While working as a senior designer at VSA Partners in Chicago, Jackson Cavanaugh became dissatisfied with the fonts he had to choose from for his projects. So he decided to create his own—Alright Sans, a clean, corporate sans-serif type family.
“I was bored with the fonts I had to use with my corporate clients,” Cavanaugh explained.
“Basically, everyone wanted these clean, understated American gothic fonts. I was much more interested in the contemporary European humanist forms. They were stylish and friendly, but a little too quirky to get approval. I wanted to bridge the gap — make something clean and understated but warm and contemporary…
“When I released Alright Sans I really had no idea what to expect. I designed it for myself and didn't think anyone else would take much notice. But it immediately started getting attention and, surprisingly enough, selling. It even made several of the big ‘Best Fonts of 2009’ lists.”
During the three years Cavanaugh designed for VSA, he gained experience in corporate communications, brand identities, retail packaging, environmental/signage, Web sites and magazines. The projects he enjoyed most involved creating custom lettering for clients like Alliance Graphique Internationale, Mayer Brown, Rosetta Stone, and Toyota. Eventually, he decided to follow his dreams and start his own type-design business.
“I had always been more interested in letterforms than graphic design,” said Cavanaugh. “A few years ago I decided to try designing type professionally. I saved up, moved to New York, and started working full-time on designing type. So far, I've designed custom fonts for Converse, Motorola and McGarry Bowen.”
The process involved in creating a font like Alright Sans requires a tremendous amount of time and technical work.
“First, you have to have a good idea or need for a new typeface,” Cavanaugh said. “Something like a new aesthetic direction, an improvement of an old way-fallen idea, or something that solves a unique technical challenge. This requires a massive amount of awareness of what is already out there, both historically and currently.”
<span class='CALLOUT'>The communication design program did an outstanding job teaching me how to be a thoughtful, strategic designer</span>
Then the process becomes more complex. Cavanaugh uses FontLab to start drawing a few basic letters (H, O, h, o). Then he starts drawing more, slowly refining the design along the way. Eventually he ends up with a basic set (A-Z, a-z, 0-9 and punctuation) and special characters (accented letters, currency symbols, superscripts, small-caps). A finished font can have over a thousand characters.
“Once you have the basics of one font done, you can start drawing the other weights and italics,” explained Cavanaugh. “You can do some rough transformations as a starting point but they require a massive amount of clean-up, corrections and redrawing. For a big family, you'll end up drawing a light, light italic, regular, regular italic, bold, and bold italic. For reference, Alright Sans has eight weights. And with 1037 characters each, that's 16,592 individual letters.”
After Cavanaugh is done drawing the fonts, he kerns them, adjusting the spacing of individual pairs of letters so they have an even color when typeset.
“This is the most tedious part because a font with 1,000 characters has 1,000,000 possible letter combinations,” he said. “When this is all done, the fonts need to be converted into font software, which is an immensely technical process. Finally, you have to figure out a way to sell it. This means dealing with vendors, customers, lawyers, accountants, marketing and technical support.
“It takes years to create a large font family and there's no guarantee anyone will buy it. Even then, the money doesn't add up quickly. If you sell a font for $40, paying a 50 percent commission to your vendor, you have to sell 1,500 fonts to make $30k.”
The planning, researching and problem solving involved in this career are what initially attracted Cavanaugh to communication design as a major at CCS. He also liked the idea of some day providing clients with something they needed.
“The communication design program did an outstanding job teaching me how to be a thoughtful, strategic designer,” praised Cavanaugh. “I learned the value of process and research in order to find genuinely successful, big-picture solutions.”
Cavanaugh hopes to further establish Okay Type as a high-quality type foundry with a solid catalog of fonts and a stable of corporate and editorial clients. He plans to release new fonts later this summer (2010).
- Graduation Year: 2005
- Major: Graphic Design
- Employer: Okay Type and Design (Brooklyn, NY)Owner/designer
- Title: Owner/designer
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