The Drawn Word: An Interview with illustrator Mark McCormick

TypeThursday sat down with Creative Director of Crunch Fitness Mark McMormick about his daily lettering blog Word is Drawn. We discussed how he started the project and differences between type design compared to illustration. It was a pleasure to chat with Mark.


Time spent at Type@Cooper

TypeThursday: Back in CooperType, when we were in the class together, You stood out to me as the strongest hand letterer in our class.

Mark McCormick: Ha! Thanks! There was a lot of competition in our group. SO much skill in that class.

TT: It was a very high level class. Carlos [Pagan], Nick [Sherman], Aaron [Carámbula]. A lot of talented designers in the group.

MM: I still look at everyone’s work on Instagram and go “God damn, I gotta keep up!”

TT: I think you have. In my research for this interview, I discovered your blog Drawn Word was started back in 2012! That’s even longer than I expected to be online.

Starting Word is Drawn

MM: Yeah, it was shortly after CooperType. Once school ended and there weren’t any deadlines, I started to slack a little. You know how much time goes into typeface design — and between working full-time and picking up side projects, I just didn’t have much time. But I definitely wanted to keep my drawing skills up to par, and quick lettering projects were a little more doable. My only problem was indecisiveness with what words to draw. I had subscribed to Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day email for a while so I figured that would be a great source of inspiration. That way I would have no say as to what letters I’d be drawing or how long the word would be. It’s a totally new challenge every day. At first I just thought it’d be a good exercise to generate new typeface ideas. Then the illustrator side of my brain took over. Now it’s more of an illustration project.

It’s a totally new challenge every day.

I still spend probably way too much time refining the letters — with extra attention to spacing — but I’ll spend just as much time working on concept. And sometimes I’ll sacrifice making perfect letters if it helps get the idea across.

TT: What is your favorite piece from that collection? It’s almost three years worth of work, so I understand if that’ll be hard to pick out.

MM: It’s almost at 800 entries! That’s a lot of words. Some days I’ll even forget what the word was after a few hours. But it’s hard to pick out one in specific. I tend to like the words I can squeeze some humor into. Sometimes that humor is so subtle that people may miss it, but I still get my own personal chuckle. Which is kind of the whole point in keeping a blog in the first place — to entertain myself. Hopefully others enjoy it too, and I’m psyched when they do.

TT: I remember the one you posted today, with the eye.

MM: The one going back and forth?

TT: Yea! It’s cute.

MM: Yea, I like that one.

TT: Have you received work commissions from the blog?

MM: No, unfortunately not any direct requests. But a couple times, clients that already hired me had seen the blog and mentioned a few posts that they liked. That’s actually kind of an unintended but awesome benefit; the blog becomes a reference catalog of styles. It’s like I handed in sketches to the client before I even do anything. It’s a jumping off point for creative direction.

TT: And that works better for you?

MM: Yes, especially when it’s a new client because it takes a lot of guess work out of the process. But it hasn’t boxed me in; It’s usually more like “we like the style of this word so maybe try something along those lines”. It’s really not much different than showing a portfolio.

TT: Do you have any future plans for the blog?

MM: Everybody wants a nice, thick coffee table book with their work in it, don’t they?! But even with the 750+ entrees, I still don’t feel like there’s enough for a proper book. I also thought of doing flash cards. I like the idea of making something educational.

TT: Do you feel like your vocabulary improved from this project?

MM: Maybe subconsciously. I probably picked up some words, like oeillade.

TT: No idea what that word means.

MM: I’ll send you the word!

Comparing Typeface Design to Illustration

TT: Do you feel like there’s a strong divide between type design and illustration?

MM: Yes, in the concept. When you’re doing type design, you don’t have to tell a story with a single letter. The whole point of a typeface is to string letters together to make a readable word. The meaning is inside those words. With an illustration, it’s more about drawing a picture that conveys (at least) one story. A great illustrator like Christoph Nieman can tell five stories with like a picture of a foot. I’m just trying to bridge that gap between lettering and illustration. But I’ll admit that my focus when making type is more formalistic. I want to make something with an interesting look and feel, but it must be totally functional. When doing the drawings for WID, it’s not necessary that everything is readable.

Type design is not just sitting there tweaking beziers all day. As much as you sometimes wish it was.

TT: Like you said, type design and illustration are different. Yet I also see overlap. Both disciplines look at relationships — How forms relate to each other. But how each discipline goes about that question is very different.

MM: Totally. In lettering, it just has to work in that one instance. In type design, you have a larger system that you can’t neatly predict. The complexity is so much greater. For me, type requires a more mathematical approach, which can sometimes make my brain switch off. When we did OpenType coding back at Cooper, I really had a hell of a time with it. I just couldn’t get that part of my brain to function. Maybe it was just so dormant that I couldn’t wake it up.

It’s a very different way of thinking. That’s the thing about type design; it stands between other disciplines, programming, linguistics, draftsmanship, commerce, Intellectual property. It’s what makes it so interesting, but it can also be daunting if you lean towards one discipline more than others.

Type design is not just sitting there tweaking beziers all day. As much as you sometimes wish it was.

Advice for Getting into Type

TT: What advice would you tell someone coming into type?

MM: I came into type really green. I had never made a typeface before. I honestly didn’t know much about type at all. I mean there were fonts that I dug, and I loved drawing letters, but that’s it. So it was a steep learning curve when I entered CooperType.

Your perceived weak spots may even become your strength in the long run.

But I’m glad I went in so naïve; I wasn’t bogged down by the history of type and was able to do a lot of exploring. I would tell prospective students just to jump in and do the work. You’re there to learn! And who knows, your perceived weak spots may even become your strength in the long run.

TT: That’s a great place to end our chat. Mark, thanks for the chat.

MM: Thank you!


Follow Mark’s work at Word is Drawn

TypeThursday is a monthly meet up for people who love letters in New York City. Our next event is November 5th in South Williamsburg. RSVP to attend.

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