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The best design festival on the East Coast

It has been two years since TYPE Magazine reviewed the Typographics festival. We’re happy to report that a majority of its various growing pains have been outgrown.

Typographics, now in its fifth year, recently took place over a two-week period at The Cooper Union in the trendy Bowery area of Manhattan. The festival, which had been fooling itself with the label “conference” for some years, consisted of three distinct programs: workshops and tours, TypeLab, and the Typographics conference. (Their website lists a fourth program—the book fair—which, while nice and robust, never quite measures up to the other three components.)

Education in the Big Apple

Tickets to Typographics workshops might have cost more than tickets to the main conference, but participants got their money’s worth: We managed to observe five of the festival’s 15 workshops, and they were all memorable. Moreover, attendees from the remaining ten gave the impression that the high quality of these five accurately represented the entire slate.

Micro Typography ($230), led by Tânia Raposo, offered a deep dive into fine typesetting. The workshop began as a history lesson, then marched through a selection of Bringhurst’s suggestions before making its way to punctuation rules to OpenType features. With the material delivered, Raposo had participants design their own layouts using the same pieces of text. Raposo printed and trimmed the designs, lining them up against the chalkboard for review. It seemed a useful exercise, as the attendees could discuss and question their design choices within the context of micro-typographic, fine typsetting.

Down the hall and at the same time, ExhibitFlow ($230) with Gustavo Soares touched on some of the same material; specifically, how to use GREP styles and semi-hidden InDesign features to create layouts with high attention to detail. Where the workshop differed, however, was in the deliverable: Rather than designing one printed layout, Soares’ students created one InDesign Object Style which could handle an input document composed of 100 unique entries. The workshop was fast-paced, dense, and riveting, with the many students scratching their heads at the concluding design challenge.

Participant work from "Micro Typography" left, showing the various possibilities with the same text, type, and dimensions. Right, Soares helps an attendee with his GREP styles.

Typeface Design for Non-Type Designers ($270), led by Matteo Bologna with guest appearances by Georg Seifert and Rainer Erich Scheichelbauer, took participants from not knowing their apertures from their tittles to designing their own geometric sans serif fonts. The workshop played out as one-part buddy-comedy routine mixed with ten-parts type-design ingenuity. From little time-saving tips and tricks to the real meaty type-design stuff, Bologna danced his way through the material en route to an successful workshop.

Bologna shows participants how to use the same few building blocks and a set of Glyphs shortcuts to speed up their type design. . . so long as they're designing a monolinear, geometric sans serif.

Augment My Type ($230) with Martha Rettig and Sofie Hodara stood out in more ways than one. First, the participants developed their own augmented reality typographic animations. Not layouts, not booklets, not typefaces, but flying-out-of-the-wall, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it animations. Impressive considering perhaps only one of the attendees seemed to have coding experience at the start of the workshop. Second, the results of the day were then “installed” (so much as augmented reality is installed) for conference attendees to see the following few days. Rettig and Hodara developed the AR framework themselves, and their deep knowledge of the technology contributed to the innovative workshop.

An attendee creates a 3D ampersand (left), while Rettig explains her and Hodara's pre-generated animations (right).

Sign Class ($920) with John Downer is by this point a staple course, being offered year after year. Over four full days, Downer took participants—who possessed no prior experience—through a variety of lettering styles and techniques. By the end, they could paint attractive signs with ease, scaling them up several times from sketch to large format. Downer always manages to create a Zen-like atmosphere in his workshops: A dozen people silently toiled away with their brushes and paints, making lines of identical e’s and a’s and s’s. Downer, though, was more than willing to cut through the silence, calling for the participants to gather around before answering a question or demonstrating a technique.

Downer explains to some attendees how to join two cursive letters.

The second stage

Petr Van Blokland once again put together the TypeLab, a series of smaller technical talks with a more casual atmosphere. TypeLab’s schedule largely overlapped with the main conference, offering alternates for if the Great Hall got too stuffy.

Topics covered in TypeLab included generative design, Fonts In Use, variable type, infographics, and more. One talk by Erik van Blokland on recreating Gerrit Noordzij’s cube, which predicted the future of Latin type design, stood out by mixing history, story, and actionable insights (at least for type designers in the audience.) Another by Eric Doctor on “Radical Alphabets” gave a fun break from the lectures by having attendees create letters from random scribbles.

As in years past, TypeLab possessed a semi-rebellious vibe, due in no small part to the location in The Cooper Union’s basement’s backroom. That is not to say the event felt slapdash, but rather multifarious and malleable, as if an attendee could have a say in what they saw or heard.

The Great Hall

Most attendees came to Typographics for its the two-day conference. Organized by Cara Di Edwardo, the conference’s fit-and-finish has steadily risen year after year: The cast of speakers felt well-rounded and engaging—not too salesy, the emcees did more than merely introduce the speakers, and the technical glitches which hindered previous years were absent. The operation was so smooth, in fact, that the producers felt confident enough to stream the event online! Confidence is key when you’re “live on the air.”

The conference took place in Cooper Union’s Great Hall, an impressive venue which has hosted Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Obama, among others. It’s massive and gorgeous with one sole downside: large pillars interrupt the seats and views. Attendees intent on seeing every speaker’s face found themselves straining or moving seats frequently; however, the three massive screens satisfied most attendee’s needs.

The only off notes, which bear mentioning before extolling the talks, came during the speaker roundups. During these question-and-answer sessions, speakers packed on stage for largely unguided conversations. They sat on cheap chairs and looked uncomfortable, the shiest among them fading behind the more ostentatious. More frequent, smaller panels might have alleviated these issues, but then the program would not be able to fit so many great speakers.

The first day's speaker roundup provided some good content to the attendees, but looked uncomfortable for the speakers.

Typographics’ talks have steadily improved in balance and quality. Whereas previous years might feature font sales pitch or a boring portfolio presentation, this year’s lineup maintained an entertaining and educational tone throughout.

Zipeng Zhu’s “MOVE IT!” exuded fun, with ample jokes, bright colors, and animations. After him, Janet Hansen’s talk on “The Power of Simplicity in Contemporary Book Cover Design,” showed the extensive (and sometimes repetitive) process of designing award-winning book covers. To schedule these talks back-to-back was a stroke of genius. It’s not an obvious combination and they were not thematically linked, but for the pacing of a non-stop day-long conference, they made a perfect pair.

Zipeng Zhu dancing to the beat while showing one of his colorful typographic animations.

James Edmondson’s “Changing Out of Your Typographic Sweatpants,” was phenomenally funny and warm. He shared his story of learning type design, pursuing it independently, starting a family, trying to design “the thing,” and finally coming to terms with the fact that the thing would be boring. He laced in enough twists and idiosyncratic colloquialisms to keep the audience alternating between the edge of their seats and holding their sides.

James Edmonson explaining the criteria for his work: Mostly that it be "rad."

Matthew Carter’s talk, “The Designer’s Role,” gave striking insight into the process he and his colleagues took in designing Role, the latest Morisawa typeface. His coworkers in the process were trained in Kanji and Kana—not Latin. This divide offered Carter—often thought to have seen it all—a brand new design experience.

Things ended on a meta note with Armin Vit’s “Branding a Branding Conference for Branding Designers,” itself a talk at a conference. Known for his popular and informative sites: UnderConstruction and Brand New, Vit explained how he treated the challenges of designing for designers as opportunities, dreaming up physical typography, colorful layouts, and novel techniques for the Brand New Confernece.

A Typographics future?

Year after year, Typographics grows in terms of both size and maturity. It has become the East Coast’s premier typography festival, mingling the type design and graphic design communities more than its competitors. The workshops and TypeLab along with the ample receptions, a robust book store, and exhibit tours throughout the city, combine to give attendees the sense that whatever their interest, Typographics has something for them.

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