsmith: Naming typefaces is always
difficult. And then when you finally find a name you like, chances
are that it is taken already or there will be some kind of
trademark conflict and you have to go through the process all over
again. My wife has named most of my typefaces, actually. We both
riff on a theme and come up with a list of possibilities. The ones
that stick are almost always the ones she came up with, though.
Zuzana Licko is good at making up words for the names for her
typefaces. I haven't ever been able to do that. I end up using
existing words or names. The Yellow Pages can be helpful. I've
tried baby name websites. I keep lists of words that I come across
and happen to like.
Heller: What else is in a name? And do you have any
Highsmith: My favorite glyph in Relay was the
letter “R,” so a consideration in choosing the name for that series
was if the name contained an “R.”
Heller: As logical as that, eh? What would you say is
the most important element of typeface design? Or, rather, what do
you do before setting a typeface in stone?
Highsmith: Digital tools for making typefaces
are cheap and fast so you can make a lot of mistakes and failures.
You don't have to set anything stone. However, I don't like to
waste time, so I do think things through and make a plan when I
draw a typeface.
I think the most important thing is not to try to put too many
different ideas in one typeface. A good typeface usually has just
one simple idea that drives the design. Otherwise you cannot
successfully carry the design consistently through all the
different characters. You end up with groups of letters that don't
look like they belong together. The most important element of a
typeface is that all the parts can fit together to make text.
Heller: Matthew Carter, your hero, started by drawing
his letters by hand. Could you design faces without a
Highsmith: I love the digital tools we have
now. I don't know if I could have been a type designer in an
earlier era, to be honest. I have the skills to do it now, but I
don't know if I could have learned them in the context of a slower
and more expensive process.
Heller: Do you care about ultimate application? I
remember Herb Lubalin opining about how Avant Garde was misused.
Obviously, there is little you can do to control such things, but
does it bother you?
Highsmith: I'm always very curious to see my
typefaces in action. I try to keep an open mind about what
designers do with them. I don't usually get annoyed. Sometimes I
get anxious when I see them set with some kind of slight distortion
though, maybe just a 90-95 percent horizontal squeeze. It can throw
off the spacing or the proportions, but I won't be able to tell
exactly what is wrong. To me, it will look terrible. And then I
start to worry that I actually drew it that way, and I have go back
and check my original drawings to be sure.
Heller: Does misuse reflect badly on you?
Highsmith: I think the fear type designers have
is that when our typefaces are misused, they make the typefaces
look bad and people won't want to use them. In general, I don't
worry too much when I see my typefaces looking bad. I think
designers remember the good examples of the typefaces they see for
longer than the bad examples. That's how it is for me at least. Of
course, I can see how in the case of something like Avant Garde,
the sheer number of bad examples might overwhelm the good ones. But
then you can always draw a new one.
Heller: I've always wondered if type designers see
themselves as good designers or good typographers. Do typeface
designers have to be good graphic designers, too?
Highsmith: I have wondered about this myself,
and where I fit in. For a long time, I wasn't sure. Then one day I
was hanging out with some type designers who used to work for
Linotype back in '60s or '70s. They referred to the place where
they worked as “the drawing office.” A drawing office sounded to me
like the coolest kind of office ever. If I had heard about a
drawing office when I was a kid, that's where I would have wanted
to work when I grew up. These guys from the drawing office referred
to themselves as “letter drawers.” I like this term very much also.
It has an elemental sound and appeal to me. So, I like to see
myself as a letter drawer.
I don't have much experience as a graphic designer, so I don't
consider myself a very good one. But I am very interested in
graphic design—and the rest of the two-dimensional world in
general—and spend a lot of time looking at it and thinking about
it. I like to work with graphic designers, listen to them and see
what they do. This is probably an important thing to do if you want
to be a type designer.
Heller: With design migrating to the web and other
media, how are you designing faces for the eventual paperless
world? Or is that just a Star Trek fantasy?
Highsmith: At this point, there are still a lot
of technical issues you have to dive into when it comes to type on
screens. Fortunately, I work with people who are much better at
figuring out this kind of thing than I am. David Berlow is
investigating these issues and doing some really interesting
work. My role will be to assist him by developing tools to help
with the production of new typefaces and of course drawing new
typefaces for these different mediums.
Heller: Just assisting, not instigating?
Highsmith: Part of me just starts to feel tired
and overwhelmed when I think about it. I just want to draw letters,
and the print environment lets you focus on that much more than the
screen environment because of all the technical issues that come
with the screen. But the other part of me is excited to see what
happens and is eager to make new things. I am very glad I don't
have to do any of these alone.
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