Part One: Generational History
While I was beginning to design a text style version of my quirky tape font to use in things I make — including my MFA thesis — I stopped myself again. As a generalist, I had yet to practice the extensive accessibility work that a type designer takes on, let alone strap myself down to my chair to set the typeface’s proper kerning. I am a restless person who needs external motivation and a lot of caffeine to achieve idyllic levels of completeness. I had begun to feel attached to its refinements, which made it all the more difficult to let go of until I realized something else: this is supposed to be a reactivation of the past.
In 2018, VCFA faculty member Silas Munro presented a relational graphic design history centering on the work of W. E. B. Dubois at the Typographics festival in New York City. I watched the recording while educating myself via YouTube in the thick of stay-at-home orders, and it was the first time I had ever learned about Du Bois. In a multi-course meal, Munro showed how Du Bois’s data portraits of Black America engineered the Modernist aesthetic that was later adapted by European designers after his 1920 curatorial exhibition at the Paris Exposition. The drafted letterforms in his statistical charts, constructed by the materiality of amended architectural drafting templates, served as the inspiration for the typeface “Du Bois” by Vocal Type’s Tré Seals. At the time, this typeface was being used on the website for BIPOC Design History, a curriculum Munro created in collaboration with VCFA faculty members Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton and Ramon Tejada, VCFA alumnx Pierre Bowins, and others. BIPOC Design History was partly responsible for why I ended up at VCFA, and the pragmatic tactility of “Du Bois,” along with Tré Seals’ other typefaces, heightened my awareness of underrepresented narratives.
Before attending grad school, I wanted to prove to myself that I could take on a self-initiated project as the creative work at my day job became steadily outsourced. I had been feeling down on myself for repeatedly making things for marketing campaigns that I felt evoked “nothingness” thanks to the reality of our contemporary era and living through the daily demands of late-market capitalism. I craved to make something of real substance, that told a more interconnected story, and that others could relate to — this is why I loved graphic design in the first place.
I was living in New York when the pandemic started to be taken seriously. Confined to my tiny apartment in Brooklyn with a semi-feral cat, I was reeling from the heartache and frustration of not knowing when I would see my Belgium-bound partner again. Like many non-New Yorkers, I returned to my hometown after weekly pleas from my caring and concerned father. Wanting to tough it out alone seemed selfish. Being home meant I could be hugged and fed the most comforting of meals. Learning from women who made a life for themselves during the Great Depression, my mother provided the additional perk of knowing how to pack the pantry for an apocalypse. Returning home as an adult wasn’t easy, nor was it a smooth adjustment to develop an improved relationship with my parents outside of my role as their child. I spent my days digging through my personal archive of objects and art supplies, doing my work at the same desk that spurred my adolescent interest in web design, and getting in touch with my creative roots, until I came across my relationship with him.
In the entrance to my parents’ cozy, New England colonial home, a decorative iron-and-glass table holds an engraved lamp that illuminates the top contour of the long, cream-colored sofa. To the left of it, before the room comes into its full display, sits a framed photo of my grandfather, Federico, standing in front of one of his many handmade yard signs with a loose translation from the King James Bible. The imperfect lettering offers no proper punctuation except for question marks, some periods, and Gutenberg dashes for spaces. The sign itself is made with a handful of humble materials that he likely thrifted from past projects. Anything extra was purchased from the local hardware store.
My grandfather was the first graphic designer I knew. A solitary World War II veteran and Italian immigrant, he found his self-expression in art and written words. During his retirement, he worked as a custodian at the local high school and crafted sign art — among many other projects of various mediums — out of his garage. His yard was filled with plywood signs. Through them, he shared his opinions and thoughts on current events with all those who drove past his yard, and eventually through regular features in the community newspaper. I had created portraits of my grandfather before, but reflecting on his history in the medium that we both knew best became a séance that opened the generational story in the walls of my own practice.
As a kid, I found his behavior strange and his home and yard peculiar. He had built the house himself after the war, missing a middle finger that was shot off during the Battle of the Bulge. He dug a creek into the land to outline his house and filled it with koi fish. A husky guarded the maze of a greenhouse garden, and at some point, a horse lived in the garage. He grew his own stock of cannabis, with sunflowers for its camouflage, and took on a wealth of other creative hobbies. I was most struck by the large plywood signs, sometimes sawed into purposeful shapes and painted to suit his content. Shortly following the September 11 attacks, a large red apple with a bite missing exclaimed a sharp message for terrorist perpetrators. Each sign featured crude letters drafted with electrical tape, a thoughtful material that endured the tumultuous weather of the Northeast, blunted with the blade of a box cutter. He was unmatched when it came to lawn signs declaring political allegiance.
Graphic design has always had the potential to be political in its ability to shape public opinion and influence behavior. My adoption of his font was a grasp for something bigger than myself. Knowing the pain of my father’s upbringing and his own ambitions for success, the tape font clued me into the grit his father ingrained in him to succeed in the American market. Growing up in a poor household of eight and many pets, my dad’s future depended on his willpower to get out of his hometown, serve in the military, educate himself enough to have a lucrative career as a sales engineer and use his inherited charisma to attract consumers toward the latest computing technologies. He’s to thank for my early access to a computer with Windows 98, leading to my rise as an AOL Instant Messenger buddy icon designer for any North Providence middle schooler seeking customized aesthetics.
Graphic design has always had the potential to be political in its ability to shape public opinion and influence behavior.
As soon as I digitized the original analog Federico, I shared it on social media for my future fans and users. I made a portfolio piece in case something like this might help me get hired for a better job, editing its form based on my assumptions of popular taste. I created reels on Instagram to increase my viewership and share my methodologies. I fashioned polls for my friends and followers to help me decide on which uppercase “G” to go with. Like the suffocating power dynamics of an emotionally manipulative ex-boyfriend, I flocked to my social feed to be validated and rewarded for my most minor of efforts. Finally, my college roommate — who had unwillingly experienced every aspect of my personality — stepped in to comment, “If you’re making a font about tape, why not just do it in tape?”
Part Two: Being a Designer
In 2021, designer and art director Dylan Mulvaney released a PR piece for his design agency, Gretel, through PRINT magazine in the guise of a schematic to “inspire new ideas about typography’s history.” In it, he references anything prior to the ’90s as “The Fixed Era,” and everything from 2020 and onward as “The Fluid Era.” I admire the look of Gretel’s design work but question if “fluidity” is the most accurate term to categorize the typographic work generated from accessible design software. As the Head of Design at Gretel, with many honors from places such as the Art Directors Club and the Type Directors Club, Mulvaney describes his philosophy of fluidity as “borrowing aesthetics from the fixed era to create something new by combining contrasting ideas or aesthetics” and applying them to the inherent democratization of today’s tools, further promoting a Modernist practice. Additionally, his characterizations of each sub-era are superficial at best and blatantly inaccurate at worst. To call a mashup of popular styles “fluid” negates the relational history that is buried within each and instead glorifies the internal hegemony that constructs their pedestals.
When I was younger, I had a greyhound that my family rescued from a local racetrack — a place where Italian grandfathers often went to smoke cigars and let loose away from their wives. I loved and pitied my darling greyhound for her elegance and her traumatic past. During our walks, other kids would shout out their disgust in response to her appearance, exclaiming how she looked like a giant rat. I often retaliated with tearful anger by stating that she was, in fact, very regal. I was proud of rescuing our greyhound from the harsher realities of a retired race dog and was quick to defend her because of it. It is very easy to pass over “the ugly” in favor of popular taste. I found myself battling this exact pressure as I wrestled between whether Federico should be slick and elegant or rugged and imperfect. In my initial choices to refine it for a purely digital environment, I lost the materiality that made my design and concept more honest. In mixing their perception of “high” and “low,” top-ranking design agencies — like Gretel — create work that represents how a lot of commercial design is being made today. Their projects are beautiful in a similar way that Goldendoodles are beautiful, using an array of learned and accepted styles to create conventionally marketable work that feels fresh and new due to its reliance on current technology. It is much harder for a designer to envision new possibilities when there are so many walls that lock us into formulaic ways of making. I am still guilty of this.
To call a mashup of popular styles “fluid” negates the relational history that is buried within each and instead glorifies the internal hegemony that constructs their pedestals.
By pulling from a fixed past where history is regarded linearly from an American and European perspective, we easily tread past the marginal histories that can expand our thinking, and instead, reinforce a dominant economic system. Though I do think we are approaching an era of fluidity, we still need to find out where our borders exist and why. In considering the typographic trends in the 2010s-2020s, it would be interesting for commercial design agencies to also publish think pieces that critique our tools, how the demands of our society fuel them, and how we’ve arrived where we are now since the rise of relational design in the early 2000s. However, such disruption comes at the cost of also acknowledging their own exploitation of labor that sustains the ongoing era of Neoliberal Design, a term coined by VCFA faculty Ian Lynam. Understanding design in the context of political economy can provide insight into its aesthetics and functions. Instead of permeating subjugation through nice-looking commercial methodologies, we need to hack the societal, the cultural, and the political to begin mapping out new worlds and ways of thinking.
Designing with a surplus of accessible digital tools at our fingertips has led us to the stark reality of the isolated, on-demand production that I’ve been trying to run away from. Sure, it is easy to make beautiful things that move, but without rich substance, there is a meaninglessness that passes us by just as quickly as our Instagram stories. Ironically, our wildly interconnected world quickly morphs into a lonely place, especially when you find yourself on the outside of it. If we learned anything from a global pandemic, it is those who organize communities who take the future they want. To agree with some of the ideas put forth by Gretel, type design itself has indeed grown increasingly accessible, but as my VCFA cohort Ray Masaki most recently recounted in It’s Nice That, people are designing stylized fonts more than ever without thinking about how they may be gatekeeping style to a dominant culture by limiting language support. Designers should practice responsibly.
As I stewed in my indecision over formalizing my own analog version of Federico during another round of Why Am I Doing This to Myself, I felt it was important to stay true to both my source material and what I wanted to accomplish. The truth is, I hadn’t considered its applied future beyond my own personal use, but the font resonates with others for feeling human. I treat the font like it is an old family recipe that I’m sharing with others who want to taste it later. I’ve met its cousins. Friends from overseas send me every tape font specimen they spot. I keep my eyes peeled for anything made from tape and save it in the vault that is my iPhone. More than worthless likes, my process in redrafting Federico has led to a collection of unique experiences and histories. To quote Silas Munro, “History is relational.” Maybe this is where a graphic design practice starts to become a significantly influential one.
Credits: Written under the advisement of Ian Lynam, Edited by Angela Paladino.