Created to accompany a MoMA PS1 exhibition of the same name, Redaction is a typeface that seeks to capture the history and problems of the US criminal justice system. It was created by designer Forest Young and MCKL foundry’s Jeremy Mickel to accompany the show by artist and filmmaker Titus Kaphar poet and attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts, which presents 30 new prints exploring the failings of state and federal court systems.
Their poetry and portraits draw on source material from lawsuits filed by the Civil Rights Corps on behalf of people flung into prison, despite never having been tried or convicted, because of an inability to pay court fines and fees. Using redaction as a tool to make verse out of complex legalese, the artists aim to reclaim the stories of people who have been impacted by the US’s policy of mass incarceration.
Given the important subject matter, Titus wanted to use a typeface that fitted the message of the work, and called on former Yale classmate Forest (who then brought Jeremy onboard) for the task. “The typographic dimension that Titus and I discussed loosely referenced a conversation we had had almost 15 years prior in a studio critique at Yale,” says Forest. “I had mentioned that the typeface he was incorporating into his painting was designed by Hermann Zapf, type designer extraordinaire but also a former Nazi soldier and cartographer. Was this choice intentional? I believe that language is always experienced through a filter of some kind, which in itself is a language, so a typeface is a prism of particular distortion and expression. A bespoke typeface would allow us to express the particular ethos of the show – a conscious defamiliarising of the everyday.”
Conducting exhaustive field research, Forest and Jeremy looked at how to echo the history of the court system in the typeface. “Forest and I wanted to learn as much as we could about the history of legal typography and the practice of redaction (especially apt in the days after the Mueller report was released),” says Jeremy. “We found that there were many different kinds of redaction: straightforward black boxes, incomplete redactions, white boxes which seemingly invite the reader to complete the phrase like mad-libs, and hand-scrawled notations crossing out text. We also noted that many documents contained traces of their history as they passed through the legal system, through evidence like fax machine bitmapping and photocopier distortion.”
As a Typeface, Redaction is meant to feel familiar, echoing Times New Roman and New Century Schoolbook (the typefaces of legal documents in the United States), but with elements abstracted and heightened. Jeremy says, “We saw these references as an opportunity – to make a design which simultaneously evoked the authority and nondescript functionality of these fonts, while also accepting the challenge to make something new.”
The pair also drew on the US Presidential Seal, which depicts an eagle clasping an arrow and an olive branch. As Jeremy explains, “We saw this as a metaphor for the harsh dichotomy of cruelty and kindness in the legal system, and we referenced this in the font by exaggerating thin strokes until they were razor sharp, and making ball terminals supple and generous.” Redaction comes in regular, bold and italic styles and in bitmap versions that range from subtly analogue through to the near-illegible. Forest adds, “From the source documents we observed that degradation had a form of narrative; the number of hands that touched the document, or the effort applied to concealing. The final typeface anticipates degradation, and embraces it in the font family.”
As well as being used in the artworks and the exhibition graphics, the typeface is available to download for free – “a rarity in the type world”, as Forest notes. It was recently used for a gallery show at MICA showcasing designers of colour and another designer even got a tattoo of Redaction’s numbers on his forearm. For Forest, this merely represents the beginning of its impact, too. “Our collective hopes are that we can continue the momentum of the project – scaling the ethos of raising awareness of cash bail injustices and providing the tools to combat them, be they the sublime works of [Titus] Kaphar and [Reginald Dwane] Betts or new artefacts created by those engaged in the project and who downloaded the typeface.”