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Four local designers are pushing for another Chattanooga first: to make Chattanooga the first American city with its own typeface. Ever since a sample of Chatype debuted late last year, it’s gotten rave reviews and growing support. The creative team recently sat down with The Pulse and stressed that Chatype is about much more than nicely shaped letters.
“It’s a connecting point for everybody to feel proud of the city,” said Robbie de Villiers of Wilton Foundry. He and Jeremy Dooley of Insigne Design are the professional type designers creating Chatype. They are two out of about 300 type designers worldwide.
“That’s really the goal, couched in the project of a typeface: to pull everyone in and say ‘we are Chattanooga,’” said Jonathan Mansfield. He and DJ Trischler are co-owners of D+J Brand Consulting and serve as Chatype’s art directors.
In Europe it’s second nature for cities to have their own typeface, according to de Villiers, but not in the U.S. Minneapolis recently went through what he called “an academic exercise” to develop its own typeface. Lots of good ideas surfaced but there was no adoption by city leaders.
To make Chatype the first implemented city typeface in the U.S., the designers decided to go viral. After a team of 11 people launched Chatype with a website and business plan during the 48Hour Launch last November, the design team launched a crowdsourced funding campaign in January using Kickstarter.
Seeking to capture Chattanooga in a typeface, the designers did what urban place makers have done before them. They looked at the city’s history and its visual character now, both in the built environment and in the typefaces Chattanooga designers are using. They took inspiration from the Cherokee syllabary, created by Sequoyah not far from Chattanooga. They found that the Walnut Street Bridge has something in common with classic Roman type: both reflect the “golden ratio,” a series of aesthetically pleasing proportions that have been used by designers of all kinds for centuries.
Chatype is actually a family of typefaces, including four weights: thin, regular, medium and bold. The medium weight also includes a stencil style set (where letters have breaks in them like stencils). Although the type designs shown so far may seem finished, the letterforms are still being tweaked, and much more work behind the scenes is required to make the typeface complete and usable for design projects. The price tag for creating a custom typeface is typically about $10,000, which is the amount the Kickstarter campaign is seeking.
Pressed for a technical description of the typeface, the team settles on “futuristic rounded geometric slab serif with historical overtones.” But it’s clear that they are more interested in connections than technical specifications.
“This type feels like Chattanooga, but it doesn’t feel like MLK or Lookout or North Shore. It’s unique,” said Mansfield. “It feels kind of rugged. It smells like industry but it feels like technology. It’s friendly and warm but not like a puppy. It’s funny because type design is such a mathematical, technically skilled art, but all that’s contributing to the emotional interaction that someone has or doesn’t have with it.”
“An art director I worked under used to always challenge me to create a crystal goblet,” said Trischler, “which is something extremely beautiful, but that you can see through and see what’s inside. Often what makes beautiful design is that it just fits into your life, it doesn’t distract you too much.”
“You could use it for a trail race or for a meeting with all the geeks in town to talk about the Gig,” said Dooley. “It can work for all ends of the spectrum, from outdoorsy stuff to futuristic stuff to just Chattanooga stuff.”
Reaction to Chatype has been overwhelmingly positive, and just plain overwhelming. “We thought it would be big, and it’s huge,” said Mansfield.
Support has been growing in Chattanooga ever since Chatype first went public at 48Hour Launch. But the Kickstarter campaign brought Chatype raves and financial support from all over the world.
“A lot of designers are commenting, saying ‘I wish my city had a typeface,’” said Trischler. “One was in German. All I could understand was ‘love it.’” A student in London tweeted “Never thought I would want to live in America but this place looks pretty cool.”
Although most of the money pledged so far has come from Chattanooga, most donors are from overseas, the west coast and Chicago. With a week left in their Kickstarter campaign, the creative team is more interested in getting lots of people involved than in collecting lots of dollars.
“We would love to have a bunch of $1 donations en masse from Chattanoogans,” said Mansfield.
“If 500 people gave a dollar that would be huge,” said Trischler, “because we can take it to the city and say these are votes. People are putting their money where their mouth is. Support from Iceland is great, but local is better.”