“My approach to type design is based in my background in art. I’m a drawer. I carry a sketchbook almost everywhere I go. I draw in it almost everyday.” -Cyrus Highsmith
From Entertainment Weekly to the Wall Street Journal, Cyrus Highsmith’s font designs are making headlines. With cool names like Scout, Antenna and Gasket, he takes his inspiration from everywhere including plants. Let’s explore engineering and technology in typography creation as Cyrus shares the how and why of font design.
“Unfortunately, there weren’t any classes at my school about type design. I had to teach myself. At the time, I was frustrated, but looking back, I see it was a gift. I had the space to experiment and figure things out for myself. It made me a better type designer in the long run.”
Raising Nerd : Tell us what a day in the life of a font designer looks like.
Cyrus Highsmith: I mostly work at home. I get up early so I can have a couple of hours of uninterrupted time to myself for drawing and thinking. In the afternoon, I catch up on email and do the work I don’t want to do—usually the more tedious parts of the design process. A couple of days a week I go to office to meet with my two co-workers who are also designers. We show each other what we have been working on, make a plan for what to do next, and help each other figure things we are stuck on.
I also do illustration, printmaking, make children’s books, teach, and write. My days can vary a lot depending on the kind of project I’m working on.
RN: How did you become a font designer?
Cyrus Highsmith: I was studying graphic design and to make the typography I was imagining I had to make my own letters and typefaces. It was a natural part of my process. Soon making the type quickly became more interesting to me than making things with type.
Unfortunately, there weren’t any classes at my school about type design. I had to teach myself. At the time, I was frustrated, but looking back, I see it was a gift. I had the space to experiment and figure things out for myself. It made me a better type designer in the long run. Of course, I sought out people who could help me along the way and I was lucky to get some good advice that kept me going in the right direction.
RN: How does engineering or technology influence the art of your design?
Cyrus Highsmith: First, typefaces are sort of like little machines for making lines of text. I draw the letters to be assembled in any combination. It’s a system of parts.
Second, the process of making a typeface involves a lot of repetitive and predictable tasks. I try to automate those as much as possible by making tools to do them for me. I’m not a very advanced programmer but I know enough write Python scripts to do most of the stuff I need to get done.
Finally, typefaces are software. They have to work in all sorts of different applications and operating systems and web browsers. All of those things are constantly changing, and this sometimes leads to some technical challenges and debugging. This is my least favorite part of my job.
RN: As a kid, what did you aspire to do for a career?
Cyrus Highsmith: I wanted to be an artist. I couldn’t choose what kind. Just something that involved drawing or painting somehow.
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe that failure is an important part of finding success. Tell us about how you had to handle failure or frustration in you life or career and how you managed through it.
Cyrus Highsmith: Typefaces are full of so many details. You can never make them perfect. There are just too many moving parts to keep track of. In addition, you can never predict all the different ways it might be used. If you try, you will never finish it. In this sense, I have had to learn when something is good enough and how to realistically define the goals of the project. And I have had to learn to keep calm and have an open mind, so I can learn from my mistakes.
RN: If there was one thing you could re-design what would it be?
Cyrus Highsmith: Lately I really like numbers. I love the utilitarian ones used on things like the bottom edges of bank checks or designs that get stamped into metal to make license plates. That would be really fun to make—a new license plate typeface. The one we use now is fine but why not?
RN: What advise would you give to kids looking to get into your field?
Cyrus Highsmith: My approach to type design is based in my background in art. I’m a drawer. I carry a sketchbook almost everywhere I go. I draw in it almost everyday. I think this has been the biggest single practice that has affected my career. So that’s my advice—draw in a sketchbook everyday. It doesn’t matter what or how. Just draw.
However, typography intersects with so many different fields. There are many ways to enter into it—my colleagues have studied things like linguistics, calligraphy, computer science, history, writing, graphic design, and visual psychology, before they got into type design.
RN: Lastly, if you could have dinner with any two people, past, present, future or fiction, who would it be, why, and what would be the topic of discussion?
Cyrus Highsmith: I’d have dinner with my wife and daughter. We’d talk about our day, our plans for tomorrow, and try to make each other laugh.
Enjoy our focus on Men in the Arts as we share the diverse stories and perspectives of some incredibly talented artists, designers, photographers/videographers, and musicians whose creative careers all have been influenced in some way(s) by the STEM disciplines. We hope you and your Nerds will find inspiration and encouragement through the eyes of these artists.
This is our Nerd series on Men in the Arts!