5 years of Alphabettes

"Alphabettes" made out of Wood type

Wood type composition by Grendl Löfkvist

This September, we’re celebrating five years of Alphabettes. Five YEARS?! While the past six months feels like 20 years, it can’t be possible that we’ve been cultivating this tiny plot of the internet for that long, can it? And yet, here we are.

According to reliable sources like Grendl, a 5 year anniversary is celebrated with the gift of wood, to represent the durability of the relationship (psst, you might be seeing some wood type around these parts over the next month). Wood is durable, but it can also show signs of its natural aging process. Kind of like Alphabettes.

What is Alphabettes, anyway? I ask myself that question everyday.

Alphabettes is a disorganized group of (sometimes) loud and (always) opinionated women who share a love of type and lettering. We respect the diverse lived experiences of women in our industry and we can continue to do better to honor and celebrate this. At its roots, Alphabettes supports and promotes the work of all women in type even if everyone doesn’t agree with what we publish or how we (dis)organize ourselves.

Alphabettes is built on the stamina of its contributors. We tend to favor spontaneity over perfection. Sometimes, what we do doesn’t live up to expectations. Sometimes (A LOT of time) we disagree. Some people would like to see us more organized, more transparent, more scholarly, or more conventional. It’s never been perfect but here’s the rub: Alphabettes currently has no sponsors, no membership fees, no budget, no heavy-handed editorial policies, and no hierarchies. There are no profit margins to meet, no board members to appease, and no silent benefactors to placate. Despite this (or perhaps because of this?), a lot of good things have come out of the mix:

• Since 2016, the Alphabettes Mentorship program has helped connect hundreds of professionals with newcomers in the type world. Kudos to Liron Lavi Turkenich, Shani Avni, Eleni Beveratou, Veronika Burian, Katy Mawhood, and everyone else throughout the years (especially Bianca Berning and Isabel Urbina Peña, who started it) has built this amazing initiative.

Alphacrit has offered over 10 sessions in the past two years for newcomers to have in-progress work critiqued by two seasoned professionals. Nicole Dotin steers the formidable boat (shout-out to co-founder emeritus, Luisa Baeta) with a wonderful crew of volunteers including Sol Matas, Tanya Maria George, Vitória Neves, Tamye Riggs, Lila Symons, and Tânia Raposo.

• Since 2015, this fine blog you’re reading has published over 300 articles on type and lettering, industry commentary, research in the field, interviews with experts, quite a few series, and has featured nearly 130 headers by women in the type fields. Phew! It’s impossible to name every person who has written, edited, reviewed, code-tweaked, cheerleaded, or contributed to this effort. Big thanks to Elena Schneider who seamlessly ensures the header updates every other Thursday forever and ever.

• We’ve hosted several live, quasi-chaotic events through the years, including three editions of the Alphabettes Variety Show at the Typographics conference in NYC and the global 24-hour Hangout.

• Our Instagram feed is taken over each week (or so 😬) by a member of the Alphabettes network, featuring their work, research or things that inspire them.

• Sometimes we get into good trouble on Twitter but hey, what’s Twitter for anyway?

• More women have spoken at type conferences and events in the past five years than ever before. We’ve done our best to respond to every request for speaker recommendations, to circulate calls for speakers within our network, and cheer on those who need the extra push.

• We adopted the 💌.

• Some more things I am probably forgetting because I, probably like you, haven’t slept much in six months.

What’s next for Alphabettes? Good question. The Mentorship Program and Alphacrit are going strong and who knows what other ideas we’ll think up in the future. Do you want to publish an article, submit a header or something else? Please get in touch. It’s hard to know when a labor of love has lost its spark or when to gracefully move on. Spontaneity and disorganization can come at a cost but, for now, this place is still worth it. Here’s to five years, and maybe, if we feel like it, five years more? Knock on wood 😘.

A website for Alphacrit & the next crit

Website for Alphacrit

We are excited to announce a new website dedicated to Alphacrit, an initiative of the Alphabettes that organizes critique sessions. Since its beginning in 2018, we’ve held nine sessions over 2 years. 26 participants received expert feedback on their lettering projects or WIP typefaces with many more attending the livestreams. Another 20 or so got their questions about font production or OpenType features answered in special Q&A editions of Alphacrit. The new website brings all the information under one roof.

The next Alphacrit, the first to be announced on the new site, features María Montes and Isabel Urbina Peña who will review lettering projects on August 20. Read more about both our guests, the application process, and more when you visit our new website!

Reflections on THAT article

One of the things I have thought about since that article came out is why I read that article the way I do, and why others did so differently. I am someone who would both benefit and is restricted by what this article puts forward as an action in point #4. How do I deal with this contradiction? India is home to a lot of scripts and languages. I have lived in various parts of the country and in doing so have had to learn a few of the languages spoken in those parts. My fluency in those languages today is at varying levels. How do I engage with the many scripts that I am familiar with? Can I design for one of the native scripts that I grew up with, which is different from the one I am most comfortable with? Everyone’s worldview affects the way they understand things and I realise how mine has affected my own understanding. This point makes me uncomfortable too. So I push myself to sit with this discomfort. Which is what has brought me to try and view this contested point #4 in non-binary terms. When people are expressing themselves in unfamiliar ways, I assume that my work is to understand their point and that healthy boundaries are essential for everyone to flourish. Allow me to explain this further.

When I read “We need to discontinue the practice of designing for scripts we did not grow up reading and writing for custom/client projects,” I not only think about who else apart from myself will benefit from this action but also who is going to enforce this “Action”? Who is going to hold people accountable? There is no governing body that will penalise people if they do not comply. There is no one who will enforce this “call to action”. It is up to one’s own discretion. This point #4 is at best a request. Maybe it’s important to question why you might read it as an order. Why might you have gotten so defensive about being asked to respect a boundary? Did the discomfort stem from the fear of losing power, privilege, and comforts? Or maybe the fact that it came from a group of women? Would it instead be helpful to reflect on how resistance to foreign ideas can get in the way of a common goal? There is no benefit to pedantically dissecting the article and really no objective response to this call to action.

Additionally, while you have the right to feel uncomfortable, others have silently put up with the discomfort of countless microaggressions and injustices. Not every person experiencing systemic oppression has the benefit of having access to a platform that allows them to speak their mind. They might not have the vocabulary or the ability to articulate the way they feel about this. You have the benefit of reading what I write here because of my relative position of privilege in my own country. Simply growing up in a house that spoke English gave me access to opportunities that are not available to a majority of the people I have studied and worked within my country. This access is not universal even internationally. It does not escape me for one moment that there are far more intelligent and talented people who have not had the luck and opportunities I have enjoyed. I can make valid claims of hard work and effort that I have personally put in, but I also know how much my circumstances have allowed me to reach where I am. Is it correct to label someone that has relative privilege as an inspiration or role model when only a few of us make it past the hardships of a system that has been designed to exclude us? The myth that we are deserving of our successes because we have worked harder than others needs to be put to rest. It incorrectly implies that those who haven’t achieved it have only themselves to blame. Certain groups of people shouldn’t have to work harder than others to feel like they’ve earned their place in life. We shouldn’t uphold the systems that made our own journeys difficult.

And sure, all of us have worked hard to get where we are, some just happen to be born in certain countries that have given them an undeniable advantage, primarily because of their countries’ past actions. All this is of course not fair to anyone involved. But, fairness has always been relative. Maintaining the appearance of fairness that results in a gross distortion of reality. The Mercator projection is an example of this “fairness”. It distorts the size of places and makes countries in the Northern hemisphere look like the size of continents. Yet it is still an accepted way to illustrate maps. Should that continue being the norm just because changing it will make people living in some countries feel uncomfortable? Or change the status quo? Just because someone feels a certain way or there is an accepted way to get things done, doesn’t mean we must not question it. Just because someone feels a certain way, doesn’t mean it correlates with the truth and lived experiences of other people. It might be helpful to enquire the reason why positions of importance in type design are dominated by people who are not native to that script rather than people who have grown up with it? And how can you help change that? It is this discrepancy that the article was addressing. Currently, the global economics of type design do not allow someone to enter the field easily, and even if they do, sustaining themselves purely on this craft is difficult. This is true for everyone but this truth is significantly harsher for people who come from countries with weaker currencies and restricted passports. There also happens to be an overlap in people with weaker currencies and passports and those who are underrepresented in type design. It should also be acknowledged that these are not the only factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of marginalized people in type design, since this is still a problem within Western countries. My experience, however, allows me to talk about factors affecting those outside of Western countries. Scholarships and mentorships can only take someone so far.

The ability to express my ideas stems partly from the very privileged upbringing I have enjoyed but some of it is also learned by consciously unlearning and re-educating myself about political and social and economic issues that affect those who have not had the same experiences I have. Additionally, I am extremely grateful for the benefit of a support system of friends to have heard me out, especially the many women who have trusted me with their stories, some of which are similar to mine and make me feel less alone and more courageous to write mine publicly. I have tried not to generalise my views, but hope they have allowed you the benefit of insight to something beyond what you felt when you read the article. It asks an important action from you. It’s not easy but we cannot put ourselves in the centre of that decision. The article asks the type design industry to take affirmative action that will benefit those it is intended to help. I hope we can reflect on the ways we can contribute and help facilitate this change.

Call for mentors

The Alphabettes Mentorship program has been so successful that we are overwhelmed by the many mentee applications. This is great, but also means that we need to stop accepting new applications for the moment, until we have processed the open requests.

We are actually actively looking for new mentors. Over 100 mentees need YOU! Please consider sharing your experience with this wonderful and enriching community.

Simply fill in this form

Thank you
Alphabettes Mentorship Team