The challenge of reviving a vagrant typeface
If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world—so said poet Percy Shelley, therefore it must be true—then type designers must be the unacknowledged architects of the world.
The words that build our mental environment, including poetry, are mostly typeset. For me, type is more than the spoonful of sugar that makes the words go down. It’s more like a complementary form of visual magic that makes the words more powerful.
Type designer James Edmondson is a bit too modest to make that kind of assertion. But his typefaces have shaped a lot of words already, even though he’s only 28. He published his first font while he was still an undergrad at the California College of the Arts. He went to grad school in the TypeMedia program of the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, Netherlands in 2014 and just started his own type foundry, OH no Type Company, last August.
Edmondson was in Chattanooga last week for TopCon, the homegrown design conference. I talked to him about Hobeaux, one of the two types on offer from his new company, which is a revival of Hobo, a novelty type created around 1905 and expanded in 1910.
“It was an Art Nouveaux-inspired design, so there’s very few straight lines,” he says. “There’s no geometry whatsoever. It’s all curves and no descenders—nothing that goes below the baseline, all the lower case letters end at the same place.”
His interest in Hobo grew slowly. It was ubiquitous in the ’60s, often in distorted riffs on the basic font in psychedelic rock posters. Over the years, Hobo got under Edmondson’s skin and he found it has an interesting history.
“It was relatively popular when it came out, but it was named Hobo because it floated around the drawing office and no one wanted to work on it and finish it,” he says. “Somehow, I think mostly because it has such a distinct look and it’s unlike anything else that’s available, it survived every major technological leap. It started in metal type and then it transitioned into a photo font in the phototypesetting era, and then it was one of the first fonts that was digitized in the early ’80s.”
But the current version now installed on nearly every computer is a bit of a bum: a shoddy drawing of the original that’s not taken seriously by designers. Doing his own version became a passion project for Edmondson.
“This is me testing the idea that you should do the work that only you will do, the things that you are most passionate about,” he says. “I knew that no one else was going to work on Hobo, so that made it fun for me.“
Edmondson also has some advice for startups. He sees them playing it safe visually, from branding to marketing to interface designs, using geometrical, sans serif typefaces that (they think) convey sophistication.
“The thing I notice as far as design goes with startups is that everyone is really looking the same. All these brands feel very similar,” he says. “Getting away from math and geometry when you’re building these assets that support a brand or a startup is a good way to make the product feel more human.”
Despite the ubiquitous image of Roman capital letters overlaid with a geometry of circles and lines, the shapes of letters have always come more from the handmade marks of brushes and pens, even the chisels of stone carvers.
Edmondson would like to see startups reclaim the typographic techniques that have been empowering words for centuries: “The same rules apply. You’re just a human reading type. It’s all about reading.”
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic web site in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com