May 24, 2012

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Besides working to make Chattanooga the first American city with its own typeface, Robbie de Villiers and Jeremy Dooley give the Scenic City a population density of typographers greater than that of several nations. According to Dooley, there are about 300 full-time type designers in the world. Having these two in Chattanooga puts us ahead of Brazil, Poland, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain and Thailand, according to Wikipedia.

Not that there’s a competition or anything. It’s really not much of a stretch to say that typography is both ubiquitous and obscure. Our visual environment is filled with type, from books and word-processing documents to outdoor advertising and “no parking” signs. If it’s a word, unless it’s handwritten, it’s typeset. We are swimming in type, and type designers are the mostly unknown creators of the water molecules. And the work of de Villiers and Dooley is floating around all over the place.

Over a nearly 30-year career, de Villiers has created the logos and product designs—including hand-drawn type—for some very familiar consumer products such as Orange Crush, Canada Dry ginger ale and Maxwell House 1892 coffee. He also designed the official typeface for Erfurt, the oldest city in Germany. Originally from South Africa, he emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s and moved from Connecticut to Chattanooga last year.

Dooley has only been a full-time type designer since 2007, but two of his typefaces—Aviano and Aviano Sans—topped the typeface bestseller lists for several years. Although he has no way to track their use, he’s found them everywhere from a background in a Harry Potter movie to a Warehouse Row ad. He has lived in Europe and the Middle East and moved to Chattanooga in 2011.

Type design is a unique combination of technical and artistic work, according to Dooley.

“You have to have technical skills to know what you’re doing and artistic skills to make it look good,” he said. “You have to have some technical skills to trouble shoot your product, because you’re ultimately producing a piece of software.”

De Villiers learned to design type by hand at his first job in the 1980s. Before he could actually design anything, an old-school Swiss type designer started him off drawing i’s and l’s. That’s all he did for six months.

According to de Villiers, the artistry of the type enhances the words that are typeset.

“The words themselves have meaning, but the type and the way it’s designed creates an expression as well. The shapes themselves can be visual poetry,” he said.

De Villiers still begins a new typeface with hand drawings before scanning them and developing them further in a type-design program.

“The thing I admire about Jeremy is that he really knows the back end of how to make these fonts technically,” he said. “I’m totally reliant on what the program does for me. I’m more interested in and concerned about the actual shapes and that they conform to my classical background than I’m concerned about the output.”

Both Dooley and de Villiers have classical leanings, in fact—Dooley’s Aviano was based on Roman titling inscriptions like Trajan’s Column, for example—but in some ways their styles couldn’t be more different.

“I think I definitely have a leaning toward two things—I love stencil and I love a slightly more overall condensed letters,” said de Villiers. “Jeremy has this expansive stuff, but I’m completely the other end of spectrum.”

The difference in styles is so great that, when they created Chatype, each made his own separate version and then they merged the two, taking the best of each to create a composite typeface.

One reason the jointly created Chatype works, according to de Villiers, is that it was designed following the golden ratio, a set of mathematical proportions that underlies classical architecture, painting and type design.

To illustrate, he cites a test of three typefaces for reading speed and comprehension. The same text was typeset in the same layout but using three different faces: Helvetica, Times New Roman and Gill. The winner, in both speed and comprehension, was Gill because it was the only one of the three that was based on classical golden proportions.

“For me those proportions are really critical in the designs I do,” he said. “If you’re not sensitive to those proportions, it looks butt ugly. It just doesn’t work. It’s subtle but it’s very real. Those same proportions apply to faces, cars, pretty much anything.”


May 24, 2012

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