Typography is the root of graphic design – we should use it to be vocal
Tré Seals, the founder of diversity driven foundry Vocal Type, details how a broader design industry can only lead to a more inclusive field for creativity.
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I have always been cautious about telling my story. I remember back in college there was a debate among my classmates about whether I should tell the entire story of how I got into design. Half of the class feared that employers would think that I was trying to gain sympathy, while the other half saw it as a strength.
A lot has happened since then, but it goes something like this. My journey began at the age of four. It started with a headache, followed by excessive blinking, and then the headaches became paralysing. I had a brain tumour. I was born with it and as I grew it grew with me, until it became the size of a golf ball.
Through that ordeal, drawing and writing became my only means of working through the pain. When the tumour was gone, I needed a way to express what I was feeling, so drawing and writing became my only means of doing that as well. I’d draw to my heart’s content and when tired I’d practice writing in cursive until my handwriting looked like the sample sheets.
Four years later, just when I was becoming a real kid again, I was diagnosed with a residual brain tumour. That’s when everything changed. The way I thought about everything was different. Not like “I think we should see someone about this,” but more a maturity type of different. Instead of drawing pictures of skateboarders and basketball players, I was drawing pictures of Venus De Milo, David, Greek columns, and a childhood I could never get back.
Beyond just drawing, a lot was happening at the time. I experienced racism for the first time in the third grade; I started learning more about Black history, which made racism more confusing. All of this made me more observant. It made me want to understand people more. Inspired by my parents, I started my first business in the fifth grade. While I was supposed to be selling items at the school store, I convinced kids to have me graffiti their names on an index card for $3 – I had a sales sheet and everything.
This experience led me to realise that if I could make other people happy, by doing what makes me happy, then that’s what I need to be doing for the rest of my life. From middle school through college, I designed and sold tattoos, bead and Lego jewellery, T-shirts, posters, and more. I even ran the comics section of the school paper. I also started a three-year-long personal project during my senior year of high school where, even though I didn’t know anything about type design, I started drawing what would become the basis for my first typeface Unveil released in 2013.
The excitement soon died down. My passion became branding, but with an emphasis on typography, encouraged by a boss at an internship who pushed me to work on as many type projects as possible. Branding remained my passion, my specialty, but the education I received on that internship lit a spark in me. A few months later, while in my senior year of college, I made a pact with myself that by the time I was 25, I would become an internationally respected designer.
To make that pact a reality, I accepted a full-time position at a staffing agency where I had the opportunity to contract eight or nine companies over two years. I learned a lot about what kind of designer I wanted to be and the clients I wanted to work with. I worked for some ad agencies with bad morals and worse clients. I worked for a real estate tech company with whom I branded dozens of agents, which I enjoyed. I even worked on the rebrand of a Jewish community centre, which was amazing.
However, in March 2016, while aimlessly scrolling for fonts while crafting another identity for another real estate agency, I just became really bored. Everything I saw, no matter how beautiful, all just looked the same. You could argue it’s because we are obsessed with grids and perfection, but the truth is there was no culture, no character – only monotony and stereotypes. While design is my passion, I started wondering if I had picked the wrong career.
Simultaneously, soon after this experience I read Dr. Cheryl Holmes-Miller’s 1987 thesis Black Designers Missing In Action. It was one of the first times anyone mentioned the idea of diversity in design, summarising that while most industries are white male-dominated, if our job is to communicate an idea to Black and Brown communities, Black and Brown creatives need a seat at the table. It’s important to me to take this a step further and say the same for indigenous communities, LGBTQ communities, religious communities, and all those who are underrepresented. Everyone needs to have a seat at the table. The world is getting more and more diverse, and our industry needs to catch up with it.
Then Holmes-Miller released a sequel a few weeks later, Black Designers: Still Missing In Action, which passed the torch to the next generation of Black designers. It got me thinking, if it’s our job as designers to solve problems, should we not try to solve those affecting our industry, before we can effectively help those of our clients? I decided to find a way to increase diversity in the design industry. I knew I couldn’t just change the demographics or the education system. Looking back on my life, I thought about the days of practicing my penmanship, graffitiing people’s names on index cards, designing tattoos, and making Unveil; starting a font foundry just made sense.
But in thinking about diversity I also had to think about my racial experiences and the first time I encountered racism, bigotry and ignorance in the workplace. The fear from four cops stopping me in Minneapolis. The first time I was called the “N-WORD.” The first time I experienced racism in the third grade. But beyond my negative racial experiences, I also had to think about my positive racial experiences. Like the first time I learned about Dr. King, Eva Peron, Bayard Rustin, Ruben Salazar, Dolores Huerta, and the pride I felt in learning Black and Brown History. I realised then that typography can be more than a design tool; it can be a tool for education and for sharing stories, like the one I’m telling you right now. These stories are what connect us. I developed the idea for Vocal Type, a font foundry which would introduce a piece of minority culture into the root of any good piece of graphic design: typography.
I could end the story there and say that the rest is history, but it wouldn’t be the full story. Vocal Type didn’t come to be overnight. People told me I didn’t know enough about diversity and inclusion to start coming up with solutions, but that just fueled me even more. It fueled me to work hard, creating most of the work on the site in the first year and a half, while also building my brand consultancy and renovating a stable built by my great-great-great-grandfather in 1911 as a studio – all the while trying out other ideas for niche design companies, in case this one didn’t work.
Towards 2019 I began to enjoy type design way more than branding, convincing clients to commission custom typefaces for little to nothing just so I could work with type. I started envisioning a day when Vocal would be my only focus. I didn’t see this happening for years to come.
But when George Floyd was murdered by the police, everything changed. It wasn’t the first time police killed an unarmed Black man. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard an unarmed Black man scream, “I Can’t Breathe.” But when I saw that video, and I listened to him plead for his dead mother, I saw my face on his body the entire time. All I could think about is what if that were me? What if that time I interned in Minneapolis ended differently when four cops stopped me as I was walking down the street? What if my fear forced me to do something other than smile and nod when on the inside I was trembling? And all they wanted to know was where I had got my T-shirt.
I shut down my brand consultancy a few weeks later to focus solely on Vocal. The next thing I knew, it was on every “Support Black Design” list; I went from 3,000 to 12,000 followers in a month; I started receiving emails from agencies and companies I could only have dreamed of working with asking me to do work with them. Yet there was this burning feeling in the back of my head that every opportunity that comes my way is not because of my talent, but because of George. And I am ashamed that the latter is true.
At the same time, this is what it took for me to realise precisely how vital Vocal is in the grand scheme of things. Since George’s murder, Martin, Bayard, and Marsha (the fonts) have become a part of the Black Lives Matter Movement: being used for murals, protest signs, and exhibitions from Australia to Germany, England to New York, California to Brazil, and beyond.
Fonts like Eva and Carrie have been used for everything from brand identities for pasta shops and galleries to campaigns for men’s tailor shops, and more. This, to me, reinforces the primary mission of Vocal Type – to diversify design. By using a font inspired by one culture for a project that otherwise has no relation opens up this opportunity for the stories and heritage of an underrepresented culture to be seen and understood by an audience that it otherwise would never come into contact with. It’s proof that our thoughts become words, and these words hold power to become actions when designed.
I don’t believe this has been explored much, but as a designer, I think this is what inclusion looks like. In my mind, the only thing needed to be inclusive is understanding. All you have to do is take an interest in the lives of people who don’t look like you, who don’t speak like you, who aren’t from where you’re from, who don’t share your history, who don’t celebrate like you, who don’t love how you love. Just take a moment to understand. I hope you understand.