On Seeing ABSTRACT: TYPEFACE DESIGN

After spending about a year away from the series, I made a repeat visit to “Abstract: The Art of Design” on Netflix (I first blogged about it in October 2018). This time, I learned about a typography guru and expert named Jonathan Hoefler, whose fascination with all things text dances on the line of obsession and whose processes for developing new font families are both sensical and surprising.

This particular episode of “Abstract” got me to thinking: No matter what kind of artistic methods we practice, our creativity may demonstrate a grand amalgamation of place, practicalities, and the past…

Think place
When Hoefler was commissioned to invent a typeface for the rebranding of the Guggenheim, he used the museum’s architecture as his muse. The rotunda, for example, spoke “openness and roundness” and “elevated and lofty” to him, thus he set about to develop letter forms that also embodied these traits. Then came his next challenge…

Think practical
The Guggenheim’s existing signage also informed Hoefler’s work. However, he knew that certain letters—like the “E” and “H” used on the museum’s facade—were “overly stylized,” even “distracting,” and would not transfer well to headlines and text. He had his work cut out for him.

When it comes to practicalities, Hoefler also brings up his assignment with Sports Illustrated. Way back in 1989 when Hoefler was still a novice typographer, he was hired to make headlines for the magazine. That eventually led to his creating a special font family called “Knockout,” which features various widths and heights, and can always be adjusted to fit a specific headline space.

Similarly, a typeface he developed for Rolling Stone carries four different styles, but are interchangeable and don’t effect page flows when swapped in and out. They called it “The Proteus Project,” which is comprised of the font families of “Ziggurat,” “Leviathan,” “Saracen,” and “Acropolis.”

Think past
Trailblazer. Trendsetter. Forward thinker. These are titles that Hoefler wears well in the world of typography. But what I find most interesting about his artistic process is his dependence on works of the past to formulate his next big idea. Hoefler studies antique timepieces, gravestones, maps, and typesetters catalogs, paying special attention to unique characters that have potential for new life in the digital design world. In other words, who knows what hidden gems are yet to be discovered just through Hoeffler’s skills in resurrection and adaptation.

So how is our own work reflecting the distinct personalities of place? Are we considering any practical applications outside the box of our current projects? And could we forage for some relics from the past that could help make our art become even more alive in the present? Hoefler does it—we can, too!

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