TypeCon 2016 in Review

Every year in the US, there is a gathering of type industry people to an annually different city to talk, to celebrate, and to look at itself in the mirror. This gathering is called TypeCon, and this year, it was one to remember.

I wanted to take a moment to collect the big takeaways, themes, and buzzing thoughts I had leaving the conference in one place. So—disclaimer— consider this less a review than a catalog of thoughts for the future.

Descending into Seattle, the conference was filled with industry giants, scrappy upstart foundries, students, developers, designers, and fans—all of whom made it one of the most well attended TypeCons ever. (They had to close registration for the first time in the conference’s history.) Because of this, it had a vibrant and refreshing energy, lively conversation, diverse attendees and speakers, and a fantastic line up of presentations.

The conference had a truly international flair to it, with presentations sourced from nearly every continent on the globe. (Come on Australia and Antarctica, next year awaits!) Notable talks came from far-flung places like the Middle East– with Mamoun Sakkal’s talk on Square Kufic, Asia– with Yvonne Cao’s reworking of American brands in non-Roman language countries), even Africa– in the form of Mark Jamra and Neil Patel bringing the N’ko language into the 21st century.

There was also a sense of “rethinking” things this year. Almost every talk presented questions and thoughts aimed at challenging the status quo and our own awareness of the way the type industry operates. This manifested itself in three major ways—or themes. These themes are a part of what makes TypeCon the thought-provoking event that it is.

“Text is not language, it’s a technology with a goal of giving language visual form.” —Paul McNeil

Deconstruction/Reconstruction

Going into the conference, there was already this discourse of “have we reached peak typography yet?”, most notably in the form of the ongoing conversation about mining history, the ideas flying about on ‘Infillism’, and the need for new fonts. But much in the same way as a young engineer would dismantle the family radio, it seemed as though there were a lot of attempts at rebuttals to these ideas through deconstructing and reconstructing concepts in typography to better understand them.

Mark van Wageningen presented the Typewood project, in which he explored digital type in a physical space by deconstructing letterforms and rebuilding them as layers on press to create new expressions and designs. The full project is worth checking out, and the fonts he created are free for download.

Some ideas were very academically unpacked, as in Sibylle Hagmann’s in-depth discussion of type and lettering in East Germany after the Iron Curtain fell across Europe. Bruno Maag’s emphatic personality was on full display going through reading and legibility on screen through the lens of the minute science of the eye, proposing that we consider talking about screen type not in points or pixels, but in arc minutes.

Archiving vs. Breaking New Ground

Several talks were about history, but there was a tension between the history presented and what to do with it. A lot of ideas were centered around respecting history and heritage while attempting to create new paths forward.

Jayme Yen & Chester Jenkins presented their process in designing a new typeface for the city of Seattle. It was an interesting romp through the way the city has cobbled together its own identity through a whole buffet of fonts, and how they were attempting to redefine the city’s typographic language while respecting the heritage and institutional graphics in place.

In his daringly named talk “Never Use Futura”, Douglas Thomas treated the eyes to a whirlwind of iconic uses of the iconic type, and how we’ve become entranced by Futura’s spells in our modern designs. He showed work exploring how we could break out of the trance and embark on something new.

Along with a few presentations on historical facets of desktop publishing, such as Briar Levit’s “Before Desktop Publishing: The Democratization of Typesetting Methods Before the Desktop Computer,” and a panel including John D. Berry and a few others on “Seattle in the Typesetting Age”, there was an expected praise for the local and the historical. However, it was all presented in a way as to say “Here, take, run with this and make something new out of it.”

Building Community

TypeCon is always a place to meet and greet, but this year there was an emphasis on building up the community we’re in to do better and bigger things.

Thomas Jockin lead the charge as he showed all of the work he’s been building a community of support with Type Thursdays in New York. The concept of peer review and accountability is crucial to an industry such as ours. Thomas is now spreading the love to the west with a TypeThursday installment in San Francisco.

Mary Catherine Pflug cast a spotlight on this community’s health and statistics as she announced the results of her thesis survey of who buys and sells fonts and the current state of font marketing. This kind of reflectivity needs to happen annually. Anyone want to fund that?

Community building was even present on a local level. Jenny Wilkson from the School of Visual Concepts talked about how her print shop and outreach was redefining a neighborhood under siege from big development companies in Seattle, ultimately finding ways to work with them to unify the community. Norman Hathaway showed the work of prolific Seattle designer Doug Fast and how he deserves to be recognized as a true community cornerstone.

Finding Our Borders

These TypeCon themes are merely curated impressions I received from the conference talks. But there’s more to the story than that. I left TypeCon with an even grander takeaway of what the conference was really about: the search for the edges, the limits, the borders of what this industry—and its work—is all about.

New Genres

“Break rules gently. Think well about new rules. Carefully make the result work.”— Nina Stössinger

Nina Stössinger (bless her spirit and knowledge) showed off her latest deep dive into “reverse stress” types (springing out of her TypeMedia project and research) to heavy applause. Her new type family, Nordvest, champions the concept of a commercially viable type with unconventional ‘differently stressed’ design DNA. She called for a new term to define these ‘typefaces of a different variety’, pointing out the lack of subtlety in classifying an arena of type design that has so much potential for growth, use, and innovation. She is reaching for the edge of type classifications and designing into spaces we have yet to explore.

The Borders of Legibility

Legibility is a science that is well documented at this point, but the time has come to act on that research and put some new practices to action. Bruno Maag, designer of many new types for the screen, proved that the future of digital reading will be on a handheld screen in low fidelity environments. He presented the idea that we should be measuring type on screen in arc minutes—a measurement of distance in the back of the retina—rather than in points and pixels. It’s a vision of the future and possibility.

“Do not take the successes of the past and shoehorn them into the playing field of today. There’s nothing wrong with reviving history, but we can design better types and experiences for the times of today.” —Bruno Maag

The ProtoType exhibit, featuring submissions of experimental typeface designs, was a must see at the conference as well. The ideas posed there indicated that the borders of legibility can still be pushed. Discover the winners for yourself on their site.

The Borders of Type & Art

Is typography art? Can letters be stripped of their functional restraints and remade to exist in a world of artistic expression? I was left asking more of these questions on the way out of TypeCon, due to a few talks that presented examples of what type can do in an artistic—and even spiritual— realm.

Ashley John Pigford & Tricia Treacy presented the Phonographik Collectivo, a series of prints and artworks exploring the relationship of typography and sound. Can typography exist in the realm of sound? Is it still typography at the point? Meaghan Dee presented work in this way as well, exhibiting how type can exist as auditory type.

Personally, I’m of the belief that type can be art—and in a way—is art. It’s already being used in such capacities, but that’s another blog post for another day. It was great to see this idea pushed at TypeCon.

Cultural Borders

Throughout all of the beautiful and aesthetic presentations at TypeCon, it was clear that it’s important to continually seek out the places where cultures meet and where cultural progress can expand. This idea was best exemplified in the keynote speeches of Nadine Chahine and Lance Wyman.

Nadine’s work in translating prolific roman fonts into arabic font counterparts is telling of the cultural collaboration needed. And in Lance’s presentation of his work in Mexico over decades, it’s clear that innovation happens in a cross-culturally minded world. Wether enabling roman to non-roman type systems or making new work informed by cultures abroad, there is progress to be made in the type world with cultural exploration.

Ultimately, I had a fantastic time at this TypeCon in Seattle. I got to explore a new city, meet some new faces, and reconnect with some old ones. Most importantly, though, I got to gain new perspectives on new ideas. That’s what conferences are for, right? I encourage anyone reading this to look more deeply into the work being done in the type industry, (I’ve linked to as much as I can throughout the text) and keep these conversations going.

I’ll leave you with my list of favorite talks from the conference, in no particular order. Seriously, each of these talks could and should be a book in it’s own right:

• Paul McNeil, “Typography in the Search for Perfect Language”
• Mary Catherine Pflug, “Font Purchasing Habits Survey Results”
• Nick Sherman & Frank Greißhammer, “ITC Zapf Dingbats”
• Bruno Maag, “Creating a Better Reading Experience”
• Roxane Gataud in receiving the Catalyst Award. (Congrats Roxane! Welcome to the Catalyst Club)
• Lance Wyman’s Keynote on Design and Typography.

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