Mark Simonson began his career as a designer and illustrator working on print publications that ranged from TWA’s Ambassador inflight magazine to Minnesota Monthly (published by Minnesota Public Radio) and the Utne Reader. As art director for Minnesota Public Radio he designed more than 200 packages for audio books and spoken-word recordings, including collections of Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues from his show A Prairie Home Companion, along with hundreds of mail-order catalogue products, from T-shirts to rugs.
As happens with many art directors, a lot of Simonson’s projects included lettering design—which he found he loved doing so much that when he eventually started out on his own he specialized in lettering and typography; since opening his shop he’s designed dozens of typefaces (some of them licensed to the aptly named FontHaus). If you Google “lettering,” Simonson comes up on the first page. “I’m in a niche category—not a lot of people do this,” he points out. And even fewer still do any of the work by hand. I talked to him about that, how he goes about it in general, and where he finds his inspirations.
The process behind Simonson’s creation of letterforms for a logo for the Jockey Journal, a site for classic motorcycle enthusiasts, exemplifies some of his methods. He’s constantly stashing away books, fliers, posters, signs and innumerable other examples that he knows may be useful down the road; in this case the client was the source for a scrap of lettering from an old brand—the “Velocette” logo at right. Although it’s fluid and handwriting-inspired, there is also something vaguely mechanical about it, with its actuated, emphasized joints and joins, while the bite out of the capital letter has a quality of scrappiness, as if a ticket punch had been taken to it. Taking the old logo as a starting point, Simonson set out to create the new letters by way of what he calls “reverse engineering,” after the process that originated with early software design, when engineers looking to create programs compatible with IBM PCs worked backwards from the computers’ operations to produce their own code rather than copying IBM’s.
While Simonson now completes his work on the computer, he usually draws a sketch by hand first. “It’s more direct,” he says. “I’ve spent my life drawing, so ideas go straight from my head to my pencil. What I’m doing already stems from handwriting, so it seems a good place to start.” He adds, “It gives me a more fluid line. Rhythms and shapes and flow are all much better. A computer screen is made up of a grid of pixels, so the geometry alone—the Cartesian coordinate system—forces the movement up and across, but not along the diagonal.” The hand-done sketches are then scanned into the computer; Simonson, in effect, traces his drawing in Adobe Illustrator, after which he can refine the all-important curves and diagonals in a more controlled way.
Part fashion, part lost art
There was a time when even small businesses commissioned lettering artists to make their signs. Today they’re more likely to go to a signmaker using computer type—that is, if they do it at all. Change and progress have brought many things, but variety of hand lettering is not one of them. “Not many people do this kind of thing anymore,” says Simonson. “It’s part fashion, but it’s also partly lost art.”
Of course, that lost art was both labor- and skill-intensive. When Simonson first started in the business (he’s 55 now), he used the traditional tools: fine-nibbed technical pens with ink on illustration board, whose chalky-crust surface is very smooth and good to draw on. A design drawn on paper was traced onto the board, the outlines made with technical pen, the middle filled in with brushstrokes. The temperamental technical pens—endlessly clogging up, and requiring vigorous shaking and constant cleaning—were the bane of designers’ lives, frequently blobbing ink in the wrong places anyway. Mistakes had to be cut or scraped away. “It was a very unforgiving system,” Simonson remarks.
It’s thus perhaps appropriate that so much of Simonson’s work finds its inspiration in earlier sources, while still being entirely of its time. In 2001, Typophile, a site that focuses on type and font identification, held its own logo contest. The fact that Simonson won—with a calligraphic solution—was the cause of some dismay among type nuts, but Simonson shrugs it off. “The criticism was narrow-minded—there’s such an overlay of the two [lettering and type] that it’s often hard to know where to draw the line,” he says. The somewhat unlikely source of inspiration for his winning logo was a book about motels; it was a letter T on one page that sparked the idea, involving more reverse engineering to produce the rest of the word. Though the source may be old, Simonson deliberately tries not to make things too retro. “I keep the forms modern. I spend a lot of time refining these curves, making the word flow. It’s something almost musical—without it a word can fall apart, legibility is interrupted. It’s a visual rhythm.”
The British edition of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe was a book project where the art director wanted to mimic the title style from a mid-20th-century Hollywood movie. She sent Simonson an example (from Magnificent Obsession); his first version shows a similarly lettered style that uses an elaborate script throughout. Not quite content with this, the art director sent another sample—this time from an actual Marilyn Monroe film, How to Marry a Millionaire—and suggested the merging of the two ideas that resulted in the finished cover. More reverse engineering was needed to capture the larger 3-D serif characters, which wobble along their lines, communicating the fun of the story. “Surprisingly, it was the shadow effects that took the time, along with months of back-and-forth with the client,” says Simonson.
One job that took a lot less time “because there was no client involved. I was the only one making decisions!” was a logo he drew for his wife’s family reunion (their name is Miller), turning a loose interpretation of ’50s or ’60s brush script style into a fun continuous circling reminiscent of a party streamer. Simonson’s fondness for curves—”I like spiral curves, curves on curves,” he says—is fully at play in the title he created for another book jacket, for Elinor Lipman’s My Latest Grievance, where the publisher wanted something that looked like handwriting, but more sophisticated. “I didn’t want it to look too regular,” Simonson says—as he worked on it he had in mind the current Kleenex logo, which, he adds, does this to perfection.
Another combination of the retro and eternally contemporary is the letter forms on the backs of baseball jackets. Traditional American fare, they also hark back to an era when companies established their identity through the signature of their founders—relaying a message of authority, promise and quality, establishing the authenticity of their goods and helping prevent imitations. Stylized versions of this, such as Frank Winfield Woolworth’s signature for his stores, helped advertising work better, too, and the concept has endured to this day—just look at the Coca-Cola logo. Bouncing off this style, the Whippets logo, commissioned from Simonson by Minnesota Public Radio, has a downhill fall in the letters that mimics the dismal record—”they always lose”—of the fictional Lake Wobegon baseball team of the same name.
Every designer has rejects, and “Gutter” is one of Simonson’s favorites. He says he was never as happy with the final one the clients picked as he was with his first version. “The exuberant brush script tickled me. I like the juxtaposition of the word and the style.”
Joyful inventions, with wit and skill
What Simonson draws might not be headed for a gallery or museum, but it’s made for the quiet, everyday stuff our lives are full of—his hand lettering and logos appear on everything from websites to T-shirts and book jackets and packaged goods and rain gutters. It helps make that stuff one-of-a-kind rather than run-of-the-mill. It’s oddly reassuring to look at hand lettering—not only to know that someone is still doing this kind of work, but also that people still want it. It doesn’t seem nostalgic—or simply satisfying a longing for an era when people put their names to what they did because they felt it stood for something (like Mr. Woolworth)—but it does seem like joyful invention, with wit and skill to go with it.—LUCY SISMAN
HANDING ON A TRADITION
Simonson has noticed a trend among younger artists, designers and illustrators for doing everything by hand. “Think of Jason Reitman’s 2008 indie movie, Juno, with its animated opening titles, which are a celebration of the hand-drawn,” he says; or the book Hand Job: A Catalog of Type. This is a look where everything is made to look intentionally hand-done, not covered up or apologized for. Simonson’s own teenage daughter draws her designs in pencil first. “She’s perhaps a bit more used to using the graphic tablet [an electronic pen and work board],” he says. “I prefer a mouse—it’s more precise. If you happen to land on a space between two pixels, the computer’s cursor wobbles and a mouse doesn’t do that.” He gave me a list of other hand-lettering artists he admires. It wasn’t a long one; but a look at their work brings the realization that it’s all familiar—in a good way.
“The list here is of designers and artists who inspired me to try to do lettering back when I was starting out—except for Louise Fili, whom I learned of later. And younger artists, such as Jessica Hische, Alex Trochut, and Seb Lester, give me hope that lettering won’t be completely replaced by type anytime soon.”
Michael Doret has an eye for a certain period look—1930s, give or take a decade—especially quirky lettering styles, and there is a real sense of humor in his work.
Leslie Cabarga does a wide range of period styles, from the 1930s to the 1970s, and it always looks like he had fun doing it.
Louise Fili has a knack for finding the most beautiful examples of art deco (she’s published parts of her collection in several books) and incorporating it into her design work.
Tony DiSpigna and Tom Carnase did the most amazing script lettering back in the 1970s (especially under the direction of Herb Lubalin), inspiring me to work at the highest standards that I could.