Edel Rodriguez and Sharp Type on combining creativity and purpose
In our last Nicer Tuesdays Online (for now) we hear from two delectable speakers: Edel Rodriguez, the doyen of magazine-cover design, and type-foundry royalty Sharp Type.
At September’s Nicer Tuesdays, we wrapped up the last of our online talks (for now), as we prepare to take Nicer Tuesdays back to its physical format at London’s Oval Space in October. In this last-of-its-kind hurrah, the creative talks did not disappoint, as we welcomed two It’s Nice That favourites – Edel Rodriguez and Sharp Type – to the online stage. Both dialling in the from US, the revered illustrator and type foundry provided an exclusive insight into their respective practices. In two Q&As with our editor-in-chief Matt Alagiah, we were treated to fascinating discussions on political satire, the power of a magazine cover, the accessibility of art, typeface licensing, multilingual type design and an industry-pushing scholarship making space for women of colour type designers in the industry.
As this month’s Nicer Tuesdays looked into ‘creativity with a purpose’, we couldn’t think of two more apt speakers to tackle the subject at hand. The one and only Edel Rodriguez (who you might remember from the cover of Printed Pages SS18) is no stranger to the subject. Having moved to the US from Cuba at eight years old, the artist cut his teeth as an art director of Time magazine, where he worked for 14 years. Over the years, he’s amassed a whopping 150 magazine cover designs, many of which are for esteemed publications such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Der Spiegel and, of course, Time. We also heard from the New York-based Sharp Type – founded by Chantra Malee and Lucas Sharp – the foundry behind typographic hits such as Beatrice, Centra, Ogg, Sharp Type and Sharp Sans, just to name a few. After taking us through its biggest hits to date, the pair gave us the scoop on the Malee Scholarship, the scholarship founded by Chantra in 2015, which awards $6,000 annually to an emerging woman of colour in type design.
Edel Rodriguez: Cover for Der Spiegel (Copyright © Edel Rodriguez, 2020)
Sharp Type: Sharp Grotesk in use (Copyright © Sharp Type, 2020)
Do you have to pay attention to trends as a type designer?
Lucas and Chantra dialled in from California and Rhode Island respectively. As the duo got some down time from the hustle and bustle of New York, they got stuck into what sets Sharp Type apart from its peers. In part, it’s the way the type foundry integrates its work with the wider landscape to both please clients and establish an original aesthetic strategy. Building its work collaboratively, the foundry explains how it sees its products as “an intergenerational dialogue”. Delving into the technical particulars of this matter, Lucas (the man behind the type construction) took us through the type design process and how he keeps the zeitgeist in mind when releasing a typeface or font. He touched on that all-important topic of trends, saying: “I think trends are inescapable, type design is so much about fashion forecasting because you spend years and years working on something.”
In the in-depth Q&A, Chantra also took the Nicer Tuesdays audience through the role of CEO at Sharp Type. She explained the impetus behind the foundry’s community-based model and how the business is managed with this in mind. “Running a type foundry is an interesting challenge because it’s the meeting of two previously independent industries” she said. Explaining how the foundry likes to remind its designers that “they are artists” which means “they’re not selling their font” but rather “selling the right to use it,” Chantra explained how they navigate the tricky universe of font licensing. Sharp Type, she explained, tries to break down the academic jargon and make it “as accessible as possible” or otherwise to “find interesting ways of communicating that”.
Taking us through a few projects in particular including Beatrice and its specific niche in the aesthetic ecosystem, as well as a custom font for the biggest liberal arts university in the country, Chantra then went on to talk about the Malee Scholarship and how it started. She struggled to find a diverse community during her childhood and only properly discovered this when she moved to New York. The scholarship therefore aims to guide young female type designers and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in a white and male-dominated industry. To wrap up their Q&A, the founders hinted at some exciting new projects on the horizon, including multiple collaborations involving non-Latin writing systems which will see the foundry working with a range of native speakers on writing systems such as Hirgana and Hangul.
Finally, Chantra and Lucas answered a few questions from the audience. One asked: “What are the key factors to consider when type design forecasting?” to which Lucas replied that the most essential things to do are “keeping an ear to the ground” and “looking to the past”. Offering up to the audience a range of handy tips and tricks for any budding type designers out there, he ended the talk by saying: “The best typefaces are the ones when you can tell the person had a lot of fun drawing it.”
How to communicate a powerful message through a magazine cover
You’ll be hard pressed to find someone better suited to talk about the power of a magazine cover than Edel Rodriguez. Headlining September’s Nicer Tuesdays, he reflected on his impressive career to date and how he went from a painting student to an artful visual communicator using pared-back illustration that strips down a message to its core. During his insightful talk, Edel took us through the philosophy behind what makes a good cover, noting that the viewing public is the final arbiter of quality: “A cover is never quite finished until it’s published. Once it’s published, that’s when it counts.”
Edel explained how something as seemingly simple as a magazine cover can be an influential mode of communication. He described how being a painter has helped him to sharpen this skill and how trying out lots of different things can also hone the trade. Working in magazines allowed Edel to grasp the impact of imagery, something that’s been “humbling to learn as an artist,” he said. Taking us through his development as an artist and its ever-shifting purpose, it hasn’t been the smoothest of journeys: “It’s very slow,” he pointed out, “you achieve little wins.” That being said, the illustrator admits he got lucky along the way, telling the audience how he got his big break when an art director for The New Yorker gave him a chance. Since then, Edel estimates he’s done around 400-500 illustrations for the prestigious publication; a mark that’s provided him with international credibility and allowed him to exhibit all round the world and work with publishers across continents.
Most of all, what Edel loves most about the magazine is that it is for everyone, not just for high brow circles who tend to engage mainly with fine art. A magazine cover isn’t just about the publication, it’s a public space which engages with all different kinds of people as they pass it on newsstands, in shops, read on public transport and so on. By understanding this potency, Edel was determined to use the magazine cover to say something bold and critical during Trump’s time as president. As Edel told Matt how he felt about the Trump years and about his worries that democracy and immigrant rights were at stake, he dived into his creative process, explaining how he put together these political covers. Edel also discussed his process of clarifying an artwork stylistically and why he makes certain choices in aid of efficiency. “Ask yourself why something is there,” he said. “There should be a purpose to what’s in a picture.”
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In October, Nicer Tuesdays will be returning to an in-person physical event held at Oval Space in East London. We’ll be launching a new virtual event soon, though, so please watch this space.