How did you discover your interest in design? I was forced to grow up faster than most. At the age of four, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a golf ball. I was in constant pain, and drawing became my escape. During the aftermath, that’s all I did. After I tried to re-create Monet’s painting Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies using only basic watercolors, my teacher saw my potential and recommended that I start taking art lessons.
Only a year later, I was back in the hospital with a residual from the original brain tumor. It was then that my potential was unleashed. Instead of drawing skateboarders like I usually did, I began drawing busts of Venus de Milo, David, Greek columns and broken chains.
Two years later, I realized that I could make money doing what I loved. I began my first business, where I’d graffiti people’s names on index cards, laminate them and sell them for three dollars a piece. I did this for two years, up until sixth grade, when I discovered my interest in design. From there, I designed tattoos, made and sold custom bead jewelry, and drew what became the basis for my first typeface, Unveil.
What led you to open your font foundry Vocal Type Co.? I love branding, which makes up about 90 percent of my projects. But in the process of looking for inspiration, I just got really bored. It all looked the same, and it bothered me that people liked this monotony. I started wondering if I had chosen the wrong career.
However, after May 2016, something told me to research the demographics of the design industry, and I found out that 84 percent of all designers in America are White. I realized that when a single gender or race establishes and dominates an industry, there can only be one way of thinking, teaching and creating. This lack of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity and gender has led to a lack of diversity in, systems, ideas and, ultimately, creations.
I knew that I couldn’t simply diversify design through demographics or the education system. So I tried to figure out a way to introduce a nonstereotypical piece of minority culture into the design itself. I decided to start with the basis of any good design—typography.
Vocal Type Co. “highlights a piece of history from a specific underrepresented race, ethnicity or gender.” How do you collect archival photos and materials? I start by searching for movements associated with certain activists. For example, let’s say Martin Luther King, Jr. I’d find all of the causes he’s associated with, and the protests he spoke at. Before choosing a specific cause, I’d see if there’s any ephemera associated with it. From there, I’d more than likely come across the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, as it is famous for the “I Am A Man” placards. Lastly, I’d keep researching to make sure I have all of the reference material I need to make a full typeface. If I can’t think of a specific person, I start by researching different progressive movements, completing the process backwards. More often than not, Getty Images has everything I need. If it doesn’t, I check out Alamy’s stock photos. My last resorts are Wikimedia Commons, the digital collections at the Smithsonian Libraries, Pinterest, Flickr and Shorpy. If I have no other choice, I’ll try to get in touch with the original photographers or their estates.
As a type designer, what catches your eye when you’re looking through archival photos of protests? I’m looking for pieces that multiple people have a connection to, like a banner carried by tens of people or an individual sign carried by hundreds. I try not to focus on individuals when searching for historical images, like one person holding a sign, because I feel that’s the reason why protests don’t work today. If you’ve ever worked on a brand identity, then you know how important it is to give the client a series of brand guidelines. This is to keep everyone involved on-brand and on-message. Protests used to be like that, and that’s one of the reasons why they worked so well. Today, you have hundreds of thousands of people uniting under one cause, but everyone is shouting a different message.
What is the main opportunity of running both a font foundry and a graphic design practice? A woman once explained to me why she only buys her clothes from certain luxury brands. It’s not that this is a status symbol, nor was it all about quality, but it was more about her personal brand. The more expensive an item is, the less chance you’ll run into someone who also has it. The same goes for fonts. Sure, you can use as many free fonts in a brand identity as your heart desires. However, keep in mind that millions of people have access to those same fonts and have used them for their logos or their websites. An identity is supposed to make a brand stand out, so consumers can identify it in a crowded marketplace. Your font selection says a lot about who you are and what you represent. But when you use a free font, you’re no different from anyone else. Because my studio is one of two companies I know of in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia that offers type design as a service, I automatically stand out from any local competition. By learning type design through Vocal Type, I’m one of a few locals who is capable of making a completely unique identity.
Where do you think the field of typography is going? I feel like we’re in a civil war, and not just in terms of typography. The battle is between human-centered design and the encroaching artificial intelligence (AI). While I’m all for using AI to explore possibilities and automate tedious processes, I’m not sure how I feel about using AI to create entire typefaces.
Which typeface would you add to the typographic canon? I’ve only released beta versions so far, but it would have to be the William font family. The family is based on a series of 58 infographics created by W. E. B. Du Bois, an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author, writer and editor. While teaching at Atlanta University, Du Bois was asked to make a contribution to the Paris World’s Fair. The end result was a series of carefully handmade data visualizations in full, vibrant color, explaining the reasons why Black America was being held back and how the institution of slavery continued to impact African American progress in the country.
This family consists of three weights, matching italics, reverse italics, several ligatures, and twelve sets of stylistic alternates that can transform the lowercase from traditional to futuristic. Some of those alternates include angular art nouveau forms and what I call semislab serifs. William shouldn’t be added to the typographic canon just because of these amazing features, but mainly because of its history. The design industry as a whole, in terms of education and practice, has a tendency to ignore the minority cultures that predated or inspired so many of its works.
How can type be a force for diversity? I see type as a force for education, and education as a force for diversity. Someone once told me that if you condensed the world population into a group of 100 people, only one person in that group would be college educated. I only know three Black type designers in America, and according to the United States Department of Labor, Black designers only make up 3.5 percent of all designers in America. So, I’m using type to educate the graphic design community about the importance of understanding other cultures. My next step is to educate the youth in Black and Brown communities on what’s possible. My grandfather always told me that you can’t make money selling art, and a lot of the older generations in these communities feel the same way. But if you can believe that a boy raised on a farm survived two brain tumors and grew up to sell letters, then you should be able to believe that anything is possible if you work to make it so.