Typographics 2017: “We’re getting there!”

On a hot and rainy weekend in mid-June, Typographics brought together the far-too-separated industries of typography and graphic design for a series of talks by “people who use type.” Typographics has a long history—so I’m told—but 2017 was its third year in the conference’s current incarnation. It was also my second year as an attendee; here’s my breakdown of how it went and whether you should get a ticket next year.

The Great Hall
Photos by Henrique Nardi

Non-Essentials

Let’s start with the “non-essentials:” facets of the conference that aren’t the conference material itself. These are things like location, venue, time of year, and so on. Typographics takes place at The Cooper Union in Greenwich Village, in the heart of Manhattan. It’s a—dare I say—perfect location. Many parts of Manhattan are overly saturated with tourists or are far too expensive or far too grimy. The Cooper Union, though, feels unencumbered by these flaws. The attendees—marked with procedurally generated name tags—appeared to be some of the only non-locals around. The area isn’t too expensive, either. I found two tacos for $6.50 at one place on Friday, then I found two tacos for $7.20 at another place on Saturday. (For a rundown on where to get tacos, email me!)

For those of us coming from out of town—parking is an issue. But it’s Manhattan—what did I expect? I found parking across the Williamsburg Bridge for $29 that lasted all weekend (Friday morning to Sunday evening). It’s a short L-Train ride from Union Square station just a few blocks from The Cooper Union.

The main stage of the conference is The Cooper Union’s famed Great Hall, a legendary venue where Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Obama have all spoken. I also learned today that Christopher Hitchen’s memorial service was held there. There are unfortunate columns throughout the venue that can sometimes block one’s line of sight—but if you plan for that, move seats, or don’t need to see the faces of every single speaker, it’s quite tolerable. I did some snooping through the rest of The Cooper Union while nobody was looking, and yes—there are other venues that might be prettier or feature better visuals—but you really cannot match the history of the Great Hall, and I would protest if they moved the talks next year.

Time of year—this is tricky. They found a weekend that works, but damn is Manhattan unpleasant in mid-June. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if it didn’t pour rain during one of the lunches—I am sure I wasn’t the only one with soggy socks during the PM talks on Saturday. Of course, the conference planners, lead by Cara DiEdwardo, the head of Type@Cooper, can’t account for rain. And they did well to pick a weekend with no clear conference-conflicts. There are others that flank Typographics—Typo Berlin, Kerning, etc.—so some type-people may opt out due to lack of funding or fear of jetlag, but it works.

One last note before getting to the conference itself: there’s a MUJI store right across the street from The Cooper Union. This store is reason-enough to visit NYC—and when you can go there AND attend a design conference? It’s a no-brainier.

Typographics Speaker Panel
Hilary Greenbaum, Silas Munro, Martin Venezky, Natasha Jen, Ilya Ruderman

The heart of the thing.

This year, I got some greater insight into how Typographics is put together. Or, more accurately, thrown together. Last year, I didn’t know people so well, so I never heard the juicy details of when speakers were asked to participate, how they decided the order of the speakers, and so on.

Let me say before lodging my complaints—rather: my criticisms—that this was a good conference, so if you want to hear only the peachy things, skip forward a few paragraphs. If you want an accurate picture, blemishes and all: read on.

It doesn’t help the review for me to share most of the details of how I heard the conference was planned, but I certainly got the impression that many decisions were last-minute. This wouldn’t matter necessarily; however, a number of the conference’s issues weren’t what one might call “growing pains,” but instead the result of either lack of thought or lapses in judgement.

I have a few examples—one painful, one subtle, one annoying, and one odd—then I’ll drop it.

The painful: in 2016, there were several technical glitches. The projectors would distort colors or cycle off and on, the audio would cut out, and so on. This year, on the first day of the conference, these issues appeared again, starting with the opening video, which had to be restarted at least three times before playing the correct way—or perhaps before they said, “to hell with it” and just let it play the incorrect way. The technical issues disappeared for day two, which means that they could resolve the issues overnight, yet—mysteriously—they did not resolve them over the year from 2016 to 2017. This indicates a painful lack of thought from year two to year three. The technical issues honestly hurt 2016 and should have been resolved before 2017 started. I’m sure the organizers know this, and—since they fixed it for day two—it should be fixed for 2018.

Now the subtle issue. This might sound crazy or silly at first glance—and my bet is that most didn’t even notice, but in my experience, it’s the little things that set the tone for a conference. Here it is: during the speaker Q&A panels, the speakers sat on folding chairs. The speakers—whom attendees had paid so much to see—were sitting on worse chairs than the attendees. Did I say subtle? Speakers should sit on nicer chairs. They cost marginally more—or, hell, they could be free if you get a furniture sponsor. I honestly hope that the organizers find more fitting chairs for next year.

The annoying issue. The program left no breaks for drinking coffee or using the restroom. On the second day, they had a “break” in the morning, but I suspect included it because they couldn’t find a so-called Spotlight speaker—attendees who share 5-minute anecdotes between some of the longer talks. I’m not sure why the schedule included no breaks; it seems like an oversight.

Finally, the odd one. I counted four or five emcees over the two-day conference, and none were real emcees. They were type people—some very acclaimed type people—but not really the personalities for the job. At one point, an emcee took the stage to thank one speaker and introduce the next: “Thank you! That was so good! Our next speaker […]” An emcee should have something to add—but this can’t happen when there are multiple throughout the day. Of course, they’re not going to do their research on the speakers or come up with thought-provoking comments—who could expect them to do that when they’re just one of five? I hope that next year, Typographics picks someone to be the emcee—and I hope that person understands the responsibilities that position entails.

One observation that I cannot justly categorize as a complaint but could be emblematic of the conference’s issues—at one point, one of the emcees asked the audience who had never been to a typography or design conference before. Many, many hands raised into the air. At first glance, this looks great. There are so many newcomers! But the crowd didn’t look much different in size than the crowd last year, which means one thing: people didn’t come back. This churn could result from the location—with a city like New York, you never know. People move in; they move out. They’re busy one year and not the next. Who knows? I know firsthand that the conference collects email addresses and advertised the 2017 conference to all 2016 attendees, so where did they all go? I don’t have the answer, but I hope to see a post-conference survey very soon—which might offer insights into how to reduce this turnover for 2018.

Marlene McCarty with "Resist Typography" Marlene McCarty with “Resist Typography”

The Conference Content

Typographics seems to improve its speaker lineup each year. While 2016 boasted names like Tobias Frere-Jones, Dr. Fiona Ross, and Stephen Doyle, it also included a handful of subpar talks. The best speakers more than made up for the worst ones, but I still prefer a well-balance lineup.

This year’s conference featured Jonathan Hoefler, Lara Captan, Helen Yentus, Kris Sowersby, and Jonathan Key, among others. I won’t give summaries of each and every talk, but the standout moments do deserve recapping:

Helen Yentus gave a thoughtful talk on book cover design and its nuances in the Amazon-era. Helen walked the audience through her career—spanning more than a decade—and showed how marketing and design synthesize in book covers to produce “the ultimate design challenges.” She showed an eye-opening image of two-inch book covers—you know, the way consumers see them while scrolling through endless search pages online. It became strikingly obvious how taxing this genre of design must be, especially when you have to produce interesting covers for countless “multi-generational romances.” Overall, Helen’s was one of my favorite talks—yes, even with precisely zero font names mentioned.

Forest Young‘s talk offered a survey of his eclectic and—dare I say—innovative typographic work. I was hooked as soon as he described pixels as a metaphorical extension of atoms, explaining that we build our visual world with these uniformly measured, endlessly customizable dots. Forest went on to show how, using this metaphor, designers can unlock new ways of thinking and constructing—breaking these atoms, bending them, and so on. Ultimately, his talk revolved around the idea of critical typography versus stereo-typography and how the former should “obsolesce” the latter. The pragmatic approach to developing critical typography, Forest claimed, is to harness and challenge the stereotypes in our users’ or readers’ minds: “All these ideas about what is good and evil relate to what we think of as left and right and up and down.”

The final highlight I’ll include is Marlene McCarty’s talk on the oscillating role of typography in American activism. She looked at the Civil Rights Movement and the signs used by protesters then—compared to the signs used by both contemporary activist groups and current political campaigns. The idea as of late, Marlene shared, is to decolonize protest posters through a greater interest in the “power of individual voices.” In an age when virtually everyone has access to professional-grade graphics tools, more and more activists are hand-painting, drawing, or even needlepointing their signs, spending far more time creating graphics that are not so traditionally attractive. Marlene summarized the challenge this poses to socially-minded designers: “How do we as typographers listen for and image the unspeakable?”

The great talks at this year’s Typographics were those that illustrated an issue or obstacle, then explained a potential solution. Sounds obvious, right? Of course the best talks fit that format—they involved the audience in some dynamic tension and included us on the journey to resolve it. Many of the talks did this—far more than I’ve included in these three highlights. Against this, though, were the rest of the talks, which I’ll categorize as advertorial.

Notice how none of my three highlights were type designers? If you know me, then that might sound strange. But that’s the thing—the type designers on stage at Typographics were selling; the graphic designers were showing. Kris Sowersby actually stated quite bluntly during a speaker Q&A panel, “This whole thing is about selling you fonts.” And there it is.

When I expressed this concern to a handful of the other attendees, I heard much agreement and a few requests to “cut the conference some slack.” Here was their point: Typographics is one of the few conferences that brings together the type design and graphic design communities—we need more of these events and the ones that are around (like Typographics) we need to support ceaselessly. I must say that I whole-heartedly agree. My favorite talks were the graphic design talks, and in the social events I deeply enjoyed making the acquaintance of graphic designers. Though, if the goal of the conference is to coalesce these two industries, then it ought to be more thoughtful in how it constructs this connection. It should be about sharing problems, solutions, requirements, requests, and even pleas for help. What do graphic designers need from type designers? What kinds of problems are type designers working to solve and why?
It felt like the graphic design community fulfilled its end of the bargain, and I came away with a clearer understanding of what that community wants and needs. The type designers, though, seemed intent on selling fonts.

That said, the type designer talks were all very good and engaging. These were good talks—I just didn’t like that they ended with some form of “and it’s available to purchase now!”

The rest of the conference impressed me completely. Now, at many conferences there isn’t much to touch on besides the talks and social events. At Typographics, though, the organizers make excellent use of The Cooper Union’s spaces to offer more talks, a book fair, demonstrations, and a lounge. I didn’t get to see many of the extra talks, but the one that I did see—run by two professors at the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, Gloria Kondrup and Ty Drake—thrilled and disturbed and otherwise moved the audience. The talk, titled Wordism, explored the role of language—particularly derogatory and inflammatory language—in our roles as designers. The book fair was even better than last year, and I walked away with some goodies. The lounge offered a pleasantly calm oasis to charge your phone or—and I caught more than one person doing this—take a nap. The demonstrations included calligraphy, sign painting, Gylphs App, and more—I attended the sign painting demonstration, run by the famed John Downer. Luckily, I arrived early and spoke with him for roughly an hour. He even painted my name—now I have the best bookmark ever made.


Annik Troxler on “Developing Type & Image for Poster Design”

Typographics tries to accomplish more than most conferences, offering itself as the connection between the type and graphic design industries—for the most part, it pulls it off. The location, venue, and time of year are near perfection. The issues I saw with it could be attributed to a number of things—growing pains, type-people (rather than event-people) running the show, or lack of adequate time to prepare—though I expect that most if not all of these concerns will be erased for the fourth year. The talks were engaging and informative, if sometimes salesy. The extra talks, book fair, etc. were all honestly delightful.

I can say with certainty that I will make the drive up to The Cooper Union next June for Typographics, and if you’re in the type or graphic design industries—you should, too.

B+

Typographics 2017

Recommendation: Attend in 2018

Good Stuff

• Engaging and diverse talks
• Excellent location and venue
• Plenty of extras (workshops, book fair, etc.)
• Friendly and unique crowd

Bad Stuff

• Some talks were pretty sales-heavy
• Poor attention to detail in planning
• Growing pains
• Conference tries to do too much

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