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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.

Incubator has grown in the past five years to eight releases, with many more coming up.  Lucas Sharp, another Incubatee, gives a good description of the easygoing nature of Village. His project is Sharp Sans, a geometric, humanist sans serif. “I submitted it directly to the designers of Village, who got back to me that they were interested in publishing it after a few meetings. I actually met Chester in person when I ordered all the specimen books off the Village website and, since I was working out of a studio in Dumbo at the time, he hand-delivered them to me on his dog walk. I was originally mentored by Joshua Darden and worked as a draftsman at the Darden Studio before I went independent, and Chester picked up where Josh left off in terms of my typography education. There isn’t any kind of pairing system, but Chester and Tracy make themselves available to look at work, and if you want to get another Village designer’s take, you can just e-mail them and they are responsive. I’ve found that indie type designers in general tend to be friendly, helpful and accessible.”

Even with the generous design feedback, Incubator is not a type design school. As Sharp explains, “Incubator is more of a publisher than a mentor. Yes, they are very helpful and can really help take burgeoning talent to the next level, but they are not finding talented novices off the street and turning them into world-class type designers. If you get into Incubator, you obviously have something going on and are looking to get away from the corporate typeface-reseller publishing scene. Most people start on one of the other behemoth type resellers that simply throw your font on a pile of millions of fonts and take half your sales. That model tends to favor quantity over quality since resellers are constantly promoting the newest releases, in some cases, from a completely non-curated and constant stream of mostly garbage from all over the world. In that world, it actually makes fiscal sense to do two mediocre fonts instead of one quality font in the same amount of time. There is always a diamond in the rough, but the model definitely promotes disposability over timelessness. Village is a great example of a viable alternative to this issue that is actually inclusive of new talent.”

Large foundries like FontFont and Monotype also give support to type designers starting out, but in general, they can’t afford the amount of time it takes to get a typeface by a fledgling designer ready for sale. More importantly, those newly minted type designers would be small fish in a big pond. Incubatees may be small fish in a small pond, but it’s a special pond: Incubator fonts benefit from being part of a select group. “Incubator is a dedicated spot for new designers. It’s a chance to be part of a curated group of typefaces,” says Mickel. Schwartz explains how this model works for all members: “We each get to benefit from the audience that the others bring in. Someone might come looking for my typeface Stag and also license Tal Leming’s sans serif Torque, or they might come looking for Router and license Giorgio Sans from my library as well. There is more potential for discovery because of the variety of work in the combined library.”

Jenkins expresses a similar view of the advantages of the Village approach. “I hope that Village is doing something different in the world of type; we set the group up to be a kind of co-op, with each member contributing to the overall success. I am a type designer myself, and have been through the process of releasing work with other foundries. Those foundries tended to be run on a day-to-day basis by businesspeople, not necessarily type people.”

Having people behind you who are experienced in intricacies of selling type is a huge advantage. “Chester and Tracy singlehandedly manage Village,” reflects Schwartz, “so they have to triage every day. And you would not believe how demanding people can be when they want to license a font! I suppose you could say that Village is not a true co-op, since each foundry only receives revenue from their own license sales. But part of the revenue of everyone’s sales goes into promoting the co-op as a whole, maintaining the site, etc.”

Incubator imposes no timetables. It’s all about the quality of the typeface. Schwartz puts it this way: “I think both Village and Incubator have grown more slowly than they could have, but I see that as a strength rather than a weakness. The library is broad enough to solve a lot of typographic problems, but narrow enough that the choices aren’t overwhelming. Starting a typeface is easy, but finishing it is difficult and I wouldn’t say Incubator releases have been rushed out before they were really ready.” Jenkins agrees. “Good work takes time to make and, for the most part, our Incubatees have full-time jobs and/or families that keep them busy with more important things,” he says.

Village members advise each other when asked and are sensitive to any overlapping of projects. “We do tend to share a lot of work-in-progress with each other and are always open to input and advice,” says Jenkins. “We’re also aware of the Village ‘landscape’ and avoid stepping on each others’ toes. If one member has a Garamond-esque design, the other members are not going to pursue another Garamond-esque design.” And critiquing each others’ work benefits both designers, whether Incubatee or full member. “It’s a two-way street,” notes Mickel. “By articulating something about someone else’s work, I better understand what my own intentions are.”

And Mickel has found success since “graduating” from Incubator and becoming a member foundry. “Being part of the Village community has made my type design career possible. Having other foundry members suggest me for projects and throw work my way has allowed me to dedicate myself to type-making full-time. I would have had a much harder time transitioning into this kind of work without that early support. Village is a great distributor and Router is continuing to sell five years after its initial release.” ca
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.
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