“Design can be a powerful tool for the creation of radical content”: Genderfail builds typefaces from hand-drawn protest posters
Compelled by the lack of typography available from queer, trans and non-binary artists and designers, founder Be Oakley wants to embed radical histories within design.
- Olivia Hingley
- 11 July 2022
Genderfail is a project devised and run by writer and facilitator Be Oakley with the primary aim of publishing the work of queer, trans and non-binary artists writers and curators. Started in 2015, Be describes the importance of such a venture: “Publishing is personal, it is a means of livelihood and a tool for the dissemination of imperfect but urgent content”. The type design branch of the project arose in 2018, when Be was in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University. Its first visual impetus was the poster “Mother Nature is a Lesbian”, as Be explains that upon seeing it they were “so struck by the message and the beautiful vernacular handwriting.” Prior to this moment, Be attests to having “no knowledge” of type design, but an understanding of how “powerful” it had the potential to be.
To create the typefaces, Be’s process begins with a healthy dose of research, usually, a lot of googling of protest events which then leads them to “a very imperfect search engine”. Sometimes, however, Be has the chance to use more efficient sources, and for their recent Seize Control of the FDA font they gathered information from the ACT UP oral history project. After researching, Be will then use photographic documentation from the protest event/s and then in Photoshop, edit out and crop each letter they are using. “Once the letters are cleaned and cropped from the images I bring each letter into illustrator”, they explain, “in illustrator I do a simple live trace and tinker with the controls to get the resulting vector to look as close as possible to the original photo.” Then, after the vendor is created, Be copies and pastes each letter into the intuitive type design program Glyphs Mini. Here, Be finds it important to stress that they are not a type designer – “the way I turn photo documentation into a useable open source typeface may not be typical to the way ‘skilled’ type designers work” – but their use of such media and resources proves how powerful and fruitful it can be when the right tools are put into the hands of people with radical intentions.
One of the main driving factors for the project for Be was the massive lack of typography available from queer, trans and non-binary artists and designers. “Design can be a powerful tool for the creation of radical content rather than just a corporate tool for exploitation,” Be says. “Every time one of my fonts is used in a project the artist/designer is confronted with the political event for which the typeset was created. The histories of queer, trans, non-binary and QTBIPOC protest are contained within each font and can’t really be removed from its use.” Moreover, for the open source types, Be has clear guidelines for use. On the Genderfail website an informal paragraph states: “These fonts may be used for non-commercial uses by all. Queer, trans and non-binary folks, Black and Indigenous folks may use these fonts for commercial uses, for personal or pro-profit projects, non-profit organisations or mutual aid fundraisers. If you are a large for-profit business or corporation don’t you fucking dare download or use these fonts.”
Such design projects are as integral as ever, and Be has a number of avenues they’re looking to take the project down. Currently, Be is working on the second edition of Genderfail’s Anthology of Queer Typography Vol. 1 which included eight works based on its protest fonts and Paul Soulelli’s What is Queer Typography?. A future dream for Be is also to create a residency programme where they invite non-binary and trans artists and designers to create typesets. But, in the more recent future, Be hopes for Genderfail’s next font to focus on protests in support of safe, legal and free abortion access inspired by the work of abortion access groups like the group Thank God for Abortion, founded by Viva Ruiz. “The United States Supreme Court recently announced the decision of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, a case that overturned the constitutional right to abortion and brought the enforcement of Christian fascism back to the States,” Be details. “I am horrified by this attack on the constitutional rights of privacy to all people with uteruses who will be denied the right to decide their own health care.”
Genderfail: Mother Nature is a Lesbian Font (Copyright © Genderfail, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in illustration, photography, ceramic design and platforming creativity from the north of England.