Seeing Things: What a Typeface Says About a City

SEEING THINGS: THE QUESTION OF A CIVIC TYPEFACE

By Caroline Tiger, For The Inquirer

If Philadelphia were a font, what would it look like? The Phillies logo? Maybe something like the Germanic Fraktur font used by the Pennsylvania Dutch? Surely there'd be an element of colonial-era history and maybe some whiffs of contemporary branding. (Wawa? Comcast?)

Infusing the character of a big city into tiny letters is no small project. Even more daunting might be justifying why such an endeavor even matters.

But these are the challenges faced by Robbie de Villiers and Jeremy Dooley, two typeface designers in Chattanooga, Tenn., who are developing a custom, city typeface. The reason: to telegraph their town's newfound vitality and creative renaissance to the rest of the world.

It turns out more than a few people find their cause worthy. After the designers posted a beta version of their typeface – called Chatype – on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter in late January, nearly 300 backers donated almost $11,000. Articles about the initiative appeared on the websites of Time, Fast Company, and GOOD magazines.

Why so much brouhaha over a font? You only need to look to the success of Helvetica, Gary Hustwit's 2007 documentary about that thoroughly modern – and, as it turns out, highly polarizing – font, to know that typography is a dynamic field.

The advent of Apple computers in the '80s made desktop publishing accessible to the masses, and the number of available fonts exploded. Suddenly everyone had the tools to play graphic designer. Certainly industry experts can parse the pros and cons of type (“This one is too blocky; that one's too expressive”), but the average person has strong opinions about fonts, too. Ever listen to a bride flip through invitation samples?

 But Chatype has design geeks abuzz as they contemplate the notion of a “civic typeface,” typical in European cities but rare here. (Wim Crouwel and his firm, Total Design, designed an entire identity system for the city of Rotterdam, including its typeface, phone book, maps, and stamps.) American cities have official logos, but they are like state birds – few would be able to pick them out of a lineup. In fact, Philadelphia unveiled one in 2009, and in case you can't quite remember what it looks like, this won't jog your memory either: A mustard and navy Liberty Bell with a red clapper is encircled by the words “City of Philadelphia: Life, Liberty, And You” in a plain, sans-serif type called Trebuchet MS that is most notable for its accessibility to anyone with a PC. (Sans-serif means the letters are not capped or footed by short lines.) It's a serviceable solution that fails to make any kind of emotional connection.

A custom typeface, which consists of a primary font plus weight variations (light, medium, bold, etc.), has many more potential applications. De Villiers and Dooley envision a day when Chatype will be used for everything from government websites to the writing on sewer grates and police cars.

To design their beta version, the designers looked to Chattanooga's visual references past and present. They portray their process as pouring these elements – the Cherokee writing system created by the area's first settlers, the graceful proportions of a prominent walking bridge, and the visual character of Coca-Cola's first bottling plant – into a meat grinder and cranking out a conga line of letters.

In reality, the process of creating a typeface like Chatype, described by De Villiers and Dooley as “futuristic rounded geometric slab serif with historical overtones,” is incredibly technical. Each character is designed with mathematical precision down to the height of its ascenders and descenders, the thickness of its stems, and the reach of its serifs. Designers also need to fine-tune the amount of space between each possible combination of characters to make sure they interact well with one another. With four weight variations, Chatype's designers are looking at a total of 4,000 characters, plus fonts for online use.

America's only other experiment in designing a civic typeface was a 2003 academic exercise initiated by the University of Minnesota Design Institute. Then director Janet Abrams invited six teams of designers to submit proposals for a typeface that reflects the character of the twin cities. The winning submission by Erik Van Blokland and Just van Rossum, cofounders of Dutch design firm LettError, is Twin type, a mutable set of characters linked to a software program.

The user plugs in current values for the wind, temperature, height of the Mississippi River, and city traffic patterns, and the app spits out different letter forms. Cold temperatures make straighter, more rectilinear letters. When temperatures climb, the characters loosen up and get rounder.

“The designers never visited the city,” says Abrams, now a design critic and co-moderator of next month's TYPO San Francisco conference, “but they ended up designing a universal solution.” The program could work for any city. The typeface's potential for personalization, interactivity, and data-driven mutability is very much in line with the trends driving design today. Twin type is lively, smart, and in flux, just like the cities it represents.

Twin type wasn't adopted by the public sector, but it was never meant to be. “It was a speculative sketch project,” says Abrams. “The purpose was to put an idea out there into the culture for stimulation. Like every other theoretical project, the potential of it being picked up is dependent on civic and political will.” Yet unlike other theoretical exercises, Twin type garnered lots of international attention and pointed to Minneapolis as a place where design happens.

The group behind Chatype is emphatically antitheoretical. Their project is a rallying cry for a nationwide “typographical revolution.” All along they've been holding public forums and asking for input from the entire community. Unfortunately, the result – at least so far – looks a little drab.

And how about Philadelphia? Aren't we the ones who start revolutions? Doesn't our growing rep as a green city and hub for start-ups constitute a newfound vitality and creative renaissance? If a custom typeface is one way to communicate that, to rally the local design community, and to direct the attention of the design world our way, Twin type and Chatype are good models. One is strong in design and concept; the other, an ambitious attempt to harness the power of design for the civic good.

“Seeing Things,” an occasional column on design matters, is written by Caroline Tiger, a design writer in Philadelphia.

(This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 3.30.12.)

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