The Condensed Typeface Design Program at the Cooper Union is a five-week-long studio course that at first glance, simply teaches the basics and traditions of typeface design. In reality, it was an amazing and intense summer spent with passionate people immersed in the world of type. During the 12-hour days (with breaks!) we studied type history, calligraphy, different drawing techniques, and learned the process of designing and digitizing a font. Most of the program time was spent on a final project in which each of us created an industry-standard OpenType font.
This year we were split into two groups, each taught by renowned typeface designers. Group 1 was with Just van Rossum and Hannes Famira; group 2 with Jean François Porchez and Stéphane Elbaz. Sumner Stone was on hand with his expertise and knowledge of design history, as were other visiting designers and lecturers who rounded off the course. As a student it was incredibly enriching to be around these luminaries, and the diversity of our peers only enhanced the experience. The 29 students represented 16 different countries; most being graphic designers, and all sharing a passion for typography. Some of us came with the intention of becoming typeface designers, while others wanted to better understand type to become better designers. Experience levels were across the board: some had never drawn letters before, while others had published multi-weight typefaces.
The Final Project
At our final presentations on the last day, we each introduced our completed typeface and talked about the journey we took to get there. Despite everyone beginning the course the same way, we all were pleasantly surprised to see the variety of work. Projects ranged from revivals based on tombstone lettering, to traditional Baskerville-inspired faces, to beautifully ornate display type, to text families with 7 weights geared towards publications. Some had created a bold version to accompany their font, while others created a sans accompaniment. Knowing how much time and effort we put into our work, each and every one of us was proud of the results.
How We Got There
Before we started on our final font design, the instructors put us through the following course of exercises aimed at teaching us the ins and outs of letterforms, their traditions and history, the rules of construction (and how to modify them), and how to critique our works in progress.
During the first days we did not touch a computer, but instead kicked things off with an introduction to calligraphy. We began with the broad-nib pen, focusing on correct construction of the letterforms, a process that helped us understand the proportions of each letter and why they look the way they do. Group 1 also worked on italics and how they differ from roman shapes, while Group 2 worked on Carolingian and Renaissance models before moving on to tracing the letters, then modifying the outlines and creating new forms.
Using selected letters to base our alphabet on, we worked on refining them by hand (again, based on broad-nib pen strokes) and adding serifs. After focusing on medium contrast forms, we moved on to low contrast then high contrast forms which taught us the relationship between serifs and letter strokes.
Sketching & Exploring
When it came time to consider our final project, some people had ideas for the direction they wanted to go in, but others were open to ideas and were encouraged to sketch and seek inspiration for their final project (or use TypeCooker!). For some that meant looking at found letters and developing a full font based on those forms; and for others it meant applying a strict set of rules and a concept to drawing new letters. There were a variety of approaches and sources of inspiration.
We were taught to approach a typeface design by first experimenting, drawing by hand, searching for the right forms, and only then, when the design is cohesive and consistent, go to the computer. Instructors showed us Gerrit Noordzij’s approach to sketching letters, a method more efficient than drawing outlines first, as the focus is more on form and contrast from the outset.
After a quick FontLab tutorial we were expected to dive straight in, scan our precise sketches and move to drawing bezier curves instead of pencil lines. We had wonderful TA’s to help and answer questions, they themselves having gone through the same learning process as they were students in the Extended Type@Cooper program. The fonts were all digitized and perfected using the program of our choice. We learned how to use Fontlab, but RoboFont and Glyphs were other options too.
Critiques & Lectures
Our daily studio sessions were supplemented with guest critiques and lectures. The first night featured a type design panel moderated by Ellen Lupton; Allan Haley and Erik van Blokland lectured in later weeks, along with Valerie Lester, who spoke in depth about Bodoni (the person, not the typeface) and really brought him to life. There were also intimate group critique sessions with Erik in week four, as he evaluated the progress of our typefaces and gave us tips on spacing. Cyrus Highsmith critiqued our work in the final week as our typefaces were coming together for the final presentation.
Library Visits & Type History Talks
Every Friday gave us a little break from studio time with field trips to rare books libraries. Sumner Stone shared his invaluable knowledge of typographic history from the Gutenberg Bible through to the present in our visits to the New York Public Library, Columbia University’s Butler Library, as well as the Grolier Club. During the week, 45 minutes were dedicated to learning about the evolution of letters all the way back from cuneiform, further bolstering our type education.
All in all the program was fantastic. We won’t lie and say it was easy, as it required a huge amount of focus and dedication — sleep and socializing became took second place as we devoted our attention to perfecting curves and tweaking serifs. Most of us would come home from 12-hour days of class only to spend a few more hours working on our typefaces. We did the same on weekends. It was a fun experience though, and at the final presentation, the fruits of our hard labor were clear and most certainly worth it.
The energy and dynamic of the people involved (students as well as instructors) was really inspirin,g and we were all incredibly sad to see the course come to a close. While five weeks is not enough time to learn everything about type design, this course makes the most of that time and does a great job of jumpstarting things. Anyone looking to enhance their graphic design knowledge or get into the world of typeface design would definitely benefit from this course. The program is now in its second year and is still evolving, so we guess it will only get even better.
We’d like to thank Cara Di Edwardo, the coordinator of the program; our teachers Just van Rossum, Hannes Famira, Jean François Porchez, Stéphane Elbaz and Sumner Stone; and all the great students that we got to meet and work with during the program.
Text & images by Ron Gilad & Chavelli Tsui.