The Alphabettes community is, at its heart, political. We are a global network of women, connected together by our love of letters, type, and typography. Our objective is to champion anyone who identifies as a woman in type, provide a platform for them to show and share their work, and welcome them to a community that will not ignore their voice, but amplify it. Alphabettes started through the joint effort of Indra Kupferschmid and Amy Papaelias in 2015, and since then the network has grown to include over 245 members worldwide. As a community, we aim to respect and reflect on the opinions of all of our members, and we continue to learn and grow together.
During the last two weeks and following the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis policemen, the United States of America saw a powerful uprising opposing discrimination, violence, injustice, and systemic racism against Black people, the impact of which quickly rippled through the rest of the world. In a time when much of the world has retreated into their homes and maintaining social distancing has become a necessity for health, the urgency of protesting racism and discrimination and demanding justice has eclipsed a quiet survival. Since then, crowds of protestors have taken to the streets, statues glorifying racial bigots have been pulled down, and social media platforms have seen an overwhelming sharing of educational, supportive, and encouraging discourse regarding this call of eradicating racism. Donations have been made to individuals and organisations supporting this movement. No action is too small.
For a network like Alphabettes, we truly deliberated what tangible steps we could take to address the current situation, and show a palpable collective condemnation of racism. As a global network, we feel the devastating violations of human rights worldwide on a near-daily basis, whether they affect ourselves and our loved ones, our members and friends, our contributors, or those who follow our work. Because of this, we know that it is a constant battle to fight injustice and voice our outrage surrounding racism, discrimination, and oppression. As individuals, we have strived to reflect this, each to the best of our ability and on matters closest to our hearts. As a community, we take care to always be inclusive, and part of this inclusivity is to not disregard suffering in any part of the world in favour of another, whether it is Yemen, Syria, Hong Kong, India, Chile, Egypt, Lebanon, the USA, or elsewhere. The list is upsettingly long. Because of this, rather than simply declaring that we do not tolerate racism, we have decided to use this moment of collective reflection to listen, to look inwards and at ourselves, and to then take a step back and look at our industry, and ask what changes we can make today to address the bias and appropriation that have regrettably become a normalised and acceptable part of the type and typography profession. We have reached a list of points of action we can take today. It starts with each of us, and again, no action is too small.
We need to actively include more BIPOC in our events, conferences, and communities. While the value and importance of diversity at conferences is widely understood, it is very clear that there is still much work to be done to achieve true inclusivity and accessibility. It is on all of us – particularly conference and event organisers and sponsors – to seek out diversity amongst the speakers, those holding workshops, and the attendees. As the organiser: Did you reach out to a wider circle of people within the industry for speaker suggestions? Did you prioritise lifting up speakers of colour? Did you set out a clear and easy to find code of conduct on your event page to guarantee a safe and inclusive environment for all participants? Did your code of conduct clarify zero tolerance for harassment of any kind? It is a heavy responsibility to take on the task of organising an event, but if done with careful consideration, it can ensure a richer event where everyone can learn from a wider range of expertise. This however does not end with organisers. As a sponsor: Did you use your privilege to insist on a diverse lineup of speakers? If no, why not? It is well within your rights to enquire on these matters. As a speaker: Did you get invited to present at a conference and find that the lineup of speakers was particularly pale? Did this bother you? Did you get in touch with the organisers and voice this concern? Did you step away from the presentation as an act of solidarity if your input on this matter was not appreciated? Was the event made accessible to all? Were earnest steps taken to ensure that minorities and attendees from diverse backgrounds were able to attend? These are difficult questions, and it’s hard but necessary work for an industry that wants to be truly diverse.
At Alphabettes, we recognise we are not outside of this; we have always aimed for diversity among our members and community, but we will actively increase our outreach to BIPOC women, and challenge our own status quo. If you would like suggestions for speakers at your events, get in touch with us – we can make recommendations or help circulate a call for presentations. We have constantly made an effort to be part of the solution, and will continue to do so.
We need to stop using the term Non-Latin. It is exclusionary, and loaded with bias. Prejudice or discrimination against a certain group is the very definition of racism, and as such there is no room for argument in favour of using what has become a shorthand that devalues and further marginalises all the scripts in the world in favour of one. Historically terms like Oriental, non-Roman, and other similar phrases were used by nineteenth-century printers and typefounders who required a marketable and easy phrase to set themselves apart from their competitors by boasting an expertise in the printing of scripts they had no in-depth knowledge of. Today, this phrase has become normalised in every sphere of the type industry: in conferences, offices, foundries, competitions, and educational institutions. There are arguments for this phrase being acceptable as it draws attention to the marginalised. Can we honestly accept that this is true? The phrase does not draw attention to Hebrew any more than Devanagari, Arabic, or Thai, but rather only re-centers the attention to what they are not: Latin. There are arguments for requiring a replacement phrase. To this we can only respond with a question: Why? Why does anyone feel the need to make this distinction at all? Is a non-Latin extension of a typeface not really just a multi-script expansion? Is it necessary to differentiate if someone is a teacher of non-Latin type design when Latin type instructors aren’t expected to do the same?
At Alphabettes, we are collectively dedicated to eradicating this offensive, Eurocentric term from our vocabulary, and all our past posts where it occurs. We also oppose any context in which various scripts are grouped together under an umbrella term. So, we will no longer be complicit in using this type of biased wording, we will rethink how we consider all scripts of the world, and hold ourselves accountable to using inclusive language. We invite you to do the same, so we can collectively make our industry welcoming to everyone.
If you would like to read more about this, we can direct you to Soulaf Khalifeh’s thoughtful piece What if Arabs Had Invented the Printing Press?
We need to diversify educators, our students, and our curriculums. If you work in a university/college/design school of any sort and are in the position to do so, mention new position openings to BIPOC, or invite them as guest lecturers. Are you leaving your teaching position? If you are asked for recommendations for the vacant position, check your own bias, and think about how your position in recommending a new person can help diversify our community. Educators are big influencers on the next generation. If we have more diversity among educators, it means they will inspire more diverse students that see themselves in their teachers, and will subsequently aspire to more. As design teachers, what language are we teaching our students? Let us reflect back on the previous point; the casual use of the term non-Latin will lead to an inevitable amplification of the phrase by some students, and potentially offend others, who will often not feel they are in a position to confront us, their educators. So instead, they will sit with feelings of hurt and discrimination. It is incredibly effortless to avoid inflicting this discomfort on a young person that looks up to us. What values do we teach our design students when it comes to other cultures? Are we doing students that come from different backgrounds and want to better design typefaces for their scripts justice with our feedback? Did we try to connect such students with a specialised expert, and make sure that these experts were appropriately compensated and credited for their time and expertise? Very importantly: When did we last evaluate our teaching material? Is the traditional pathway of teaching type design through revivals of typefaces all drawn by Cisgender white men still valid? Is it time to rethink this approach and expand the scope to include the last century, or include non-book ephemera?
We need to discontinue the practice of designing for scripts we did not grow up reading and writing for custom/client projects. Getting this work can be due to factors like our geographic or financial privilege or prominence within our industry. Whenever we get such opportunities, we should pass the project on to those that have the prerogative to take on the work as native users and designers of the script, and yield our position of power to those otherwise marginalised. Whether we are able to do justice to the design of this given script or not is outside the point of this post, however, we do encourage reflection on whether research on a script is the same as a lifetime of being immersed in it. This is a call to action and not a debate of this topic, so we will leave it with some food for thought from scholar Ayesha Chaudhry, who looks at this issue in the context of Islamic studies:
The study of Islam in the western academy follows the frames of these early colonialist scholars, where white scholars can presume to master and speak authoratively about Islam and Muslims. They can presume to know them better than they know themselves, to correct their knowledge about their own religion and traditions, based on “arms length,” “objective” study, treating their distance as an asset rather than as a weakness and shortcoming. In what other discipline is intimate knowledge of a subject, knowing too much about a subject, a drawback? Only in disciplines constructed around the imagined “other,” for instance in race studies. It never ceases to amaze me that whites presume themselves to be in an ideal position to study, examine, and judge racism, when they are uniquely unqualified for such study given that they have never experienced racism.
Beyond the point of whether it is possible to design for a script we are not intimately familiar with through cultural immersion, it is important to recognise that by taking on the design ourselves, we will inevitably be taking work and compensation from others, particularly BIPOC who come from regions and cultures that have long been exploited for financial gain. For a long time now, the use of native consultants in instances where the lead designer lacks nativity and thus ingrained knowledge of a script has been a band-aid over these situations: We are using a native consultant, so our design will communicate with its intended reader. At the same time, the wound underneath continues to fester; why was the consultant not given the work in the first place, if what they know is essential to the outcome of the design, if we needed hand-holding through the process? Who does this collaboration benefit? Do we even clearly acknowledge the help in the end, or do we publicly benefit from this exchange and claim our own expertise? These are uncomfortable questions, but we need to identify our own privilege, sit with our discomfort, and recognise that ignoring such questions is only possible because of our privilege.
Returning to our thread, if you work in an office and have a say in hiring new people, push for hiring designers that are native users of scripts you get a lot of work for. If you’re unsuccessful in this endeavor for reasons that are outside your power (hiring laws, applicant pool, etc) then recognise that those portions of the work need to be outsourced, rather than giving the work to others that may unintentionally impose their visual bias on another script, all the while taking valuable opportunities from those who have gained a large part of their visual language from growing up with said script. If, once you find the right person to take on the project, you recognise that they require additional support and guidance, be an ally. When you do collaborate with minorities, properly compensate and very importantly, credit them. Tell everyone about their work, because they deserve the recognition, and because it will help them to continue to get work. This is not limited to practical typeface design, and can also apply to type-related research. Reflect on your research and ask if you are the best person to take it on and how your displacement from your topic may have impacted your work. If you find the answer to be no, pivot. Find a new angle for the research that addresses your shortcomings.
All of this is of course not easy, and requires fundamental changes in the way many foundries operate, but these are ways in which we can take impactful action against biased structures within our own industry. Whether we have taken work that could have gone to native designers/researchers/educators in the past is not as important as whether we take this moment to reflect, to educate ourselves, and to understand how we, as a member of this industry can use any means within our power to change things.
These are the points of action that we feel can have immediate and meaningful results to change our industry for the better. We would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank others in the industry who have also recognised that our current norms tend to favor those of us that are more privileged, and have taken steps to even the field for true equality. Below is a list of opportunities made available specifically to BIPOC type designers. If we have left anything out, please let us know so we can make a truly comprehensive list:
- Type Design A–Z from Lynne Yun: This online series aims to build a solid foundation of knowledge for what you need to know before embarking on your first typeface design, and then carrying it to the finish line. For anyone who identifies as BIPOC, they can access the content with free registration by filling out this form.
- The Malee Scholarship from Sharp Type: The Malee Scholarship grants $6,000 USD annually to one young woman-of-colour over 16 years of age. It also includes a 4-week in-studio mentorship program, where Sharp Type will provide professional & creative guidance with the production of their typeface, as an elective. Applications for 2020 have now closed, but keep an eye on their application page for next year.
- TDC scholarships from the Type Directors Club: In support of design education, the TDC has awarded scholarships to promising students of typography since 1994. Three such scholarships are open for application annually, and of the three, the TDC Superscript Scholarship sponsored by Monotype (in particular) recognises students of colour studying in the type design discipline at a college or university in the United States. You can find the application form here.
- The BIPOC fund and Type Crit Crew organised by Juan Villanueva: The Type Crit Crew is a free resource for type design students to meet 1:1 with experienced type designers for virtual critiques. To learn more and apply or offer your expertise, follow this link. The application period for Juan’s BIPOC fund to attend his Principles of Typeface Design: Display Type at Cooper Union has now ended, but through his efforts and the generosity of the type community, he was able to raise funds for five people who identified as BIPOC for this course.
- The ATypI Diversity Fund: An initiative to enable students, educators, designers, and researchers from underrepresented communities free registration to ATypI events and funds to help offset travel.
Thank you all. We will keep having the hard conversations, continue to listen to those that think and look differently from ourselves, educate ourselves about systemic racism and how it harms our profession, and move forward so we can truly work towards achieving the type industry and community we want to see. An industry that is inclusive, diverse and equal. Letterforms build words and words are one of the strongest and most important tools we have to demand and make social change. It’s time to ask: what more can be done?
Note: This post is a collective effort by many but does not reflect the opinions of every member of the Alphabettes network.
Bingo! Yes! That’s the path we should persue! Thank you
A very welcome intervention. Thanks for posting this.
I’d be interested in hearing an elaboration about this line: “We also oppose any context in which various scripts are grouped together under an umbrella term.” Does this mean something like “Indic scripts” or “CJK” are frowned upon?
Point 4 is incredibly funny. I guess that means that you can only design an English serif typeface like Times New Roman, right? I’m sure you didn’t grow up learning any calligraphy, so that’s out of the window. Something from another language, too.
We came this far as a typographic community to be united and develop type together and you want to tear it down and lock us into room. May the quality of your work be a judge of your skill and not the geographical place you were born in
This comment has been removed by request from the author.
I am a professional calligrapher for the last 6 years. I teach other people the craft. I learn it, go to the libraries, read the manuscripts. I try to pass it on. My speciality is Gothic although I am not German or French. This article is telling me that I should drop it because I am not a ‘native’ to that script or even to the Latin language group. And apparently it’s not even good anymore because a ‘white cisgender male’ always made the scripts and wrote books for the last 2 thousand years. This is literally what it says. And now you’re all ‘well that’s actually not what it means’, but it’s so broad and vague that you don’t even think that it’s not only Arabic/Hebrew (for example) that you talk about, but actually every script and every language. Be precise in your speech if you want people to understand you.
If the article doesn’t *mean* that then it shouldn’t *say* that. I love letters, this is my life and my profession, but today I’m apparently supposed to give it up because it’s of a different culture and history? Very nice.
Hello Eugenette, I do think there is a misunderstanding here as we are talking about commercial typeface design (fonts), not calligraphy. In that sense you are interpreting it much broader than we mean it. Gothic blackletter is a style of writing the Latin script. There are also styles with broken construction in other writing systems but it is not what we mean by script in this article. We are talking about digital font design for the different writing systems of the world.
I’m not a native speaker of Portuguese, should I be hiring a Portuguese type designer to create the diacritics for my extended Latin font?
Different languages may have different diacritics but it is till the same writing system, stop trying to purposely misunderstand the article in order to find grounds for disagreeing with it.
Nonetheless it is a little off topic but I do think that sometimes it would be a good thing if type designers asked for the opinion of natives about the design of their diacritics. Because I’m French and I have seen a lot of terrible accents and cedillas in otherwise fine typefaces.
I refrained from any direct response to this article when I first read it, in part because I wanted to digest it, and in part because I took seriously the statement ‘This is a call to action and not a debate of this topic’, which made sense to me. There are some assumptions in the article that don’t match my experience, but as a call to think about how to actively do better and make more opportunities for BIPOC and or native script designers, it is an important contribution at a timely moment. I am only composing these thoughts now because Sahar invited contributions to the comments section (and because having more than 280 characters in which to do so is an enticement).
I actively collaborate with or subcontract to type designers (and typographers, linguists, and script experts) from a variety of places, but I am also aware that I end up doing a lot of work myself that could at least in part be done by other people, or sometimes employ people to do work based on existing working relationships with them rather than going out and finding someone new who may be a native user of a script. For me, thinking about how to make more opportunities for BIPOC and native script designers involves first understanding the conditions under which work is done, and how that needs to change. Where existing working relationships exist, for example, how do I maintain those while creating new relationships?
Part of the reason I end up doing a lot of work myself rather than giving it to someone else is an outcome of choices made early in the creation of Tiro Typeworks. Unlike most other foundries, Tiro was consciously intended not to grow. It was designed to provide a living for a couple of people doing work, was started without capital and designed not to accumulate capital. It took us 24 years to get around to having even a single employee, and I’m still not entirely comfortable being someone’s boss and profiting from someone else’s labour. I’ve always maintained that the bulk of income from work should go to the person who does the work. This has resulted in some very nice pay days for some of our collaborators — including a surprise for some designers who were nominally involved on a ‘work-for-hire’ basis but whom we pay licensing royalties based on their involvement in projects. I say this not to make much of either virtue or naïvité on my part — let alone my acumen as a businessman! —, but to try to make sense of these ‘conditions under which work is done’. An outcome of those conditions is that for most of the past quarter century I have *needed* to do the work myself because it is how I make a living (as distinct from, e.g. how I accumulate capital, how I pay a staff of designers, or how I pay dividends to shareholders).
Should I be making a living designing and making fonts for writing systems that are ‘not my own’? I don’t have an answer for that question, because it seems to me a matter of opinion. I know people — including friends and respected colleagues — who think the answer is no, and other people — including typographers and other users of those scripts — who are grateful for what I have made and think it is perfectly okay for me to work in this way. I can see the validity in both opinions.
On the subject of existing working relationships and forging new ones: I am fussy. In a quarter century, I have found only four collaborators whose work I have not needed to revise. I don’t doubt that there are others out there, but unless collaborating with or subcontracting someone whose work is a known quantity, I have to either work into the budget that I will need to spend time revising proportions, weight distribution, curve quality, and spacing, or accept that I may end up doing that extra work unpaid. Sometimes it is prudent to go with someone whom I know and have worked with before, even if some revision is going to be necessary, because at least I have a good idea how much revision, of what kind, and how long it will take me. And yes, there are a few of people with whom I choose not work again, whom I regretted engaging, and whether they were native readers of a script turned out to be irrelevant: they just weren’t very good designers or very careful, detail-oriented craftspeople.
Which leads me to an observation from my experience of working with many people: a good type designer can adapt her skills to producing high quality work across a variety of writing systems, and a poor type designer will have trouble producing good quality work even in her native script. Does this mean that there is not a benefit to being able to read a language that uses that script? No, but it is a benefit that exists, when it exists, on top of other, foundational skills and knowledge.
I make this observation not to draw the obvious point that designers can design typefaces for scripts that they cannot read, and can do it well, but that the criteria for quality work — which is also the criteria for paying for quality work — starts from somewhere other than reading nativity. The question that this Alphabettes article poses is a very important one: Who benefits? If we want to respond that question in ways that create more opportunities to to benefit BIPOC and native script designers, then we need to take seriously the whole package of skills and knowledge required to do the work well.
As a call to action, a challenge to ‘the practice of designing for scripts we did not grow up reading and writing’ is a good thing. To become actionable, individuals working in this field have to examine the conditions under which the work is done, and how that could be changed, e.g. by building networks of trusted designers independent of specific projects and, hence, outside of budget or deadline considerations. Some of these things require capital, i.e. funds that can be invested in identifying, contacting, and, yes, paying designers to provide trial work because I don’t think people should be auditioning for work by doing unpaid work. It may also, ultimately, mean challenging the way in which we feed ourselves, make rent or mortgage payments, and try to save something towards retirement. Speaking personally, as someone with a very specific set of skills and not much other prospects, that’s daunting.
[Leaving aside for now a whole other discussion about knowledge transfer, mentoring, and other practical things that can be done or is being done in various ways.]
To point #1, it has been my experience that many design conferences do not cover travel expenses or compensate speakers for their participation. Unless a speaker or their employer has the resources to afford the travel, the prep time, and the time away from work, it’s not possible to say yes even when invited. Part of having a more diverse slate of speakers means that conference organizers (or rather sponsors, to keep ticket prices affordable) need to step up and take on this burden, not the speakers.
What a thought-provoking piece! As someone with direct experience working with designers from different countries on different scripts, and as someone who makes a deliberate effort to work ethically, I thought I’d chime in and support almost everything written here. I don’t want to detract from the underlying message, but
>We need to discontinue the practice of designing for scripts we did not grow up reading and writing for custom/client projects.
I really wish this wasn’t such a strong statement, I feel like the focus should be on including, rather than excluding people.
The part I can agree on is that I’d love to deter designers picking up a new script, leafing through a handful of fonts without really knowing what they’re looking for or which ones are good examples, pick’n’mixing ideas from different places, casually adding in more of their own wow ideas and thinking that’s a legitimate endpoint — I’ve heard more times than you’d believe Western designers telling me their most ugliest letterforms are “more legible this way”, even though they don’t read the script. Dabbling this way feels profoundly insulting to a script, and it bugs the hell out of me. But I think I don’t want to discourage people, because sometimes, with a bit more mentoring, the results can be a pleasant surprise.
As for me personally, these days I work exclusively on scripts I didn’t grow up with, making Southeast Asian fonts and researching undocumented scripts for Unicode. For me this is a calling: there is a lot of work to be done, to give users the kinds of fonts that they ask for, to encode new scripts, or to figure out font implementations that can work on different machines. I’m cognizant of the limits of my knowledge, but there is almost nobody else doing this work, and it’s something I can do and therefore feel an obligation to do.
How can I use my role to benefit others? That’s something I keep in mind, I’d love it to be straightforward to bring more local designers onboard! Making type for Southeast Asia calls for a very particular kind of person, one who has skills, enthusiasm and patience to research and engage critically with a script, one who can tolerate complex technical standards and programming, and one who can draft letterforms well. Countries such as Burma or Laos don’t currently have design schools, and because of the way their economies work, a freelance lifestyle is not such an attractive option (as a small company I can’t yet offer a full-time role). Thus, such people end up taking secure jobs in medicine or architecture. Still, when it’s possible, I hire native script users whenever I can. They may take the lead on a design, they may offer feedback, they may do font testing, they might run a workshop to get other local designers to spend time learning about font making. Whatever matches their skill and interest. I recently made the decision to pay them all the same rate as other international collaborators, even though their quotes are normally lower. I hope it makes some kind of difference. I’m interested to hear what kinds of steps larger companies are taking.
Thank you Ben for your thoughful comments.
Forgot to say: 100% agreed. Particularly the 4th paragraph.
Thank you both.
One final thought: I’d love to hear a range of voices from script-native designers. What are their experiences? How do they feel about opportunities in the industry, and about non-native designers working on their native scripts? What do they think of the education and research in their areas? What can we improve? And also, what are we collectively already doing well, what are the good sides in our work? We don’t want to throw out the positives in this discussion.
I am sorry to pick up on the 4th point as well. Frankly, it seems to be out of character. It appears to be a nativistic argument in an otherwise great and important anti-racist post. How did that get in? In that context the author(s) really ought to explain why nativeness (being born to a culture or place) and unfocused script immersion are a better guarantee of quality in design than experience and focused research. To say that we should discontinue certain practices, but ponder the reasons why only later, is not enough. This is people’s way of making living we are talking about here. And those are, in many cases, people and companies that create(d) all kinds of work for BIPOC designers and consultants.
Supporting BIPOC designers does not need to come at a cost of dismantling privileges of others. That would be counter productive.
The current situation is far from a picture where Western designers hoard all the work for themselves. As far as I know there are quite a few excellent Arabic and Indian designers out there and they have been getting well-paid high-profile work. I cannot speak for other scripts, unfortunately.
Also, I gathered the courage to sign my comment and reveal my privilege and potential bias. It would be good if the author(s) of this article were able to do the same. So the field is level, so to speak.
I would have also published your reply if you had chosen a pseudonym, David, no problem. This has been a group effort, though understandably not of 240 at the same time. If we singled out individual people now they could rightfully fear retaliation – privately, as has already been demonstrated, or in their work environment.
The point of this group is to provide support and not have every woman fight as a lone, underarmed person against a big inert establishment. If you just want a name to picture someone in your head, you can use mine.
I hear your concern, but I think you can appreciate the imbalance this creates. Now I am talking to a big establishment. I guess, what I was also after is the status of the article. Is this a manifesto endorsed by Alphabettes or, for example an opinion piece of a particular group of authors? I figured the second, obviously. Either way is fine by me, but it would help me to appreciate its weight.
It is very flattering that you think of Alphabettes as the big establishment! Why do you want to know so badly? What difference would it make to you? Would you write people individually or comment differently?
I posted this article, and it’s under the category called “Commentary”.
I think that Dave wants to know – and others including me – if this article speaks for all 250 members of the Alphabettes. Since almost all articles on the website are signed by an author, this manifest seems to be coming in unanimous agreement. Is that the case?
We do have a couple of articles posted from Alphabettes. If you click on the name you get to a list of them. This has been a group effort, though understandably not of 245 at the same time. If we singled out individual people now they could rightfully fear retaliation – privately, as has already been demonstrated, or in their work environment.
The point of this group is to provide support and not have every woman fight as a lone, underarmed person against a big inert establishment. If you just want a name to picture someone in your head, you can use mine.
I am not interested in knowing who wrote the article, and I am not interested in undermining solidarity by insisting on knowing whether it represents the opinion of a small number of people, everyone involved in Alphabettes, or some undefined quantity of the membership. I don’t presume that all Alphabettes members agree on everything or even anything beyond the core values of the group, and it’s an act of solidarity to sometimes stand by something one doesn’t personally agree with in order to support the people who are saying it.
Because the article reads like a kind of collective manifesto, including a lot of really well expressed and actionable ideas with which a lot of people can and should agree, I can also understand why section four causes problem for many people, and leaves some people wondering where it comes from, who supports it, for whom does it speak? I’m trying, instead, to focus on what it says.
There is a very important point in in that section that is a timely and necessary challenge, which the first sentence focuses on: ‘custom/client projects’, i.e. paying commissioned work, not speculative design, designing for a script because one is attracted by it, designing as a method of learning, and all the other reasons why someone might decide to attempt to design for a script she doesn’t read. It’s about who gets to make money doing this kind of work.
I find myself wishing that this focus was retained throughout the section, from which tangential inferences about nativity as a source of skill could have been excluded completely without in any way undermining the challenge to ‘Question whether you should be making money doing a commercial job that a native user of the script could have done,’ which is not the same thing as ‘Question whether you have any right to be designing for a script you didn’t grow up reading and writing, and which we think you’re never going to be as good at as a native user.’ I think too many people are reading the section in the second way, as a result of the bits about nativity, which is a pity.
Of course you are!
As I said, I get why you would not want to single anyone out and it is fine by me. But whether this an anonymous opinion of few individuals or whether it is backed by 240 respected professionals matters a lot. Call me old-school.
I appreciate your persistence. Should I also repeat my position a third time?
This is an excellent piece and I am glad to have found it. It is well-written and the truths within seem obvious.
But I’m also going to comment on #4. So many other scripts are beautiful! I love looking at them and I understand them better by learning to draw them. The idea of redirecting the financial support and recognition that comes from being asked to design a script I am not a native speaker/reader of to someone of that culture is wonderful, but how can I improve my skills in it without getting involved in these projects? Of course I can work by myself on my own time and throw some things out for crits, but the eyeballs don’t hit those as much.
Perhaps this idea is a reasonable course of action, especially for one as myself who considers themselves more of a technician than a designer: if I receive one of those project offers, I would find a native speaker with lettering/calligraphic skill and offer technical support and guidance when it comes to designing the font. That way I am not above the title, so to speak.
I guess that I was too subtle in the past two replies to your questions. I do not want any names and respect your position on that matter.
John, Ben, David et al, I’m glad to see that you took the time to read and reflect on the article. You have always generously shared your research. I personally learned a lot from you over the last decade, and I’m very grateful for that.
Designing for foreign scripts is a passion and an income source for many of us, so it’s not a surprise that point 4 makes us uncomfortable, to some extend that’s the intention of this article. I appreciate your comments about the wording, and want you to be reassured that a lot of us* involved in drafting the article are reflecting on them. This dialogue is healthy and important. For me, John hit the nail on the head in his last comment; I’d like to leave it with that and not dilute the comments section further with unhelpful nitpicking. Let’s focus on adding actionable points and find ways to help level the field.
*We were >50. Who it was and what the distribution of work looked like is irrelevant, please stop asking.
I will keep my comments short. But THANK YOU for writing this. At this moment this is incredibly important. This piece touches upon points that are going to be uncomfortable for many in the Design industry/ world. As a BIPOC person/ designer with an interest in Design shifting from it’s Westernized and Colonized perspectives, writings like these are NECESSARY. Design as a field (practitioners included) has failed (miserably) at being relevant in the discussions around race, privilege, access, and equity.
Perhaps at this particular moment, we can shift. For many, this will challenge and question your entire career, your way of thinking, ethics, etc., I would argue that that is key in advancing forward. If you are uncomfortable with these questions, look at it as a good thing. Many of us have been uncomfortable for millennia, time for the shift to happen. Time to rethink, unlearn, relearn as bell hooks posits.
Time for a re-examination of Design’s practices, methods, and ways of being. That is not to say that only native people can do certain work (I would argue a very narrow reading of the points made here (including #4, which seems to be causing so much consternation here). Design and art (practitioners included) need to examine their ways. How so few have taken (appropriated, take, at times stolen without credit) so much space and dictated what is good, who can make things, and how “good” things should be made based on very narrow knowledge that renders other ways and systems as bad.
(Sorry in advance, English is not my native tongue)
Ladislas Mandel was an ardent defender of the idea that a typeface designer had to know the language and culture to be able to draw a typeface correctly in a given script. His battle was a cultural one, it was the battle of knowledge. Not a battle that would put humans in opposite of others for a whole bunch of reasons.
It should also be borne in mind that his aim was also to demonstrate in the 1960s that the Univers Devenaggari was not acceptable in India. Is it acceptable today? I have no idea.
¶ More I gettin old, more I have questions to which I don’t have an easy solution.
We’re talking about trying to get involved in promoting diversity in our niche, highly specialized professions. It’s the story of a lifetime, with actions as small as they may be on a daily basis. The difficulty, with this kind of objective, is how to give more to some who lack recognition without taking away from others? Quite a challenge.
¶ Which criteria?
Should we put certain physical characteristics before skills as a criterion for selection? Should a person who would have acquired knowledge, sometimes alone, during his working life, like John Hudson (speaking above), suddenly stop working? Since the mid-90s that I have known John, he has shown how openly and without limits he has shared his knowledge with others over the years. He is a humanism, and even if he doesn’t have the acceptable criteria (of the moment), he must of course be able to continue to draw letterforms of scripts that have nothing to do with his origins and his family culture.
Let’s take this example: Slavery was common among the Romans, Trajan was an emperor known for his conquests of territories (eastern part of the Roman Empire). Should the study of the Roman capital be banned and replaced, especially the forms found on Trajan’s column?
¶ The fight against inequalities in our profession
The reduction of inequalities starts at the earliest age, through access to knowledge (https://twitter.com/candacefor24/status/1273986074201686016), by multiplying the factors of chances to obtain a job, decent housing, access to health care similar to others (https://twitter.com/KamalaHarris/status/1274105178250268679). At the same time, type designers, and more broadly graphic designers, have a long educational background which is not an option for these social groups who suffer exclusion. How many young adults from these groups end up in these schools with an excessively expensive international reputation? We are probably far from the right count. If someone has those figures, I’m interested.
¶ Teaching (graphic/type) design?
For those of you who have been teaching forever (I have been teaching since 1991), you realize (even in public free schools) that your classes are not representative of the diversity we believe in. This is a major difficulty. How can we remedy this when we are already very high on the social ladder? The design world is a place where national representation is already partly limited. From September 2020, should we refuse to teach in a school that does not have an inclusive representation of society in its students? Should teachers with the most experience leave their jobs to let younger people or those from diverse (as we say in France) backgrounds teach? Very difficult and for what purpose? Is this a sustainable option? Teaching is to transmit knowledge, an understanding of the world, mechanisms that remain for the rest of the life of our students.
¶ A good revolution is small steps that make the difference in the long run?
In 2004, ATypI needed to move forward because the current president had been there since 1995 (himself conducting a big change from the past back in mid 90s). My goal as elected president was only one term, because it was important to relaunch the mechanics of renewal. A small step but that is what has been going on since then.
When I launched a master’s degree in 2012 dedicated to “design and typography” in Paris, my objective was to find the best instructors and open up to women, and to a diversity of backgrounds and social origins. Knowing how to give the chance to new (they will recognize themselves), who have acquired experience and know-how. I built this master from scratch, hiring four instructors in 2012. When I left in 2019, the team consisted of 15 instructors and I gave my place to a woman 15 years younger. Another small step.
As part of TypeParis, I have launched a partnership with the help of TypeCon that gives a scholarship to this 5-week summer course to a woman under 32 years old, who does not live in Europe or North America. We regularly get comments: why the age limit is 23, why North America is not included, etc. Of course, any inclusive action will create particular situations that, by wanting to privilege some people generally excluded, reduce the possibilities of others. This shows that it is not so easy, that there is no ideal solution. Each action will be analysed by others according to their life course, the sensation or reality of exclusion.
Should we judge such person and such a course, such and such a training course, such and such a conference, because, according to our instantaneous glance, there would not be the necessary visible equality? Let’s try not to judge others hastily, let’s let the dialogue take place, let’s try to understand and yes, let’s act with small steps, but all the time.
There has been a lot of discussion around this article mostly about the now infamous point #4. Comments range the gamut but I urge you to consider that point 4 is someone’s truth. Its contents should be troubling to anyone who cares about our industry as it signals we’ve got a problem we need to work on. You don’t have to accept it as “truth” or dogma. You should, however, accept that a group of people shared their lived experience hoping it would make a difference. Why, why would they go out on a limb?
There is no denying this article was forcefully written. Have you asked yourself where the urgency and frustration is coming from? Have you asked whether you’ve contributed to it? Some of us can rightfully answer no, the brave and honest among us will answer yes.
It is possible to read this as a set of rules we must now all abide by whether we like it or not. It is also possible to read it as a challenge, a challenge to see the industry from another perspective. This a very complicated issue and I often find myself agreeing with all sides. I don’t doubt, though, that there is a problem here we need to address.
Thank you for taking the time and effort to put this together Alphabettes!
One of the things I have thought about a lot this past week is why I read that article the way I did and why some others did so differently. I am someone who would benefit and be restricted by what this article puts forward as an action in point #4. Which is what has brought me to try and view it in non-binary terms. I try and read it as the need to support something even if it doesn’t benefit me. The very core of intersectionality is to think of those who might benefit from a change while not sharing the same background/hardships as they have.
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 think about who else apart from myself will benefit from this action. Who is going to enforce this “Action” Who is going to hold people accountable? There is no governing body who 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 contested point #4 is at best a request. Maybe it’s important to question why someone reads it as an order. The uproar regarding THAT point is because it has pricked peoples conscience. Is it really our job to make others feel better about their choices? That sounds like a very indirect way to tone police someone. The intention of that article or specifically the point #4 was not to expect people to stop designing type they have been designing for years now. No one expects them to start over. That is not a realistic outcome and neither would it sustainable for people who have dedicated their lives to designing scripts that they are not native to. But maybe they can reflect on ways they can achieve this better. Be more active about the way they engage with native designers.
The way I read it, this article was not about the list of non-native designers who have contributed significantly. It’s about the native speaking ones who potentially can make the same significant contribution but have been systemically held back.