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The Art of Working Together

I wanted to draw special attention to Jonathan Hoefler's remarks about collaborative typeface design from this Typophile thread, because they are wise, and they give credit where it's due, and because they paint such a clear picture of the kinds of things I love so much about getting to team up with smart, creative people on cool projects whenever I can. (Hi, Ian! Hi, Rathna! Hi, Matt!)

All of the work we do at H&FJ is collaborative, which is why the studio, rather than any single contributor, is always credited as the designer of a typeface.

It's never been very easy to describe the division of labor that goes into a typeface, and as our studio grows (there are now eleven of us, not including outside contractors) this only gets thornier. It's sometimes the case that one person is the originator of an idea, and another serves as its editor, and that individual designers are specifically tasked with different aspects of the project that can be neatly segregated. But most of the time the process is more integrated and iterative.

Right now we're working on a family of fonts whose central styles are a roman that I drew twenty-one years ago, and an italic that I began sketching in the late nineties. When we had occasion to revisit the design a few years ago, Tobias and I began discussing what opportunities there were for improvement, and what we hoped might be a light dusting ultimately turned into a gut renovation. Andy Clymer took some of the weight explorations I’d begun, and developed them into a four-square prototype, and when the three of us discussed this work we agreed to make some substantial changes to the central designs. Andy's fuller development of the italic also introduced some fantastic new ideas that I was eager to employ in the romans as well, so we revisited parts of the character set with these in mind. Ksenya Samarskaya has been working on some of the more esoteric parts of the character set, and her work with the tabular figures has begun to call into question our decisions about the design of the lining figures. As recently as this winter, when the font was "done" (a word now banned from the office) we were tinkering with the font's x-height. Finally, I think this is one of the families in which what remains of my original drawings now lives "off grid," somewhere between the Book and Medium weights, where this work exists only to spawn the interpolations.

I realize as I write this account that what makes this an especially rare project for us is that Sara Soskolne, our senior designer, hasn't been involved in it yet. Sara has contributed to most of our powerhouse type families in recent years — Chronicle, Verlag, and the new Gothams are just a few — and I’ve yet to see a project that hasn't required some cleverer thinking from her than from whoever at H&FJ she's most closely working with. Right now Sara's working on a family of fonts for which she drew the principal styles, and I’m certain that as this project develops it will certainly benefit from artistic and editorial contributions from the rest of the team.

Though I started my career as a one-man band, I’ve come to think of type design as an inherently collaborative act. Part of this is certainly a matter of complexity -- a typeface with 800 glyphs in each of 106 styles simply needs more hands on deck -- but mostly I think that as a process, type design is just improved by the kind of rigorous review that requires two or more people. Every conversation between designers at H&FJ involves articulating our decisions, and sometimes we find that our inability to explain a particular choice marks it as a bad one. But just as often, someone finds an unexpected way of articulating (or questioning) something that someone else has done, which can inspire a new way of looking at things, or a new strategy that’s useful to the project — or another project. It's hard to have such a productive conversation with yourself.

Years ago, I read a witheringly funny short story in a magazine, and was moved to buy the compilation from which it was excerpted. I was shocked to find that the 20,000-word original was a such a mess: overwrought, poorly organized, and lacking the sharp turns and taut rhythms that made what I’d first read so marvelous. I realized more than ever just how crucial a good editor is to the process, and how vastly improved a work of art can be when it benefits from a colleague who understands you, sometimes even better than you understand yourself, and is indisputably on your side. that’s how H&FJ makes fonts.

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