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Makin' It: Elizabeth Carey Smith, a Designer With Type as Her Medium

"Type is certainly seeing a golden age right now."

Elizabeth Carey Smith is a typographer and graphic designer at The Letter Office in New York. The attention paid to fonts over the past few years is long overdue, and we were excited to ask Elizabeth about everything that goes into creating one and how she got the itch to do it. This interview is part of a two-part series; next time around we’ll talk to Elizabeth's silversmith husband.


Do you consider yourself a typographer or a graphic designer? Where does one end and the other begin?

Typography is the use of type; type design is the design and production of the actual fonts; lettering is drawing one-off letters or words. These all get jumbled together quite often, even by graphic designers. Where I fit in will probably sound convoluted: I'm a graphic designer who specializes in type-based projects, but my obsession with type runs so deep that I'd mostly regard myself as a typographer. I am also a type designer and letterer, so I run the gamut of designing and using letters. Standard projects, where I'm hired as a graphic designer, usually involve designing type-heavy reports and books, so I'm organizing content with type. [W]hereas other designers may use imagery, illustration, and other things as their primary way to communicate a message, type is my medium.

Have you always been interested in typography and graphic design, or did one more specifically lead to another?

A lifelong love of letters, drawing, and reading led me to art school. Before that, I didn't really know what graphic design was. After high school, I thought the closest thing to what I wanted to study was commercial art (I found a 1950s-era book on the subject in our high school library) or advertising, but a class in the latter was way off base. Once I discovered typography when I got to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, it was this total "zing" moment. I took all of the offered courses in type there, along with my graphic design classes, and concentrated on things like publication and editorial design to max out my exposure to type and how to use it.

Is typography alive and well in 2012?

Type is certainly seeing a golden age right now, but I would credit personal computers more than the web for this resurgence. Typefaces that were drawn digitally 25 years ago were hastily done, so the technology has come a long way since then, and more toward making type that is precise and less constrained by its former incarnations in metal. And even though until recently there were only about seven typefaces available for the web, there's been a resurgence there as well as a demand for print faces that have the crispness we see on screen. Interestingly though, most of the principles for designing letter forms remain the same as they were 500 years ago because we still recognize and read those forms most easily.

How do you go about designing a letter form?

Creating a typeface now is very similar to the way they've always been created, in the sense of drawing the forms and determining how the letters are spaced. Of course technologically the crafting is much easier and faster, because it's all digital, but it's still an arduous process that changes with every project. For example, type for running text, called text faces, is designed differently from type that is used for headlines, billboards, titles, etc.—what is called “display' type.” After determining the needs, you assess a style appropriate to the medium. Type has personality, from classic to modern to deranged to whimsical, and there are small considerations that affect all these things, and perhaps more importantly, historical precedent that tell you what's “right'” and “wrong.”

Once that has been established, there's lots of sketching of “control” characters, often H, D, O, V, n, p, o, v, as those letters have shapes that will help you flesh out prototype characters—basically,HAMBURGEFONTSIV” in both upper and lower-case. You determine vertical versus horizontal versus diagonal versus round strokes, and how those come together to form the letters. You also determine the thickness of the thick parts and the thinness of the thin parts. This step could literally take years, depending on what you're trying to achieve. All along you're also determining the space around the letters, how the whole thing scales, how it will work bold and in italics.

I know your husband is a silversmith and jewelry designer. Do you feed off or find inspiration in his work?

My husband and I have a good creative dynamic while staying in our own corners, so to speak. He's learned a lot about letters from having to listen to me for the past seven years, and I've learned a lot about his process. Three-dimensional thinking totally eludes me, so watching him work is very impressive to me. The things I take away from watching his craft are more to do with seeing what inspires him. He has a deep appreciation for objects, particularly those with both incredible function and ornate aesthetic, and his attention span for learning about those things is incredible. He's also left-handed, and I don't know if you've ever considered this but lefties seem to approach things in an entirely different way. There's something both analytical and 'left-field' about how he thinks; I'm sure there's a part of that that plays into his dexterity. I had two left-handed grandfathers and they were both the same way—tinkering with things, taking the telephone apart to see how it works, an attention to detail, and a patience for doing something the right way. I'm much hastier than that, and need instant gratification in order to keep going through my own process.

Do you share a creative dynamic?

When we show each other our work, we definitely push each other. I think because we look at things differently, it's helpful to see other perspectives. Though of course we can also get defensive and dismiss each other's opinions too, and that's fine as well! We often do little joint drawings—I'll start with a piece, he'll do a second, I'll add to it, and so on. They usually just end up being funny or inside-jokes, but it is a nice way to get the creative energy flowing and to see how our drawing styles can compliment each other. I make very clean and confident lines; his are sketchier but then add a level of detail I wouldn't consider. He’s been learning hand engraving on the side, and this is where our two creative worlds are starting to collide because he is concentrating on the formation of letters in copperplate. I'm sure that living with me has given him an advantage in some respects because I've shown him how to look at letterforms. He also makes a lot of wedding rings, and I design custom wedding invitations, so we're both adept at working with the “engaged set.” There are often pre-wedding meetings at our house, and we use our own rings and invitations as examples all the time, which is kind of funny.

Makin' It is the work of journalist Brady Welch and illustrator Skyler Swezy, the team behind YrDoingAGreatJob.com.

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