I have been exploring typography for several years as a graphic designer. Typography is sometimes invisible to the reader and other times it’s the focal point. Either way, it carries a narrative and tone, and is something we encounter in some way or another through graphic design.
This project is an exploration of design processes and how community input can change the outcomes. What can we take from non-design influences, and in this case, community and cultural ways, to help us create a more robust and well thought-out design process that gives what we design a richer experience? It’s important to realize Indigenous design does not have to be about aesthetics. The more I learn about design, the more I want to spend time thinking about how Indigenous people can create without the external expectations of an aesthetic put on us—something I wish was talked about more.
I decided to design a typeface with the sole purpose of getting people to help influence the outcome. While living in Copenhagen, Denmark, for a month from December 2022 to January 2023, I took the time to iterate and develop a version of the design, partly inspired by the architecture forms of the roofs and angles of the city.
After that initial seed of an idea was developed with a few letters of the alphabet, some questions I asked myself when designing the typeface included:
- What are the relationships between the letter forms?
- How much expression or variation should be present?
- How do they fit together as a family?
- What decisions can influence the direction of the typeface?
There are some great books out there including Designing Type by Karen Cheng. But, most importantly, picking up a pencil and paper and experimenting is where the design takes form. I prefer grid paper since I find it easier to build a system of letterforms—the majority of my letters are four blocks wide and eight blocks high. Natural similarities in certain letters—B and P, or A and V, for example—start to become apparent. Quite often in type design, certain letters are created first since they address and explore key shapes that influence how you may draw the other letters.
Mark Bennett's digital rendition of his font comparing square versus round edges.
For example, HAMBURGEFONTSIV is one group of letters that is quite common. I decided to start with C, P and H and it grew organically from there. Sometimes typography designs can be very intuitive, and other times there is a lot of problem solving and time spent exploring ideas.
My process involved:
Having an idea of a few basic letter forms.
Sketching letter forms on grid paper. I made an attempt at drawing every letter in the alphabet on the top of each page of my sketchbook. This was a good practice to see if new ideas would make their way into the next iteration.
Working at a larger scale for each letterform.
Making notes of what works and what doesn’t; flipping the pages and seeing if it seemed to either have a similar visual language or any commonalities or bringing it somewhere new and exciting.
Drawing each letter until it feels resolved enough but does not need to be perfect.
Drawing them all together on one page to see what works.
Mark Bennett’s initial sketches of his font using pencil and paper.
At this point I decided to transfer the work to my computer and draw the letters digitally in Adobe Illustrator. Setting up a similar grid system, it became a more streamlined approach to resolving some of the decisions. There’s no right or wrong direction, since it is about the relationships between the letters. Referring to resources such as books about typography (mentioned below) is helpful since sometimes the recommendations of how the traditional fonts are designed have guidelines to help decide if a letterform is successful or not.
Digital rendition of Mark Bennett's typeface. Highlighted are some of the differences between the letterforms.
Digital rendition of Mark Bennett’s typeface, showing variations and overlay of different letterforms.
Moving forward, I will show the letterforms to several friends and family in my community—my Nunatsiavut family and fellow Inuit in Toronto—and get their input. As mentioned earlier, I’m interested in engagement and connection—a very open-ended discussion asking their opinions. It’s not about technical terminology, but more about essence and what speaks to them. Getting feedback will be invaluable since the point of the project is to look at cultural and non-design focused knowledge—as knowledge comes in all forms—and making adjustments to the design.
I’m also working with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous designers and getting their technical feedback. They are part of my immediate community here in Toronto and abroad. This project is being turned into a small-run risograph printed book after I have these discussions and develop the typeface with their input. At the end of the day, I want to encourage other Indigenous folks to help us define a design process rooted in conversation, inclusion and our own autonomous identities.
Want to learn more about typography?
Visual pattern experimentation created using Mark Bennett’s typeface.
Here are some helpful books to explore followed by a list of some common terminology you might encounter:
Designing Type. Karen Cheng. Yale University Press, 2020.
The Elements of Typographic Style. Robert Bringhurst. Hartley and Marks, 2019.
Typography: The style, arrangement, or appearance of arranged letters
Typeface: A design of letters, numbers and other symbols, to be used in printing or for electronic display. Most typefaces include variations in size, weight, slope and width.
Font: An assortment or set of type or characters all of one style and sometimes one size.
Font Family: A font family is a collection of fonts that share particular design features within a specific style of typeface.
Monospaced: A font whose letters and characters each occupy the same amount of horizontal space.
Baseline: The imaginary line upon which a line of text rests.
Kerning: The spacing between individual letters or characters.
Cap Height: The height of a capital letter above the baseline for a particular typeface.
Vector: A font format that makes use of fillable geometric outlines of letters and symbols, allowing fonts to be scaled up or down while still retaining their intended shape.
Originally from western Newfoundland, Mark Bennett is a graphic designer, art director and imagemaker based in Toronto, ON. Bennett considers his primary area to be in graphic design for galleries, artists and cultural organizations and is a current undergraduate architecture student at the University of Toronto. His latest work is moving his design practice into an arts-based focus, looking at how design can be reconfigured and explored with inputs and community involvement.
This project was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts.