Ken Barber is a letterer, type designer and type director at design studio and type foundry House Industries. He is also a partner of Photo-Lettering, Inc., an online letter-vending service and iPhone app. Barber’s work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and has been honored by the New York Type Directors Club. Association Typographique Internationale also selected several of his typefaces for inclusion in the organization’s decennial design competition. In addition to teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art and Cooper Union, Barber regularly lectures internationally on the subjects of lettering and typography and manages Type and Lettering, an online resource for students and attendees of his frequent workshops.
Practice and Patience
How did you get started in typeface design and handlettering?
I could never seem to find just the right typefaces for certain design projects in college. Allen Mercer, former House Industries partner, was my classmate at Tyler School of Art, and he suggested that I draw my own lettering instead of using off-the-shelf fonts. When House Industries launched in 1994, I converted some of the letter styles to font format. My inexperience was obvious; I naively thought that lettering and type design were essentially the same. It took some time—not to mention a good deal of practice and patience—before I was able to appreciate the uniqueness of each discipline.
What personal experiences or circumstances have most influenced your work or style?
I came across a number of mid-twentieth century design books and magazine annuals in the Tyler campus library. The degree of craftsmanship in the logo and lettering work impressed me. I found myself poring over the books of Mortimer Leach, Tommy Thompson and Doyald Young. These artists commanded a meticulousness that was both enviable and awe-inspiring. I spent years observing and attempting to imitate the various letter styles they had mastered. Later, I had the fortune to learn personally, and even collaborate, with some of my heroes: Doyald Young, Ed Benguiat, John Downer and Carl Rohrs. After I joined House Industries, the art direction of co-founder Andy Cruz really brought my lettering work into focus.
What is the strangest assignment or project you’ve ever worked on?
Years ago, House redesigned the nameplate for a weird fetish magazine published in the United Kingdom called Bizarre. I think the headline, “Alt. Girls! Tattoos! Freaks! Gore!” sums it up rather well.
Why do you think so many designers have started to work with lettering?
There seems to be a common conception that today’s designer needs to master a broad range of talents in order to be marketable, so it’s not surprising that artists feel the need to become proficient in lettering and typeface design, alongside CSS coding and letterpress printing. But many individuals who I admire in the design community focus on one discipline, be it book jacket design, corporate identity or editorial work. It’s different for each artist, but I support specialization within the visual arts.
Which type designers do you most admire and why?
The work of Roger Excoffon demonstrates a great deal of imagination and versatility. Say what you will about his casual brush-script-inspired Mistral, but it is no small accomplishment to capture such vitality and fluidity in a typeface—especially when you consider that Mistral was originally cast in metal!
Where do you think the field of typography is going?
Typography is an art that has always progressed hand in hand with technology. Within recent years, there has been a lot of advancement made with web fonts and other onscreen solutions for portable devices. On the flip side, we’re also witnessing a resurgence of traditional typographic practice, namely within the realm of handset metal type and high-quality printing. Although it may look as if the field of typography is being pulled in opposite directions, there are practitioners in both arenas who are emphasizing sound typographic practice—and that’s good for everyone.
What’s something that people misunderstand about typeface design?
Many people, even within the graphic design field, aren’t fully aware of what goes into designing a typeface. I’m still astounded by consumers who balk at the price tag for a collection of well-crafted fonts, or worse, think that they should be free. Designing a typeface requires a ton of dedication and loads of hard work. Conceptualizing and testing a prospective design; filling out character sets over an extensive range of weights and styles; kerning multiple fonts; proofing, editing, and mastering are just a few aspects of the design process, all of which demand a high degree of attention and patience. A skillfully made typeface may take months or even years to complete—and that doesn’t include hinting web font versions for optimized onscreen use.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession?
For serious students, I recommend getting a formal education. The Royal Academy in The Hague, Netherlands, University of Reading, England and Cooper Union here in the States have solid training programs with proven track records. But above all, don’t forget to pursue other interests; there is more to life than drawing letters.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career?
There is no mystery to making good letters. There is only practice… and lots of patience.