Let’s face it, most of the general public does not really understand typography. So when I first tell people that I attended something called ‘Type Camp’ this summer, I tend to garner a lot of puzzled looks. But, smiling bemusedly, the typographic outsider with whom I am conversing, is likely to then ask a question not so far off from my own the first time I heard about Type Camp: what, exactly, do you do there?
Well, explore typography, of course.
I signed up for Type Camp not quite knowing what to expect, but I knew one thing for certain: that the past two years at my in-house design job had burned my creativity to a crisp. There are many things I love about my work, but I was beginning to feel like I had settled into a rut. So when I found a link to the Type Camp website, my heart jumped. Started in 2007 by teacher and typographer Dr. Shelley Gruendler, Type Camp professed to be a living-learning creative retreat for designers and typophiles — a seemingly perfect way to escape my creative slump. It sounded absolutely glorious to travel to an island off the coast of Vancouver, BC to study typography with four inspiring teachers and a group of like-minded designers. I couldn’t wait.
And rightfully so. From the moment I stepped off the ferry onto Galiano Island, I felt as if I’d entered an impossibly magical creative dreamland. The chance to study typography with Shelley, Stephen Coles, Tiffany Wardle (aka Typegirl), and Marian Bantjes, seemed like a dream enough. But add that to a lovely landscape filled with fresh-scented pine, luscious blackberry bushes, and pristine sea air, and I was convinced that things couldn’t get much better.
And so, the adventure began. Any fears that I wasn’t typographically savvy enough to be a Type Camper were quickly wiped away with anticipation, curiosity and excitement as we piled into a mini yellow school bus and headed towards our home for the week. At the end of a very green, tree-lined, dirt road lay our forest retreat house on the water’s edge. Abundant vines grew around the wooden porch, the kitchen overlooked the sea, and the billowing curtains lining my bedroom windows all made me feel as if I was living in my own personal Taj Mahal. This in contrast to dry, dirty Los Angeles instantly lifted my spirits. Half in disbelief, I realized that this environment — perfectly conducive to creativity — was where we would spend the entire week learning about type. Forget stuffy office cubicles and ridiculously tight deadlines, this was my chance to step away from reality and focus on my own work.
Our days at Type Camp were structured on themes, the first being perception. Looking closer, slowing down, turning it upside down — each lesson was a reminder that details matter. Unplugging the computer enabled me to plug into lost creative energy. Not to mention that the satisfyingly crinkly sound of tracing paper did something special to bring me back to simpler childhood days. Group critiques of our sketches provided a platform for dialogue and discussion, something that is so often absent from my daily routine in the office. Talking about why each hand-drawn exploration was or was not successful helped to focus my attention on the idiosyncrasies of each form. Such intense dissection of individual letterforms established a basis from which to recognize when and why one type style might be selected over another. This detailed analysis — the theme of day two — continued throughout the week in various conversations and exercises. We spent time looking at piles of newspapers and magazines from all over the world. We examined various examples of display type, body text, and line length and talked about how they were all used together to create strong or sometimes weak layouts. We thought about audience and cultural context. The analysis of typographic decisions in design became even more focused as we discussed how font selection boils down to three main categories of consideration: style, function, and size of family. While there is no exact magical formula for selecting a typeface, there are many variables to consider — the historical and cultural feeling it invokes, the font styling, and the language support, among other things.
If perception lead us to analysis, then analysis brought us to the theme of exploration. Typographic artist Marian Bantjes encouraged us to look for visual patterns within words and to think about letterforms graphically. By playing with the potential of nesting letters, looking at vertical and horizontal contrasts as well as upper and lowercase, we began to think about how individual letters themselves can make abstract shapes or form relationships. And it was from here that we began to experiment with the linocut printing process. As a group, we played with colors and patterns, collaborating to make take-home reminders of our time together.
Sadly Type Camp seemed to end too soon. I look at all the prints and sketches now, clumsily stuck to my office wall back home, and think about the creative rejuvenation from my time there. A framed poster — to which each fellow camper contributed a lino-printed mark — stands out among a handful of my own inked drawings of glyphs. It is this piece that reminds me most of the power and energy of our collective imagination. Sometimes, only by entirely stepping out of our familiar environment, are we able to truly reinvigorate creativity. Every so often we need to be reminded of the obvious, that which can become lost in the midst of our daily routine.
Type Camp gave me the chance to luxuriate in creativity and education, to reassess my professional and creative life goals, and to redefine my personal design process. It was a starting point for a new direction. Not nearly long enough to provide all of life’s answers, my precious time there gave me a new set of tools from which to draw upon. Perhaps one of the most important things I came to understand at Type Camp is that there is still a whole lot more out there to learn, and this is just the beginning.
Jessica R. Yurasek is a Creative Strategist and Visual Communications Designer. By day, she works at an in-house graphic design studio and by night she attends graduate classes working towards a Master’s in Communication Management and Brand Strategy at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. Find her on Twitter.