Type@Cooper / Summer Condensed Program 2013
So to begin with, I’m pretty stoked that I’m writing one of these Type@Cooper summary blog posts. I spent a good chunk of time last year digging through the internet to find out more about the Condensed Program. As of two years ago I had never even heard of it but after reading here and here and here and here (and a bunch of other mini articles stuffed away in the sofa cushions of the internet) I was pretty intent on getting into the 2013 class. To be honest, I would be pretty bummed if I didn’t, but thanks to some family backing and what I hope was a well-written application letter, I finally got that golden email with the subject line that read “Good News from Cooper Union.” I still have it too, and I don’t think I’ll be deleting it anytime soon.
For aspiring typophiles reading this, I hope that this is informative and convinces you that yes, you too, can and should take the time and budget to haul your ass to New York to do this. If you are obsessive about type and really want to take a serious next-step into professional type design I can’t imagine any better route than than five weeks at Cooper Union.
For those who don’t know, The Cooper Union, in New York City, has one of the few programs on the continent that offers substantial courses on type design, which comes in two flavors – an “extended” program which spans most of a year and is quite comprehensive, and a “condensed” (get it?) program which lasts five weeks in the summer and is just a non-stop, relentless, all-out boot camp on the basics and not-so-basics of type design. I understand that it’s intended for people who can’t devote an entire year to study, so everything is packed into five grueling weeks of type-geekery. Let’s jump in:
With our class of 15 all settled into our desks of choice, the bulk of the first week looked like this:
Over and over and over again. The broad-nib pen was our one and only tool for writing (not drawing) in the Carolingian miniscule style. We were given a quick overview of the roman letter forms and the proper way to write them. On large sheets of paper we went to work on a few lowercase letters at first, then a few more, then the rest of the Latin alphabet. No computers necessary.
Only a half-day in, we took a trip across the street to the Lubalin Center in the Cooper Union “space ship” building. It looks like a small space but the collection of design works is extensive and can’t be seen all at once. You’ll need to come back many times. Some of the final projects were inspired here. Here’s just a few of the typographic goodies:
Fridays were usually set aside for either a library visit to see some amazing old manuscripts or ancient printed wonderfulness. The first Friday was a trip to the Columbia Library to check out (but not literally check out) some great examples of old type and printing. In total, we all must have taken hundreds of photos, all crowded around 20 or 30 selected books. Thanks to the library for hand-picking these out, since they’re not exactly out on display for all to see.
After day one, we were instructed to do our “typographic push-up” every morning, which was to do a quick sketch of our name in any style/manner we choose. The idea being to just get loose and get the brain cells going before jumping back into a long day. Here’s mine, somewhere around week 3:
Weeks 2 and 3 were still mainly filled with writing, writing, and writing. And some more writing. And then some writing, time permitting. But at least we had moved on from lower case to upper case and numerals. Periodically, we would gather around the chalkboard and watch our fearless leaders, Just Van Rossum and Hannes Famira, explain the letter strokes with sideways chalk. Which, oddly, seems like the perfect way to teach this stuff.
The walls were starting to get papered-over with letters and everyone was scrambling to go buy ink refills for their pens. I emptied out three pens in the first week alone.
After finding our Carolingian mojo, the next step was drawing our letters and inking them in. Most likely in some odd letter combos, and layering revised letters over old ones. This is also where we get into details like serif shapes, spacing, and tweaking stroke thickness, curve stress, and so on. The end goal was to take a word and make a low-contrast and high-contrast version – adjusting the thick and thin strokes to achieve both forms.
We reached a point where we were ready to move on from practicing the same letterforms to branch off and create our own typeface. This was almost totally open to whatever we wanted to do, which is actually a pretty daunting question. Like staring at a blank canvas and asking “what do I want to paint?”
Well to borrow a phrase, I came here to make a “big-boy” typeface. Something created for extensive text that could be expanded into a large family later on. So with that, I decided to expand on my contrast exercise–specifically the low-contrast version with slab serifs. I envisioned a sturdy text face that would work at small sizes.
It was about this time that we were let loose with our computers. Almost everyone had to learn how to use Robofont for the first time, which didn’t seem to be much of a problem after a day or two. (I actually found the printer and scanner tried to ruin my day more than anything else.) We would have occasional presentations on technical things like proper methods of spacing and kerning, Robofont extensions, and even a little intro to Python programming.
Working for more than 12 hours a day was the average. And then there’s working at home and getting together at the library on weekends to work even more. It was great to see the designs coming together and everyone working so enthusiastically on such different ideas. I think the best part of a course like this is that when you’re immersed in the group environment the more energized you are to create and help others create too.
On our way to the finish line, we were lucky enough to have some guest critiques from Andy Clymer, Jesse Ragan, and Cyrus Highsmith. All with varying suggestions and commentary. It seemed like a new batch of advice every day, even into the last few days. It was frustrating at times but in the end, this was good to learn the lesson of balancing everyone’s comments with your own intuition and find the right path.
The last week saw everyone working to finish not only their required set of glyphs, but also to put together a process book, specimen sheet and a full presentation of their work for the last day. And if by some miracle there was some time left over, we could create italics, small caps, bold versions, or whatever we had energy for. Like I said before, I don’t think there’s a better way to delve into type design and get a glimpse into what the professional type designer does to create a proper, functioning typeface and to also see the foundations underneath it all. I don’t doubt that there’s a steady supply of typophiles out there, ready to give it a go.
p.s.- A quick look at my typeface in progress here.