Spring 2006

Space and rhythm

Jan Middendorp
Cyrus Highsmith
Profile / Cyrus Highsmith

Type designer Cyrus Highsmith learnt the craft through both study and apprenticeship

In recent years, a dichotomy between type designing strategies in (northern) Europe and North America has become apparent. The best of European type design shows a critical awareness of traditional principles, while being radically functionalist at the same time. Innovation is a must. In Holland or Germany, designing a new text typeface conceived from scratch is on every young type designer’s list. In the us or Canada, this is an anomaly. Quite a few independent North American type designers have built a career out of whipping up one charming but ultimately meaningless style exercise after another. Those who create ambitious text type families often seem to be taking clues from past masters in a very direct way – quite different from their European peers, who have a more independent relationship to tradition. Most recent American text faces are based on (and justified by) letterforms from the past – the results ranging from faithful revivals and smart re-interpretations to postmodern pastiches, parodies and lame nostalgia.

In this context, the work of Cyrus Highsmith, staff designer at Boston’s Font Bureau, is a welcome exception. Highsmith has done his share of revivals and historical studies – he digitised some of the twentieth century’s most fragile display faces, worked on a redesign of News Gothic and drew a contemporary version of Scotch Roman for The Wall Street Journal. Yet his greatest strength lies in his newly designed text faces. With families such as Stainless / Dispatch, Prensa and Amira, Cyrus Highsmith has established himself as one of the truly original new voices in American type design.

The thinking hand
Highsmith, 32, is also one of the few young type designers who learnt the craft in the way it used to be taught for centuries: through apprenticeship. Highsmith trained with some of the best in the business – Matthew Carter, David Berlow and Tobias Frere-Jones. He acknowledges that he has been ‘very lucky’ in the way he received his education, first as a graphic design student at the Rhode Island School of Design (risd), where he now teaches part-time, then as an apprentice at Font Bureau.

‘I went to risd for their strong typography programme. As I studied typography, I kept getting into the details of type more and more. That led to drawing type. Fortunately, I was given the freedom and support to do a lot of experimental work and independent research. This allowed me to try out a lot of weird stuff, and focus on my own approach without worrying whether I was doing it right or how it fit into the tradition. All this happened in the context of a programme that was strongly influenced by the Basel school of typography. So at the same time I was surrounded by that kind of Modernist tradition.

‘Then at Font Bureau, I received my practical training designing type. Over the course of the projects I was handed, I ended up having three teachers – Tobias Frere-Jones, David Berlow and Matthew Carter. Looking back, each one’s lessons ended up being distilled into different aspects of type design. From Tobias, I learnt a lot of the production tricks and methods that go into making fonts. But the main thing he taught me was how to see type and how to explain this to other people. From David, I learned about spacing and approaching type design using systematic thinking. And from Matthew, I learned about craftsmanship and drawing.’ His years at Font Bureau – where he has been working since 1997 – have also become a self-study of typographic history, prompted by Frere-Jones’s passion for old type specimens as well as informal ‘lessons’ from Mike Parker, the company’s unofficial type historian.

Highsmith is a natural-born draughtsman. In lectures, he explains his views by means of cartoons, and he has an archive of thousands of pages of sketches, doodles, collages. The pleasure he takes in performing these simple manual activities, and his obvious talent for it, is reflected in the confident originality of his letterforms. Like his drawings, they are the products of a thinking hand.

‘Drawing is what I always loved the most. I discovered drawing type is drawing in a very pure form. Because a type designer does not draw letters. A type designer designs words and words are structures that contain patterns of black and white shapes, form and counterform. It is a game that deals with space and rhythm. Which is precisely what, for me, is the essence of drawing.’

Highsmith’s sketchbook pages – hundreds of which have been published online at his personal Web address occupant.org – are as direct and spontaneous as they are visually sophisticated. He mixes letterforms with abstract and figurative illustration, alternates densely filled pages with fragile single-line drawings, and uses a variety of tools.

His first typeface published at Font Bureau, Daley’s Gothic (1998), was prompted by the same unprejudiced attitude towards technique: it was the outcome of a series of experiments with a steel brush and ink on paper. Consisting of straight lines only, the typeface is not a model of legibility, but that clearly was never the purpose; as an exercise in expressive letterforms, Daley’s Gothic is outstanding. Occupant Gothic (2000), also made with no curves, is less extreme and more usable. According to the catalogue description it ‘embodies Cyrus Highsmith’s caffeinated vision of the urban environment’. When leafing through the sketchbooks of the late 1990s, one is struck by the obsessive images of city life. The wayward forms of Occupant Gothic seem to have sprouted directly from these crude skylines and blocks, which sometimes recall expressionist woodcuts.

Apart from Occupant’s playful roughness, its forms also betray a remarkable self-assuredness in drawing original, yet natural-looking letterforms that bear no direct relationship to any previous model. This can also be said of the two later families, with which Highsmith established himself as a designer of innovative text typefaces: Dispatch, a slab serif in four widths, and Stainless, its sans-serif companion.

For over a century, slab-serifs were characterised not only by their inherent industrial sturdiness but also by their stiff geometric structure – they are in fact called ‘mécanes’ in the Vox classification. That model was challenged by the Dutch school of writing-oriented type design, most notably by Peter Matthias Noordzij’s Caecilia (Linotype, 1991). Dispatch shows that there is a third way, which is neither geometric nor humanistic; it has a nuts-and-bolts quality, a deliberate artificiality, without being purely mechanical – it also has an unmistakable brashness.

After Dispatch came Stainless: ‘I started cutting off the serifs from Dispatch one day just as an experiment. I liked the results so I kept going. The important thing was that the sans-serif design should not appear to be Dispatch with something missing. I wanted the new design to have the strength and character to stand up on its own. If I felt something would look good in Stainless I would do it and not worry if it was done the same way in Dispatch. So I felt it was appropriate to give Stainless its own name, instead of Dispatch Sans.’

Highsmith did not look at any specific models for the two series. ‘The inspiration for Dispatch was a combination of City (for its square geometry), Univers (for its variations and beautiful counter forms) and the type used on receipts and parking tickets – functional or industrial kinds of lettering. But I wouldn’t call any of these things models. Just stuff that I liked and spent time looking at and thinking about. In both series, I paid close attention to the white space between and within the characters. I wanted solid, compact wordshapes with a good rhythm. So they catch your eye. I think it is for this reason Dispatch has been often used as navigational typography.’

While exploring his personal obsessions in sketches and self-initiated typefaces, Highsmith also worked on several more conventional projects. He drew the italics for Tobias Frere-Jones’s Poynter Old Style Display, a branch of Font Bureau’s stylish, ergonomic family of news faces; he worked with Matthew Carter on several weights of the newspaper typeface Miller; and he drew his own variant of Scotch Roman as part of a commission to Font Bureau from The Wall Street Journal.

Highsmith likes the strong contrasts that this way of working provides him with. ‘Most of the work I do is on commission. The majority of my clients are newspapers but I also work with magazines, book designers, corporate designers. For these clients, I draw new custom typefaces, fix old typefaces, help specify the typographic palette, assist with hyphenation and justification settings. I enjoy it a lot.

Fonts like Eggwhite, Occupant Gothic, Stainless and Dispatch are the typefaces I draw in my spare time. I draw them to have fun, teach myself something, to have a break from my clients. I like to have these two sides. The commissioned work is challenging because I typically need to put aside my taste and style to create what the client needs. For example, I don’t think I ever would have drawn the script face Novia (aka Lithographia) without the commission from Martha Stewart Living magazine.

Contradiction and challenges
It pushes me into areas I would not go if I was left up to my own devices. The spare-time work is challenging also there are no deadlines and I have to be my own critic. In the long run, I would like to be able to work without clients. I don’t just mean this in terms of just financial stuff. I mean that eventually I would love to be able to train myself to keep challenging myself. For me, the danger of working without clients is that you can start going in circles and go stale.’

Prensa (2003), possibly Highsmith’s most successful typeface to date, originated as a commissioned magazine typeface but then – when dumped by the art director after a revamp – became a personal project. Prensa explores the possibilities of a creating a tension, or contradiction, between the outside and the inside curves of the characters. Highsmith consciously borrowed this device from W. A. Dwiggins, who first used it in his bookface Electra (1935). ‘I am not an expert on Dwiggins,’ says Highsmith, ‘but I’ve spent time looking at his work. When I first came across his work, I was attracted to his relationship with tools and materials. When he needed to design something, he drew it. When he needed a tool, he made it. He seemed to have built a visual world for himself where he could tinker.

‘As I became more interested in type design, I became aware of his typefaces, which felt like a second encounter. His non-calligraphic approach interested me a lot. For example, the stencils he made to quickly sketch the basic characters of Electra and Falcon made a lot of sense to me. It appealed to my own ideas that I was developing at the time about how letters could be constructed. Until then, all the information I was able to gather about drawing letters was from a calligraphic point of view. It was all about stroke order and writing from left to right. My brain doesn’t work in a linear way. So Dwiggins’s modular approach to letter drawing appealed to me and confirmed my ideas that there are different ways to approach type design.

‘Finally, I looked closely at his work for a third time in regards to his approach to form and counterform. Since I was young, my approach to drawing has been based around negative space. I learnt it from my mother who is an artist. The lesson came one day when I was frustrated that my drawings of trees never really looked like trees. They just looked like a bunch of lines. I could not get a feel of the shape or structure of a tree. She taught me to draw the shapes between the branches instead of the branches themselves. When you do that, you quickly come a lot closer to actually drawing something resembles a tree. When I am drawing letters, I use the same approach. I am drawing the white shapes not the black strokes. So the relationship between the white shapes on the inside of the character and the outside of the character is something I am very interested in. I think Dwiggins had a similar interest so I studied his work from this point of view.’

Besides Dwiggins, Highsmith mentions Adrian Frutiger and Matthew Carter as important examples; he has also looked at older work, such as the seventeenth-century types of Miklós Kis, which vaguely inspired his Zocalo typeface for the newspaper El Universal. Yet in spite of these influences, he has retained an independent attitude to the past. ‘The biggest force that drives my designs is thinking about how they will be used. So my relationship to tradition is within that context. Which means I am interested in the tricks the old guys have figured out, and how to improve on the stuff they weren’t able to figure out so well. Many type designers focus on recreating old letterforms or work directly inspired by old typefaces but that does not interest me as much. In general, I place value on creating new work. I think old stuff is something to be studied and learned from but not revered. Creating my own forms is simply what interests me more. It might have to do with my fine art background and that I just like to draw so much.’

In spite of his reservations about calligraphy, Highsmith recently began experimenting with that technique’s possibilities and conventions – especially the diagonal stress or contrast between thick and thin strokes – which lends coherence to words and lines. Out of these explorations came Amira (2004), a ‘calligraphic sans-serif’. Highsmith: ‘It started out as an experiment. I was playing around my typeface Prensa, and thought there was some potential. So I started investigating the idea of a calligraphic sans. I was curious to see how other type designers approached this theme but I didn’t find many examples – it’s relatively uncharted territory. The most famous is Optima. Then maybe Lydian. And there is the under-appreciated Stellar by Robert Hunter Middleton. There are others, but compared to the quantity of geometric sans-serifs that exist, they are precious few. This was part of the attraction of this project for me.

‘I didn’t do any actual writing with broad-nibbed pen but I have enough experience with the principles that I can visualise the effects when I am sketching with a pencil. Here, too, my approach to drawing was very much focused on the negative shapes rather than the black lines. So while I referred to the broad-nibbed pen, I did not use it in a literal way.’ Amira bears some resemblance to Evert Bloemsma’s Legato, brought out by FontShop almost simultaneously. But while Bloemsma achieved diagonal contrast by consciously artificial means, Amira looks slightly more organic.

An ideal education
Highsmith says he has occasionally used calligraphy in his type design at RISD. ‘I have found it can be a very effective way to explain certain things about how letters are often constructed. But in general, I don’t think learning calligraphy is necessary for learning type design. In fact, sometimes I think it can get in the way because when it is taken too far it can limit what you can see and draw because everything is through the filter of the pen. And while that is an important dimension of type design it is just one dimension.’

What then, should an education in type design look like? Is risd a good school for aspiring type designers? ‘risd is a good school for an aspiring graphic designer. That is what our programme is focused on. I just teach one elective class a year in type design for students who are interested. The spirit of the class is more of a crash course. I am not training type designers. I am training graphic designers who want to become more sophisticated users of type by learning how it is put together and how it really works. Sometimes I do have a student who tells me they do want to be a type designer and I put them on a different path. Plus I try to make time for any one student who shows initiative and approaches me with a type-related project outside of this elective.

‘I am not sure what an ideal education in type looks like. I would say that I am a believer in an apprentice-style system, which is how I learned at Font Bureau. I believe in teaching a specific method for drawing type and learning from experience. I think the best thing someone can do to learn to draw type is to draw as many different kinds of typefaces as they can.’

First published in Eye no. 59 vol. 15 2006

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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