- Matthew Thorsen
Name: Alec Julien Town: Burlington Job: Font Designer
Alec Julien reads more closely than most people. It's not that the Burlington graphic designer necessarily has a better grasp of complicated ideas — though he's a smart guy with a master's in philosophy. It's just that when he reads text, he sees more in it than most readers. That's because Julien is a font designer.
On a snowy December day, Julien sips hot cider at Muddy Waters and explains that he can't help but analyze the fonts that surround him. Some of the fliers on the coffee shop's bulletin board make him grimace; but he admires one, promoting a Shelburne Museum event, for its balance and well-chosen type.
Julien, 49, estimates that he's designed about 50 fonts. He's so skilled in the art that Focal Press approached him to write a book on the subject. FontFace: The Complete Guide to Creating, Marketing & Selling Digital Fonts was published in 2012. It's a lucidly written, step-by-step manual on the process of font creation, from character design to software tips to making one's letters stand out in a crowded type marketplace.
It may seem unusual for a graphic designer to spend so much time working on typefaces. But the very mission of a font designer is to treat printed characters as graphic elements. Julien tells Seven Days how and why we read not just for content but for aesthetic pleasure.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you get started with font design?
ALEC JULIEN: I have a long-standing relationship with typography, dating back to high school. This was the 1970s in New York City, and the graffiti movement was in full swing. I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen, and then I looked down at my own handwriting, and it was just terrible. I said, "I have to fix this." I realized that letterforms aren't just there for utility, and they're not just for getting across information. They can be beautiful in their own right. Still, in a lot of my early fonts, I tried to make all the glyphs [font elements such as letters and punctuation marks] beautiful in their own right, and didn't worry enough about how they would cohere. They just didn't hang well together on the page.
SD: Why should readers care about fonts?
AJ: I was reading a Stephen King novel a couple years ago, and it was set in some awful form of Garamond. The italics for some Garamonds are very inconsistent; the axes are all off. And I was just angry every five pages. But maybe readers shouldn't care [about fonts]. If you walk into a really well-built house, maybe you don't have to notice that all the joists are set exactly properly and everything is level. Maybe you don't notice it because you shouldn't notice it. It just looks right.
SD: Why should writers care about fonts?
AJ: When you use good fonts and use them in the right way, you're setting up your design in a good, viewable, aesthetically pleasing way that does matter, even if you don't notice it. Stephen King should care about that. Maybe people won't notice if his books are typeset in a shitty manner, but maybe they will, subconsciously, and they'll have a less good experience than they would otherwise.
SD: Where do you get your ideas for new fonts?
AJ: I love old movie posters from the '30s, '40s, '50s, because they have a lot of hand-lettered work that's one of a kind and gorgeous. I got inspiration for my latest font from an old issue of some magazine from the '70s. Most of the inspiration is from hand lettering. That's the stuff that's totally unique.
SD: Are some glyphs harder to design than others?
AJ: Numbers have always been the hardest for me. There are very few of them for which you can just take parts from letters and assemble numbers from them. The numeral 5 is a huge pain in the ass. So are 3 and 2!
SD: Why were you approached to write a font-design book?
AJ: I had published some articles on ilovetypography.com, which is the world's biggest font blog. [In 2007,] I published this two-part series, "So You Want to Create a Font." Looking back on it now, I cringe a little — so innocent and misinformed! But it struck a chord with a bunch of people. Yesterday, I talked to John Boardley, the head of I Love Typography, to see how many hits that page has gotten. He said that the last time he'd checked, it was around a million.
SD: Do you consider fonts to be objects of utility or beauty?
AJ: There's no one purpose. [Once, in an online forum, a commenter] said, "Beautiful fonts are all well and good, but you don't look at an ax and say, 'What a beautiful ax!' You say, 'How usable is that going to be for the purposes that I need it?'" I go two ways about that. I totally admit that she was right for a lot of purposes. On the other hand, I love a beautiful font, because I spend a lot of my adult life looking at them and trying to figure out what makes them beautiful. I think there's value to that on an aesthetic level. But if you can't use it, then all its beauty is for naught.