Fonts of the Resistance: Designing Redaction

Rob Giampietro April 18, 2019

From the earliest moments of moveable type, there has been a connection between printing, poetry, and political freedom. Francesco Griffo’s typeface for the Venetian Renaissance poet Piero Bembo, first used in the pocket-sized book De Aetna (1495), influenced Western typography for centuries—its clean, stripped-back forms made for a more portable book format that was widely copied by Renaissance publishers, helping facilitate the spread of literacy in Europe. When he wasn’t writing poetry, Bembo, the son of a politician, worked to establish the Tuscan dialect as the national language of Italy. Griffo, despite his brilliance as a typographer, was a volatile figure by some accounts, and was likely executed for the murder of a family member in 1519. Almost four centuries later, William Morris would design typefaces specifically for Chaucer’s poems while facing harassment and arrest by the police for his socialist organizing.

Redaction, a project by visual artist and filmmaker Titus Kaphar and memoirist, poet, and attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts, on view at MoMA PS1 through May 5, follows in this tradition, combining several elements—portraits and texts silkscreened on handmade paper by Kaphar and poems derived from legal source material by Betts—to bear witness to stark injustices in our present-day judicial system. Contributing to Kaphar and Betts’s visual poetics is a typeface, also called Redaction, which is as distinct and specific to its poetry as Griffo’s and Morris’s were to theirs. Created by award-winning designers Forest Young, global principal of Wolff Olins, and Jeremy Mickel, founder of the LA-based type foundry MCKL, it’s a typeface whose weights range from legible to obscure, its forms both suggestively struck through and jaggedly degraded, and its access free and open to the public for individual use. I recently caught up with Young and Mickel to learn more about their work on project.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

How were you approached about the actual collaboration and its place in the exhibition? Can you talk about your collaboration process, both with Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts and with each other?

Forest Young: I reached out to Titus Kaphar in order to congratulate him on being named a MacArthur Fellow. He then turned around and asked me if I could help him realize a typographic dimension for his upcoming Redaction project, in collaboration with Dwayne Betts. Titus and I both graduated from the same class at the Yale School of Art, and had mutual respect and admiration across the years. I brought Jeremy on soon after, as we had successfully collaborated on the recent rebranding and new brand typefaces for Uber and a few other projects and had a great shorthand. We both loved the opportunity to create something new which would be in conversation with such timely and important artwork, and with such celebrated collaborators.

Young and Jeremy Mickel: We spent a long time conducting field research and distilling the conceptual aspect of the project. The first discussions with Titus and Dwayne were about striking the right balance between history and innovation. We knew that we wanted to build on the conventions of legal typography in the US, especially in the formatting and reproduction of court documents and legal standards lawyers use over time—there was something powerful in mining that tradition, directly referencing the way that documents are formatted for adding comments, cutting or highlighting text, and then transmitted through low-fi methods like fax and photocopy. We also wanted to abstract those references and truly make something new.

How is designing type in this context different from doing something more applied or commercial? Is the design in this case art or is it still design?

In many ways, it was the same as a commercial client project—there were clients, creative briefs, rounds of feedback and revisions, deadlines, and usage of the fonts in the final work—but it was also a unique opportunity. The combination of the personalities involved and the social message behind the work was conducive to the energy of a self-directed commission. We both chose to work through the holiday break to get it ready for production. We produced far more styles of the fonts than what Titus and Dwayne initially requested, creating italic, bold, and a wide range of bitmap styles, and commissioning animations, custom python scripting, and a micro-website, all to showcase the work in the best way possible.

It felt like an honor to be involved in this project at this moment in time. The work the Civil Rights Corps is doing in challenging the entrenched inequality of the money bail system is so incredible, truly impacting the lives of people, and Titus and Dwayne are working to make those people’s stories heard and felt on a larger level. It’s in this spirit of generosity that we decided to make the fonts free for personal use. To answer your question, it’s still design, but it’s design in the service of art. It allows design to enter a more conceptual space, which is one that we’re interested to continue exploring.

From left: P. Scott Makela. Dead History. 1990; Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum. FF Beowolf. 1990; Tobias Frere-Jones. Interstate. 1993–95
From left: P. Scott Makela. Dead History. 1990; Erik van Blokland, Just van Rossum. FF Beowolf. 1990; Tobias Frere-Jones. Interstate. 1993–95

In 2011, our senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli, brought 23 digital typefaces into the collection, and each of them, in a way, anticipates or illustrates elements at play in Redaction. For me and many other designers I know, these selections were a perfect summary of the 20 years of digital typography and the innovation that it brought. OCR-A deals with machine and human legibility. New Alphabet pushes the boundaries of the alphabet to a new medium, the screen. Bell Centennial and FF Beowolf both come at entropy from different angles. Oakland and Walker suggest forms that more uniquely possible with digital tooling. But the political life of these typefaces is less present. Template Gothic, Keedy Sans, and Dead History all challenge norms of good form and elevate aspects of vernacular or postmodern design to a mass audience through digital reproduction, but the most sneakily political of these typefaces might be Interstate, which appropriates the design from a US Department of Transportation manual for highway signage and democratizes it into a sign-making tool for the masses.

Redaction, of course, is more direct than this. It was designed for a political purpose and that’s in the foreground of the commission. At the same time, it references some of the formal experimentation we associate both with the mid-’90s digital typefaces Paola collected and earlier experiments in design in turn-of-the-century Germany and Russia. Long preamble, short question: How do political questions shape typographic choices designers make?

It’s true, many of the typefaces in that acquisition directly informed this project. The digital “notches” in Redaction take inspiration from the degradation of letterforms that have been reproduced through faxing and photocopying, but the typographic precedent for these forms comes from Bell Centennial. The randomized distortion of Beowolf and the low-res bitmap of Oakland informed the alternate forms in Redaction’s degraded styles. We looked to history for idealized forms, in our case Times New Roman and New Century Schoolbook, just like Interstate looked to FHWA Highway Gothic, and Galliard looked to the types of Robert Granjon. Like the Emigre fonts (Template Gothic, Keedy Sans, Dead History), we were searching for a contemporary postmodern remix, taking inspiration from Times New Roman and New Century Schoolbook as de facto legal typefaces, but reimagining them for the current political climate.

Titus and Dwayne were keen to make the fonts available to people so they might become the “fonts of the resistance.” You might see a legal document, assume it’s set in Times, but then notice the square dots of the i, the subtle notches in the letterforms, and understand that the author of this text is an informed advocate for social equality.

Fonts are rich with history and meaning, and while members of the general public may not have vocabulary for typographic details, they still feel them—and those details can contribute to the message and the meaning of any text in which they are rendered. Tapping into the meaning and history of typographic archetypes allows a designer or artist to have control of their narratives, and fully own the subtext of the work.

Redaction: A Project by Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts is organized by Sarah Suzuki, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art; with Jocelyn Miller, Assistant Curator, MoMA PS1. The exhibition is on view through May 5, 2019, at MoMA PS1.