Imaginary Alphabettes

I launched a project nearly ten years ago now, when I was just beginning to bridge lettering into my graphic design work. It was called Imaginary Alphabets, and I started with an alphabet I called Lucattini. Lucattini’s is a small Italian restaurant in a laneway in Melbourne, Australia, where I lived at the time.

Lucattini’s, Melbourne.

Lucattini’s, Melbourne.

In the printed piece I eventually created, I wrote:

Walking by Punch Lane in Melbourne one day this winter, I spotted a sign for a restaurant I’d never seen before. It was hand painted, with confident but elegant strokes; boldly upright, white on black.

As a script it looked so perfectly united—as if you’d never question the shapes of the letters or how they came to be standing next to one another. And I suppose this is what you want from a piece of lettering: for your word to look like one piece, as opposed to letters that just happen to be standing next to each other, like strangers in the bank queue.

When the word is a name, it’s even more important to maintain solidarity, don’t you think? After all, you wouldn’t want someone to look at your name and think, “jeez, wouldn’t his name be so lovely if not for that unfortunate ‘s’ hanging out at the end.”

I do realize of course that most people don’t have this kind of internal dialogue. But since I do, it was natural that once I passed this sign, I continued to think about it for the next several days.

So I went back and I took photographs of it, by perching precariously atop a very narrow cement bollard. I wanted to know what the rest of the characters would look like if a whole alphabet had been made from this lovely script. This is what I came up with.

Final fold-out poster and interior booklet.

Final fold-out poster and interior booklet.

I had made Lucattini as a personal project, to explore crafting letters out of set parameters, and to have a self-promotional piece to send around to studios, since I was newly freelancing. It was positively received by the design community there, and I got up the confidence to continue the project as a series. What started out as a way to practice drawing letters became an outlet for my mental collection of vernacular lettering.

The next piece that had piqued my interest was some faded lettering on Smith Street in Collingwood, but after some research I realized that plenty of typefaces had already been made in this vein, so I went on another quest.

St. Leonards Cycles, Smith Street, Collingwood. And original lot sales materials for the area in Ye Olde Victorian Times.

St. Leonards Cycles, Smith Street, Collingwood. And original lot sales materials for the area in Ye Olde Victorian Times.

During a weekend away in Healesville, I found this old sheet music in a junk shop in the country.

Marguerite…isn’t she jaunty?!

Marguerite…isn’t she jaunty?!

Full Marguerite poster and fold-out booklet.

Full Marguerite poster and fold-out booklet.

I was very proud of these projects at the time, and I still am, even though ten years on and with a much better eye, I cringe a little. Over the years I’ve intended to take another look at them, normalize their forms, stick the nodes in the right places… but as most designers know, those intentions rarely get realized. And I can appreciate them now as they are, because I was putting myself out there even when things weren’t perfect. I don’t know that now, for instance, I’d have had the balls to make a z that was derivative of music notation.

The full alphabet of Marguerite.

The full alphabet of Marguerite.

All the positive vibes I was getting off of these projects led me to a bigger endeavor: a small one-lady show of my collection of vernacular type. I focused on one suburb of Melbourne, a post-industrial area called Brunswick, and dedicated my thinking to how an area was defined by—and how it had morphed because of—its industry-specific signage.

Brunswick signage, 2008–2009.

Brunswick signage, 2008–2009.

At this point, I went a little nuts. I was trying to say a lot, perhaps too much, and trying to illustrate as much of these forms as I could, all within a very tight deadline. Oh, and I’d also decided to move back to New York the day after the show was supposed to open, because I’m wild and crazy like that.

And while I was doing what I could to preserve as many of these interesting shapes as I could, I also felt I needed to draw a full alphabet in keeping with the series.

“Wholesale” was the alphabet; on the right are bits and pieces of lettering I captured from various signs.

“Wholesale” was the alphabet; on the right are bits and pieces of lettering I captured from various signs.

Once I was back in New York, things died down. My three years away had created a distance I hadn’t anticipated, so to keep myself from wallowing too much, I started up my Imaginary Alphabets project again. I had spotted this sign one day, which, aside from being terribly condescending, featured some very funny and interesting shapes. They were stenciled and sprayed, but I’ve never seen a source, so I started an alphabet.

This is your park. KEEP IT CLEAN OR ELSE

This is your park. KEEP IT CLEAN OR ELSE

Full alphabet of Harlemite.

Full alphabet of Harlemite.

And that’s where the current Alphabettes header came from. I added another boing to the ‘e’ because I can and like all the weird boings in the shapes. It’s like they were adding anomalies from the brush, but in a stencil? Or maybe they were just being sloppy. Or maybe other people like random boings too.

Around this time, I was accepted into Type@Cooper’s second extended program. After the first insane semester, I thought I’d take the Christmas break to make another alphabet (see above evidence of insanity). Again in a junk shop, I came across some old sheet music, this time from Cold Spring, NY. I’d never heard of this formerly-famous ditty, but when I researched it, I found that it had been covered by hundreds of performers, and that it spoke of a pretty dire time in America and the rest of the world. The flu pandemic killed more people than World War I, which was happening concurrently. So it struck me as especially interesting that such a hopeful, nonsensical song should arise at such a devastating time. I made Jada, the first and only of the Imaginary Alphabets to be drawn with font software and to function as a typeface, albeit a limited one.

 

Left: original source, found in an antiques shop in Cold Spring, NY. Right: the fold-out poster for Jada, the typeface.

Left: original source, found in an antiques shop in Cold Spring, NY. Right: the fold-out poster for Jada, the typeface.

Left: the Jada fold-out booklet posters hot off the press. Right: a little specimen I passed around to tons of people who didn’t want it.

Left: the Jada fold-out booklet posters hot off the press. Right: a little specimen I passed around to tons of people who didn’t want it.

That was the end of Imaginary Alphabets for me, though I did use it as a project for my students. I’ve found it’s an excellent way to help students look around their environments for weird and neglected letterforms, and to try to breathe new life and uses into them. It also encourages research into the environments and times those letters originated in. There’s an endless number of possible outcomes, and there are so many letters that could use new homes.

Ain’t I a Type Nerd Too?

Thoughts on feminism & type.

This post was sparked by a Twitter conversation about the lack of women speakers at TypeCon. I found myself needing to organize the threads of topics that came up because this argument — like many of its kind, whenever the public is grappling with gender or race or privilege — always gets sidetracked (frankly) by people who haven’t given it much thought prior to whatever backlash they’re currently witnessing.

I give this subject a lot of thought, and talk and write about it pretty regularly. Many people already know this about me, which is perhaps why my views are seen as incendiary even when I feel I’m making a pretty basic point. Like with race, the conversation tends to be predicated on not hurting dudes’ feelings, and I find that exasperating.

Sexism is pervasive in type, design, and advertising because it is pervasive in everything. For me, that lets our industry off the hook a little. We’re usually not addressing a particular offender; we’re reacting to a widespread observation. It’s society, man. So let’s admit that it’s a problem and move on.

  1. Except we can’t. This first step is the most maddening because if we can’t even agree that a 15% makeup of women is not due to sexism then we are going nowhere fast. The trouble is that for many, throwing in the word ‘sexism’ is taken as a personal afront. It isn’t. Clearly this is a bias that happens everywhere, all the time, despite good intentions. Despite personal friendships and respect for women you know in the field. If we can move past individuals’ egos to agree that sexism is a thing, then we can move on to figuring out the point at which it’s happening and actually try to fix it.
  2. So we acknowledge it’s kinda fucked up. But then we still don’t want to ‘go there’. We’re told that Twitter isn’t appropriate. We’re told there are publications and venues and conferences that would love to hear about this, if we’d just submit these thoughts and ideas. The fact that the very medium for our discussion is policed is proof that people don’t want these thoughts to be said out loud, or typed in public. Twitter is about as democratic as a conversation can get in real time, uniting people from across cities and cultures. I don’t know why people think it isn’t ideal — I think it’s great.
  3. There are already precedents out there of how to fix it. And right away in this conversation, people shared links specifically targeted at making conferences more diverse. These were effectively ignored in favor of going back to Step 1.
  4. ‘Quotas are a bad, bad thing’, said everyone in the 90s about affirmative action. Actually, setting a goal for 50% participation would be a reflection of the world. If you don’t like the word ‘quota’, then I guess you don’t like Latin, and that’s fine. But it literally means “a proportional part or share”. If you don’t want the type world to be a reflection of the real world, then go directly to jail and do not pass go.
  5. A meritocracy is a really beautiful idea that is almost never indicative of true merit. And to say that an open call facilitates only the best submissions overlooks many things, particularly that women disproportionally don’t submit proposals unless they’re asked to. It’s a whole thing, sorry. And saying that the final outcome is indicative of the best proposals? Well now you’re just saying that men submit the best proposals. And that’s sexist.
  6. Outreach is effective. It lets women know that you value their contributions to the field and believe the audience would like to hear their perspectives. Unfortunately, outreach can’t happen if you dedicate efforts to seeming ‘gender blind’.
  7. Gender blindness is not going to solve your lack of diversity. As stated in #5, meritocracy can only happen when the playing field is level. If you’re at 15% female participation, you’ve got a ways to go ‘til you have the luxury of being post-gender.
  8. Your lack of diversity is starting with women but it’s not ending there. Feminism borrows a lot of its language and thoughts from writings about racism and vice versa. Same goes for gay rights and transgender awareness. That’s the world we live in, and that’s really beautiful and interesting. It makes the future of this industry super exciting and offers conferences a broad range of appeal when it comes to talk topics.
  9. Telling women to try harder is so fucking annoying. It’s not their job to work harder than men to achieve the respect and recognition men get.Every woman I’ve met in this industry who’s still going strong works her fucking ass off, many times juggling their careers with motherhood, myself included. Yes, more women need to submit proposals. More women, if they want public recognition, need to ask for it. But you also have to act like this is a welcome discussion and listen instead of getting your panties in a bunch and thinking this is a personal attack. It’s not! We’re friends with you! So be a friend, will ya?
  10. I plan to help facilitate resources and discussion and am always available for questions. I’ve got 13 years in this business, am a design director, have taught college-level design for 4 years, have given talks and interviews about type and have a degree from Cooper Type. If I’m wondering what more do I need to do to feel included, I can’t imagine what it’s like to enter our field right now.

(originally posted in July, 2015)