Talking Type: Kwesi Amuti

August 25, 2017

Previously, we spoke to Tré Seals about type design. In the second installment of Talking Type, Kwesi Amuti lends his voice to the conversation about who designs the type that surrounds us everyday.

How did you get started in type design?

As a kid, I was into crafts. During the time my parents were creating marketing materials for my dad’s science association, they had to create a logo and they used dry transfer sheets with an array of glyphs and shapes. From that moment, I realized that someone had to make every character in the alphabet. Then I had questions. Who was this person? Is it just one person or many doing this?  

Skip forward to a weekly trip to the library where, while just goofing off and browsing around, I found an unabridged encyclopedia that not only had the Latin characters we use today, but also Cyrillic, Hebrew and a full host of other world languages. My mind was then opened to the fact that more characters existed past the English language character set. This was strengthened by finding some of my Dad’s collected language books from his home in Ghana.

Fast forward to the University of Delaware. I was a history major unofficially sitting in on visual communication classes while working on party flyers for the campus radio station where I worked. This is where type design started to gel for me. I had never thought to make a font until one of my friends in the computer lab showed me a technique he learned from the guys at House Industries. He took out a dry transfer sheet of the Impact typeface and scraped an open paper clip across the top of it to distress it thoroughly. After that, he scanned every distressed letter and transferred in a program known as Adobe Streamline. From Adobe Streamline, he transferred the vectored drawings to Fontographer, and within an hour of copying, pasting and tweaking he had a fully working typeface that was ready to use. My mind was literally blown watching that happen so quickly, and from that day on things were never the same.

Aside from the mind-blowing type design lessons in college, two major things led me to designing type. One was on a somber note with my father’s passing away in the early 2000s. This was my toughest job really…and I know a lot of people say they have some tough jobs but making the program for your own father’s funeral should rank fairly high on the list.

While creating his funeral program, I needed to incorporate some Adinkra symbols into the design since they were relevant to him and were also used when he and my Mom got married in the 70s. I couldn’t find any such symbols being sold online, so I copied, scanned, vectorized and made a font out of these African symbols to use with the program. In that moment, a little “idea light” went off.

The second lesson also centered around my Dad and the books he collected from Ghana. They all used Latin character glyphs, but when they reached a foreign letter/glyph, it was either written in by hand or typed in with an old typewriter. That break in type continuity always bothered me and the second “idea light” went off that type design may be the way to go to solve such issues.

How do you describe your work as a type designer?

I feel my work should help those who use it to convey their intended message to any audience without confusion. After that has been considered, the work is then open to the possibility of fun, nostalgia, reinterpretation, and at times reinvention.

Tell me how you work to create a new typeface.

Everything starts with inspiration and sketching. I pore through loads of pictures, magazines and collected digital material. After sketching, I scan and vectorize as much as I have to get the creative process going. I use Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Fontlab Studio, Type Supply’s FeatureProof, and Dutch Type Library’s OTMaster to create a typeface, so I switch between each of them to design, space, kern, hint and add OpenType features that I need into the typeface. If I’m making larger families, I use Type Supply’s Prepolator and LettError’s Superpolator to help.

When you are designing type, who are you collaborating with?

I collaborate mostly with myself. I say that because it’s almost like you have to continuously auto-correct and constructively second guess yourself at times on whether different elements of a typeface are correct or even necessary. Then I bounce it off of family members and friends to get a non-objective take on the typeface.

How is digital design different than print design?

When I first started, it was definitely different and in some respects, there still is a difference. But with new advances in technology, you can go from paper to screen to tablet to phone and back again. This is not a simple task because of kerning, spacing, hinting and OpenType programming, so, some type tweaking “magic” is still in order. As we head further into the future with type, we will probably solve those issues but gain other issues to balance our advances.

What do you hope to express when you create type?

I want to infuse a unique sense of functionality and personality. It seems that anyone can create a sans-serif Gotham clone and put it out there. No disrespect to that, but I always think that type should be enticing and should visually grab you by your collar and say “Look at this!”  

Who else is doing work you regard highly?

I would say the folks at Pentagram always do very good work. Also, I like the architectural work of David Adjaye and my brother Kwaku Amuti (who is also a designer). Also, House Industries — they were a big influence on me to design what I liked from the beginning. There’s also Dalton Maag, Ross Lovegrove, the lettering work of Jessica Hische and Process Type Foundry, to name a few.  

What publications and organizations do you appreciate for type and design?

Communication Arts, HOW Magazine, Print Magazine and IdN. There’s also AtypI and the Society of Typographic Aficionados. and And lastly, the Industrial Designers Society of America. There is always something from them that inspires me.

Is there a place to talk about who is included in typography and type design?

No, not really. There is not a secret cabal of type designers gathered around a dark cavernous room deciding if a woman or someone of a different race should be included in on the “secret society”. It’s not like that at all. The inspiration for a typeface and the software to create it are open to all. The discussion about inclusion or exclusion comes when the work has been done and you may be trying to market [your typeface].

What is it like to consider men and women of color in design?

The monolithic idea that design is only done by one group of people has been far too prevalent in design thinking for centuries. In more extreme cases, this mindset causes those to turn away and exclude bright and very diverse minds from all walks of life as a direct threat to the design establishment’s status quo. My personal feeling is that design can only be moved forward if we all push together.

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