Notes from the Field

Whilst many companies herd towards a similar aesthetic—the ever-so-slightly geometric letters and the rather plain looking grotesques—there’s something else going on in the typographic community.

Something wild and monstrous.

I don’t think it’s particularly new, as type designers have always been working on projects which happen to be entirely bonkers. Without rhyme or reason they’ll make letters that are inverted, letters that are upside down and inside out, letters that are almost entirely illegible simply because they can.

One of my favorite examples of this is Maelstrom by the Klim Type Foundry:

In his notes on the design, Kris Sowersby writes about how to make one of these inverted monsters:

Take a Modern, make the thin strokes thick and vice versa. When it comes down to specifics, however, this rule cannot be mindlessly applied to everything; liberties have to be taken. It’s like reading upside down or talking backwards — all the sense is there, just in exactly the opposite place.

I sometimes feel a little odd about this type of argument that I’m making here. About making typography wild and unexpected I mean. My work is in the field of design systems which is a type of job not typically known for its creative serendipity. Everything must be planned for, coordinated, and yes — a little boring too.

I work on a giant web app where the work mostly consists of arguing against weird, inconsistent typography. My goal is to make the codebase as easy to understand, and the design as easy to use, as possible. In my experience that means we must draw limits and boundaries around ourselves. We must, as a team, draw boxes to think inside of and so design systems work is often about doing the least harm to those boxes. If a designer brought me a wondrously odd typographic interface to build out then my eye would begin to twitch and my only reply to them would be a loud and sarcastic “I N T E R E S T I N G.”

I guess typography can be different things and it’s all a matter of context. Brands, logos, magazines can be a lot stranger and less systematic because you don’t have to worry about a codebase and the legacy it has on people. You don’t have to worry about the culture that sort of codebase is creating around you as you build it.

In those fields you’re free to be as wild as you like—typography shouldn’t be afraid to be bold and boisterous and extroverted—except when it comes to my damn codebase. Although, I do still feel a little guilty about that sometimes. And I often fear I’m becoming too systematic, too organized.

Too boring.

So I’ve spent a few evenings this week looking at Gs and drawing them over and over again to understand how they work. So far I’ve found it oddly meditative and relaxing to draw the same shape whilst listening to dark and brooding music. Here’s a few things I’ve learned though.

First off, there’s no such thing as a purely geometric typeface. The good families always have a slight amount of contrast and a degree of thick/thin strokes to them. Although there’s a feeling in all designers where they desperately want to make things mathematically perfect, this never really works out in type design. Also, creating letterforms around “pure geometry” instead of how people read letterforms always is, and always will be, a bad idea. Also also? I feel like an imposter drawing letters.

But! It’s important to remember that there are a million ways to draw a G.

There’s something immensely inspiring about that to me and I’m not entirely sure why. The impossible, never-ending-ness to the field of typography, perhaps.

There’s a sense of infinity in this line of work. Of frontiers yet seen.

If we’ve ever met in person then you most certainly know that one of my favorite films is Nick Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth which is part documentary and part autobiographic visual essay. Throughout the film Nick talks about his writing, his music, how he met Kylie Minogue, and how he fell in love with his wife. His friends will appear next to him in his car like ghosts and they’ll talk together about performing live on stage, about their work in general, and they’ll give a short interview that’s sort of haunting because these friendly ghosts tend to disappear without ever saying goodbye.

I’ve watched this film at least half a dozen times by now and with each viewing I find something else that’s mesmerizing about it. This time around I noticed Nick’s obsession with the weather; his journals describe the storms around Brighton as something unrelenting, a warning of the future. In one moment, Nick looks up at the clouds as they smash into one another and lightning crackles on the horizon. “The sky in Brighton is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he says. “What I fear most is nature—now that it’s sent its weather to exact revenge—soon the weather will put on a real show.”

A few scenes later Nick is casually talking about why he lives in Brighton, why he moved from Australia, and why the weather helps him write. After walking us through his office, where books tower up into every corner of the room, he then heads out of the house and begins driving down the main thoroughfare of Brighton’s seaside. “You know I can control the weather with my moods,” he says.

“I just can’t control my moods.”

All of this is to say that Nick Cave writes in a way that makes me mad with jealousy. It’s last-panel-of-a-comic-book-stuff. You the know the sort, where all is lost and the double page spread ends on a note of sadness, but the hero is defiant against all the calamitous tragedies that have led up to this moment.

Our hero has lost and yet they’re still smiling that big, invincible smile.