On Typography

Martin Strong is a student at Monash University in Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) studying Visual Communication. As part of a brief for Typography, he had to choose a typographer that gave him inspiration. He chose John Roshell, because of his interest in comics, and the way typography was used throughout the layouts. With a chosen typographer in mind, he had to interview the typographer, and design a book where the interview would be included. Here is the interview.

Martin: Why do you design type, what made you decide to follow a typographical career?

John: I guess I was around junior high when it occurred to me that there were such things as typefaces; that it was’t a coincidence that the lettering style on a record sleeve matched what I had seen on a store sign or in a magazine. I tried to mimic fonts like Eurostile and Gill Sans by hand, and then I discovered those sheets of Letraset rub-on letters, and used those a lot for band flyers and student-council type stuff in high school.

Once I got on a Mac for the first time, though, it was all over. The idea that I could just type stuff and change the lettering style instantly was just mind-blowing. I went to UCLA and majored in design, though most of the practical knowledge I gained was from my on-campus job in the advertising department, designing all the printed materials for the student union under the supervision of a team of professional designers.

The job of actually designing type really just fell into my lap. After I graduated, I was doing freelance design work, and a friend of a friend of my girlfriend was looking for someone to help input comic lettering into his computer. I was always a big Spider-Man fan, so I jumped at the chance. Richard Starkings had been a hand-letterer in England and the U.S. for a couple of years, and had purchased his first Mac and created a basic font of his hand-lettering. I started working for him in the winter of ’92, inputting the type for low-selling books like Cage and Hellstorm (which were the only books he could convince editors to let him use the computer on). Pretty soon he was letting me make updates to the font in Fontographer, and before long I had created a more accurate version of his hand-lettering as well as fonts based on some of his sound effect and display styles.

He made me aware of all the great comic book hand-letterers, like Sam Rosen, Artie Simek and Gaspar Saladino, as well as who the best of the current people, like Tom Orzechowski and Todd Klein. Here I had been reading comic books for years, but had never really been aware of the letterer as an individual, and I really never realized how much they contributed to the overall “feel” of a comic. What I had always thought of as the classic 1960s “comic book look” was due in large part to Sam and Artie’s distinctive letters, since they did virtually all of the lettering, logos and advertisements for those old comics.

Do you follow a particular style when creating type?

Not really — even within the realm of comic books, there’s all sorts of genres, and so I’m pretty much able to run the gamut. I’ve done dozens of hand-lettering styles for the word balloons, and for title and display lettering, I’ll do anything from art deco, to sci-fi/techno, to something sharp and gothic.

Is there a particular way that you approach a design brief in typography? Do you have a particular belief in the way type should look, for example, organic or hard edged?

Certainly not — type shouldn’t always have to “be” anything. The possibilities are unlimited, an so it totally depends on the font itself, and what it’s going to be used for. Actually, over the last ten years, I’d say that line has really been blurred to the point of disappearing, what with all the classic serif and sans-serif fonts being mutilated and roughened up to make new “grunge” styles.

When I first started computerizing comic lettering, I think everyone (from readers to editors to other hand-letterers) thought the goal of computer lettering was to as close as possible approximate “organic” hand lettering. And I found that trying to make a computer do that was about as difficult as trying to get perfectly straight lines and sharp corners with a pen! So I moved more towards just using hand lettering as a starting point to create fonts that worked on their own terms. I understand the nostalgia of wanting to have comics look like they’ve always looked, but I think it’s a lot more interesting and fun to let the computer impose some of its will on the process. Just copying what already exists is pretty boring, I’d rather move ahead and try to come up with something new. Besides, if people now are nostalgic for lettering where you could tell a pen was used, the next generation will probably pine for the days where you could tell we were using a Mac, or Illustrator, or whatever. I know on the coloring side, the ’90s will be remembered as the time when all comics had photographic moons inserted into them.. 🙂

When you begin to create a typefont, what/who do you look to for inspiration?

Richard and I realized pretty early on that old comics were where all the other comic letterers were looking as well, so we try to look for inspiration in as many other places as possible. We’re both insane book buyers — neither of us can go into a bookstore without leaving with something.

And I rarely buy books on “design” or “typography” — it seems like you can pick one up from any particular year, and everybody in the “design world” is doing pretty much the same thing. Last year it was lots of layers of type all over the place, with grungy versions of Times and Helvetica; this year it’s rave party techno stuff (gotta have that 3D rendered object in there somewhere!)

So I try to find inspiration in places that most people aren’t looking — as well as old comics, I love Mucha and Art Nouveau, old large-letter postcards (y’know — “Greetings from SAN FRANCISCO”), graffiti art, Victorian tin cans and packaging (especially train stuff and circus posters), book jackets, sixties rock posters, orange crate labels — a lot of stuff that had practical uses, but that people still put a lot of time into creating. I’m more into what is/was familiar to most people, than what was the “cutting edge” for the sake of being “cutting edge”. What I’m saying, is that I’d rather have a book on “General Store Collectibles” than “Typography on the Edge”, which always seems to me like a bunch of designers all patting each other on the back, while nobody out in the rest of the world really understands or cares. Of course, if I’m ever in one of those books, I’ll probably change my mind and think they’re really cool… 🙂

What is your favourite type face that you have designed (can you give me a sample for reference) and what is your favourite genre (ie sci-fi, gothic, etc).

Can I pick two?

TheStorySoFar is a sharp sci-fi font that has its roots in old pulp novel covers. It’s actually a co-design between myself and Richard Starkings — he did the lowercase, and about five years later I did an uppercase for something else that ended up matching perfectly. I use it all the time, particularly on the X-MEN.

SchoolsOut uppercase I based on graffiti lettering, but when I did the lowercase I made it more bouncy and cartoon-like, so I’d have more uses for it. I like the way it ended up being neither and both, depending on when I look at it.

Dunno if it’s actually a genre, but old comics and hand-lettered signage is what I always have in the back of my mind, no matter what type of font I’m working on.

What type of limitations are there on the level of creative expression that can
be incorporated in lettering and design as compared to writing or penciling?

Well, the lettering in particular is one of those arts that is most effective when it’s invisible. In other words, if someone notices the lettering, then they’ve been distracted from the story, and I haven’t done my job properly. Not that I don’t take every chance to make the lettering as cool as possible — I just do it (hopefully) in a way that adds to the overall presentation, and not at the expense of making it easy to read and follow. And, while bad lettering can ruin a good comic, it often occurs to me (while lettering a lot of what the big companies put out), that no matter how good the lettering is, it can’t make up for a bad story or bad art.

I got the urge a couple of years ago, to try to tell the story myself — a friend and I created a comic called “Waste L.A.”. It was a really fun experiment for me to create a comic entirely out of black & white photographs. Unfortunately, my friend’s interest waned after the first issue or two, and I got run really ragged trying to create it and deal with all the publishing and printing aspects at the same time. It cost me a hell of a lot of time and money, and while I’m glad I’ve done it, I don’t know if I’d do it again…

What are your thoughts on typography in general, and typography as it relates to comics?

I often start with just a couple of letters that I created for a logo or something, and it’s fun to extrapolate what all the other letters will look like based on that. I really enjoy seeing an alphabet come together — every time you type out a different word, the letters relate to each other in different ways, and it’s a real challenge to create something that will work for a potentially infinite number of possibilities. (And no, I’m certainly not saying I kern every pair!)

I enjoy comics because, with so many genres, I get the opportunity to try a lot of different things, and express all the different interests I have. In Astro City, for example, I get to pull out all my old Art Deco and Streamline books, and do my own update on that whole “the future is here today” kind of attitude. For the recent Kevin Smith Daredevil storyline, I responded to the artist’s love for Art Nouveau, and created a series of creepy Mucha-inspired fonts. In both of those cases, I got the opportunity to also design the collected book packaging — it’s really satisfying to have that level of control over the whole package and presentation. I can hand someone one of those books and say “every word you see, I put it there.” And Comicraft letters everything from classic comics like Spider-Man and Superman to horror books, to fantasy to funny books, to whatever — it always falls to me to find some way of interpreting it typographically.

Of course, part of why I get that level of control is that the comics industry has shrunk to the point where a) it’s possible for one person like me to be involved in many of the top projects, and b) not have to deal with big money people looking over anyone’s shoulder worried about what we’re doing. The downside of that is I feel like most of the people I know (and most people my age) will never see the work I do unless I show it to them personally. It’s not like I’m in TV or doing movie titles, or something where millions of people would see it whether they knew it was me or not. So that’s kind of frustrating, to be kind of holed up in this little cottage industry. But I enjoy the admiration of my peers (and hell, I gotta say it’s a kick being thought of as someone’s ‘hero’ — thank you for that) and my wife and my dog. And hopefully, someday when my 1 1/2 year old discovers my massive collection of comics, he’ll be impressed that his dad had something to do with making a lot of them.

Martin Strong is studying Visual Communication at Monash University in Melbourne (Victoria, Australia). This interview was part of a brief for a class on Typography.