On a warm Saturday afternoon in tiny, rural Jefferson, Georgia, Neil Summerour welcomes me into his family’s home. He leads me past a bathroom with ornate chalk lettering on the walls bearing pithy advice for proper toilet use (“If at first you don’t succeed, flush again”) down the staircase into a subterranean space lined with all manner of tools and trinkets: Transformers action figures, Japanese weapons and physics textbooks alongside Type Directors Club annuals and kid-scrawled crayon doodles pinned up caddy-corner from Summerour’s hand-drawn letterforms. We’re in the midst of what Summerour affectionately refers to as his “mad scientist’s laboratory”—the studio where he spends countless hours crafting his own versions of the alphabet, again and again.
This, situated in a cul-de-sac of a subdivision in a town of 10,000, is the home of Summerour’s type foundry, Positype, and lettering platform, Swash & Kern. Though Summerour recoils from singing his own praises, he’s obviously prolific. From ice cream to lipstick to lingerie, it’s hard for the average consumer not to encounter his handiwork on a regular basis. To date, he has published about a hundred font families—approximately 750 fonts—and created custom typefaces for clients like Victoria’s Secret, L’Oreal, Revlon, Oculus and Facebook, not to mention the endless and ever-growing stack of personal work. He casually rattles off a veritable laundry list of projects he’s knee-deep in, and I ask him how he isn’t exhausted. “I’m compelled to make things,” he says with a grin and an amiable shrug.
That purist notion—to create solely for creativity’s sake—has propelled Summerour’s every move, from the flashy commercial work to the many projects perpetually humming along in the background. To him, those who don’t respect the sanctity of the craft are a discredit to the industry. The designers who use their technical skills only to ape popular designs for a quick payout (“opportunists,” he calls them) repel him. So do the habitual revivalists who use history as a creative crutch and the self-anointed type “academics”—those who alienate would-be enthusiasts with their inaccessible, puffed-up language and attitude. After all, the average consumer is now more likely than ever to recognize Comic Sans on a takeout menu. Why turn those people off? “Type is a subjective commodity,” says Summerour. “Somebody may like something, and they may not be able to explain why because they’re not a type nerd. But they still relate to it.” Although seemingly humble and certainly not a snob, Summerour isn’t without his opinions—especially when it comes to protecting his craft.
Despite early attempts to ignore it, his desire to make has been constant. Summerour tells me that he began drawing from an early age and was fascinated with printed matter as a child (he remembers swiping back issues of his parents’ Harper’s Bazaar as a six-year-old, hoarding them “like a morgue”). Unsurprisingly, he won the handwriting contests in grade school. Surprisingly, he grew up seeing his penchant for drawing as little more than a hobby—or worse, a distraction. Summerour breezed through math and science courses in high school, eventually entering the University of Georgia with plans to study medicine. It wasn’t until taking a studio art class on a lark that he began to understand that this “hobby” could actually become a career.
What Summerour didn’t realize was that the very same penchant for order and precision that launched him on a path to study science had been preparing him for a career in the design field all along. “One day in class, my professor [Bill Paul] said I would never make it as an artist … but I would probably make a damn great graphic designer because I’m so anal retentive,” Summerour recalls with a laugh. Heeding his professor’s wisdom, he switched majors and graduated with a BFA in graphic design in 1997.
Much like his own letterforms that undulate from thick curves to razor-thin serifs, Summerour is a study in contrasts. Though mathematically technical, he’s also head-over-heels in love with organic shapes and forms. He labors as precisely as any engineer, but there’s nothing mechanical about his letters—nor his approach, which often favors the analog. “There is nothing more attractive to me than hearing that brush or marker rubbing up against the paper,” he tells me. “I will sit for at least 30 minutes every day and sketch, doodle, make marks, fiddle around. It warms my hands up, and it gets my brain in the right position.” Even for someone laser-focused on the exactness of each coordinate placement for each point in each letter, nothing compares to the charming roughness and warm imperfection of things done by hand. “Our hands are imperfect devices,” he says. “To make type in that way, and not make it cold and impersonal—that makes me happy.”
It’s a philosophy that has not only informed his process, but also indelibly shaped his style. “Every single thing he touches, you can see that his hand has touched it,” says Corey Holms, a California-based graphic designer who works with Summerour on TypeCon, the annual conference hosted by the Society of Typographic Aficionados (of which both men are members). “He can’t help but bring humanity into every single thing he touches. Even on things that are supposed to be neutral. At first blush they are, but then you start seeing these little quirks that were obviously chosen by a person. It’s refreshing.”
Scott Boms, a designer at the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory, says those quirks have made Summerour a good partner for the projects they’ve collaborated on, such as the branding of Facebook’s internal benefits program. “There is such a humanity to his work and to the way he draws a letter or makes decisions,” Boms tells me. “It’s not completely mechanical or devoid of life or feeling. There are a lot of emotions that come from his work.”
For all this talk of analog and handmade, one would think Summerour might balk at the idea of high-tech projects. That couldn’t be further from the truth. “Neil finds new and interesting ways to use the technology that’s available to bring that humanity back,” says Boms. This was especially true in one of Summerour’s most high-tech undertakings to date: designing a typeface for Oculus to be used not only in its corporate branding, but also throughout the user interface in its virtual reality (VR) headsets. Designing type for VR brings about a whole new set of challenges, Summerour explains. “You’re dealing with an organic, amorphous environment driven by perception. Anything that you’re looking at is out there floating,” he says. “You have all these little distortions and imperfections.” Add in that each typeface had to be adapted for new markets’ languages—Hangul, Cyrillic, Japanese and so on—and that he was working within the usual lightning-quick turnarounds of a new tech product, and it’s easy to see why Summerour agreed to do the work: the man can’t say no to a challenge.
I ask Summerour how he manages to spend so much time tinkering with the alphabet and never run out of new ideas. We joke about the Tetris effect, in which people who spend hours playing the video game see its patterns and forms in real life, their brain compelled to force brick walls and tile floors into neatly interlocking shapes. Similarly, Summerour can’t not see letterforms out in the world—especially in the human form, where he might see a flourish in the arc of an expressive talker’s hand or a lowercase “g” in the contours of someone sleeping on her side. “I see bodies and I see curves, and I’m going to make those curves in my drawings,” he says. “That’s how I make a connection. We respond to it. We respond to the touch of a loved one; there is a visceral component that perks up the hairs on our skin, makes our eyes dilate, makes us respond.”
Nowhere is this aesthetic more evident than in Lust, a typeface that encapsulates his affinity for curves in one high-contrast, voluptuous serif. The original, released in 2012, has since spawned versions like Lust Script and Lust Hedonist, a hyper-contrast version. It is one of Summerour’s most well-known creations and perhaps one of his most striking. With more than a thousand licenses sold since its debut, the typeface has made cameos in Victoria’s Secret branding and in the pages of Ebony magazine. A few years after its release, however, Summerour went back to the drawing board, quite literally: he redrew the font in five different weights. The final product, Lust Pro, was released in the fall of 2015, with web and app versions offered at no charge. The font is the ultimate expression of his fascination with the body. “The human body is one of the most elegantly designed and perversely portrayed things out there,” he says. “I love drawing sensual, supple curves, and I don’t care if you want to associate that with a man or a woman.”
Summerour is like a self-propelled machine that could not stop making things if he tried, which is why a few massive client projects and a labor-intensive font release like Lust Pro will not stop him from adding to his to-do list. Cue another project of rather grandiose scale: Sin, a typographic series consisting of seven different fonts, each modeled after one of the seven deadly sins. There’s the fat, hulking Sloth, the lurid blackletter Wrath, the skulking Envy and so forth. Summerour collaborated with illustrator Yu Dori to create a deck of playing cards featuring the fonts, released in early 2016. It is an extraordinarily complex undertaking—which is precisely why Summerour wanted to do it. “I love being able to take that stuff on, where it’s a challenge and nobody has done it,” he says. “Now it’s my turn. Let me try it because nobody else has.”
At the end of the day, there’s really only one thing that fuels this need to juggle so many crazy ideas all at once, and it isn’t caffeine: it’s boredom, or rather, a deep-rooted contempt for it. The mere thought of settling into a rut—becoming “the serif guy” or “the script guy” or “the sans serif guy”—is the impetus that keeps Summerour juggling such an astounding number of projects, whether it’s tackling a multilingual type project with challenging spatial constraints, taking an iconic set of letters back to the drawing board or releasing an over-the-top deck of playing cards just for fun. The one criterion for accepting a new undertaking? According to Summerour, it must be a challenge. “If I can assess the project and say, ‘I can’t find anything like that, the way they plan on using it is wholly unique or no one’s tried to do it this way,’” he says, “I’m sure as hell going to be the one who says, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’” ca