Suddenly I'm anti-font…

Paul Cutler's picture

…am I crazy?

Wait - that's too easy. I like natural media now - calligraphy, even bad handwriting like my own…

I know this is the very best place to post this.


Stefan Seifert's picture

Natural is good.


Paul Cutler's picture

After satellite photography I like those old flat maps…

They're sexy.

Or maybe Google Earth can solve my design problems?


William Berkson's picture

Paul, for display letters, if a designer had time, a better job could be done by hand.

For reading masses of text, a type face is better than hand writing. I think is was Stanley Morrison who said that the magic of type is all in the "multiplication". You can take the stuff and immediately create masses of text and headlines, and get it out quickly. And it will be more readable than a scribe could produce.

In interviews Matthew Carter has said something similar. He doesn't care about producing type for 'fine printing' where people spend hours over kerning display. His pride is producing types that people can slot into formats in magazines, newspapers and books, and they consistently look good and readable.

Paul Cutler's picture

There is no doubt that I'm about to create way too much work for myself, but I feel like I'm turning a corner, I want to be warmer in my approach.

I wish to rephrase myself - I am not anti-font or anti-computer - I am pro-flaw…


ebensorkin's picture

I think we will see smarter fonts that actually solve the sort of problems that hand lettering can before too long. We are already seeing a few.

So what kind of flaw are you in favor of? Care to show us an image?

eliason's picture

> I am pro-flaw...

Let us work with love and without fear of our faults, those inevitable and habitual companions of the great qualities. Yes, faults are qualities; and fault is superior to quality. Quality stands for uniformity in the effort to achieve certain common perfections accessible to anyone. Fault eludes conventional and banal perfections. Therefore fault is multiple, it is life, it reflects the personality of the artist and his character; it is human, it is everything, it will redeem the work.
- James Ensor (Belgian Symbolist painter), 1923

Paul Cutler's picture

very nice quote - thank you

Eben - I'm done showing work on design boards but I will try to explain what steps I'm taking - last year I did key art again for a festival I've been working on since 1999. Each year it was based on a photo that was manipulated this way or that way. This time I manipulated it to achieve the colors I wanted, then hired a friend of mine who is a really talented painter. I didn't even know it at the time but it was my first step in this journey that somehow crystallized this morning, after I pondered what I wrote last night - that I was anti-font.

Many times in my life I've had to figure out what I'm against in order to figure out what I am for.

As of this morning I am no longer anti-font or anti-computer - I am for hand lettering and painting, illustration and the wayward journey of the human hand.

Filters in Pro Tools that try to simulate analogue processes are pale in comparison to actual tape compression.


Nick Shinn's picture

Every generation of technology gains and loses, can do things that no other can, or that others can only emulate, losing that "natural" quality.
A drum-kit performance of the drumming in Aphex Twin's "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball" is impossible.

Stefan Seifert's picture

Hi ellason,

thanks also from me for the quote. Well said.
Strange that it seems so hard for designers or people in general to say things like that today.
Even more strange if we think that today we are so much less perfect than the folks of the past.


ffetish's picture

Traditionally, Japanese aesthetics have made a virtue of imperfection. There's also a neo-Luddite strand of postmodern thought which celebrates malfunction/chance as the last bastion of resistance to the onslaughts of the machine.

For what it's worth.

Nick Shinn's picture

And then there's Default System Design, in which fonts don't matter one way or the other.

jupiterboy's picture

I'm pro content (which is funny considering my digressions). Ever use the original Moosewood cookbook? I've always admired that as a piece of work.

ffetish—the green tea cups that have faults are considered the most desireable or worthy of conversation.

ebensorkin's picture

The more I know about food & cooking the less good I have to say about the Moosewood cookbooks. Why are you so keen?

Nick, tell us more about this 'Default System Design'. It sounds interesting.

Traditionally, Japanese aesthetics have made a virtue of imperfection. This statement is too broad a generalization. Historically this not always been so. And there are class issues & a variety of other important contradictions. Although it has been so more often & for longer than is common elsewhere. That much is true.

As of this morning I am no longer anti-font or anti-computer - I am for hand lettering and painting, illustration and the wayward journey of the human hand. I am sympathetic but I can't agree. I think it's our job when we design things to think about what will work. Closing off an avenue prematurely seems silly to me. But of course sometimes 'limitations' are freeing and 'freedom' constrains. I suppose it depends on who you are & how you feel/work best.

jupiterboy's picture

Some of the Moosewood cookbooks are awful, and I honestly don't think they even tried the recipes. But, the original has been a good friend and the majority of the book is handwritten/illustrated and a nice example of what Paul is talking about.

ebensorkin's picture

handwritten/illustrated and a nice example of what Paul is talking about.

Okay I see that. But I think that actually it isn't what Paul is talking about. Obviously Paul can tell us if you or I am right in our guesses. The reason I guess 'not' is that despite being made by hand; Moosewood's aesthetic is consciously casual rather than artful. It was meant to be 'artless' or unaffected and 'real'. This means that the pictures and the letters are not too overly nice. I think the the casualness was also meant to point to freedom and beauty not on the page but off it. In contrast what Paul seems to be interested in is the authentic beauty of fine handmade stuff. To me these are opposed aesthetics even if they are both made by hand.

Thanks Nick!

ebensorkin's picture

tried the recipes

I wonder if they did & didn't know it wasn't good. Hippie food is deeply naive and superficial stuff.

paul.halupka's picture

i think that there is definitely no way to beat the human hand. even in the digital world, we try and incorporate the touch we need... through wacom pads and the like. even so, something is lost when the computer converts our tiny muscular imperfections into pixels or beziers. mistakes and imperfections are impossible to avoid in handwork, which is what makes it irrevocably human.

i can't say i'm anti-font, but i sure as hell would love to make a career out of hand-lettering everything. zapf got his start with calligraphy on WWII maps, no? i think that even with the most brilliant opentype coding, there won't be anything that really gets you where pen-and-ink gets you. deep blue can win a hell of a chess match, but it won't ever have a conversation over a game in some NY park.

if nothing else i'm glad we have these realizations... we love the machine, but it's great to remember that we don't need it.

Paul Cutler's picture

I am for the human hand right now - not that I can completely implement this or will be allowed to - but I am going to try.

I have been a computer musician for going on 15 years and as time went by it got more and more unsatisfying. No matter how hard you try it's too perfect (actually the harder you try to make it imperfect the more perfect it becomes). I'm still a computer musician although I feel that way, except now I use it pretty much like you would use a reel to reel tape recorder - no click, no copying and pasting, etc… I do like virtual instruments since I used to be a pianist.

Actually one thing I thought of when I was pondering this was the Betsy Johnson ads from about 10 years ago. At the time I hated them but I remember them, unlike 99% of the other adverts I was exposed to.

The Moosewood cookbook is a classic, whether or not you like "hippie" food.

Eben - I learned from music that some of the best situations are the most limited - when you have all the freedom in the world it's hard to put together 12 songs that make sense together.

I also believe that life (and consequently creativity) is spurred on by microcosmic observation. Then you expound on what you have observed. At least that's how it works for me.

It started with a painting and blossomed…

…into what remains to be seen.


KenBessie's picture

Hippie food is deeply naive and superficial stuff

Now that's a T-shirt!

Also, I like Paul's pro-flaw rational in a general, but a wrong note or flawed harmonic in music, or a wrong spice or improper ingredient in cooking, can ruin the overall effect. That said, I like the recordings of Glenn Gould humming to himself as he's playing. Or Ella Fitzgerald forgetting the words as she's singing Mack the Knife. It adds a "to err is human" element to each piece. So I guess I'm not pro-flaw but I am pro-human.

Paul Cutler's picture

I used to produce records - about 40 of them all told.

The best thing that can ever happen is a great mistake.

Not all mistakes are great, most aren't, but the ones that are great overhwhelm most intentions. Nothing is more surprising.


Koppa's picture

Well said, Mr. Cutler. I concur. The best thing that can ever happen is a great mistake.

For example, I like to make collage art...with commercially printed paper images I cut with an x-acto, or tear. There is so much more pleasure in the risk taking that happens when you aren't allowed to second guess yourself or decide, "I don't like that," and back up in Photoshop. More power to the human hand and physical reality!

I have enjoyed this thread and thank you for starting it...back with the "I hate computers" bit, I believe.

KenBessie's picture

I'm pro-"great mistakes"

jupiterboy's picture

BTW, I still like records. THANKS PAUL!

Paul Cutler's picture

jupiterboy - those were my pleasure, believe me… :)


muzzer's picture


suddenly i am anti-typophile.

Chopper Reid says "Harden the **** up".

fontplayer's picture

I am anti-my handwriting. And anti-me writing. I love fonts. I'll take all the ones you don't want anymore.

Different strokes...
; )

thetophus's picture

I feel you, Paul. I'm at a point where I'm trying to push my typographical style beyond what pre-made typefaces can offer. Yet I still love typography. So perhaps that means I am anti-typeface?

Stefan Seifert's picture

Hi Paul,

I like your points of view.
About observation and making imperfections.

I think we only will be able to understand natural form by observing them with as much attention as possible. For myself as an example I use to work on my letter shapes while I’m watching the form (as an example) of a human hand and so on. Nature and body do show quickly the mistakes (in a negative sense this time) we make when we make forms too even, too clean, too slick. And at the same time sometimes it scares me with how much systemic work usually typedesigners find their forms (see for example the recent thread about Meta serif) by excluding the „wrong ones“ making lists and red crosses below the forms that find their way in the final design.
Why is it so hard in digital age to work with feeling and intuition, inspiration as ever you will name it? Less system more nature.


Paul Cutler's picture

Eben Sorkin - Care to show us an image?

I'm probably going to get slaughtered for the Eurostile but here are a couple of examples of putting this into action:

I commissioned a painting for this years Coachella identity and had it shot with a 1DS MK III:
Coachella 2008

The Foo Fighters asked me for an old school punk flyer and poster:
Foo Fighters

I am really having fun with this…


jupiterboy's picture

Vacuum tube bomb! Has that been done before?

Nick Shinn's picture

Paul, there is no natural media--other than drawing with your finger in the sand, or perhaps Clotilde Olyff's pebble alphabets.

I make all my fonts by hand, and draw them with a stylus and tablet. Is that old school or what?!
There are accidents too, software is so accomodating (David Carson made a career out of it).
The accidents are perhaps not quite so accidental as a slip of the wrist, it's more like "I wonder what would happen if I pushed this button" -- and if you don't like it you can erase and try the next Photoshop filter.

I think it's cool when people do their own lettering or make (or commission) their own fonts, rather than using something off the shelf. I'm always amazed at the bogus use of script fonts, especially grungy ones. It's somewhat absurd to use a font to create a rough handrwitten effect when anyone can do it with a pen and a scanner, and the font effect looks phoney whereever there's a double-letter combination and they're both identical. Like that scene with the cat twice in The Matrix, there's something going on that's not quite right.

Paul Cutler's picture

Nick - if you remember I backed far away from the title of this thread. I am just trying to incorporate more hand done work. A lot of you guys are so talented that I definitely hesitate to post anything here but I thought I should offer a proof of concept or two. The Coachella piece really looks good in print and I'm planning a commemorative poster that I think is going to work really well.

I am not dumb enough to think that I am some revolutionary doing something brand spanking new - but it's new for me - I am having a lot of fun and the clients are very pleased.

As for the test tube bomb - can't take credit for that - the Foo Fighters incorporated it into their last ad mat but then decided they wanted something "rougher". So I traced a bunch of stuff, tore some paper, scanned and put it together.

I wanted to go the over-Xeroxed route but the machines are way too good now. They just don't mess is up enough.


blank's picture

It’s somewhat absurd to use a font to create a rough handrwitten effect when anyone can do it with a pen and a scanner, and the font effect looks phoney whereever there’s a double-letter combination and they’re both identical.

You’re right, but the simple fact is that most designers can’t even think of how to letter well enough to produce those scripts in the first place. There are a lot of design programs out there that don’t offer any training in lettering or calligraphy, and it’s not an easy talent to pick up on one’s own.

I wanted to go the over-Xeroxed route but the machines are way too good now.

Play around with brightness and contrast settings on really nice digital copiers will trash letters after about 15 generations or so.

Paul Cutler's picture

I probably won't have to do another "retro" piece like this for a while but I will keep in mind the brightness and contrast settings.


ebensorkin's picture

Paul, thanks for posting these. :-)

Nick Shinn's picture

most designers can’t even think of how to letter well enough to produce those scripts in the first place.

I wasn't talking about fancy scripts, but stuff that's supposed to look like normal scrawl.

maltelunden's picture

I really enjoyed reading this thread, thank you!


pattyfab's picture

It’s somewhat absurd to use a font to create a rough handrwitten effect when anyone can do it with a pen and a scanner, and the font effect looks phoney whereever there’s a double-letter combination and they’re both identical.

Which is where open type can be very handy. I was hand-lettering a lot of type for a book project recently and they kept changing the copy, which meant... lots of elbow grease rewriting it. I finally commissioned a font based on my handwriting but I had the font designer work in alternate characters and ligatures for common words or letter combinations (such as 'ing', 'and', 'th' and such). It was a happy compromise, still looks handlettered - and original - but much easier for me to work with.

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