- CYRUS HIGHSMITH
- TYPOGRAPHER, PROVIDENCE
Cyrus Highsmith, a Wisconsin native, first joined Boston’s highly influential Font Bureau foundry in 1997 as a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Less than two decades later, he has become one of North America’s most important and expressive typographers. In an industry that has rapidly been overtaken by computer screens and pixels, Highsmith’s audacious, animated style and uniquely artistic design process have won him a legion of fans, including print newspaper guru Mario García, who calls him “one of today’s most dynamic and original voices in American type design.”
During his time studying graphic design, under RISD’s “very pure and modernist” approach, Highsmith started playing around with his own fonts, becoming more excited about making typefaces than using them. As a boy, he had dreamed of being a painter, not a leading font maker, and this passion was perhaps the secret to his success. “Drawing letters to me felt like a really pure way of drawing,” he says. “You just deal with shapes—black shapes and white shapes—and that’s all. That was very exciting to me.”
To this day, all of Highsmith’s typefaces, now numbering in the hundreds, more often than not begin with a sketch in one of his many notepads. The shelves of his studio in Providence are forested by the spines of dozens of Moleskines and other jotters. They are integral to his artistic technique.
Instead of starting with a, b and c, Highsmith first doodles n, h, o and p, using an old Linotype method that dates back to the 1920s and ’30s. These four letters provide a mixture of round and straight shapes that create a perfect template for the rest of the alphabet. Next he simply copies, pastes and rotates. Highsmith will often start with lowercase letters, because, he says, “it’s where most of the personality is.” Some typefaces that he has designed have up to 50 variations, with different widths and weights, while others have only the standard roman, italic and bold versions. He lists his three most seminal typefaces as the charmingly clunky Eggwhite, the well-angled Amira and Antenna, his best seller.
So how do doodles in a sketchbook develop into a cohesive concept for 26 letters? “A typeface is part of a presentation of a story that works with pictures and text and colors and other typefaces,” Highsmith explains. “So I think, What is the story that is being told? I try to make that as specific as I can, even if it isn’t for a client. I come up with the idea on my own.”
Highsmith believes that every typeface should have a narrative. One of his most recent designs, Serge—a cute retro number that has more than a whiff of The Jetsons about it—came about when Highsmith imagined a typeface for a company that sells jet packs, “not for astronauts or anything, but for zipping over to get a coffee or going to a party,” he explains. Undoubtedly this narrative approach has helped his expressive, ever-so-slightly naive work for the Font Bureau become so popular: Highsmith has designed custom typefaces for the Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Living, Men’s Health and El Universal. With these titles on his résumé, it’s clear that Highsmith’s style is one that excites print graphic designers in particular—which is perhaps unsurprising if you keep in mind that most of his fonts were conceived in sketchbooks. Will there be a place for his audacious, animated, characterful typography in a world of tablets and laptops? “It’s a very crucial time,” he says knowingly. “It’s at the very beginning of what can happen with that medium.”
TEXT BY TOM MORRIS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL EDWARDS
Relay (2002) is a spirited series, inspired by a blend of both English art and US typography of the mid-20th century
Quiosco (2006) is a successful news typeface that is influenced by legendary font maker W. A. Dwiggins and his way of contrasting character outline with the counter shape
Serge (2013) is Highsmith’s most recent typeface, described as a “frisky, acrobatic face…with a lively, angular zest”