Type Supply: 0+1=2

What is typeface design in the digital age? More than just drawing lines, it’s giving emotions form.

Tal Leming, founder of Type Supply, graduated in the late 1990s from the graphic design program of the Louisiana State University School of Art. Like many other designers featured in this series, Leming took his first professional steps as a graphic designer, but gradually discovered a preference for type. “Oddly, I don’t remember making the decision to start a foundry. One thing led to another and it just kind of happened. I started drawing typefaces around 22 years ago after I stumbled onto Emigre Magazine. The interplay between Zuzana Licko’s brilliant typefaces and Rudy Vanderlans’ layouts was magic. I started making typefaces for the work I was doing in my classes and at my job as a designer for my university. That led to making typefaces for use outside of my own work. That led to me making some typefaces for House Industries. That led to me working as a designer at House for several amazing years. That led to me constantly thinking about typefaces. That led to ideas for typefaces that I worked on in my free time. That led to starting a company so that I could finish those typefaces. Once they were done I wanted to see how people would use them, so I started a foundry. It’s all one long thread but my motivation for making typefaces is still the same as it was 22 years ago. I still make typefaces to solve design problems.”

Timonium

Ohm

Torque

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In Leming’s case, “making typefaces to solve design problems” means creating and mastering several complementary tools. His growing interest in type technology and software development has made him a very sought-after programmer. He co-authored (and continues to refine) the Web Open Font Format (WOFF) specification with Erik van Blokland and Jonathan Kew, as well as the United Font Object (UFO) specification with van Blokland and Just van Rossum. He also writes OpenType feature code for other foundries and designers. “Most of my code work is for behind-the-scenes workflow support. I use it to help maintain design and quality consistency when working on large families. I’ve built my own software and open sourced well over half of my code base so that other designers can build their own tools.”

“My programming work has had a direct influence on my design work, but not in a visually demonstrable way. Writing code requires breaking large problems down into smaller, more manageable tasks. I think about visual design the same way now. I don’t see typefaces as enormous groups of things to draw anymore. Now I see them as an interconnected series of very small decisions. For example, ‘What does a curve look like? How does a curve intersect with a straight line?’ Once those decisions are made, the design process has a natural, orderly flow.”

Burbank

United

Still, Leming remains primarily a designer. He has created many logotypes and typefaces for various companies such as Adidas and Paramount Pictures, as well as for magazines like Bon Appétit or GQ. Meanwhile, Type Supply enables him to complete longstanding personal projects. “I have had an enduring love affair with the classic American Gothic style. I’ve drawn variations on that several times: United and Burbank for House Industries, Balto for myself. I’m working on a condensed version of Balto, and I think my infatuation with the style may finally subside when the new family is done.”

Balto

Started in 2007 and released in 2013, the Balto family comprises eight weights from Thin to Ultra (in Roman and italic). Despite the fact that this sans serif style has been revisited on a regular basis since its emergence in the late nineteenth century, very few digital interpretations have succeeded in grasping its soul while updating its features. Balto manages this adroitly, rejuvenating the letterforms. Perhaps thanks to Leming’s disciplined, meticulous work process, this American Gothic truly became a timeless classic that feels at home both in print and on screen.

Queue

Queue (2014), the latest sans serif family released by Type Supply, also exemplifies his approach, aiming for an ideal balance, striving to design letterforms with a discreet yet decidedly human feel. “A few years ago,” Leming recalls, “I started teaching type design and it made me come up with a definition of ‘typeface’. I can tell students that a typeface is a set of outlines defined by Cartesian coordinates and stored in a SFNT wrapper within a binary file. Technically that is correct, but it’s like defining food with a list of chemical compounds. A more complex way to look at it is: why do graphic designers pick ‘Geometric Sans Serif Designed For Use In Text Sizes 1’ instead of ‘Geometric Sans Serif Designed For Use In Text Sizes 2’? They probably perform the technical task of setting text in a given context equally well. They just look different. Designers pick one over the other because one conveys the feeling of the text more accurately than the other. So, my new definition is: ‘typefaces are emotions encapsulated in an alphanumeric representation.’ That has led me to be less interested in the visual styles that typefaces can take and more interested in what feelings they can bring to certain contexts. I have a list of emotions and contexts that I want to design something for. It’s a fun challenge.”

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Marigny

And what inspires Leming to start a new typeface? “Justifying its creation. Seriously, if I don’t have an answer to ‘Why does this typeface need to exist?’ I won’t start drawing. I never want to make things just for the sake of making them.” In that respect, Marigny (2014) eloquently speaks as much for its designer as for itself. It’s a rounded, vibrant sans serif in a class of its own, fleetingly evoking artists’ signatures on engraved plates or crude lettering on lithographed posters from the nineteenth century. Needless to say, it’s powerful for display use, but also deserves a chance to prove itself as a text typeface.

When asked if he can be considered a versatile designer, Leming ponders: “I don’t really think about myself that much. I’ve always admired designers (graphic, type, etc.) whose work can’t be stylistically pinned down. I probably have subconsciously tried to follow the style of not having a style, but I don’t know if I’ve been successful or not. I have lots of self-doubt. I really adore the classics like Bodoni and I would love to draw my ‘own’ version of them. I’ve started working on some of these, and even gotten along pretty far, but it’s hard to make something new and exciting in this area since there have been so many good revivals already. These typefaces always end up being put aside for me to work on when I retire. I’m hoping to have my Bodoni revival ready for release in 2065!”

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