A long line of custom classics
Roger Black Collection spotlights typefaces that began life as custom commissions by the celebrated art director and typographic consultant. On the occasion of the collection’s launch, Yves Peters had a freewheeling conversation with Black, who cofounded Font Bureau and is a member of the board at Type Network.
Roger Black considers himself lucky to have inherited creative genes from both his parents in equal measure. His mother was an avid reader who worked for H.L. Mencken as a production assistant at the American Mercury in the 1920s. His father taught him architectural lettering at an early age. “When I got to school, my teacher said: ‘That’s not the way you do it.’” Back then, schools favored the Palmer Method, a simplified form of Spencerian script. Black challenged his teacher, telling her there were many ways to draw letters: the letters on street signs were different from the letters on the sides of stores, which in turn were different from the letters in books. Black was already aware of the many forms characters can take. Inspired by his mother, Black started making his own magazine at the tender age of six. Printed in twenty copies on a Ditto machine in his father’s architectural office, it was distributed among the younger Black’s friends and classmates. He called it My Fun Reader to set it apart from My Weekly Reader, the “really boring” newspaper handed out in American elementary schools. Thus, he gained experience creating publications in grade school, an extracurricular activity he pursued in prep school and later in college. Along the way, he realized that designing was much more fun for him than writing or editing. When Black was ready to enter the workforce, publication designers were few and far between. But because of a sudden demand for such roles prompted by the success of Rolling Stone and New York, Black landed a job as an art director of a weekly called LA at only twenty-three, even though he had the barest of portfolios. “I hired a staff of five people and never looked back.” Black believes that if you stay on a project for too long, it can get stale, which is why he says magazine designers should regularly move on and try something new: “Term limits!” That doesn’t mean you should ignore what came before, though. “As you approach a new project,” he said, “you want to respect where it came from and see if you can extend it without alienating loyal readers.” This restlessness pushed Black to keep changing; he jumped from LA to Rolling Stone to New West to New York and, after a year of freelancing, to the New York Times. After that, he redesigned Newsweek, where he remained for a couple of years. Once Black realized he had turned into more of a consultant than an art director, he switched to consulting full-time, and now works for a wide variety of clients. “I’m not a staff guy,” he noted. I asked him how a consultant reconciles the goals of the makers of publications with their readers’ wishes. “The number-one job of graphic designers is to make things easy to read, and to give some sense of pleasure about it,” he said. According to Black, the physical aspects of a book, magazine, or website should fade into the background, making way for what essentially becomes pure communication between writer and reader. This relationship can be very intimate, and designers need to respect that. “Designers who think it’s art—who think it’s all about self-expression—can get in trouble, because that’s the last thing it is,” he said. It’s their responsibility to bring readers’ needs to the attention of the publisher and to use that as a starting point for the (re)design. Black acknowledges, though, that some designers go beyond the basic needs of communication—readable text and intelligible images—and become artists. “Neville Brody, who just joined Type Network, is a good example of that. His magazines look so amazing that sometimes you don’t care what they say. But most of us can’t pull that off.” Designing a publication—whether print or digital—involves constructing a unique set of typographic styles, specifications that define the look and feel of every text element. The goals are to make it work, and to make it stand out. “We call it the gutter test,” said Black. “You see a little torn sheet of the magazine or newspaper lying in the street when you walk by, and you immediately recognize where it comes from.” Ideally, designers want to do more than make a typographic palette simply pass the gutter test. How do you make it look different? How do you make it look special? For Premiere, Brazilian designer Mariana Ochs built a strong identity using Eldorado and Titling Gothic, but she gave the magazine extra personality with inverted pyramids, where each successive line was a little shorter than the previous one. “It was a real conceit,” Black recalled. “The editors initially balked at the idea, until we showed them how to work around it, and it ended up creating a signature look.” When clients choose to commission custom type instead of licensing off-the-shelf commercial typefaces, it usually comes down to budget, Black explained, as illustrated by the story of Apres, originally a custom font family that David Berlow designed for Palm. Around the time Apple announced the iPhone, Black was brought in as a design consultant by Palm’s CEO, Jon Rubenstein. Palm’s brand designer, Peter Skillman, now at Microsoft, had the vision that a UI font in a device like a smartphone could be a brand font. Suffering from sticker shock at the price of licensing an existing typeface from a big company, Skillman engaged Black to come up with a plan for an original design that could serve as Palm’s brand for UI, packaging, and advertising—at half the price of licensing a great, but overly familiar, family. The eponymous design that Jim Parkinson created in-house for Rolling Stone was Black’s first custom commission. Publisher Jann Wenner wanted his own typeface. He knew that Times New Roman was originally designed by Stanley Morison as a custom face for the Times, just as Century was initially drawn by Morris Fuller Benton for the Century Magazine. He wanted to be part of a similar lineage. Before the Great Depression, it was common for printers and publishers to have their own types. Black honored this tradition, most often by commissioning revivals, tailoring classic typefaces to suit the publications they appeared in, only partly because they had not yet been digitized. Black’s reasoning was, and still is, that “if a fifty-year-old typeface looks good today, chances are it will last another six months.” Some wonderful, enduring typefaces have deep historical roots and therefore possess an undeniable momentum. Adapting those designs to current technologies practically guarantees success. When a potential client has a tight budget but want an original typeface that isn’t a revival, one way they can go about it is to contact their favorite type designer and ask them if they have anything in their “bottom drawer”—an unfinished project that can be developed and expanded to match the client’s specifications, as was Cyrus Highsmith’s Amira for Natural Health magazine. How do these successful custom type families become available to the public as retail fonts? It all boils down to which licensing plan the client chooses. Full buyouts are expensive. It may be better for the budget to get an exclusive for a period of time or for a particular market. There are plenty of examples of new custom typefaces that become very popular—and widely imitated. So it makes sense to limit the exclusivity period as well. The foundry will substantially lower the price of a license if they know that eventually the design will become part of their library. And the client still gets full global, permanent rights. Alternatively, if a custom font does not immediately catch on, the client will have spent a lot of extra money. Black recommends one or two years of exclusivity as the most pragmatic option. That way, the foundry can substantially lower the price. Throughout his career, Black has commissioned many remarkable custom type families. Instead of being purely speculative designs, they were made for a specific purpose. Roger Black Collection typefaces have shaped many acclaimed publications and brands. They have a proven track record. If you’re thinking about commissioning your own custom face, get in touch. We’ll pair you with some of the best type designers in the business and, together, we’ll build a unique and successful project. As a bonus, we’ll throw in a consultation with Roger Black, who, as part of the Type Network team, will show you how your new fonts can have the quality and endurance of this collection. Bald Condensed, né Yves Peters, is a Belgian-based rock drummer known for his astute observations on the impact of letterforms in the contemporary culture-sphere. A prolific writer on typography, he has a singular knack for identifying the most obscure typefaces known to humankind.