What You Need to Know About Chicago’s Typographic Scene

Interview with Will Miller of Typeforce

The letterform scene in Chicago is on fire. This week, TypeThursday spoke with Will Miller of Typeforce. We talked about the founding of Typeforce, work shown at the exhibition and Will’s passion for letterforms.


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TypeThursday: Will, thanks for being here for Type Thursday.

Will Miller: Thanks, Thomas.

TT: It’s great to have you here. I’d love to learn more about the project called Typeforce. How’d it get started? What is this awesome thing called Typeforce?

We wanted to allow everyone to feel Chicago’s great design community that works so often with type and lettering.

What is Typeforce

WM: Typeforce started as a way for Chicago-based designers and creative folks working with type to express themselves. Going back to the beginning eight years ago, Typeforce was an idea of Dawn Hancock of Firebelly and Ed Marzsewski of Public Media Institute. At Firebelly, we noticed a hole in what was going on in the expressive type scene in Chicago. We saw a lot of people were leaving for New York or the west coast. We wanted to put on a show that reinforced what we knew — Chicago has amazing creative outlets with some of the best designers in the country. We wanted those talented folks to stay. Chicago has these creative moments, exhibitions and artists that we can bring together and allow everyone to feel Chicago’s great design community that works so often with type and lettering.

The idea of it being a type show was a pretty big gamble. I don’t think we were confident that it was actually going to be the success that it has become.

TT: And you’ve been part of the Typeforce exhibition project since the beginning, correct?

We estimated by year four and year five, we were up to about a thousand people on opening night of the show, and that’s capacity; we can’t fit more in there before we start breaking fire codes and people can’t move.

Typeforce’s Growth

WM: Right. In the very beginning I was actually in the show that first year — again because we weren’t sure how to get the word out, we weren’t sure who was going to be involved. We needed people; we were shooting for twenty designers. But in the beginning I was in the show as was another Firebelly full-timer, Darren McPherson.

Also, the space had a large display window that was street-facing. To give this show a heavy, public presence in the Bridgeport neighborhood, we wanted to do a large title wall installation that said This is Typeforce, this is how we feel about this. We wanted to make a big impact, something that someone — the community — could see very quickly from the street. It’s a huge window, at least forty feet, and so that became the real-deal project that Darren and I worked on for the show. Not only did we have smaller work, but we had this giant window that would set the tone for the show.

TT: How many would attend Typeforce?

Typeforce’s Success

WM: I would say in the first year, we had somewhere between 300–450 people coming on the opening night. A few years later we were pushing 750–800 people. We estimated by year four and year five, we were up to about a thousand people on opening night of the show, and that’s capacity; we can’t fit more in there before we start breaking fire codes and people can’t move. The show has definitely grown over the years, as well as the impact that it’s had.

TT: What’s interesting is what you stated before there was severe doubt that Typeforce was going to be successful. Then the attendance got to the point of violating the fire code. Why do you think there was that certain assumption of people not being interested in it and the results are showing otherwise?

WM: I don’t think we realized that there were that many people actually interested and waiting for a moment like that. Where they could see it wasn’t just about putting a typeface on a business card, letterhead or everyday stuff, it was this artistic medium full of message that we’ve experienced in a number of different ways. It was this moment we didn’t realize everyone was hungry for. They were waiting for this outlet.

It was also seven or eight years ago, and there was a big craft culture running through Chicago at the time. You had a lot of handmade pieces exploring simpler, more personal, unique experiences as part of that show. As time went on people started to embrace other things like programming and broader technologies, looking at how type could have a bigger impact as a system, as message, or any number of ways that have evolved over the years in the show.

TT: The work presented at Typeforce showed that type can be a vehicle for exploration, moving from craft, handmade production, to exploring ideas with technology. Would that be a fair summary of what you’re thinking?

It was this moment we didn’t realize everyone was hungry for. They were waiting for this outlet.
“Go For It” in Market Square in conjunction with the Historic Pullman Foundation

Work Shown at Typeforce

WM: Exactly. We have people like Matthew Hoffman doing hand-cut wood installation pieces around the space. Seeing that and then thinking about how to move forward into something that’s laser cut. With the idea of laser cutting something, you start to think about all these other technologies like lighting or doing something with neon, as Kyle Fletcher has done. Even starting to think about processing and coding, screens, opening up into a number of different ways. It never loses the thread of where it began in this handmade quality, but it has definitely evolved into more contemporary executions.

Will’s Interest in Typography

TT: It sounds like you have a lot of enthusiasm and love for this topic of type. Where did that come from? Where did your interest and love for type come from?

WM: I was taught in school, the way that you do logos is you sketch and you draw and you use your hands first, and so working with studios remotely, that’s what I would do. I would sketch 40, 50, 60 logos and I would scan them, send them over email and get a response. I’d started to suggest typefaces to pair that I was familiar with — and this was back in 2003–4; I would suggest typefaces that I was familiar with whether that was from school or whether I had a library of fonts that were well known to me at the time. I started looking at those forms and I started sketching them more often alongside of the mark sketches I would be making. I would be sending those two things over at the same time saying, “Well, this shape has a lot of these characteristics and this sketchy type form honors those qualities.”

I was working with an art director as a young freelancer, and it was the first time in my life that somebody who was in this profession and whom I respected said, “You know, you’re good at this. You should continue to do more of it.” And I got extremely excited because it was the first person who understood I was into this, that I wanted to do more. So I jumped in and went off the deep end. I grabbed as many books about typeface design and properly structuring letterforms that I could. I started buying all these books and participating in forums like Typophile; asking and learning and spending about two years doing this on my own; drawing a lot, including it in a lot of the work that I was doing at the time. I was starting to understand that if I wanted to make work that felt like it was coming from me, I had to actually draw it or make it. That became, early on in my design career, a strong part of what I felt like my work was going to be about — actively creating using my hands for as many elements as I could for my work to feel personal, for that to feel unique.

I brought that into the studio here at Firebelly where we get to use that type of stuff — that custom creation of lettering or type design in a lot of the projects we do. And because we approach it differently each time, it’s something that allows for that unique quality and characteristic of any project to quickly be seen, recognized, and understood.

TT: So for you, you see the inspiration of type as a way of personalizing, investing, and exploring with intentionality your process in the projects you work with. For you, type is at the core of your practice as a designer.

WM: Exactly.

TT: I couldn’t agree with that more. Will, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time.

WM: Thanks, Thomas. This has been great.


Want to learn more about Typeforce? Check out Typeforce’s website

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