How did you discover your passions for art and typography? I’ve had a passion for art since childhood, but I went into graphic design so I could earn my living. I was really good at paste-up mechanicals—cutting in and gluing down a missing comma and rejustifying a line of type while the client waited in the conference room late at night to sign off on the art boards. I left New York for Seattle in 1983 so I could afford the kind of family life I wanted for my children. A collateral benefit was being able to move into a designer position.
After going out on my own six years later, I began a series of Chinese New Year cards, which ran for 24 years. They were based on the animals of the Chinese zodiac, and were frequently experiments using Latin letterforms and Chinese characters together. One of my recipients, Linda Hunt, invited me to teach typography at the School of Visual Concepts. I had to do extensive preparatory research because I had never been in such a class. I discovered that there was an incredible breadth and depth to the study of typography that was unmatched by anything else I had come across in the design business. I eventually spent a year in England earning my master’s degree in typeface design. I chose the program at Reading because it was not just about design; it required serious research as well.
Why did you decide to complete your dissertation on the type designs of Morris Fuller Benton? Most of the students in my cohort were European-educated and had a strong grounding in historical models of typography, knowing instinctively what felt right. I didn’t have that background. When I started to browse the American Type Founders (ATF) Company catalogs, looking for inspiration for my own typeface design, I realized that its typefaces were much more eclectic, mixing up features from different historical periods and leaving behind the pen-tool model, often with downright funky results. This resonated with me and showed a way forward, both for my typeface family, Bullen, and for my dissertation.
There was a lot of admiration for Morris Fuller Benton among my colleagues in Europe, but very little notice was given to him in America. I wondered how someone so prolific, who headed the type design department at ATF, could be so overlooked. I discovered that a lot of book arts people in America didn’t believe he deserved credit for actually designing the typefaces he issued at ATF, so the focus of my research became evaluating his role as a designer and the quality and influence of his typefaces. I was aided in this by Patricia Cost’s research, which revealed a lot about his work ethos and personality. Studying his typefaces turned out to be my design apprenticeship.
Ten years ago, you worked with the Tulalip Tribes of Washington to design a font for the critically endangered language Lushootseed. How did you research to gain a deep understanding of the language and culture, and how did this inform your design? I looked at a lot of traditional and contemporary Salish art, listened to tapes of traditional stories in Lushootseed and English, read about their history, read news articles about current events on the reservation, read what linguists wrote about their storytelling techniques, and observed how people comported themselves in our meetings. My aim in designing their font was to create a typeface that looked indigenous—that might have been developed by them over the centuries.
Their written script was invented by a linguist in the 1960s. It was rendered with Times Roman. You can trace the lineage of Times Roman from late Roman times to England in the 1930s. There is no connection between the Salish Indians and that lineage, nor did the Lushootseed script look attractive in that font. I guess you can say the job liberated me from emulating a typographic model I was not adept at and enabled me to create something fresh that was informed by my aesthetic insights.
How have your design decisions affected the way the typeface has been used in the years since? I have been surprised by the way the typeface has served as a branding tool for the Tulalip Tribes. Even though anyone can download it, it is widely associated with them. A strong visual identity is an asset in their contemporary struggle for tribal sovereignty. That wasn’t part of the original design brief, which was to design a font for teachers to use, mostly with children. In order to attract children to the language, we also made a wood font to print with, which was cut by the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum.
You recently collaborated with type designer Mamoun Sakkal on AwanZaman, a multilingual Arabic and Latin typeface. What issues did you have to work through in order to adapt Latin letterforms to Arabic letterforms? I loved this project because it was an aesthetic challenge, and so educational. In many cases, stand-alone Latin and Arabic fonts have been paired together after the fact, or the Arabic alphabet has been added to an existing Latin font. But my role was to design the Latin to serve an existing Arabic font by Mamoun. The two alphabets had to look equal in importance and have the same text color on the page. It was a matter of balancing the weight of the strokes and the size of the counters in the Latin to match the color of the Arabic. In practice, that translated to a tall x-height in the Latin, whereas the Arabic has a low x-height—very counterintuitive.
Mamoun’s font family included seven weights, as well as an interesting design axis that moved from formal to playful. All this had to be matched in the Latin, so I designed a lot of alternate characters. I had to keep in mind that informality in one script is not necessarily based on the same visual modifications in another. I took some liberties with the Latin letterforms, echoing curves from the Arabic—but not all of these survived final vetting by the type foundry we joined. I think it was too unusual for its market.
After running an independent design firm in Seattle for 23 years, what led you to focus on painting? Everything I had been doing for those 23 years involved sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time, which is not beneficial to one’s health. Then, in 2012, a friend invited me to join a group of artists doing an outdoor self-directed residency centered on the Duwamish Waterway in Seattle—a superfund cleanup site and a very challenging place for inspiring art work. Before my second year with the Duwamish Artist Residency, I had closed the design firm and taken up art again. I still do custom font design, but otherwise, I am totally analog—brush in hand, no screen to stare at. I never tried to be a painter and a graphic designer concurrently. I say this to encourage others who may be postponing a dream. The flame doesn’t go out.
What advice do you have for a type designer who is just starting out? I don’t think I’m the best person to give advice because I don’t earn my living from designing typefaces. I would like to say, though, that it is work that can have profound consequences; therefore, you should undertake it seriously and do it well.