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

Reflections on “It’s Time to Act”

Alphabettes is a diverse group of women from across the globe with a variety of backgrounds, views, and life stories. The article “It’s Time to Act” is an example of a collaborative effort aiming to respond to recent events and to raise difficult questions that our industry needs to engage with. Difficult questions are by nature controversial and are often highly emotive. One such question is the one raised in point 4 which calls for designers to stop taking design commissions for scripts they did not grow up with. This article will examine this issue and focus on 3 key questions: Is a designer able to design for a script they cannot read? If yes, should they? And finally, how can we as an industry support designers who come from disadvantaged backgrounds?

There are many advantages to designers who are designing for their native script. They can read the language and are immersed in the visual culture. Does being native to a script make one a good type designer? No, there is a lot more to being a good type designer. Conversely, it is quite possible to be a great designer for a script one did not grow up with. Tim Holloway is the designer of excellent Arabic typefaces such as Markazi, Adobe Arabic, and Mitra. Adobe Arabic is one of the best contributions to contemporary Arabic type design and Tim has been at the leading edge of the field of Arabic type design. His contributions are of great importance and should be celebrated. Tim is just one of many designers who have dedicated their careers to the development of scripts they are not native to. Designing for a script one did not grow up with requires a lot of research and effort. One needs to show respect to the culture, the script and its aesthetics, and the contemporary discourse on its design. These are difficult tasks and designers who embark on this journey often invest a lot of time and effort to expand their knowledge.[1]

This leads to the next point. If a type designer has invested significant effort in learning to design in a new script, should they reject requests for such designs? In other words, are they expected to do all the learning, but not be able to make a living out of that new skill? The article states that this is to not take work away from BIPOC designers “who come from regions and cultures that have long been exploited for financial gain” and while this is a noble sentiment and made in good will, it draws borders within the type design world when we urgently need to work together to improve the development of type design worldwide. Others might disagree, but we need to accept that many of us do not want to draw borders and that we stand to benefit from a collaborative approach to type design rather than a protectionist one. Further, the circumstances of one’s birth should not limit one’s career options. A type designer who has spent significant effort to learn a script they did not grow up in, should not be turned away from the door because of the colonial past of their country of birth. If anything, we need to engage in what the late Edward Said called the dialogue of civilisations rather than the clash of civilisations. These are difficult conversations to be had particularly because of the harsh legacies of colonialism (past and present) which have decimated whole regions in ways that are difficult to recover from.

In practical terms, if a designer gets commissioned for a script that they are not native in and they would still like to design for it, one option—and others will be able to come up with other solutions—is to team up with a native designer and work together. This would be an educational experience for both parties and can help fill the gap for those scripts where there is a serious lack of native designers, or where the native designers need opportunities to further develop their skills.  Let me give one example from my own experience. When I joined Linotype in 2005 as a very inexperienced designer, I met Prof. Hermann Zapf, who suggested we revive his Al-Ahram typeface to add to the Palatino nova family. If he had simply passed on the work, I would not have had the chance to learn from him and this opportunity has changed my entire view of typeface design. We’ve made many strides in Arabic type design, but there is still such a big gap that we need many designers to step forward, whether for library or custom jobs. Similarly, many of the world’s scripts barely have any fonts available and there is much work to be done.

Finally, type designers who come from disadvantaged backgrounds face many barriers, whether they are BIPOC designers living in the Western world, or designers who are living in post-colonial countries. The structural power that has exploited both persists today. But to view them solely through the lens of racial subjugation is to deprive them of their own agency, their ability to forge a path forward, and to grow and prosper. This does not mean that the structural barriers should be ignored or forgotten, but rather that one can open new paths that form new structures of cooperation rather than structures of exploitation. There are many things one could prescribe to support designers from disadvantaged backgrounds: educational opportunities, scholarships, collaborations, mentorship, and so forth—but there is no easy answer as to how to overcome decades and centuries of injustice. Still, it all rests on one basic premise: respect for the Other, despite differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, or socio-economic background. Everything else builds on that.

The type design world is blessed with amazing individuals, a collaborative spirit, and an active and engaged community. It is this sense of togetherness that can help to expand this space to be more inclusive. The times we live in are challenging and are bringing up difficult questions that are hard to process. There will rarely be one right answer, and we will very likely disagree. However, the answer is not as interesting as the question itself. We could each come to our own conclusions, but we have all recognised that there is a bigger issue that needs addressing: the openness of our design space. Even if each of us pushes in a different direction, the result is a bigger space, richer and more diverse because of the variety of life paths and world views present.


[1] There is one important caveat here. Once we cross into the conversation about typography and graphic design, the presence of a designer on the team who is able to read the text is paramount because we are then operating in the realm of language, visual hierarchy, and how the audience will read the text laid out in a poster or a book. While this is tangential to the topic of this article, it is important to recognise the complexity of how we deal with type and that the answers that work for one scenario, the designing of typefaces, might not be the same across all instances dealing with type-related design.