The idea that the shapes of a typeface can be associated with feelings, objects and artistic movements is certainly not new. But as a major component in communicating ideas and information, their expressionist possibilities often take a back seat to legibility. Among the few graphic designers to flip this hierarchy is Leah Maldonado, a Portland-based graphic designer whose is working in the same vein as Lucas Descroix, Fatih Hardal’s FH Fraktur, Gut Magazine’s anti-slick titling and Kenneth Vanoverbeke’s expressionist experiments. Exploring this idea, Leah has created nine free typefaces for her project Glyphworld.
In the project, each typeface is meant to reflect an emotional connection to our environment, set in a mythical alternate font-world with nine landscapes that these typefaces are named after: Forest, Meadow, Flower, Mountain, Airland, Animal Soul, Glacier, Desert and Wasteland. “The typefaces correspond to their namesake landscape the way certain sounds can correspond to genres of music, or how articles of clothing might correspond to social tropes,” Leah tells It’s Nice That. “Legibility isn’t always a goal, use cases don’t really matter and monetary return doesn’t dictate design choices,” she adds, talking about the movement that she calls expressionist type design. “Glyphworld is my contribution to this movement.”
This project seems like a culmination of Leah’s many design interests, mostly encountered in daily life within the physical or digital vernacular. Growing up on Portland’s 82nd Avenue, a street situated far from downtown’s famed hipster culture, Leah encountered what you’d expect on those long American roads: car dealerships, video poker spots, minimarts, tyre centres and pan-Asian buffets. “It was a people’s street, totally immune to neoliberal aesthetics and bourgeois cafes,” Leah says. In these shops, the owners act as their own graphic designers, squishing letters together instead of picking condensed fonts or picking the wildest options on Dafont. “These choices are like a slang, like a language that’s just easier to speak,” she says.
Another stream of influence was grotesque digital aesthetics – deep fried memes, pyramid scheme sites and clickbait images. “I think clickbait is totally bizarre and I love the disgusting images that get you to click on a listicle,” she says. “What shapes make us feel smart? What does a letter look like shaped as greed? It’s similar to clickbait – ‘typebait’. Letters can elicit emotional responses independent of their message.” Another meme-culture classic, the alignment chart, features prominently in Glyphworld. “I thought it was interesting that so many people could relate to these categories and agree placements within them,” she says. “Like most memes it’s a way to visually show a shared experience, or a shared feeling.”
As a result, she used three alignment charts for Glyphworld: one to categorise the natural world into these areas, one to rework this natural world into shapes and letterforms, and a final one that changed the description of these categories. “Good and evil” turn to “life and death”, “lawful and chaotic” turn into “eternal and ephemeral” and “neutral” to “accepted”. From this, the fonts emerge. Airland, the first, is meant to be an invisible typeface, combining system default fonts whose existence as a letterform goes unnoticed. “The cap height, x-height and weight of Airland are shared across the entire Glyphworld family,” she says. Forest, the middle point between semi-pixellated Mountain and the curved Meadow, takes its inspiration from the transition of lush meadows that turn into thinning forests at the mountain top of Washington’s Mount Adams. “There is a sense of infinity that you feel when you look into a forest, maybe that comes from a multitude of things to focus on,” Leah says.
“Glacier is an abstracted blackletter with serifs that adhere to a rotated axis,” she says. “In nature, glaciers feel awe-inspiring, they’re sublime. There is a sense of respect that you feel towards a glacier and it comes from our fear of them.” The rest of the typefaces take on a similar relationship between shape and nature: Flower was designed to look like a hand-crafted cross stitch, Animal Soul’s ambiguity and chaotic existence is expressed through Bezier curves, the regal and dry Desert was informed by uncial calligraphy and Wasteland is “based on finding plastic or man-made objects in nature spaces”, created to be the least legible font.
Leah has turned this project into an exhibition, showing analogous textures and items that correspond to the various natural worlds she’s trying to express. With a graduation date on 9 December and currently working at Future Fonts, she seems ready to face the future. “Glyphworld is free to download because I want more people to participate in something unique and changing in the type world,” she says. “Whatever I do post-grad, I hope it involves creating narratives – I’d like to be a ‘writer who draws’.” One question remains of course: What will a typeface for Leah’s future landscape look like?
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