Jonathan Hoefler on Abstract

This is part of a series where I write about episodes of Netflix’s Abstract that I really enjoyed and think you might, too.

Who is Jonathan Hoefler?

Jonathan is a typography designer. You may recognize his work from the Tiffany & Co. logo or Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

If you’re wondering what is typography, one explanation Jonathan gives is “we’re making raw materials,” meaning that a font is a tool for a graphic designer or layperson “that are open to interpretation,” and they can be applied in myriad ways from organized religion to rock bands.

To see more of Jonathan’s work visit his website typography.com and be sure to check out the Discover page for fun applications of his typefaces.

Jonathan’s Creative Process

  • The first thing to know about typography is that it is unusual because it can be slower than other art forms. It can take decades to design a typeface and the path from start to finish can vary widely for two typeface design projects. The episode follows a project Jonathan had the initial idea for 10 years prior. I think the takeaways are be patient and be open to tangential ideas or projects in addition to your primary.
  • Second, Jonathan says that inevitably his team faces obstacles when designing typefaces. They are left with three options: push through, abandon ship, or “squeeze the brief.” To squeeze the brief is to add more ideas and discover whether you can make the project more flexible or interesting. Pushing through often does not work. Abandoning obviously leaves you with nothing. Squeezing the brief is what led Jonathan to the third part of his creative process.
  • He takes us, the viewers, on these little field trips. First to a watch shop to look at watch faces, then to a cemetery to look at headstones, and finally to a library to look at maps (which reminded me of a chapter in The Library Book by Susan Orlean). These field trips are his version of scratching and are something other creatives like Ruth Carter do, too.

What Blew My Mind

I had no idea that there are optical illusions behind letters which are well understood by people like Jonathan while most of us have never heard of them. The episode walks through several examples of these illusions. The gist is that what looks like a straight line might not be and what looks like a symmetrical shape might not be.

I love about this that typeface design is so invisible, behind-the-scenes, and unappreciated. Here is an awesome statement from the episode. Jonathan says his work has been compared to that of an archaeologist. Both find a single, small thing (a bone or one letter) and then imagine the creature it came from (an entire dinosaur or an entire font from the bold to the italic). I have a propensity for lettering because my grandfather was a printer and I was yearbook editor in high school. Writing and letters are such a huge part of the world around us that we take for granted. Jonathan closes the episode with this powerful quote: “the small, mysterious thing we do becomes the fabric of communication.”

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