Create Your Own Font in 48 hours
We talk to Jake Fleming, one of the founders of the type-themed hackathon Type Jam.
Type Jam just held it’s first event in September, challenging teams to create a font in just 48 hours, from concept to digitisation. We spoke to Jake about creating fonts as a newb, about the mechanics of orchestrating a hackathon — and finally we took a closer look at the top 3 winning typefaces.
Ulrik Hogrebe: Hi Jake — welcome to TypeThursday.
Today we are going to be talking about your type-themed hackathon Type Jam where, if I’m not mistaken, you give teams of type-enthusiast 48 hours to come up with a typeface. Where did the idea originate?
Jake Fleming: Glad to be here chatting with you!
Yes, you are right. Type Jam follows a similar format of any hackathon or game jam really. People either team up or participate as individuals over a period of 48 hours to produce a limited character set related to a particular prompt using font software. Our aim was really to give people who were experienced in type design some time to explore new directions, while also providing a safe and inviting space for people who were completely new to type design to learn and hopefully, come out of the event with their first font. Oh and obviously there is toast, jam, coffee, and sweet prizes from our sponsors.
The event was about a year in the making, I guess. I’m a product designer, and I am currently teaching Product Design at a place called Tradecraft — but have also always been into illustration, game design, and type on the side.
About a year ago I started creating my first font in Glyphs. I’d attempted to create fonts in the past but always found the software a bit too complex for me to get any real momentum on a project. When I found Glyphs, it finally seemed accessible. As I was beginning to think that my font was in good place, I started thinking about how I could release it. One of my long time designer friends, Mat Helme introduced me to Mattox Schuler of Fort Foundry and Mattox was nice enough to give me some pointers on the process.
He mentioned TypeThursday and suggested I go. So I did. I met a bunch of people who really knew what they were doing and in turn, I quickly realized I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I found myself really wishing that I’d had the opportunity to work on my font around a bunch of people doing the same thing. At the same time, I’ve attended various types of hackathons in the past related to game design and software development. So the idea started to form from there. Then, talking with some of the amazing people at TypeThursday, it seemed like there was interest from enough people in the community and then… well, the rest is history.
Ulrik: This sounds amazing! So you just had the first event, right? What kind of people showed up?
Jake: Yep! The first event was in September. We were actually pretty surprised how many people were completely new to type design and font software. We thought it would be ⅔ people with experience and ⅓ maybe with none, but I’d say it was the other way around.
We did have a lot of graphic designers, product designers etc. We even had a type designer from Germany who found out about the event while in SF for a couple weeks. I believe most people had design experience, but not a lot of lettering artists and almost no type designers.
Ulrik: Wow! So you basically had 48 hours to take people from complete newbies to a relatively high fidelity font. How do you accomplish that? Did you have to disperse the people with more experience? How were the groups formed?
Jake: The groups were formed before the event for the most part. As the event approached we had a spreadsheet for people to figure out who was still looking for teams which we then distributed around. But again, totally surprised by how far teams got with such little experience.
Take a picture of a sign or two, derive rules from that limited character set and try to get as complete of a character set as you can in the little time you have this weekend.
We did provide some help, of course. To kick off the event, we had an amazing intro workshop by Winston Scully of Continental Type and then Delve Withrington of Delve Fonts and host of TypeThursdaySF was there through-out helping people when they got stuck, answering questions about the font software, helping define rules and constraints to make the process of type design easier and just generally providing critique. And then just really myself and my co-organizer Zac Halbert trying to be as helpful as possible and making sure things went smoothly.
Ulrik: You mentioned you gave teams prompts to help steer their work. What kind of prompts were people given?
Jake: We sent a prompt out to the teams the night before, so people had a bit of time to get inspired. The prompt that everyone was given was this: Go find inspiration from San Francisco signage. Take a picture of a sign or two, derive rules from that limited character set and try to get as complete of a character set as you can in the little time you have this weekend.
Ulrik: Cool. That makes sense. How did people handle the brief? Were they sticking close to the original or taking the original sign as departure and then making something new?
Jake: Some people tried to stay pretty close to their source, some diverged quite a bit. The beauty of constraining the brief to a single sign was you pretty much never had a full character set to work with, so inevitably you had to make up your own rules here and there. Some people started with cigar shop signs, some had a snapshot of a neon sign that had like 5 characters to work with, others went with some nice hand painted signage. The great thing about the semi-vague prompt was that the projects were all very different and people had a lot of fun seeing what others were working on.
Ulrik: Give me a sense of what those 48 hours looked like? What was the atmosphere at 6 hours? At 24? In the final 6?
Jake: The first 6 hours the atmosphere was pretty exciting. Everybody was talking and enjoying coffee and toast with JAM. After Winston gave his workshop, people started freaking out internally a bit I think. Font software is pretty intimidating. Even Glyphs which is pretty easy to use can be intimidating if you’re a newb. But around the 6 hour mark, people started getting a feel for the direction they wanted to go. They’d had lunch, sorted out their inspirations and settled and gotten to work. So the rest of that first day was pretty quiet. Everybody was heads-down.
The next day when people started trying to translate sketches from paper into software, it got a bit hectic and again I think people were a little overwhelmed.
By the end of that second day, people were in crunch mode trying to complete that character set. A lot of the teams’ submissions really came down to the wire. Luckily, all participating teams were able to submit. I think it was a bit of a rollercoaster, but overall it was really fun and people got a lot out of it. There were a number of people who literally said something along the lines of, “I didn’t think I would ever make a font. It always felt too hard.” Most people came away from the event with some version of a usable font.
Ulrik: How did the groups work? Was it mainly one person jamming in Glyphs with multiple backseat drivers? Did people sketch together? I think when I am drawing, it feels like a pretty solitary thing, at least until I come up for air. How did people work? And what worked best?
Jake: I think each group was different, but it definitely seemed like the groups that got the farthest were pretty good at dividing up the roles. The initial sketching process happened together. Sure, it’s kind of a solitary process—however, we made sure people were coming up for air frequently and exchanging ideas. As the team homed in on a direction, the faster-moving teams seemed to have a nice split of roles. Some people were sketching the rest of the character set, and 1 or 2 others were in software translating those sketches.
Ulrik: Were there frustrations? Where there any toast-tantrums?
Jake: If only there were a toast fight! People definitely got frustrated. Design is hard. Type design is mysterious to most people who haven’t thought about it too much. I think morale was pretty high during the event though. Nobody threw anything. No tantrums, no toast, nothing. Honestly, I wish there was more drama.
Ulrik: Ha! Next time you’ll have to find a way to turn up the pressure!
Let’s talk a bit about the winning teams and their fonts! I saw the winning three on the homepage, but maybe you can talk about what made them special?
Jake: Sure. I’m really impressed with the fonts the winning teams produced. We had help with judging from Winston Scully (Continental Type Co.) and Kyle Wayne Benson (Very Cool Studio). Those dudes know their stuff. Honestly, I still consider myself pretty new to all of this stuff, but in short the judging criteria basically came down to these 3 things:
- How complete is the character set?
- Do the characters feel like they belong to each other?
- How original is the approach?
The winning team was comprised of Michelle Adams, Amy Zhang and Dianna Xu. All new to type design and font software I believe. Their font is this pretty interesting rune-like design meant for one or two words at a time. Definitely wouldn’t set the bible in this thing. The Illustrator file the team started in is insane looking. Grids everywhere. So, so griddy. Love it.
The second place team’s inspiration was a sign found on a cigar shop and had some pretty fantastic features. The curly-qs on the “S” and the very sharp terminals on some of the other characters, along with these insane fat balls on others. This team was comprised Tad Wagner and Tommi Sharp, two regulars of TypeThursdaySF and current students at Type@Cooper West.
In third we had a pretty interesting, slightly rounded, geometric sans-serif with an almost complete character-set. This team was only one person; Tom Caruthers. And he was a complete newb too.
Ulrik: Cool! And you can play around with them on the Type Jam website, right? There is a little sample tool up.
What is the plan for the future of Type Jam? Any events lined up?
Jake: We’re hoping to hold another Type Jam in the near future. The positivity that people came away with from the event and the amount of people that we were able to expose to the world of type design was really refreshing. I think we even pulled some people into TypeThursdays here in SF.
But at the moment there is no date for the next Type Jam set in stone. It probably won’t ever be a monthly event like TypeThursday, but we hope it will at least be an annual if not bi-annual or even quarterly event. If you’re interested in getting updates on when the next event will take place feel free to sign up on the site for those!
One thing that I forgot to mention is one of the goals of the event was to benefit the amazing place that hosts TypeThursdaySF every month, San Francisco Center For The Book. All humble proceeds are headed their way.
You can sign up for updates on the next Type Jam event on the website: gettypejam.com
Check out Jake’s product and illustration work on his site: here
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