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About midway through our intake questionnaire, we ask prospective clients to describe what animal best represents their organization’s personality. It’s a question that invites and reliably elicits entertainingly unexpected, thoughtful responses. Still, it’s a special day when someone describes themselves as a war-paint-wearing, battle-scarred “female centaur holding a spear.”
Go on, I’m listening.
The unapologetically badass centaur in question is Girls Garage (formerly Camp H), a unique camp and after-school program for girls ages 9–13 based in Berkeley that seeks to cultivate confidence and agency through a design- and building-centric curriculum. They’d recently acquired a new space and name, and—with unalloyed enthusiasm and drive behind them—were ready to grow into it all without losing sight of their original mission.
Our case study on Girls Garage covers much of the collective process that led to their eventual identity, which I won’t retread here. I would instead like to discuss the messy work of the heart and mind that swirls invisibly beneath the deceptive grace of finished work, and of the deeper things you learn about yourself and how to go about doing what you do. The ensuing account is necessarily limited, both temporally and in scale, to my contributions to the enterprise. To borrow a common caveat: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author.
I wish I could say that reading our questionnaire filled me with nothing but the selfsame unadulterated enthusiasm that suffuses Girls Garage’s work. There was no shortage of excitement on my part, to be sure—how could anyone not perk up at such a signally spectacular answer?—but a not insignificant germ of apprehension seeped in almost as quickly: Shit, what do I know about designing for a girls’ building and design camp?
This doubt I knew was a function of a broader anxiety, that of feeling like a pretender whose disingenuity is perennially on the verge of being found out. Imposter syndrome is, I later found out, surprisingly common, though having not come to design by way of formal channels certainly didn’t help. That said, prizing action over deliberation has its occasional advantages, and in the end I didn’t answer the question so much as ignore it. Really, though, I’d opted to “fake” it until I “made” it.
At any rate, what was much more concretely helpful was a lengthy call with the incorrigibly upbeat Emily Pilloton and Christina Jenkins, Girls Garage’s founder and program director, respectively. Listening to them describe their mission reaffirmed and redoubled my initial excitement, adding passion to mere interest.
The back-and-forths and initial sketching of ideas that followed were not without their own internal challenges, chief among them the creation of custom type, which I’d not done before but knew would help Girls Garage distinguish itself.
Type design was—and I would say still is—a glaring hole in my skillset, one whose absence felt all the more conspicuous at a studio known for its work with it. The discipline’s relative arcaneness and uninhibited disdain for subpar work certainly made the task appear more daunting, though perhaps less so than the fact that I had never fully grasped and appreciated the made-ness of all letterforms. That is, the “ordinary” text that surrounds us, of the sort we absentmindedly write, encounter, and use daily, appear altogether ontologically different from their more spectacular and self-evidently made peers. Their very ubiquity imparts the appearance of naturalness, and therewith the untouchable mystery of irreducible things that just are.
And yet they, too, are ultimately artifices; made of shapes, malleable within the permissive bounds of custom, and subject to universal principles of visual design. Those who regularly alter them to address practical problems—and distinguishing a girls’ design and building camp surely falls into that category—are unburdened by any abstract considerations of the nature of type. It follows that the aforementioned tension doesn’t have to be answered because it’s demonstrably unnecessary. Perhaps there’s really no question to answer in the first place.
Besides, the practical problems have deadlines attached, and seemingly lofty challenges of representation dissolve in surprisingly straightforward resolutions. You and the client work out what they’d like to say, and you help them say it by drawing from a well of personal and accumulated knowledge and reconfiguring what you find in unexpected ways. It helps immensely to be able to chat about it with someone vastly more experienced and skilled along the way [points to Will].
So for Girls Garage, it went something like this:
Start from Wim Crouwel’s work because those corner joints and tight construction reflected the structure and made-ness they wanted to communicate, and the underlying grid still allows you to add some funky crossbars to give things a bit more character. But that turned out to look too digital, so you revisit things and look to stenciled type for its industrial connotations. Maybe those corners can make a comeback in some way that still makes sense, and after a couple of tries they do.
None of those more remote problems appear once pencil hits paper, and you emerge better prepared for the next challenge.
Appropriately enough, acquiring confidence through doing is essential to Girls Garage’s M.O., and I got a chance to see it at work when I flew out to Berkley for our portrait shoot (for which we owe many thanks to the wonderful Gizelle Hernandez). Seeing the fearless builder girls learn to construct bookcases—happily and intently as the young do, with the occasional reminder that safety glasses must be worn around the miter saw—was a powerful reminder of the necessity of suspending doubt in order to learn, whether the medium is wood or metal or type. It’s not about “faking” it until “making” it, but fearing less, building more.
Over Memorial Day weekend, four of us Fireballers made the trek up to Two Rivers, Wisconsin to attend a workshop at Hamilton Type Museum. Two Rivers, or T’Rivers as it's known locally, is a small lake-side town that just so happens to contain the only museum dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type. The museum is a 45,000 sq. ft. facility, maintained solely by director Jim Moran, assistant director Stephanie Carpenter, and a slew of volunteers and enthusiasts, some of whom worked at Hamilton in its heyday. We had no expectations for what the workshop would entail, but none of us could have imagined it turning out the way it did.
Jim Moran, the museum's director, first guided us through the rich history of Hamilton. Founded in 1880, the shop found its customer base in the plethora of newspapers published throughout the midwest, each of which needed Hamilton's type to set their headlines. Hamilton eventually bought out all of his competitors and soon had a complete monopoly on the wood-type game in the Midwest.
Jim showed us how the wood type is born from raw slabs of maple. First, technicians cut the maple into workable pieces known as half-rounds, which are then sanded down to the proper height known as “type-high” (.918” for those of you following along at home). From the type-high maple, the workers would cut the half-rounds into workable pieces depending on the dimensions of the typeface they were cutting. Those pieces were then routed by a technician, who followed scalable-patterns designed by the Hamilton staff. Then, the type would be refined further by hand to take care of those pesky counter-spaces. Finally, the sorts (a typographer’s term referring to the individual characters of type) were then subject to an intense burnishing, polishing and a very thin coat of lacquer. Jim proudly stated that Hamilton still produces wood type today if the project is right.
The Shipping Department
Half-rounds waiting patiently to be made into letters.
Ogling all the sorts.
Ever heard someone say “I’m all out of sorts?” That comes straight from the pressman’s workshop when they ran out of a certain character.
After a brief introduction to letterpress printing, and a healthy dose of inspiration by resident artist Jim Sherraden (master printer at Hatch Show Print in Nashville), we were let loose to print what we pleased. We were all given the same setup and materials to work with: one table-top press, a few colors of ink and 20+ full cabinets of wood-cut characters and a few lead, photographic plates. Anything beyond that was up to us — we quickly got to work. Some of us had concrete ideas for our prints, but ultimately we were all there just to play with all that beautiful type.
A selection of prints we made.
Gettin' funky with some italics.
Team work makes the dream work.
In the midst of printing our posters, Mr. Sherraden invited us beyond the yellow rope of the museum to watch the re-striking of a mid-1900s poster for Reefer Madness. Tom and Ross were chosen to pull one of the prints, which was quite the challenge considering the sheer size of the print (more than 4' x 3') and the fact that we were surrounded by printers with some 90+ years of letter-press experience. No pressure...
Jim S. inking the plate.
Blind registration ain't for the faint of heart.
Note the mix of concentration and sheer terror on their faces.
"Horrible?" Jim uttered in reference to the registration. We replied with a collective "Not at all!" As he was talking about the challenges of re-striking old plates like this, with no reference print, he uttered that we were after excellence, not perfection.
We also learned that Matt carries the same phone as Jim Sherradan, who both prefer the old-fashioned flip over the new-fangled smart.
...and that Fatso's makes awesome sandwiches.
...and we're all very serious bowlers.
Overall, we couldn't be more pleased with our experience. The workshop itself was far and beyond what any of us expected, and we all came back to Chicago with a new reverence for the craftspeople that preceded the era of graphic design. As designers and developers, we wear a lot of hats, but back when Hamilton was producing type people had specialities. Our jobs now demand that we are fluent in multiple programs and platforms, skillful in setting type, designing logos and developing websites, and the list goes on and on. I can't help but wonder if this is a good or bad thing, but I'll leave that debate for another time. One thing I can say for certain is that when I walked out of Hamilton on Sunday afternoon, I carried with me a renewed sense of pride and responsibility as a designer and maker.
Goodnight, sweet prince.
In the contemporary culture of graphic design, an identity is commonly understood to mean much more than a logo. An identity is in fact a system, often built in response to a form, generally a logo. Though a logo can be a powerful tool that can immediately convey meaning, it’s only one piece of the kit that makes up an identity. Identities can be established lacking this piece.
Graphic designers may accept this, but many outside of the discipline think of the logo as the whole identity. At the studio, we use this difference in understanding as a teachable moment, an opportunity to illustrate to a potential client how a holistic systems approach to branding through graphic design is key to strengthening an organization’s image.
Curious Perspectives, Unanticipated Discoveries
When and where appropriate, I explore these curious perspectives through what I do best: making things.
Our 7th annual Typeforce exhibition takes place on February 26; creating its identity offered a perfect opportunity to explore the idea of identity as a kit of parts. This wasn’t necessarily at the top of my mind when beginning the project, but I arrived to it in a manner that Cranbrook’s Elliott Earls might classify as post-facto rationalization. This is where the process, specifically the design making, is an act of research and yields unanticipated discoveries.
Lucky Number Seven
The work started in my usual manner: scouring semiotics for significant, dramatic meaning. Where better to look than a number with known recognition: seven. Beyond being the lucky number, it too symbolizes the deadly sins. These capital vices inspire a wealth of imagery and could make for a system with legs—here, toads represent greed, snakes depict envy. Lions portray wrath, snails illustrate sloth, pigs come to stand for gluttony. The goat constitutes lust, and the plumage perfect peacock personifies pride. Meaning, visual play, energy that has been around for nearly 1800 years, and who doesn’t want an opportunity to explore ‘wrath’ in their work?
I’m certain we can make a fantastic exhibition identity based on sin, (I’d love to), though this did not feel right for an event that historically has served as a welcoming and safe place for people’s creative expression.
So, it was back to the books and to sketching. Emerging near the same time in history as the sins, the seven virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. It is said that practicing the virtues protects against temptation from the seven deadly sins. Wow, full circle!? Where else did I go? All over the place. I’ll let you google the significance of the number seven in a tarot deck, because all of this dark, heavy meaning is really starting to be too much for me.
Making as Guilty Pleasure
What about making as exploration, as pure fun. Making not out of requirement, but because we have a mind, hands and tools? Making for the love of design and achieving something pure, something that elicits aesthetic pleasure?
Scrapping everything, pushing around shapes and colors, fun emerged and I had little idea where it was going. It felt guilty. Like how you feel after leaving school, entering the design profession, starting to make kick-ass work for friends and clients, telling your family—this is what I do. It’s a good guilty feeling, one I wanted to share with others, by way of shape play.
The Typeforce 7 identity doesn’t have many deliverables, but perhaps the responsive and interactive nature of the site could allow for this.
Creating a Kit of Parts
This idea began to put the first lines on the paper. With letters returning to their geometric roots; this geometry could shape the composition and then be defined digitally by viewport height, where the horizontal attributes are determined by a responsive expanding and anchoring of angular elements.
This build can translate across all devices, to mobile and just as easily to print. This idea takes the responsive nature and need for all things and puts it in the forefront, but rendering this graphically means there is no final form. It was this act that brought about this idea of our sans-logo identity as kit of parts. By designing variant styles and sizes for the shapes that represent consonants, the identity became something ever-changing, influenced by user interaction.
In this is a hyper post-internet framework for an identity, we built this with straight CSS, no assets (no SVG, JPG, PGN) other than two font files for a black and regular cuts of GT Haptic from Grilli Type, chosen for its mono-linear geometric build. Keeping it internet-ie, I went with light-based bright, bold colors taken directly from Adobe's default RGB palette. Seven colors allow us to show depth via gradient blends and serve an historical nod to Isaac Newton's defined rainbow spectrum.
Internal projects like this one must move quickly. With neither road map nor specific destination in mind, I’m particularly proud that we landed on an identity that has no logo, no final form and a minimal/manageable amount of parts. The kit of parts as they exist today includes:
• set shapes and variants that spell S E V E N • color palette that can mix and blend as desired • noise texture to add slight tactile qualities • GT Haptik for its geometric harmony
With a system like this, I think it's important for each deliverable to change and evolve. So what’s next with these works? I’m excited by the ability to bring physics into the system, be that gravity, increased depth and light. I think we can all see how it may turn towards Maholy-Nagy, Kasten, or El Lissitzky's constructivist compositions. Perhaps it shapes into something entirely different, is it time to look to tangrams again? What can I say, I'm excited by it all.
I believe success of Typeforce is due to the range + quality of work and the different backgrounds of our exhibitors. We're hoping to see your names in this round of Typeforce submissions. And if you spot any rising talents, let them know we want to see their work too.
Important dates: – Submit by Jan 15 – Doors open Feb 26
Important notes: – Group entries & international proposals are welcome – Awardees must be onsite to install the week prior to the opening
All submissions should be in the form of PDFs sent to Typeforce@FirebellyDesign.com