typography-as-a-radical-act-in-an-industry-ever-dominated-by-white-men
Rubin typeface

Letterforms are loaded cultural objects—they often reflect the people who made them and the story they want to tell. In the history of type, not every story gets told, though, and Tré Seals wants to change that.

Seals started a type foundry called Vocal Type with the aim of creating typefaces that reflect a more diverse perspective. In his words: “This is a type foundry for creatives of color who feel they don’t have a say in their industry. This is for the creative women who feel they don’t have a say in their industry. This is for the creative who is tired of being ‘inspired’ by the same creations from different people and wondering why.”

Since 2016, the foundry has released five retail typefaces, worked on numerous custom type jobs, and launched a website that details the historically significant backstories of Vocal Type’s projects.  While this isn’t too remarkable, Vocal Type is unusual in that its founder is black.

Typography is notorious for its racial homogeneity. The two main pathways to designing fonts are from tech and design, which are industries dominated by white men. Vocal’s own site clocks the profession at 84% white, and AIGA’s 2017 Design Census at 60%. This has been a conversation in the field even before Dr. Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller called out the profession in her 1991 article for the AIGA Journal, “Why is Graphic Design 93% White?

Seals discovered Holmes-Miller in his first year after design school at Stevenson University while he was cutting his teeth freelancing in branding and illustration. He quickly found that type designers of color like him were almost non-existent—something designers such as Maurice Cherry and Miller had been noting for years. Inspired by Holmes-Miller’s 1987 call to action, “Black Designers: Missing in Action” and her 2016 sequel, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action?,” Seals contacted her about his idea to start a type foundry that could represent diverse experiences in typographic form. “Hurry up and do it before someone else does!” she told him. And so he did.

Vocal’s typefaces take inspiration from typographic ephemera created for and by historical visionaries of color. These include the typeface Martin, named after Martin Luther King, and William, named after W.E.B. Du Bois, an American activist, writer, and historian, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The fonts also echo lesser-known protest movements like Ruben, inspired by the National Chicano Moratorium movement, which protested the Vietnam War and was led by journalist Rubén Salazar.

Seals didn’t want to limit his aims of diversifying typographic voices to solely ideas around race; and has also created typefaces like Carrie, a sans serif that honors women’s suffrage in the United States; Eva, created for the suffrage movement in Argentina, and Stonewall to recognize the LGBTQ 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City.

“Hurry up and do it before someone else does!”

Each font is born from detailed research and is shaped by the collective efforts of Seals’ online communities. Often, Seals will share source material—photos, posters, bits of type—with his followers through Pinterest and Instagram, and they will, in turn, provide him with additional archival photographs of protest signs and scraps of ephemera that are enough to set a typeface in motion. For Martin, Seals was inspired by photos of typographic broadsides reading “HONOR KING: END RACISM!” and “I AM A MAN” printed in a church print shop in runs of 400 for the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, during which more than 1,300 black employees of the Memphis Department of Public Works protested dangerous working conditions.

For the ornate Eva typeface, Seals referenced hand-drawn banners carried during a 1947 Women’s Demonstration in Buenos Aires led by Eva Perón that were paraded in front of the National Congress by Law for Universal Suffrage stating, “LA MUJER PUEDE Y DEBE VOTAR” or “WOMEN CAN AND SHOULD VOTE.” With William, Seals draws on the hand rendered lettering used in the pioneering information graphics created by W.E.B. Du Bois and his students of color at Atlanta University for a display of African-American progress at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. Designed as typographic proclamations about the equality of all Americans, the predominant letter style used in the charts has no curves, only straight lines, and is more akin to the no-nonsense letterforms seen in architecture and engineering plans.

“I believe that all type and design is subliminal—no matter how monotonous or garish.”

Seals recently completed a suite of custom typefaces for Umber, an Oakland, California-based printed publication that focuses on creative culture and visual arts from the perspective of people of color. For its third issue themed “Sound,” Vocal crafted a typeface based on remnants from the first all-black-owned record label, Broome Special Phonograph Records, plus a family of six weights based on sound waves.

Broome typeface

Seals views typography as more than a utilitarian tool. For him, type is a main character in the story of visual language and identity deeply rooted in graphic design and branding. “I believe that all type and design is subliminal—no matter how monotonous or garish,” he says. “From a consumer perspective, I think it’s more about the look and feel than anything else, nor can they really explain it beyond that. I think type and design can look and feel ‘luxurious,’ ‘vintage,’ ‘bold,’ ‘new,’ or ‘insert culturally relevant term here.’”

The words of the 1960s painter Emma Amos still ring true in today’s design culture: “For me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.”

In the long history of type design, designers of color have historically had limited access to the tools and knowledge necessary to create typography. This form of technological discrimination has had the effect of limiting the groups of people reflected in—and represented by—the typography we see in the world.  In that sense, Vocal Type’s fonts and platform are a radical act—not just because they’re different, but because their excellence transcends their historical minority voice. The words of the 1960s painter Emma Amos still ring true today in today’s design culture: “For me, a black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act.”

“If consumers understood design half as much as they understand technology, they’d be able to make better conscious (and possibly world changing) decisions”

Seals is reticent to connect Vocal Type’s releases to the broader legacy of utopian-inspired design. But he’s also cautiously optimistic about the potential of treating typography as a starting point for deeper conversations about culture and representation. “If consumers understood design half as much as they understand technology, they’d be able to make better conscious (and possibly world changing) decisions,” he says.

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