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The Politics of Typography

Elizabeth Carey Smith is a designer with a passion for type.

Elizabeth Carey Smith is the founder and owner of graphic design studio The Letter Office in New York City. A designer with a passion for type, she has taught graphic design and typography for the past five years at the City College of New York and NYU. Elizabeth graduated from the 2012 Type@Cooper extended program with Brightcut. She is an avid member of the typographic community, and one of the founding members of Alphabettes.

ECS: I’m very proud to be speaking at a conference that dedicated its speaker lineup this year to gender equity. It’s an exciting time in type, with both new and old voices really communicating in the online community. I really like too that Typographics bridges the often-wide gap between makers and users of type. It’s an excellent opportunity for both parties (and those of us who span both groups) to get together and make contacts, find out what they like and need in their respective practices, and how we can all help each other make better stuff.

YP: Tobias Frere-Jones based the design of Gotham on architectural and commercial lettering in New York City. Do you have a favorite sign, or shop window, or building name that exemplifies NYC, and why?

ECS: My talk is actually all about letters in our visual landscape, and how vernacular lettering affects our sense of place. So Tobias’ approach to the making of Gotham is especially interesting and important to me. It makes sense to me that the impetus for the design of Gotham was the letters on the signage for the Port Authority Bus Terminal — it’s this New York institution, in all its grittiness. It’s the New York vibe we still cling to, even though that grittiness is more and more being paved over with the same homogeneity we experience in other parts of the country. As for a favorite sign… that’s a bit mean to make me pick one. Though I do really love the Keith Haring mural along the FDR that says CRACK IS WACK. It speaks of a specific, often harrowing time in New York City, was done by an incredible artist, and has been preserved by the community. As much as we tear down and rebuild, I love seeing what we deem important to preserve.

YP: Design can be political, but do you think typography proper can add a significant voice to the discourse?

ECS: I think typography and visual communications have a tremendous responsibility to the dissemination of information. Considering one of the primary tasks we, as typographers, are given is to create an accessible hierarchy, how we choose to construct that has the ability to both inform and mislead. When done properly and accurately, typography can give voice to information not previously accessible to a wider audience. We have the power to distill using language, hierarchy, scale, and typographic color, and we rely on our audience’s perception of what different typefaces evoke to help convey that information. So yes, typography does add significant voice, because it is shaping that voice. I think some people would like to believe that there is such a thing as raw content that is not shaped by typography, but unless it is purely spoken, that simply isn’t true.

YP: Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Elizabeth.

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