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It Takes a Village
Nurturing a new wave of innovative type designers at Incubator

by Angelynn Grant

In the past decade, “incubators,” businesses where the experienced help nurture the new, have been popping up in a wide range of fields, from tech startups to nonprofit creative arts organizations. The aptly named Incubator is one of the first such programs specifically dedicated to type design. It’s one part of Village, a small, independent type distributor, publisher and type design studio based in the Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) area of Brooklyn. The name Village derives from its original location in New York’s East Village and its structure as a collection of member-foundries with a cooperative connection. It includes top type designers from around the world and membership is by invitation only. Just as carefully selected, the “Incubatees” are up-and-coming designers who come to the attention of Village founders Chester Jenkins, former partner of Thirstype, his wife Tracy and other members of the group.

Launched on Village’s three-year anniversary in 2008, Incubator helps designers develop their typographic voices and get their fonts ready to sell with “gentle guidance” from Village members. “We were already kind of incubating before Incubator,” recalls Jenkins. He and longtime Village member Christian Schwartz of Commercial Type mentored Kris Sowersby, now a Village member in his own right, while he was preparing his debut release, a curvy serif called Feijoa, for his foundry Klim in the mid-2000s. “Christian and I each worked on a custom type project with Kris, and I worked with him on the technical aspects of bringing Feijoa to market. We had already committed to having a dedicated slot for Kris in Village and he has always been an incredibly talented and skilled designer, but preparing type for market is much more involved than most people realize, even those who have self-published type.” Another pre-Incubator incubatee was Hugo d’Alte. “We worked closely with him to prepare his typeface Kaas for publication in 2005 and released that through the Thirstype label,” Jenkins says. So the idea to incubate fell out naturally from the process of guiding typefaces to market. But Incubator as another foundry within Village was not officially formed until the release of Jeremy Mickel’s Router in 2008.


Typefaces can take years to design and most new designers need support through the process. Jeremy Mickel began drawing what would become Router (left) in the summer of 2006, working from a photo snapped from the #6 train of a New York City Subway sign at the 33rd St./Park Avenue South station (center). Even before Incubator helped him to publish the typeface, Cooper Union instructor Hannes Famira nurtured the design process through private weekly lessons at Famira’s apartment, where the two would mark up the drawings together (right).

Mickel found inspiration for Router in some handmade signage under the streets of New York: words router-etched out of plastic in the subway station at 33rd and Park. Mickel was familiar with Village; he and Jenkins had previously met at what Jenkins calls “type geek nights in NoHo” back in 2006. Because Village specializes in a hand-picked and varied collection of type styles, Jenkins could see that Router would be a nice addition to the roster. “We knew that we wanted to release Router,” notes Jenkins, “but didn’t feel that it fit into any of our existing channels. Which is when we lit upon the idea of having an incubator, which would allow us to publish types—usually first designs, sometimes student work, always interesting—without the kind of ‘marriage’ that is involved in having a foundry slot at Village.”

Both Jenkins and Schwartz gave Mickel feedback, each focusing on different aspects of the design. “I had gotten to know Christian Schwartz and he became a mentor for Router,” says Mickel. “He’s listed as my Village Counsel as he answered many technical questions and gave drawing feedback during its development. But Chester was also very involved, offering his opinion and expertise the whole way through.” The one-on-one counseling came at a good time for Router. “I still had a lot to do. I think I had completed a full draft of Router Book and Book Italic and done sketches of the other weights. But it was about a year after I first agreed to publish Router with Village that it actually got released. Village understands that good type takes time, and they have never pressured me to release anything before it was ready.” Mickel is now a full Village member with his foundry MCKL, and Router was included in the 2012 exhibit Graphic Design—Now in Production , co-organized by Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the Walker Art Center.
http://image.commarts.com/Images1/5/8/3/38587_54_0_MTYyNTQ2OTg1LTMxMzEzMzA1MQ.jpgAngelynn Grant
Angelynn Grant is a Boston-based graphic designer, writer and educator. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Institute of Boston, Simmons College and MIT. You can e-mail her at designsharp@angelynngrant.com. In addition, Grant is the host of a jazz program on MIT radio, WMBR.