As we prepared this latest installment of the Talking Type series, Nina Stössinger at Frere-Jones Type, posted a photo from TypeCon in Boston with Bobby C. Martin, Jr. asking the very question we’re starting to answer.
Talking Type continues with the first of a two-part conversation with Tré Seals and Kwesi Amuti, two Black type designers in conversation about cultural appropriation and how to be heard in the design industry.
You mentioned in your earlier interview, Tré, that you don’t talk about politics at the dinner table. Is there something from this Talking Type conversation that you hope people can learn?
Tré: I think it’s just a matter of our voices being heard within the greater graphic design industry, not so much that we’re Black typographers or type designers, because you don’t really hear about type designers that much anyway. Being a part of that greater [design] culture, I think, is what I hope people get out of it. We’re out there, and we can influence this industry with ideas from our culture, and not just appropriate [another’s] culture. There’s more to it than just that.
What would you say is appropriation, in this case?
Tré: Appropriation is essentially stereotyping a culture and using that stereotype for advertisement. Like, we’re not all afros in Gillette ads.
You mentioned influence versus appropriation. How do you both see that influence happening? What do you hope to gain from your work?
Tré: With Vocal Type, what I’m really trying to do is show that there’s this commonality between cultures and less that this is about Black typography. One thing that I really love about the fonts I’ve created so far is that while they’re all based on different cause and advocacy marketing materials – like protest signs and things like that – if you strip away the imagery of the people struggling and fighting for this cause, they all look similar and don’t apply to a specific culture. That’s what I hope people get out of my work: that you don’t have to make something look a certain way just because you’re trying to match a stereotype.
Kwesi: I mean, type has this funny way of being omnipresent. It’s all around us, correct? We always use it and everybody sees it. But there are times when type appropriates, or basically, completely misses the mark on some things. A perfect example of that is a font known as Neuland. It was made by a guy in Germany during World War I, yet it’s always associated with Africa in some way, shape or form. It’s like, “Oh, God. Come on.”
But it’s not like [type designers] go into the design process, saying, “Okay, I’m going to do this so it can actually portray something from my culture.” It’s the designers who see the end result and say, “Hey, you know, this font looks like it should be for this,” and then they basically make that decision for us. I mean, it’s cool because the designer bought my font. That’s great. But you need to understand what the background is to this so you can use it appropriately.
How do you know if a typeface is used properly; that is, the intent of the designer versus the intent of the type designer?
Kwesi: As a type designer, you’re gonna see letter forms all the time. Tré can probably speak to this as well. You pore over books and go to thrift stores and go to flea markets and you go all over the place looking for influences and ideas. So, the type designers are gonna basically see a plethora of things [in a typeface]. But a graphic designer may basically see only the screen that they’re in front of and the project that they’re working on and see something else.
So, Tré, you were doing mainly graphic design before you moved into type design. What inspired that shift?
Tré: I started designing my first font back in high school. It started out as some sketches and then when I went to college and learned Illustrator and Photoshop and font creation programs, it turned into a font. And after that, I just moved into graphic design. I hadn’t made anything like that for three or four years. Then sometime last year, I started getting really bored with graphic design. Everything just started looking the same. If you look at branding, the big thing now is branding cities; they all have a similar feel to them, no matter how different they are. In concept and design, they all have the same feel of excitement and variety, and something for the people.
Kwesi: Yeah, I remember that trend.
What prompted you to move into type design specifically?
Tré: Nowadays, we’re so in tune with technology and that’s the basis of our profession at the moment. I wanted to get back to being more, how can I say this, being more involved with the hands-on process and the human touch that I feel is lacking in some respects, but is kind of, at the same time, emerging in type with this hand drawn and imperfect type that we’re starting to see.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.