Cyrus Highsmith on David Berlow

I started working at Font Bureau in 1997. One morning, not long after I started, I went up to my boss David Berlow's office to show him a typeface I had been working on. It was an early version of Dispatch, one of my first serious projects. I climbed the stairs slowly, calling hello loudly to let David know I was coming. He was at his desk, silhouetted in front of his large windows. “Come on in” he said, without looking up from drawing. I stumbled over to his desk, handed him my proofs, and sat down on the steps behind him. David looked at them for a while and started commenting on the spacing, and how the serifs related to each other. At the time, I was the most junior designer, and I listened hard, handing him a pen so he could make notes and draw what he meant. When we were finished discussing the proofs, I found that I still had plenty to work on, but I felt encouraged. I asked, “Do you like it?”

He responded with the crooked smile that he saves for explaining something he has thought about often. “If you ask a shepherd if he likes his sheep and he answers, 'I like that one for its wool, that one for its meat, and that one for making new sheep ­- you know he is a good shepherd. If he answers, I like that cute one over there' -- you know he has other things on his mind,” David said, smiling even more.

I understood what he meant. David was not concerned if he liked a typeface or not. He was concerned with whether it could be used for something, which is a smart way to build a good library of fonts. But later, after David's statement had really sunk in, it also began to affect that way I work and think. It does not mean every typeface has to be plain and utilitarian. It means thinking deeply about the designers who will use your typeface to design pages and the readers who will read them.

There are forces at work in the design of typefaces that need to be balanced. There is the balance between experimentation, pushing the limits of typography, and serving your reader, giving them something comfortable that doesn't get in the way. There is a balance between personal taste or style, and just plain vanity. I have to figure out how to balance these variables with each project. That means trying things, going too far and upsetting their balance until it seems right.

I repeat David's advice to my students at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) when we discuss their typefaces. They think I am nuts at first. Students like to please their teachers -- they want to know how to draw something that I will like. But usually they get it after a while and at the end of the semester, we have a diverse bunch of typefaces for all different uses, and the students are impressed by what the class has accomplished. David¹s story is just a story about sheep, but the attitude that I learned from him as a junior designer continues to influence my drawing, my teaching, and my relationship to livestock of all kinds.