Remember December: Making Room at the Table

Type designers standing on a street corner at night in Kansas City

Four very hungry, law-abiding type designers, who definitely did not jaywalk against a red light.

This is a recent Wednesday night, spent in the company of some very wonderful people.

We are all standing on a freezing cold and somewhat abandoned Kansas City street corner waiting for the light to change, so that we can squeeze into the Mission Taco across the street where we will stuff our faces. Also on the agenda: chat about the state of type as well as commerce. And belly laugh.

Tobias Frere-Jones will reveal his Napkin Theory of Design Domination. Lila Symons (not shown above, she’s taking the photo) will encourage everyone to let our guard down and remind each of us that we have value in this industry as well as in the world at large. Josh Scruggs will explain his exquisite methodology with stillness and grace. Josh Farmer will ask probing and thoughtful questions that bring out the best in everyone around the table. And I, at some point, will make very loud awkward noises when he shows off a photo of his real live muppet beloved pet Bernedoodle. (Go ahead and Google that. I dare you not to yelp with joy.)

Yes, you could say all of us were standing there because we came to hear Tobias. He needs no introduction. (Though Lila gave a great one!) On this occasion, he was visiting Kansas City to speak at an AIGA event at which he shared his insights into how history’s lessons can & should inform our future work. It was, as you would expect, thought-provoking and eloquent. Every attendee walked away with a much deeper understanding of the important relationship between past and present. (Thank you, Tobias!)

But in a broader sense, why else were we there? What brought the five of us to type? Why did we find ourselves on that street corner in particular? What made it possible for us to later sit around a table in a moment of camaraderie, mutual encouragement and hospitality? To be utterly present with one another?

For me, at least, the answer starts with a story…

My sense of being constantly out of step started at birth; Baby Me emerged blue, not breathing. The doctor determined my Apgar score to be a 1 out of a possible 10 points. (For the unfamiliar, I believe the technical medical term is Pretty Much but Not Quite Dead™.)

As you can see, that intense weirdness stuck around:

Contemplating the meaning of life sometime in the early 1980s.

My parents divorced not long after this photo was taken and I lost contact with half of my extended family. We moved around a bit which made it hard to find friends. When we finally settled for good in a Very Small Midwestern Town, I realized standing out was not going to be rewarded. Fellow new kids will understand: you’re forever branded based on that first day in school. I became the kid who wore hand-me-downs, who laughed too loud, who ate “donuts” for lunch. (We brought frozen bagels with us when we moved. No one in town knew such a thing existed.)

3 horseback riders waiting in a Dairy Queen drive thru line

Waiting in the Dairy Queen drive-thru on horseback. Welcome to the rural Midwest.

Much of my early adulthood was spent attempting to prove I could be The Most Different and totally not care. I chose a college and major that were as far away from my Midwestern upbringing as possible. (Marine biology! North Carolina!)

Young woman relaxing on a sailboat at sunset

This is what a Good Midwestern Girl’s college rebellion looks like.

Eventually the lazy river of life floated me from science to photography, which led to a decade of intense toil in a wretched hive of scum and villainy advertising. Things weren’t all bad; I met my now husband (also a wanderer) and together we bought & restored an adorable 1930s bungalow in a neighborhood that looked like it was designed by Walt Disney. We filled that house with a motley crew of lovable cats & dogs. We traveled. Still, apart from my weird little family, community and greater purpose were elusive.

1930s Brick Bungalow

The place where we taught ourselves roofing, framing, carpentry, brick laying, tuck pointing, tiling, plastering, glazing, plumbing, wiring, landscaping and stress drinking. The only thing we didn’t touch was the furnace.

Eventually I had enough of advertising so up went the freelance shingle. Before long the lazy river oxbowed again; this time, I was making fonts. It was 2012, when calligraphic & handwriting typefaces were just starting to gain traction online. For the first time in my life, both my hands and my heart were engaged in the same work at the same time. I wanted to talk to others in the industry about what I was experiencing and exploring…being self-taught, I had a million questions. Technical issues were easy to solve, just hop on over to Typophile and holler into the void. Answering larger existential questions was a bit trickier. As someone coming into type design from such a non-traditional (and un-academic) background, I was uneasy.

Existential questions designers ask themselves in the wee dark hours

That happy place where OCD, anxiety and existentialism kiss.

In the end I was too shy and intimidated to reach out. (Once you’re branded “Weird Donut Girl,” you develop a certain hesitancy about these things.)

I knew TypeCon and ATypI existed, but they took place right in the busiest part of our farming calendar so attendence was a pipe dream. (Yes, by this point I’d bought a farm in the middle of nowhere with really crummy internet. Logical decision making does not come naturally to me.)

Ok, I resigned, I’ll just go at this whole type thing alone.

Young woman on a red tractor

Believe it or not, this is easier to master than contextual chaining substitutions.

And then someone made room at the table.

In 2015, Stephen Coles saw a font family I’d recently created: Quimbly. It was a departure from my usual calligraphy scripts; hand-lettered but a sans-serif. I’d designed each weight to remain legible at very, very small point sizes. (Something of a necessity for stationers, some of whom were customers.)

Type specimen for the Quimbly font family

Stephen liked the family enough to include it in his 2015 Typographica roundup. (Thanks again, Stephen!!!) As luck would have it, he reached out to type designer & human being extraordinaire, Lila Symons to write a review. Lila decided to write about Quimbly.

At first we chatted on Skype, then more calls became more frequent. A friendship blossomed. Through Lila I made other industry connections & friendships, developed the confidence to ask many of those burning questions and then last year, joined the Alphabettes.

Finally, my tribe! After a lifetime of walking out of step, here were the people who were different like me. Women who adored all things letters, who delighted in lifting others up, who championed the weird and wonderful. (Who are weird and wonderful!) And perhaps most importantly, women who embodied a Welcoming Ethos… Women who insisted you had better pull a chair up to the table.

I can’t begin to tell you what a healing, watershed moment this was. Not just in my career, but in my life.

Cartoon drawing of a girl holding a box out of which the word fear is flying

Letting go.

And so last month I found myself looking around that literal & metaphorical dinner table at some very talented & delightful people. Up until a couple of years ago, I would have never had the courage to meet them let alone share a meal or talk candidly together about our work.

I marveled at how Lila welcomed me as her guest; indeed, how she welcomed all of us sitting there (and so many others) into her life and into this larger community of makers and thinkers, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

Just as Tobias had explained his connection with historical type design, I too reflected on history… On the long chain of people behind each of us, behind every designer, each link of which had so welcomed the next all the way back to Gutenberg and beyond.

I thought about all of the newcomers in my own life to whom I was now extending invitations; all of the communities of which I was a part where I was making space for others. About all of the communities to come.

I imagined the noisy clatter of chairs scratching across the floor, stretching out into an infinite past and future, and smiled at the image of that fantastically crowded table that all of us were making together.

And in a sudden moment of realization, it occurred to me that as wonderful and fulfilling as type design is, ultimately it’s just the thing that gets us to the thing… Maybe it’s not the letters or the programming or the marketing or the study which is important. It’s this giant table, my friends; that is what we’re all actually searching for. That is where the real joy lies.

So please, have some tacos & cheesy corn, they’re delicious! We’re just getting started here… Won’t you pull up a chair and join us?