CCA's Men of Letters

Type design is a bit like the music business: There are a few rock stars whose names everyone knows, but there are also a whole bunch of other people you haven't heard of, out there making a living doing what they love.

And CCA is proud to claim many men and women in both categories. Over the years the college has accumulated a real wealth of faculty, students, and alumni who embrace the label "type designer" and have had their letterforms used in some impressively high-profile venues.

The college's emphasis on this subfield of graphic design sets it apart from other schools; the Graphic Design Program has maintained a series of courses exclusively devoted to it for more than 20 years now.

And the Bay Area, largely thanks to CCA and its ripple effects, is today a real hotbed of people who are active in the field.

The study of fonts, you might say, is the study of subtle psychological warfare. Practitioners get to delve deep into the personalities and connotations of letters and typefaces, knowing that the subtlest adjustment to the way text looks can alter its received meaning.

"Certain fonts give certain impressions," says alumnus Daniel Amara (Graphic Design 2010). "Anything I say in Comic Sans makes me seem unsophisticated. A message in Arial is taken less seriously than something said in a crisper, better-made font. Everyone understands this, but what a lot of people miss is that these things are all around us, every day. We absorb them on many levels. We navigate through the world typographically."

Mastering the Lingo

Type design is constantly expanding to keep pace with new technology, but the lingo remains fairly stable: Lettering is the custom design of a word, phrase, or longer passage of text, and usually implies "hand-drawn." Font design is custom lettering regimented into a repeatable, programmable series that can be copied, licensed, and deployed in new works by someone other than the original designer. Branding and identity systems are families of logos and other unique marks that a company uses to identify its products, and these almost always involve custom letterforms of some kind.

Bob Aufuldish and Rod Cavazos, longtime faculty members and acclaimed designers, both operate type foundries, a term coined back when letters were carved out of metal and set by hand. Today, foundries are digital libraries of fonts created by designers either as independent entrepreneurial ventures or as commissioned projects for clients.

If you are working, for instance, on a modest website design project, you might spend $25 for a license to use a font, which will include a limited selection of special characters beyond the standard 26 letters and 10 numerals. If you are a bigger client with real money to spend, for instance a presidential campaign or a university, you might pay several hundred dollars to use a distinctive font in your marketing materials.

And if you are a major corporation that does a lot of advertising, you might hire a high-end firm to create a proprietary font for a brand and pay as much as $250,000 for their work.

Founding Foundries

Aufuldish was encouraged to start his own foundry, FontBoy, in the mid-1990s when he realized he had more ideas than his existing foundry, the highly respected Èmigré, was willing to publish. (He also maintains an independent graphic design studio, Aufuldish and Warinner.)

Rod Cavazos also launched his foundry, PSY/OPS, at almost exactly the same time. "We could feel that there was a major shift coming," he remembers. "1995 was an explosive year, the year that the Internet became viable for civilians, as it were. In the old days, type companies had all the clout, and designers very little. We were beholden to them, like musicians in the record industry. It felt good to break out of that oppressive system and self-represent."

Cavazos began teaching at CCA in 2006 and often collaborates with Aufuldish (who started teaching here in 1991) in both curriculum-related endeavors and outside professional work.

James Edmondson (Graphic Design 2013), a student currently in his fourth year, has already garnered much attention in the type community for his custom lettering designs that are lively, nostalgic, and solidly readable, integrating mid-century formalism and drawn elements. His work is licensed through Lost Type, a pay-what-you-like co-op foundry.

Since anyone can purchase his fonts though Lost Type, he’s not always aware of it every time his work is used. "My fonts pop up in the most random places. Friends get excited when they see them, and they send me photos and links. I love to see my work used as part of a nice piece, where you can tell the designers had an enthusiasm for it."

Edmondson is part of a generation of designers who look out for one another using the same digital platforms with which they promote their work. Case in point: a Twitter kerfuffle in September 2012, when the Republican presidential campaign started selling T-shirts that made use of Edmondson's Wisdom Script font . . . without having bought a license. (The Obama campaign also used that font, and did buy a license.)

"The type community absolutely noticed, and went about a public shaming, and the T-shirts were taken down off the web. There's no trademark on my work, but type design is such a small world that we all know one another, and protect one another when someone's being cheated."

Edmondson focuses his freelance bandwidth strictly on commissions for hand lettering projects and font designs. "I learn best when working on a variety of projects at once. Fonts are like architecture -- they require so much planning -- whereas hand lettering is more expressive and creative. The most important thing is finding the right style for each project -- one that’s different from any other while not being so radical that it calls too much attention to itself."

The Psychology of Type

Daniel Amara came to CCA in 2007 after receiving an undergraduate degree in social psychology from UC Davis and spending several years working as a freelance designer and coder. "I quit my previous career to come to CCA, and it was the best thing I could have done. At CCA I learned that some things are all about type. If you make a cool graphic with crummy type, the design's still a failure.

"At almost any other school, you'll get one or two semesters of typography, if you're lucky. But at CCA we could take up to four years of typography courses. That's actually why I chose this college."

Today Amara is a full-time freelance designer, focusing on interface design and digital media. Lately he's been working on identity systems, a subfield of branding. For a single client this might involve deployments across the web, apps, print, packaging, and beyond, all involving type combined with graphics and photographs.

And he draws on his social psychology background constantly. "That degree taught me about what people can and can’t perceive, and how they organize their knowledge. My job as a designer is all about how the work makes you feel."

Cloak and Dagger

Rod Cavazos was self-taught in the art of type design. "I am just one of those people who has the type bug. We even attribute personalities to different letters and fonts. They’re our 'little guys and gals.' I love to see a tiny scrap of a letter -- a seed of a sketch -- turn into a beautiful, finished letterform. PSY/OPS is a type company’s type company."

Cavazos's name for his foundry calls to mind a stealth intelligence agency. And it often operates in exactly that fashion. "We may work for other designers, or giganto high-tech companies, in situations where secrecy is a huge factor." PSY/OPS may create designs under heavy-duty NDAs (nondisclosure agreements), in which case the employees of the foundry are not permitted even to discuss who they are currently working for, let alone what they are working on, or put the finished product in the PSY/OPS firm portfolio.

"Not all projects require that level of confidentiality, but I do wish we could show more of what we've done over the years."

Aufuldish has a less cloak-and-dagger but equally vivid metaphor for working with clients: "There are times when taking clients through the design process is like leading them through therapy. They're working out the issues of their company through whatever the project is. The visual representation of who a company is can't be executed unless they know themselves. So I help them figure that out."

Analog Versus Digital

The history of type design can be easily separated into two eras: the analog and the digital. The ability to design and reproduce type with software programs, and to market one's work on the Internet, has left no aspect of the industry unchanged.

Before the digital era, the typical person on the street didn't think much about typography or logo design, but today it's quite common to see mainstream news articles -- or a big public uproar, as we saw last December with the unveiling of the new (and scrapped soon thereafter) University of California logo -- about the new look of a familiar brand.

Aufuldish recalls, "When I started working in design in the 1980s, there were literally no computers out there that visually oriented people would want to use." With the proliferation of personal computers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, all the pent-up hunger for new ideas in the type world was released as metal fonts were adapted for digital use, and new fonts were invented that never existed as metal.

Today it's a virtual renaissance for designers working in type. They're free from the confines of paste-ups and agents. Custom-everything is in vogue. Clients understand what branding means and are hungry for a dose of it. And as people increasingly recognize the active emotional impact of type, the type designer's work gains in prestige and is better appreciated.

Typography in CCA's Curriculum

A great type designer -- really, any artist or designer -- operates out of passion rather than obligation. "You'll never do well if you force yourself into a field where you're competing with folks who are truly committed," Aufuldish advises. "I always stress to my students that you should pursue your calling, no matter what."

CCA's typography courses cover everything from basic formal studies to software programs such as FontLab to more sophisticated investigations of information design. In addition to teaching studio courses, Aufuldish is the faculty advisor for Sputnik, a team of undergraduate graphic designers responsible for producing many CCA publications.

One of Cavazos's advanced-level seminars is Digital Type Studio, in which students push type as a truly radical, experimental communications medium. They create their own font from scratch, focusing on display (big headline) type rather than the more formal aspects of type design or readability.

The fourth level of the Graphic Design Program (which has five levels, the last one being thesis) involves a host of such electives, which means students build a diverse skill set, develop a broad portfolio, and really figure out what their particular specialties will be.

"The CCA students continually inspire me," says Cavazos. "It's a cliché, but it's true! The caliber of their work is outstanding." He credits social media platforms and new foundries such as Lost Type with having spearheaded the next wave of innovation and creativity in type design.

Indeed, for those who live to breathe new life into letters and numerals (and assorted dingbats), there's no time like the present to be in the business.