Lauren Beltramo
Aug 26, 2017 · 9 min read

Dusting off the cobwebs from this Medium account I realized my last post was Stellar Brush Lettering about a year and half ago talking about how the type design classes at The Cooper Union had caught my eye. WELL. This past summer I just completed the Condensed program 😭. Goodness, what a journey! Here’s a breakdown of why I chose to apply to The Cooper Union, what it was like, and how awesome it was! (SO, SO AWESOME).

From the Beginning

I had slowly been getting more into type and lettering courses over the years. The first workshop I went to was Script Lettering with Ken Barber at House Industries in Yorklyn, Delaware in 2014 (looking at what I drew there is uh, encouraging to see how much I’ve improved since then!). After that I got really into Skillshare, and then was able to go to the aforementioned Brush Lettering workshop with Ken this time at The Cooper Union in New York City. Early in 2017 I was really itching for something long term, in person, and with other students. I began looking at a couple of programs:

Type@Cooper Condensed in New York City

Type@Paris (unaffiliated with Type@Cooper 😂)

SVA Masters Workshop in Rome

I had just missed the application deadline for the Old School New School Type Program in Australia but that and the Arabic Type Design program in Beirut seem pretty awesome as well. If you’re based on the west coast The Cooper Union also just launched Type@Cooper West, a version of the extended NYC program in San Francisco.

Ultimately I focused in on Type@Cooper. The location itself was a big draw. I am originally from New York and am fortunate to have incredible family there that I stayed with throughout the program, and saved a lot on rent, and groceries (!!!! yes, they’re awesome). In addition to being in New York City, it seemed as if all of the letterers and type designers I admire had attended either the condensed or extended program. Honestly I wasn’t sure if the level of my work would even be enough to get me into the program, but I decided now was the time to try! It’s kind of baffling to me even with the hindsight of just a few months that I included some scanned lettering in my application. My instinct is to recommend to not do that as it’s very much a course focused on how to technically construct letters, but who knows.

My application if you’re interested!

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After skimming the email and just screaming OMGOMG it finally sinks in that okay, time to figure out the logistics! The cost of tuition is $4,540, but as a TDC member I was able to get a 10% discount (woo!). To help with the remaining cost I decided to launch the Summer of Love for Letters fundraising campaign which raised a modest (but still very awesome!) $500. I’m proud of the products and illustrations I put together, and especially loved figuring out my way around iMessage stickers. An exciting collaboration is actually in the works in part because of what I learned during that project. All of this to say: yes my campaign could have done better, but I don’t view it as a waste.

The Program

The timing of the program had yet another benefit — Typographics! It was my first conference ever and I loved it. Lots more at the link on my personal blog, including how I gave one of my pins to Kris Sowersby and he wore it during his talk (!!!!). Highlight of my life? Maybe.

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After that it was straight into the course. It was roughly structured into four units: calligraphy, sketching, digitizing, and type history. We learned calligraphy with Ewan Clayton for about a week and a half. Although it was not my strong suit his insights into calligraphy, and just body movement while drawing in general, have a huge lasting impact on the way I approach my work. Next was sketching with Hannes Famira. Not just any sketching of course, but The Sketching Method. I LOVED learning how to sketch like that. It involves a lot of pens and white out and, at first, some frustration, but if you’re a type designer I highly recommend at least trying to sketch this way (if you’re like ?????? scroll on down!). Just van Rossum is a RoboFont master as well as an excellent type designer, and he worked with us along with Hannes on the overall design of our type and any features we wanted to try (ligatures ftw) in the last few weeks. Throughout the course Alexander Tochilovsky took us on visits to the New York Public Library, the Butler Library, the Grolier club, the Lubalin Center, a walking tour of Brooklyn, and gave us lectures on type history. Seeing literally priceless books was an experience I’ll certainly never forget and is just another reason I am so grateful for this program. Of course the whole thing functioned thanks to the tireless dedication and organization of Cara Di Edwardo.

My one regret is working on some freelance projects during the course. For the most part I had told my clients that I wouldn’t be available, but there were a few things I wanted to wrap up. Don’t. Do. That. We were in class literally from 9:00 am — 9:30 pm and you need the breaks in between to digest. I was distracted and it showed in the work I did.

When I first got the schedule I thought, surely, it won’t really be from 9 to 9:30. It really was! Even the breaks from 12–2 and 4–6 weren’t called breaks, they were called “independent work time”. It’s also impossible to overstate how supportive the staff and professors are at The Cooper Union. They stayed through independent work time and long past 9:30, even came to the studio on a Saturday to help students, and were always accessible online. One time Just noticed that one of my serifs was off by 5 units and I don’t think I will be more impressed by someone’s skill and dedication ever again.

The Type: Calligraphy

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So what exactly did I do during these precious weeks? Draw letters, letters, and more letters.

During our time with Ewan we learned a few different calligraphy hands, along with their history and how the latin alphabet developed into what it is today (check out his book The Golden Thread if that sounds intriguing).

My favorite exercise was learning Roman capitals from The Origin of the Serif. It was fascinating to learn the sign painting process that the Romans used to create those iconic chiseled letters that we all know and love. This exercise led to some design elements that I used in my final type and was also incredibly meditative.

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The Type: Sketching

As aforementioned, The Sketching Method is the process by which we learned how to sketch type. This method means creating a series of small lines or scribbles at the same slope (usually 30°) and sketching letters according to the strokes you would make if you drew them with a broad nib pen. By doing this, all of the decisions of where the contrast in your letter should go are made for you. It’s very meditative and relaxing (for some!). So why pen and why whiteout? In the words of the immutable Hannes Famira:

“Pencil sketches lie”

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If the first time you’re seeing your letters in black and white is when you’ve already drawn them on the computer and printed them out, you might miss a lot of details. Or maybe not! As with all things, this is just one way to design type. I *personally* love it, but if it’s not for you find something else that works.

The way we were using this method also meant that we were exploring translation contrast, for the most part. Translation vs. expansion is a way more involved conversation (read The Stroke, which is a great type design book in general) but basically it’s the difference between using a broad nib pen or a pointed pen to construct letters. A pointed pen allows for contrast as the result of pressure whereas a broad nib pen creates contrast by movement and nib angle.

So! After tons of sketching we presented a few directions for our typeface. We also had to think about the application of each option, and actually were thinking about applications as we were sketching letters since that greatly informs the design. My two options were:

cougar, a high contrast typeface for bestiaries

snacky, a low contrast typeface for cookbooks

I LOOOOVED cougar and thought it was one of the best sketches I ever did. LOL. Looking at it now the weight is all over the place and it has a bunch of other issues. Snacky I drew on the subway going home from class to avoid falling asleep (just kidding Mom! That, uh, NEVER happened!!!!!) and I wanted to do something that was the opposite of “cougar”.

Snacky was the winner! Well, actually what ended up happening is that I sort of combined the two but took most of my design inspiration from snacky.

The Type: Digitizing

During our days of sketching, sketching, and more sketching we often talked about when the “right” time was to bring our designs into RoboFont. There is never a right time nor should you completely stop sketching once you start vector work. I started when I had most of my lowercase complete and thought I had a good handle on all of the features that I wanted to include. But if a particular letter wasn’t working I went back to my pens and whiteout and redrew it.

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My features included cupped serifs inspired by Roman capitals, tapered strokes, angular curves, and a slant of 88° throughout all of my letters. Hannes noticed early on that all of my sketches were slightly tilted, but somehow along a similar slope and suggested I keep that in (*cough* another reason to sketch first)! I found working in RoboFont to, again, be a meditative practice and loved working on letters for hours on end. Hannes and Just also taught us how to set up our proofing documents and look at our type with a critical eye.

At the End

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I think we were all pretty shocked when it was our last week, and then the last day, at The Cooper Union. We had the absolute pleasure of a guest critique with Sara Soskolne of Hoefler & Co. and then it was time to make any last changes, put the finishing touches on our process books, and show the rest of the class what we’ve been working on. That last day was one of my favorites by far. Even though we had become a tight knit group of 17 students and all knew what each other was working on, it was great to see the journey each person went through as well as their final typeface up on the big screen.

You can view my final presentation here.

I completed a roman face and was also able to have the beginnings of a bold and italic. Although those aren’t finished, I’m grateful for the time Hannes and Just took to look at them and advise me on where I should go next. I would encourage anyone in a similar program to do the same. Take advantage of the time you have with your professors, even if that means knowing you’re not going to finish a particular aspect of a project.

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This program was truly life changing for me. I met so many different passionate type designers and now have friends from around the world. If you’re at all interested in type I urge you to go! It’s weeks where your only task for the day is to draw letters. What could be better than that?

If you have any questions about my time at Type@Cooper or type in general, please reach out!

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