Dave Crossland on Crafting Type and making a difference

Is there such a thing as a roadshow for free graphic design software? In a way, there is: a “Crafting Type” workshop combines an introduction to type design with basics of using FontForge and Inkscape.

Crafting Type started last year from an intro type design workshops in Edmonton, Canada, during the summer of 2012, then moved to Europe, and is now back to Northern America.

One of Crafting Type’s latest stops was in Kyiv and Lviv, in December 2012. Alexei Vanyashin recently posted a detailed report in English on the Kyiv session. I’ve been meaning to talk to Crafting Type team for a while now, and this triggered a short interview with Dave Crossland, one of the initiators of this project.

Origin of specimens

Dave, there is a striking similarity between Crafting Type and the traveling design workshops by Constant, with an exception of food cooking :) How much does CT inherit from Constant?

The OSP group at Constant are very inspirational for me. You’ll remember they did a type design workshop with FontForge at LGM in Poland some years ago, and invited me to help instruct there.

Dave at the workshop in Kyiv

Then for LGM in Brussels (2010) I worked with Ludi and Seb and Pierre on an “ABCs” collaborative sketching workshop, which was the basis for the tonne of type sketching workshops I did in 2011, mostly in Latin America.

In the beginning, Crafting Type was an initiative by Jeff Archibald & Kyle Fox. How did you meet them and get involved with the project?

Kyle and Jeff are buddies with a shared passion for design living in Edmonton, and they saw Jessica Hische talking about type at a design conference over in Vancouver, as I recall. They wished there was a type design working in their part of the world, and were inspired by the idea to create what they wish existed.

Looking around online, they found my Understanding Fonts site, where I offer to put on type workshops anywhere in the world. I post my travel calendar up there too, and it just so happened that I was visiting Edmonton on a personal trip that week. An amazing coincidence!

At the workshop in Edmonton

So we met up to chat about the idea of me doing a workshop there, as I’d be returning to Edmonton in a couple of months.

Was it successful?

Jeff and Kyle did a really amazing job with organizing the workshop, and we had about 40 people sign up. As the registrations came in, I asked a couple of fellow Reading graduates who I knew loved teaching type as much as I do to help out, Eben Sorkin and Octavio Pardo.

Eben Sorkin at the workshop in Edmonton

They are extremely expert in type design, and what the participants achieved in just 5 days is proof that they can convey the craft to beginners too. You can also read an excellent blog post by Jeff about this story from his perspective.

Do Kyle and Jeff still participate at Crafting Type in any way?

They’re still involved in an advisory capacity, yes.

Let’s get cultural

What part exactly does FontForge and other free tools play in a typical Crafting Type workshop?

The whole reason I’m involved with type workshops is to promote the idea of free culture in typography. Most designers aren’t really aware about free culture. They may use Firefox and read Wikipedia a lot, and have maybe heard of Creative Commons, but it hasn’t gone mainstream at all.

Dave at the workshop in Edmonton

I introduce FontForge as a participatory project, and I show people there are now hundreds of libre fonts that they can use commercially and modify for their clients.

Are workshops participants much concerned about the free aspect of FontForge?

The fact that FontForge is free of acquisition cost doesn’t matter very much, I think; there are now a few very cheap font editors with more than enough features for beginners, that are proprietary software.

FontForge with metrics window for Cuprum Bold

Since any general purpose font editor will allow people to participate in the workshop, if people bring other software then they are welcome to use it. Some people do this, but its only one or two per class; generally people are skeptical at first, but after a few days they are happy with FontForge.

Any feature set complaints from students so far?

FontForge needs some better features for kerning, and designing families, but we don’t get into that in the workshop.

How many people come to Crafting Type workshops being already familiar with free software for graphic and type design?

Very few. There are usually a couple of people with Windows and maybe one person with GNU+Linux installed.

And the rest come with Macs?


But isn’t a lot of time spent drawing glyphs on paper anyway?

Not really, the sketching is just the first few hours of the event. Many designers don’t practice paper-pencil sketching, but I really believe its the fastest way to capture and explore visual ideas.

Are there any signs that talking about the freedom aspect makes a difference?

A friend of mine, a historian academic, once wrote to me about their concern about whether one can accomplish effectual social change from within the institution. In or out, I say the same: probably not, and it’s fun to try.

At the workshop in Edmonton

There was once an impossible war of independence by the Dutch against the Spanish empire, and the, err, mastermind terrorist, said more or less the same thing: “One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere”. With clear intent and freedom from any particular outcome, the Dutch won their independence. Took ’em 80 years.

I don’t know if the software freedom movement really makes a difference. It’s been 30 years; will all software be free after 80? When I am 80? Its not something I think about.

At the workshop in Edmonton

I do have one concrete example. One of the Edmonton participants, Davis Levine, has been working on a Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics font project. He hadn’t heard about free culture before, and came out of the workshop excited about the emancipatory nature of libre fonts for indigenous people in Canada. There isn’t much about his work online yet, but you can see he mentions FontForge in his CV.

How many of your former students get back to you with fonts of their own to show?

So far only a handful of people have been in touch to review their work. Since all the instructors have day jobs, its not something we’re actively following up on.

Students’ results from the workshop in Kyiv

Speaking of which, can you see ways for projects likes Crafting Type and e.g. Coursera to converge?

I’ve been actively pursuing this in a couple of ways. First, the new FontForge website. Second, the new designwithfontforge.com site, which was started thanks to a FLOSS Books booksprint event hosted by Google’s Open Source Projects Office in December 2012.

Octavio Pardo at the workshop in Edmonton

We are learning from the workshops, what kinds of processes are most important for those just starting to design type. I hope to capture the FontForge specifics there, and to publish more general type and typography knowledge in the OERT project that is run by the lovely typographers at the University of Buenos Aires.

And in the mean time Crafting Type will continue to go global?

Eben is in Boston, Octavio is in Spain, Vern is in LA, Alexei is in Ukraine, Thomas Phinney is in Portland. If any type designer wants to join the team, and run a workshop in their city, I’d love to hear from them!

Crafting Type is next coming to Chicago (March 8—10) and Portland (March 15—17).

Photos in the interview are by Rob & Lauren Lim  and Master School in Kyiv.