Pursuing a Different Type

The Providence Drawing Office | alumni-run type design studio

Sometimes opportunities align to make way for a fresh approach to work. Type designer and Graphic Design Critic Cyrus Highsmith 97 GD has long been a highly regarded solo act. Hired right out of RISD by the Boston-based digital type foundry Font Bureau—and later founding Occupant Press and Occupant Fonts—he has created award-winning typefaces and illustrations for major magazines and newspapers like Rolling Stone and The Wall Street Journal. Type designers and media industry leaders alike applaud his designs for being both original and ambitious.

In 2012, thanks to a recommendation from renowned British type designer Matthew Carter, Highsmith attracted the attention of Morisawa, a large type design company in Osaka, Japan that invited him to serve as a judge for their Latin typeface competition. The company later licensed a number of his Latin typefaces and the occasional transcontinental collaboration that followed brought with it conversations about Morisawa’s ambitions to expand into the world of Latin type.

A Japanese typeface designed by Morisawa.

“We had been talking a lot about the different ways they might begin producing type for the Latin market,” he explains, adding that he was initially hesitant at the prospect of heading up such an operation. “I didn’t really want to be the manager of a large drawing office and I didn’t want to move to Japan.” While inspired by his visits to the country, Highsmith likes his home studio—“I do my best work there,” he says—which happens to be well ensconced in Rhode Island.

“Our task is to learn, then to make Latin script informed by Japanese type. I don’t know where that’s going to go but it’s an exciting place to start.”
CyruS HighSmith 97 GD

But during the spring of 2015 at RISD, as Highsmith was wrapping up a graduate-level course in type design, he began rethinking the possibilities. “I was teaching a great class…such a good class, in fact, that for the first time I started to imagine, ‘Well, if I were to have an office and if I were to be working with other designers instead of by myself, it would be cool if it were here and they were former students like the ones I’d just had. It could be really fun.’” Fresh negotiations with Morisawa followed, their interest bolstered by ties they had developed with RISD’s Graphic Design department through an exchange fellowship a few years earlier.

Morisawa was further sold on the possibility of a Providence-based team after Highsmith took them on a tour of The Design Office (the shared studio space downtown founded in 2007 by Associate Professor of Graphic Design John Caserta), which he envisioned as a workspace for the proposed venture. “They really like that it’s so close to RISD and that there are other RISD alumni and faculty working there,” Highsmith explains. “They have a very positive impression of Providence and the school, and that made a big difference in their decision.”

A sketch by Highsmith of the Ohashi bridge in Kobe, Japan.

To establish the Providence Drawing Office, Highsmith recruited two newly-graduated members of the type design class that had so impressed him: Cem Eskinazi MFA 17 GD and June Shin MFA 17 GD MFA 17 GD. The team of three is now working to set up the studio. Aided by research into the vast world of Japanese type, they will eventually be creating new Latin typefaces that reference Morisawa’s existing Japanese designs. “We’re going to look for ways that Latin can be used as a bridge into the Japanese market and the other way around,” says Highsmith.

While both Eskinazi and Shin have a deep-seated interest in type design, neither expected to be joining the specialized world of professional type designers so soon after graduation—nor did they expect to be working on a project with such an international scope. “When I was working on type design as a student so much of the focus was on drawing,” remembers Shin. “Now that we’re officially ‘type designers,’ we’re seeing all the technical, historical and political aspects that coexist in this tiny community. It’s astounding to think about how such a small group of people can basically affect the entire world. But they do… we all use type.”

Since agreeing to help create the Providence Drawing Office, Eskinazi and Shin have traveled to Association Typographique Internationale 2017, a type design conference in Montreal, and are brushing up on their elementary Japanese. A trip to Japan is on the horizon, but at the moment the team’s communication with the home office is aided by email, Skype and translators well-versed in communicating the intricacies of the craft. “The interpreters are very good at asking a lot of questions when they don’t know something,” says Highsmith. “I have a lot of confidence in working with them.”

A Latin typeface that Highsmith designed with Morisawa in 2016.

Still, when talking about a written language (Japanese) that is expressed using typefaces made up of character sets that contain thousands of glyphs (whereas English contends with only several hundred), some things—like the rhythm between space and line—are hard to put into precise words. But the team is finding the challenge of translation to be half the fun.

“Our discussions are quite different from those we have at RISD,” explains Highsmith. “Can we describe the syncopation of spaces in English typefaces well enough for an international audience? I thought I was pretty good at it, but I realize now that we don’t have a lot of language to describe these things.”

“It’s amazing to realize that there are these people—type designers—working super intensely, trying to understand each other’s cultures, to be politically accurate....”

This rare opportunity to form unique insights is not lost on Eskinazi. “It’s amazing to realize that there are these people—type designers—working super intensely, trying to understand each other’s cultures, to be politically accurate, to determine how typefaces can be used as a software across platforms. Everything is new to us. There’s a lot to talk about.”

Highsmith echoes Eskinazi’s curiosity and sense of wonder. “We really don’t know very much about Japanese type. Our task is to learn, then to make Latin type informed by Japanese type. I don’t know where that’s going to go but it’s an exciting place to start.”

And behind this hunger to learn lies passion informed by years of practice. When asked about his favorite Japanese typeface, Highsmith’s eyes light up. “There’s the rounded sans-serif designs—a kind of ‘genre unto itself’ that goes back to handwritten signs—that I’m enamored with. I’m sure there will be more. Check back in a year.”

—Lauren Maas / top photo by Sarah Verity 12 GD