This review is not as fresh as I would normally prefer, a busy schedule leaves little time for reflection. However, it is important to reflect upon great ideas and sometimes even the smallest of moments. In an intimate setting, Rod McDonald spoke candidly to a modest gathering of design students and professionals eager to hear about type. It was unlike any type talk I have heard before, and that’s a good thing!
I recall an impressive slide of logos, mainly typographic. I soon learned that Rod McDonald did these logos by hand, and that he often catches himself wondering “My god, did I do those by hand?!”. Yet, he did, because there was a time when our precious Creative Suite was non existent and the skills of old-school designers are just that impeccable. McDonald opened with an important point that in Canada, the lessons in typography are inadequate compared to how important it is in our daily lives. Typography is the backbone of design, and supposedly makes up 60% of the world’s communication (whether that number is true, I do not know, but it is believable). It is important to note that, according to McDonald, those who make fonts are generally not fond of being called “Typographers” as the term technically applies to one who is arranging type to present language (perhaps us designers would better suit this term at times). In essence, those who make fonts are Type Engineers; Frutiger said a large part of type making is engineering, McDonald shares this sentiment. With this clarity, I will try to be as respectful as possible in my use of language.
True to Type is a revival of Carl Dair type workshops. A blurb about him can be seen on the GDC website. These workshops were to train designers; of which he trained many, including Allan Fleming. This dying practice of type workshops has inspired True to Type: Designing & Communication with Type— a tour across Canada which kicked off in Vancouver on October 15th in a Vancouver Film School auditorium. McDonald shares his thoughts on this lack of education on type in Canada as a matter of too-much-theory-not-enough-practice. In order for us to be great with type, and understand it, we need a bit of both under our belts (which we are barely getting in our education). While theory is important, practice is the reality of setting type where we continue to prove and disprove theories. Even crudely put, no one treatment is appropriate for all fonts.
Dair designed “Cartier”, which became Canada’s first domestic typeface and was designed from the original Canadian glyph forms. McDonald says while he worked with the face to set the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the font became difficult to use with more complex European languages. He knew it was a good typeface, but it needed improvement. When designing type, it has to work. Possible settings must be considered such as languages and weights. When Dair designed Cartier, he said he didn’t design it with various weights aside from Roman and Italic because the historical context didn’t account for them. McDonald had us laughing when he pointed out the obvious: this is the modern world! In theory, not having a selection of weights because of the historical influence is nice, but in practice it is detrimental to the success of the typeface’s functionality and practical purpose. In McDonald’s efforts to improve Cartier, he found himself to be a drawer as opposed to the maker. He made necessary changes that would have originally been made between the making and the casting— had Cartier gone through a typical process, which it did not.
To continue on this notion of practicality, Rod McDonald moves on to discuss the design of Laurentian for Maclean’s magazine. In Maclean’s first redesign it lost 65 words per page. The editor passionately exclaimed to Macdonald that he didn’t care what the type looked like, he just wanted his 65 words per page back. With this in mind, says McDonald, it’s important to consider the primary size of use for a typeface. If you love a type at 18 pt. but will mostly be setting at 10pt, assess the face’s function at that size. Look carefully and see the type in action because, in the case of Maclean’s, money and quality can be lost at the expense of (perhaps apathetic) form-centric design.
Rob MacDonald delivered a wonderful talk during which many of us were laughing. He has a wonderful sense of humour, and a great deal of experience. He had a knowing twinkle in his eye and I was the wiser when I left VFS that evening. I hope the tour continues to be successful and the audiences grow. I will leave you with the expression McDonald used to explain his process designing his latest Classic Grotesk (an ideal face which had to be beyond Arial!):
“I finally realized, in order to go forward I had to go backward.”
That action was go back to look at the previous grotesks in the series in order to innovate on his own. I like the expression “Creativity is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration”, but Inspiration can go a long way! Oh, and you’ve been warned— do not fall in love with a letter!