Fourth Floor Foundry

A deep-dive into making and publishing type, as both a senior thesis and a long-time ambition

Project Details

Done for

University / My Love of Type

Time

Senior Year, 2014/2015

Main Collaborators

  • Professor: Stephen McCarthy
  • Professor: Daniel Jasper
  • Consultants & Mentors: Several professional type designers generous enough to share their expertise and criticisms with me

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The 4th floor of Wilson Library at the UMN is full of beautiful old books on design, so it became the namesake of my type design project.

Fourth Floor Foundry is my name for the collection of type I have made so far. To date, this consists of two display typefaces, Chassis and The Houdini Alphabet, and one extensive type family, Warehouse. In addition to these typefaces, I created a simple website to present the faces and distribute them via free and donation-based downloads. You can visit Fourth Floor Foundry to see the work and learn more about it.

Why make type?

I’ve been obsessed with letters from as far back as kindergarten (where I first properly learned the alphabet through creative coloring exercises in which I was unnaturally competitive). However, though I grew up drawing letters for fun, I was a sophomore in college before I truly fell in love with type design. That year, I was lucky enough to have an informational interview with Eric Olson of Process Type Foundry. He very generously spent 90 minutes answering the mostly-dumb questions of a Sophomore graphic design student still seeking life direction and trying to understand why people need new typefaces, anyway (we need new typefaces for the same reason we need new albums for music and new architectural styles for buildings – they address new problems and make the world a more beautiful place).

Later, I had the wonderful opportunity to study for six months at Central Saint Martins in London, England. There were many highlights of that time abroad, but some of the most memorable were related to type design: utilizing CSM’s extensive wood and lead type collection, seeing a lecture by Henrik Kubel on creating a studio that makes custom type for every one of their branding projects, getting to know the type-fanatical professor Phil Baines, and traveling to the Netherlands with the typographic student group to visit the Type Media program at KABK.

In my final year of college, I had to find a topic for my senior thesis. While some of my peers had some trouble isolating the topic they would focus on for a full school year, I had it easy: I knew from the start that I wanted to research the type design industry and ultimately create some type. That led me to create a small e-booklet on Entrepreneurship in Type Design, and ultimately my Fourth Floor Foundry project.

The Type

I explored quite a few possibilities for type I could create as part of my senior thesis project, and I knew I wanted to create more than just one typeface. In the end, I produced one large type family, polished and renamed a typeface that had started as a custom typeface for a small brand, and created a unique, modular, display monospace.

Warehouse Gothic & Warehouse Square

The most extensive typeface in my Fourth Floor Foundry project was Warehouse. More accurately, Warehouse is a family of type consisting of a total of 20 individual fonts (a font is a single style + weight within a typeface) between two main type styles.

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One of three posters designed for my senior thesis exhibition, to show my Fourth Floor Foundry typefaces. This poster shows off Warehouse and a bit of the visual reference material that went into it.

Warehouse came about from my process in deciding what type to make for my senior thesis project. During the winter days I was researching type possibilities, I would sometimes decompress by running around Minneapolis to ponder the options. During these runs, I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful ghost signs that are prevalent in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District. Because I was already thinking about type design so much, I realized that using these signs as the basis for a type revival was an exciting opportunity. I began to take photos of these specimens, and started seeking out the connections between their idiosyncratic characters.

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This sign is for Gardner Hardware in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis, MN. It influenced more than any other to create a type family that would contain both rounded and squarish variations.

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If I had the money, I would lease this building, just to take the “For Lease” notice off of this beautiful sign for “Cameron Transfer & Storage Co.” This is a perfect example of the many painted signs I saw with double spurs on the throat of the capital G and a flat top on the ampersand. Both quirks made it into the final design of my Warehouse type family.

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On a trip to New York City during spring break of my senior year in college, I loved getting to take photos of the vernacular lettering of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Vertically-stacked letters like the ones on this “PARK” sign influenced me to create letters in Warehouse that would work a little better than typical letters for similar vertical stacking. This is especially true of the Warehouse small caps. Now, if only I had the glassworking ability to craft huge neon letters!

Even though I was able to take some great photos of ghost signs in Minneapolis and New York City as reference material, I knew I needed to collect a wider range of visual cues than I could photograph alone. I wanted to better understand the tendencies and idiosyncrasies of lettering painted onto brick, and to have a broader knowledge of what letters were like on old metal-and-neon signs. To that end, I started a ghost signs Pinterest board, and also found and dug through the book Fading Ads of New York City.

These resources helped clarify something to me about the lettering on old brick walls: there were a multitude of styles but, when it came to sans-serif letters, the styles tended to fall into one of two categories: gothic (round bowls with a mixture of terminal angles, much like Franklin Gothic or Akzidenz Grotesk), and square (straight sides with tight curves in the shoulders, much like Bank Gothic or Industrial). Because I felt drawn to make a revival of both styles, I realized that it might be possible to produce them at the same time. I could give them the same general proportions and common traits to yield a large, flexible type family.

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Defining a unified, essential shape of the two type families within Warehouse (Gothic and Square) was a process that started early. This continued through the project and into occasionally updates since the initial release, because a change in one family often warranted a change in the other.

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I deviated a little more from historical models for the italics. I explored a lot, and drove towards a set of true italics with decidedly humanist features – something that yields an especially unique appearance in the Square Italics.

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Between the two type families, punctuation was especially fun to tackle. For many marks that I had very rarely drawn before, it was especially exciting to figure out “what does this look like,” then follow that with, “and what if it had squared shoulders?”

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Figures in progress, Gothic and Square

See Warehouse on Fourth Floor Foundry to view the full character set, try it out, and download it for free.

Chassis (An update of an earlier custom typeface)

In 2013, I worked on the branding for a convenience store that specialized in fresh, build-it-yourself hotdogs. This shop was called Murph Dog after the owner’s nickname, and it was my first serious freelance branding job.

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You can view the branding project which gave birth to Chassis (along with some pretty fun hot dog condiment icons) on my old website: Murph Dog case study.

Because I had learned more through further study and production of type, I wanted to refine Chassis. I made some light modifications: I improved the spacing and kerning in the font, tweaked the W to give it a higher center peak, and fixed a few little points of vector misalignment.

While in use for Murph Dog, this typeface never really had a name, aside from “Murph Dog.” To share it publicly, I wanted to give it a more meaningful designation. I landed on the name “Chassis” for two primary reasons: 1) it was inspired by auto mechanic shops stamped letters on license plates, and 2) it was a sort of “chassis” (foundation) upon which I was basing my other type design work on. The structure and origin calls was recycled in pieces of Warehouse, and the lessons learned in designing Chassis helped me to design subsequent type.

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Another poster for my senior thesis exhibition. I love this quote from Orville Wright – it speaks to the usefulness of the constant human urge reinvent and repurpose what was made in the past, a practice that is a core practice of type design.

See Chassis on Fourth Floor Foundry to view the full character set, try it out, and download it for free.

The Houdini Alphabet

I’m a big fan of Pinterest as a tool to collect and organize visual inspiration, both for entertainment and for informing visual design and lettering work. When my UMN senior Graphic Design class decided to brand our degree show around the concept of “magic,” myself and the rest of the design team started exploring Pinterest to gather magical inspiration. This turned up a quirky and captivating image, originally from a blog called The Houdini Museum. It was a diagram showing that all the letters of the Latin alphabet could be derived from a simple grid-based figure. Apparently, the figure was reproduced from a note found in one of Harry Houdini’s personal journals.

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Another poster for my senior thesis exhibition, to show off Houdini.

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The sketching process of The Houdini Alphabet was rather brief, as I realized that this was a perfect typeface to rapidly build using components in Glyphs. In fact, the components process led me to explore more, digitally: I also output a “lower case” that comprised letters from the Latin alphabet, in odd shapes, yet still conforming to Houdini’s original diagram.

View The Houdini Alphabet in action at the UMN 2014 Graphic Design Senior Show page, largely designed and developed by my very talented friend, Matt McVeigh.

See the Houdini Alphabet on Fourth Floor Foundry to view the full character set, try it out, and download it for free.

Presenting and sharing my type

Senior Thesis Exhibition

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Here’s my senior thesis exhibition, displaying to visitors that behind the clean vectors of FFF type, there was a notebook full of sketches for exploration and discovery.

An identity and website to share the type

As soon as I had put in the exploratory work in making my type, I knew that I wanted a good way to share it with others. I considered routes like trying to get on selling sites like MyFonts, but I wanted to focus on improving my type in the long term rather than aiming for a short-term profit. I wanted to have more creative control of how I would present my work to the world, and I also was just hungry to build something on the web. At this point, I’m still in this game for learning, finding my tribe, and the joy of sharing my craft. I chose to offer my fonts for free, with the option to donate via PayPal.

I retain all rights to my type, so if a business wants to use my fonts, they are free to do so without paying me a cent. However, if they want to edit or customize the fonts in any way, they are legally obligated to come to me for those customizations. It was helpful to have my Senior Thesis research project leading up to this type work, because I was able to discover that customization of typefaces is actually a major source of revenue for many type foundries and font-distribution websites. This is a long-term strategy, and when the right client comes along, I now know that I have the capabilities to serve their type design needs. As I grow and learn more as a designer, I intend to focus more on this as a way to provide value to clients.

In terms of creating the Fourth Floor Foundry website, it was its own big challenge. As with any web project, I had to confront and solve a bunch of coding puzzles to make my design a reality. It was a major source of personal growth and something that helped lead me to my current job, focussing on visual design for the web.

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Inspired by historical printer’s marks, I created a logo that could signify my focus on sampling and reviving history.

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Originally, I explored whether the site may take on some unique form, such as a sideways bookshelf, presenting each typeface with its own book. However, through a process of wireframing, mockup, and feedback, I came to a simpler, more standard web experience.

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This website was a stretch goal of my senior thesis – could I really design and produce several typefaces, PLUS create a viable website to present them and make them available for download? It took a lot of late nights, but it feels great to have a simple URL to give people if they’re interested in my type design work.

See Fourth Floor Foundry live to view, try, and download the type.

What did I learn?

  • How to use Glyphs App effectively
  • The basic structure of OpenType, and that many typefaces are much more extensive than most designers realize or take advantage of
  • Deeper considerations of type sizing, color, spacing, and kerning
  • How to create more graceful, better-rendering bézier curves
  • The basics of creating effective type based on historical inquiry (though, my next revival type project will certainly be a little more academically rigorous, as I’ve learned more since making Warehouse)
  • More about making a static HTML/CSS website with jQuery and a custom structure
  • Integrating interactive elements onto a website, such as a type-it-yourself font tester, an email newsletter signup, content downloads, and a donation option with PayPal