Designer Q&A: Jackson Cavanaugh on Okay Type, creating fonts and bad typefaces

Jackson Cavanaugh may have started his career as a graphic designer, but he only focuses on type nowadays. The Logan Square-based typesetter let us ask him about his career and studio, Okay Type Foundry.

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Doejo: Tell me more about the kind of work you do and your creative process?
Jackson: I make retail and custom typefaces. It’s a very long process. I generally start with a creative brief, which can be anything from a vague visual idea to a very specific technical need. Historic and contemporary references are collected and initial sketches are made using just a few letters. In an iterative process, the sketches are slowly refined and additional letters are developed. Once I have all of the letters (and numbers and punctuation and symbols and so on) they are spaced evenly and then kerned (by looking at every possible letter combination). Finally, the final font files are built, mastered, and rigorously tested.

How did you get involved in typography? Has this been something you’ve always wanted to do?
I went to school for graphic design, which introduced me to typography. At some point I learned that there were actual people who just specialized in drawing letters and making fonts. I became obsessed and quickly lost interest in all other aspects of graphic design.

What’s a typical day at the office like?
I try to mix it up, my projects usually take several years to finish and most of it is very tedious and repetitive. I usually get lots of emails from customers and students, which help to break up the monotony, and I spend a lot of time managing business stuff.

Why did you start Okay Type?
Out of school I got a graphic design job at a really great agency. It was great but after a few years I completely burnt out (it happens when you’re only interested in the typefaces and not so much in picking colors or photos or paper). I decided to take some time off to actually explore type design. Everything just snowballed from there; eventually I finished a few projects, which led to more projects. Suddenly I’m just doing type design exclusively.

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 1.33.14 PMWhat’s your favorite typeface and why?
I really like seeing “bad” typefaces used well. I really like Hobo. Sometimes you see Hobo used somewhere and it’s just perfect.

What inspires you?
I have a very large library of old type books. Learning about the past and present gives me a context to judge what ideas are bad or good, what has and hasn’t worked in the past, and what hasn’t been tried yet.

I’ve checked out your site and you have quite a few lettering projects listed, which is your favorite and why?
“You’re Doing It Wrong” — Drawing letters is about craft and perfection. Even expressive and experimental work needs to be done well. I get upset when I see other designers hyping their super cool “type” projects  when they clearly haven’t spent enough time learning the fundamentals. I know that’s cranky, but I put insane amounts of time and work into the things I make. This was my passive aggressive way to call out all of the amateur type charlatans.

What was it like hearing that Alright Sans was named one of the best typefaces of 2010 by Communication Arts?
I don’t know. The most exciting thing is running into my typefaces in the real world. Walking into a pizza chain in Oslo and finding the entire menu set in my fonts or seeing a magazine I’ve read since childhood use them, it’s amazing. Awards are kind of lame compared to that.

What advice would you give other designers pursuing a career in type design?
Every type designer I know (which is most of them) is too obsessed with letters to do anything else. If you start to feel the itch, read some type history books (“Letters of Credit” by Walter Tracy) and go to a conference (TypeCon is surprisingly cheap and, if you can hang with the type nerds, the most fun conference you’ll ever attend). If you really want to start drawing letters, find a mentor who can give you honest feedback and point you at good resources.

What is the most challenging part of creating typefaces?

Coming up with things that other people will want to use. It takes me three years to make a typeface; I don’t get any money for that work unless people want to pay for the finished typeface.

Filed in: Doejo