The Tailored Process: An Interview with former tailor apprentice James Todd

TypeThursday sat down with Philadelphia Typeface Designer James Todd about his experiences as an tailor’s apprentice and his latest typeface Essonnes. We discussed platonic love, the black art of selling type and working with interpolation. Enjoy!


This TypeThursday Interview is brought to you thanks to our sponsor, Officehours.

Apprenticeship and Platonic Love

TypeThursday: First as a tailor, then upholstery and then typeface design, your journey of development really interests me. It didn’t seem very strategic to me; You didn’t go right from tailoring to type design, right?

James Todd: No I didn’t. It was a strange path. Apprentice is a interesting way to learn. It’s a platonic kind of relationship to enter within that person. They’re your boss, but also you spend so much time together and develop such a relationship. It becomes very personal in a platonic way.

TT: Platonic in terms of a platonic love?

JT: Yes, in that way.

TT: Yea, ok, I was thinking platonic ideals, like the “ideal” triangle.

JT: You’re also working towards that one, as you develop that relationship.

TT: Ah, so you did mean both; Clarify about that. That’s an interesting point. You have this ideal you’re working towards and the idea of working with a master to achieve that. That’s very different from how people think about education.

There’s so much of an emotional thing going on when you’re trying to make something at the level of mastery.

JT: You’re both still learning. As a master, in whatever skill, you’re never at the peak, always striving to be the best at it. The man I apprenticed under, had been doing it for 40 years. He was still trying new things, and learning new ways to cut a pattern, or sew a suit. He was always trying to get better. Just like I was, as his apprentice; granted, I was much further behind him in the process than he was. There’s so much of an emotional thing going on when you’re trying to make something at the level of mastery. It becomes a very intense relationship between a master and his apprentice.

TT: Did you just show up at your master’s studio and say “I’m going to work for you!”

He asked “Hey, do you want me to teach you how to do this?” That’s how it started.

JT: That’s almost how I did it. I sent him a few emails back and forth. They aren’t many options to find bespoke tailors in the US. I went over to London for a trip, and met with the guys at Savile Row and realized that wasn’t a realistic prospect. An unpaid apprenticeship in London wasn’t something I could afford. When I got back to the US, I found a tailor in Chicago, (who, by all accounts, was better than the Savile Row shops) and just bugged him enough until he gave in and allowed me to work under him. I would be at the shop hanging out and over lunch one day he asked “Hey, do you want me to teach you how to do this?” That’s how it started.

TT: How long was that process?

JT: Maybe 6 months.

TT: Not that long in the grand scheme of things.

JT: No, not at all.

TT: Guys getting into type, miss that point. You have to show and not expect anything for it. You need to keep showing up and make yourself the most valuable thing there.

JT: You have to prove your worth. Prove you’re worth the investment in time.

TT: How long were you at that tailor?

You still have to prove you’re willing to spend the days doing learning the basics.

JT: I spent 3 years working with him. The first day I actually started sewing, it was almost a joke. I spent the whole day trying to thread a needle. I was like “You’re wasting your time having me here.” Over the course of three years I did improve a little bit. But, you still have to prove you’re willing to spend the days doing learning the basics like threading needles, or prepping machines, or doing the most trivial background work for months before you’re even let you do anything of value.

TT: I love that part about being you asking “why am I even here?” Why are they paying me, I’m such a fuck up right now. It’s ridiculous.” That’s part of the reason you feel that platonic love; Having that master invest in you for you could be, instead of what you are. That’s the most powerful part of an apprenticeship.

JT: It’s like adopting an family member. “I will raise you, and you will follow in my footsteps. I will teach you what I know, in the hope you can add value to what I do.”

TT: Have you been approached by an potential apprentice?

The Right Approach to Becoming An Apprentice

JT: I’ve had people who are interested in what I do, but no one that would be so dedicated to be an apprentice. It’s a passing interest. A curiosity. No one that’s been like This is what I HAVE to do.

There’s no shortcuts, the investment of time is going to be required no matter what.

For type you need to have that mindset. It’s like walking through quicksand. Every step is a hurdle, and then you look out and see nothing but more hurdles. Especially when you’re starting. You make your first round of letters, and you’re like “Ok, this is kinda good.” And then someone sees it and says it’s terrible. “But I spent so much time!” there’s no shortcuts, the investment of time is going to be required no matter what.

TT: I love that example you just said; your perception gets fucked with the whole time. That the whole point why you enter an apprenticeship, to help make you see your mistakes, clarify it, and improve within that marsh of confusion. That marsh with a interrelationship of things; the consequences of making design decisions will have on other parts of a design that could put you back a week or two as a result.

If you’re trying to become a typeface designer and you don’t have someone to show you the ropes, it’ll take three times the time to develop the eye.

JT: That’s what so great about programs like CooperType. It takes that part of the apprenticeship system — the review process of your design work. You have someone who cares about what you’re doing and look at your stuff, give you guidance. You need that. If you’re trying to become a typeface designer and you don’t have someone to show you the ropes, it’ll take three times the time to develop the eye. Because you don’t know what you’re looking for to improve your work. Having the reinvent the wheel.

TT: By the way, this is all a conversation in making type; Let’s not even get started about the conversation about selling type.

JT: Yea.

TT: [Laughter] Yea, I know, it’s a whole different skill set.

JT: The black art; Selling type.

TT: It is. This journey, this path, is continuous. You don’t get to a point and say “I’m done!” Even if you get your technical ability up to snuff, now you have the issues of managing clients, managing sales. You’re going to need masters for all those skill sets.

The business side is always so hidden.

JT: The business side is always so hidden. It’s like a veil between what you learn in school; how to make type, and then how to sell it and market it. You see other foundries and you ask “How are they making a living doing this?” And then the software changes; there’s always things to develop. New techniques, new processes.

Working with Interpolation in Typeface Design

TT: About your latest typeface release Essonnes; what caught my attention about it was how it handled interpolation. I see designers think of interpolation as “One master thin, One master Black; Interpolate everything in between.” But Essonnes doesn’t do that, as you explained in your I Love Typography Article.

Having a lot of masters always stresses me out.

JT: Having a lot of masters always stresses me out. If I build something with 30 widths and weights, and then something isn’t right and I have to keep rebuilding over and over it can stress me out. If I have all my weights in front of me it’s easier to wrap my head around it. That was especially true with Essonnes. For example, the way the legs in the text weights would taper, but as the optical sizes increased, that tapering would disappear. It could be in be done with masters with layering of points of some tricks, but I choose not to do it that way. I wanted to focus on each optical size as a different typeface.

Other designers built optical families where the x-height increases and the letter spacing gets wider. But I wanted to do something where each style was built from the ground up, and yet, all work together as a series.

TT: I always worried about using masters is the compromises needed to harmonize the whole typeface system. Would you agree with that limitation of building with masters?

I can imagine someone using an interpolation tool and move a slider and thinking “OH it’s a whole new typeface and it’s done!” No, it’s not done. It’s only an idea of what the design will be.

JT: I didn’t want to worry about compromise; I wanted to draw the families as I pictured it and not worry about compromising for masters. The other thing with interpolation is how it makes things move too quickly. When you build out with masters, it’s so easy to miss details you know need to be fixed. I can imagine someone using an interpolation tool and move a slider and thinking “OH it’s a whole new typeface and it’s done!” No, it’s not done. It’s only an idea of what the design will be.

TT: I do think a lot of designers take for granted the relationships between fonts in a typeface. Interpolation can trick you.

JT: Just because the nodes match up and the angles are the same between weights does not make it the whole system. A typeface family doesn’t have to be so mathematical. It was also be about things feel the same, but how they’re drawn could be totally different.

Just because the nodes match up and the angles are the same between weights does not make it the whole system

TT: Yes, similar by the eye, not some mathematical formula.

JT: Interpolation correctly doesn’t make it the best system. But, to be fair, I use interpolation for many aspects of typeface design. It’s a very useful tool in the toolkit of typeface design. But it’s also not the end all for my work.

TT: I think that covers everything I wanted to talk with you about. James, thanks for doing this!

JT: Yea, it was fun! Thanks for having me.


James Todd’s typeface Essonnes is available for purchase. See more of Essonnes here.

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