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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

September 21, 2013 at 9:13 PM

Seattle designer turns century old inscription into new digital font

Andrea Leksen, freelance graphic designer and adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific University, is now selling her recently created typeface “Bemis.” (LINDSEY WASSON / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Andrea Leksen, freelance graphic designer and adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific University, is now selling her recently created typeface “Bemis.” (LINDSEY WASSON / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

The five capital letters are 96 years old. They’re embossed on terra cotta panels mortared into brick on the north face of the historic Bemis building in Sodo, and they’re beautiful. Almost regal.

Andrea Leksen just turned them into a font.

The embossed letters on the Bemis building in Sodo inspired Seattle designer Andrea Leksen to develop the Bemis typeface. (Photo: Andrea Leksen)

The old Bemis building in SODO inspired freelance designer Andrea Leksen’s new font. (Photo: Andrea Leksen)

The 249 letters, numbers and characters in the all-caps Bemis typeface took Leksen, a freelance designer and an adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific University, a year and a half to complete. Bemis is the first typeface she’s ever put up for sale; it was the No. 39 “hot font” on online marketplace myfonts.com Friday. It’s also what’s known as a font “revival,” script from a nondigital past made a part of our technological present.

The Bemis font grew out of a classroom assignment: Draft a font from something old you see in Seattle, Leksen told her Applied Type students last year, then joined them in the hunt.

It also grew out of creative camaraderie. In two years Leksen’s missed just one “Type Tuesday,” a monthly meetup of local typographers and type designers at the Third Place Pub in Ravenna. The font fans might fill half the bar with geeky quips on kerning (the space between letters) or serifs (lines attached to letter strokes); or they quiz the occasional typeface celebrity in town to consult with the likes of Microsoft. Matthew Carter had a beer with them once. He designed Tahoma, Georgia and Verdana.

There are 249 characters in Andrea Leksen's Bemis font. (myfonts.com)

There are 249 characters in Andrea Leksen’s Bemis font. (myfonts.com)

Talking to Leksen and other type designers last week, I realized something. I pay attention to what the millions of words around me say, but hardly ever how they look when they say it. For years now I’ve typed with this particular font on this particular word processor. Today is the first time I’ve thought to ask: What patient, detail-oriented person took the hundreds of hours needed to design it?

Laura Worthington, another Type Tuesday regular, felt her world change on a shoe-shopping trip with her niece in 2011. When a woman at the Southcenter Skechers store brought out a box, Worthington started shrieking. The name of the shoes, “Sunflowers,” was written in something called Ladybird.

“That was the first time I’d seen my font in public,” Worthington said. “She actually gave me the box.”

Today, Worthington lives off royalties from her 31 typeface releases. Her latest, Charcuterie, is actually a family of 10 fonts, each designed to work well with any other. The bundle costs $79, and it’s at the top of the myfonts.com best-seller list.

Worthington sees her fonts all the time now, and it’s always a surprise. Shelby on a CW station identifier. Funkydori in a Subway commercial. Origins, one of her most popular creations, on the package of Hillshire Farms chicken apple sausage that’s sitting in her fridge — just the word “gourmet.”

More than plain letters and numbers go into a font. Here, a screen grab from the Bemis file in font editor FontLab. (Courtesy: Andrea Leksen)

More than plain letters and numbers go into a font. Here, a screen grab from the Bemis file in font editor FontLab. (Courtesy: Andrea Leksen)

People sometimes want to hire her to create a font for a couple hundred bucks, which she finds amusing. Worthington is as prolific as they come, but no font takes her less than 300 hours. It’s more than drawing letters and numbers. They’ve got to look right. Feel consistent. Include accents and symbols for dozens of languages.

They also need hundreds of little programs to resolve hundreds of little issues. A lowercase “f” next to an “i” or “l” usually needs tweaking. The “w” in a word like “awake” might throw off the weight. Typeface designers know the drill: spend hours and hours on a font editor like FontLab reviewing letter combinations, making tiny edits that make all the difference.

When I do recognize a font, it’s almost always Papyrus, and it’s mostly my husband’s fault. Ever since I’ve known him he’s cringed whenever he’s seen the free, antique looking typeface out in the world — usually, he’ll note, at a small coffee shop, spa, restaurant or yoga studio. Now I’m cringing, too. Even Chris Costello, its designer, admits Papyrus is overused.

Designer Ryan Owens was in Leksen’s Applied Type class last year and designed his classroom font from a Queen Anne apartment building near Kerry Park. Whether a font on a sign or a poster is overused and shoddy or different and elegant affects how he views the business. He’s a big fan of the sign over Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery in Ballard.

The letters BEMIS went up along with an addition to the original Bemis building in 1917. Judson Moss Bemis built the first structure in 1904 to house one of his many bag factories; it’s now home to warehouse space and 32 artist live and work studios. Leksen, who drove by the building for a couple years before inspiration struck, was drawn to the letters’ high “waist” — where the middle line of the “E” goes — and added 3/4 caps and some letter ornaments as she derived the font.

A graphic designer at a local restaurant bought Bemis a couple weeks ago. Leksen is planning to stop by a little more regularly. Who knows? Those century old capital letters might turn up on the menu.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Art, Column, Seattle

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