Practice and Process
In a short time, Eric Olson’s highly focused type foundry has won both peer acclaim and high-profile clients
Eric Olson’s life is changing rapidly. The 32-year-old type designer has temporarily moved from Minnesota to Britain, where his wife and partner, Nicole Dotin (also 32), recently began a master’s degree at Reading. Next year, Chevrolet, the car giant, unveils a new campaign using a font commissioned from Process Type Foundry (www.processtypefoundry.com), the boutique font studio that the couple started in the summer of 2002.
Olson and Dotin, who both studied at the University of Minnesota, are a part of the generation of type designers educated after the first frenzy of exuberant experimentation that began in the late 1980s and continued into the 1990s. Their interest in digital craft grew in tandem with the 1996 introduction of OpenType, and the more robust release of FontLab, the font design application that has now superseded Fontographer.
Olson began designing typefaces while working in the Student Union communications department. ‘This was the gig every design student coveted, because the primary projects were the posters for bands,’ he says. ‘I was designing, like, a poster a day. It didn’t take long before I had exhausted every font choice the department had to offer. As a gift, my boss purchased for me a copy of Fontographer, and I was on my way.’ It was during this time that Olson – who considers himself a self-taught type designer – became interested in the potential of font-production technologies.
After graduating in 1999, Olson honed his skills while also working as a designer at the gallery Intermedia Arts, the Walker Art Center and, later, the University of Minnesota Design Institute (di). In 2002, he started Process Type Foundry because he sensed a ‘palpable hole’ in the market. At the time, he says, there seemed to be few choices in contemporary sans serif typefaces that were also ‘typographic’ – fonts with a high craft-value that are not so much ‘bookish’ as ‘workhorses’ serving a variety of purposes.
Klavika is just such a typeface: ‘Klavika was my first step towards making modern typefaces more typographic – crisp and modern but with true italics, small caps and extensive numeral styles.’ The reason behind this effort was to fill a void:
‘I feel like a fair amount of detail has gone into
so-called ‘humanist’ sans faces, but not so with the more modern or contemporary faces. With Klavika I wanted to keep everything as open as possible – something that is not as common with faces that adhere to a certain amount of geometry. Somewhere during the drawing process, I simply had to break from any geometry and make the font work. In the end, the only real geometries are the straight sides. Does that count as geometry? I suppose not. But it still “feels” geometric. That is something I’m trying to put to bed these days. I’m ready to move on to other work.’
Process is one of a relatively small group of modest type design outfits to have gained attention for a focused, individualistic output. Such tiny foundries do not aim to compete with behemoths like Linotype or itc, but instead direct their efforts towards producing more innovative selections. ‘The “big guys” expend their energy promoting their existing libraries and don’t do a lot of experimentation because of the risk and expense,’ Olson explains. ‘Little foundries like Process introduce their designs to a narrowly defined audience that includes a sympathetic end-user, i.e. graphic designers who produce projects in the cultural sector or for themselves.’
Yet in May of 2006, the New York-based global brand consultancy FutureBrand approached Process to design a more condensed version of Klavika for exclusive use in its re-branding of the US car company Chevrolet. Klavika Condensed was Olson’s first foray into the high-powered world of corporate commercial clients: ‘The first thing I did was hire a lawyer,’ he recalls, ‘who stopped counting end-user licences after we got up to 6000 and decided upon a globally exclusive license. The idea of having that many users for my typefaces was overwhelming.’ Klavika Condensed was indeed an atypical commission for the studio. ‘The client was quite secretive; the art directors gave me information about the project on a “need-to-know” basis – and only if I asked,’ says Olson. ‘However, the relationship with one of the primary designers, Aaron Carambula, was very productive and he knew exactly what was needed: a compliment to Klavika that was “loud but stately” to distinguish the brand from its principal rival, Ford Motors.’ Both Chevrolet and Ford had been using Helvetica Condensed in their advertisements for many years.
Chevrolet commissioned Klavika Condensed to serve practical purposes. It needed a condensed font for its big, bold (and wordy) headers: ‘They cram a ton of text into very small spaces,’ notes Olson. ‘Because it’s so open, Klavika seems to work well for such contexts. Even the new condensed Klavika at 7 point Light is very legible – not ideal, but legible.’ Second, Chevrolet needed the font for all technical data it publishes – the ‘fine print’. Klavika Condensed will make its debut in early 2007 in 44 countries; though there is a chance it may be too ‘progressive’ for Chevy’s original American audience.
Such overly cautious aesthetic concerns may explain the disproportionate number of Process’s customers (three in five) who are based outside the United States. ‘The American clients who do gravitate to our fonts are often design-oriented in content, though we do get a few corporate customers who purchase multi-user licenses.’
‘The Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) faculty and its in-house design studio, DesignWorks, were the first enthusiastic audiences I found for my typefaces,’ says Olson, who taught typography there from 2001 to 2003. Bryant, a typeface modelled around the popular Wrico lettering kits used by draftsmen and amateur sign-makers in the 1960s and 70s, had its debut in the di’s 2002 exhibition poster Here By Design, designed by faculty member Kindra Murphy. Since she applied the face in MCAD’s annual View Book, it has also been employed in all of the college’s communication vehicles including its temporary signage, flyers, postcards and its website (www.mcad.edu).
Several of Process’s fonts exploit technical possibilities that were not necessarily intended by the software developers. Such technology-inspired applications include fig, an asci-art font named after the figlet software programmers Frank (Sheeran), Ian (Chai) and Glenn (Chappell); and FindReplace, an ‘exploration into the generative possibilities of type design software and simple grid structures’, using a feature normally reserved for replacing unwanted curves or elements.
Lingua includes nearly 200 ligatures derived from a customised ‘Ligature Counter’ program designed by Olson’s MCAD colleague, Justin Bakse (www.volcanokit.com/volcanokit3/ligCounter). ‘Eric needed an easy method to count the most common two-letter-pairs in a large sample of contemporary texts (two weeks’ worth of news articles and one novel), so I made Ligature Counter specifically to help with this task. It’s just a simple Web-based application that allows a user to enter excerpts of text and reports how often each pair of letters occur,’ explains Bakse.
Most recently, Olson expanded his technological repertoire in the design of a utility for the Walker Art Center’s identity font, Walker Expanded (Eye no. 59 vol. 15, ‘Unfurling artwords’). The Walker’s design director and curator, Andrew Blauvelt, told me that it was as a jury member for the ‘Typeface Twin Cities’ competition at the University of Minnesota Design Institute that he came to know and respect Olson’s work as a typographer.
‘His familiarity with the studio was a bonus, especially in understanding how these “fonts” would work as word-groupings based on museum activities and nomenclature. Also, part of me really just wanted to hire someone who was local, to connect the Walker back to the Twin Cities design scene,’ says Blauvelt.
‘I thought Eric would be interested in helping us figure it out as a complicated technical project, a crucial bit of engineering and programming. And that he would appreciate the irony of having an identity built on a notion of a typeface that wasn’t a typeface – and not be the kind of typographer who only understands typography proper and places it on up on a pedestal. Somehow I thought he could figure out the technical issues and make it work. And he did.’
For Process, these ‘constructed’ fonts are about creating structures and processes that enable a good result for whoever is doing the actual graphic design work, and represent but half of what Olson calls ‘the split-personality of the studio’. ‘On the one hand, we produce fonts that are highly constructed – or “built”; on the other hand, we make fonts that are extensive and full featured,’ he says. Olson believes there is still a lot of room for further experimentation with the technology. ‘OpenType remains unexplored territory,’ he says. And this experimentation is further encouraged by the generous community of type designers who are also open-source-minded Python programmers. ‘They make this aspect of type design exciting – and possible, for me, because I am not a programmer per se.’
The newest, and as yet untitled, addition to the foundry (scheduled for release in March 2007) will, like Klavika and Bryant, fall in the category of fonts that are ‘extensive and full featured’. This elegant font is a variant of Locator, a design he had been working on for several years, and whose original forms were assembled from an amalgam of previous ideas for a ‘new, neutral sans serif’. In its current manifestation, Locator was unveiled during the Typeface Twin Cities project, a competition between six type design studios commissioned by the DI to develop a typeface for its Twin Cities Design Celebration in 2003.
Though his submission did not win, Eric continued working on it, expanding the font into six text faces with corresponding italics and six muscular display faces. The untitled Locator font will be a ‘totally different beast’, he says. ‘The aim is to make a graceful workhorse sans. It will be five weights with all of the typographic details, true italics, small caps, multiple numeral styles, etc. It’s still in development; I’m slow, I guess. I have a hard time cranking out my personal work because it could be ... anything. I’m taking my time because with the amount of “workhorse sans” in the stable – well, you get the idea; too many cooks in the kitchen.’
Local and global
Olson is modestly surprised at the recent success of his foundry, ‘This is all I do now, design typefaces. I never thought I would ever be able to leave my day job and focus full time on type design.’ Perhaps one of the obvious reasons for Process’s success – and that of other like-minded foundries with loyal customers willing to take a risk on something new – can be attributed to the warm welcome his typefaces found in the experimental atmosphere of local design studios such as MCAD, the Walker and the di; all non-profit institutions with less commercially reserved aesthetic concerns and more audiences with appetites for visually sophisticated design – the perfect ‘breeding ground’ for the kind of work that garners attention in the design press where it can be seen by even larger audiences.
For example, Criswell Lappin and Nancy Nowacek began using Stratum in their redesign of Metropolis magazine for the 25th anniversary issue in April 2006 – and commissioned a custom italic for their specific needs, i. e. titles in image captions – after seeing Olson’s typefaces in use on his website. This ‘trickle up’ effect has had an advantageous impact on the studio; Process typefaces are now found in projects by national cultural institutions (New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Mellon’s Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art); design, architecture and cultural magazines (Metropolis, Magnet, Skiing, Work); ad agencies (Wolff Olins, Levis, Frankford Financial, Fresca Soda) and broadcast networks (nbc, hgtv and cw Network). ‘In the end, the agencies pay our bills with the big licences. The small studios are . . . very small,’ Olson reminds me.
Whatever the reasons for his successes, Olson will continue designing typefaces – slowly, and under the critical eye of his wife while the couple live in Britain for the next year. Dotin, whose original degree is in fine arts, is taking a master’s degree at Reading University’s Department of Typography and Graphic Communication. ‘It’s business as usual,’ says Olson, whose website loyally states that they are ‘currently working from Reading, England (but forever anchored to Minneapolis, Minnesota)’. ‘I’ll be doing the foundry as in the States but I’d like to realise the typefaces I have in the works. It seems like I’m getting slower the more I learn. My typefaces have turned into two-year productions now, but I hope to get at least one out the door.’www.processtypefoundry.com
Deborah Littlejohn, design fellow, University of Minnisota, Minneapolis
First published in Eye no. 62 vol. 16 2006
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