“How far back should I go?” Greg Thompson asks. I’ve just kicked off our Facetime conversation by wondering how he became interested in type design. He grins and holds up some rather large letters cut out of poster board. Created by Thompson as a teenager for his church group, these letters scream 1970s youth: funky bell-bottom descenders and vivid stripes. That’s far back enough, I tell him.
Thompson put his aptitude for crafting letterforms on hold as he pursued his passion for music and audio recording. Eventually, though, he enrolled at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he majored in industrial design. At Art Center, the foundation coursework included a lettering class, and Thompson was hooked. “It was immediate,” he says. “With industrial design, there was a lot of planning involved. The idea was abstract for a long time. With drawing a letter, you think about what you’re going to do and it’s right there.”
After college, Thompson designed recording studios for artists and producers in Los Angeles, combining his interest in music with his training in industrial and environmental design, work he describes as a “multilevel challenge.” While in Los Angeles, Thompson also took on freelance projects designing logos and stationery systems. Eventually, he made his way to Chicago, which he considered a hotbed for corporate design at the time. Thompson offers a detailed description of the production environment in Chicago in the mid-1980s:
There were lots of high-end graphic arts shops. They were open twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. In the middle of the night, an art director in an office somewhere in the Loop could sketch out an idea on a piece of paper, call a bike messenger, and, in ten or fifteen minutes, a guy would show up with a backpack. Off the sketch would go to any of several full-service shops nearby. There would be a markup person who would look at that sketch. He would call out sizes and typefaces and hand it off to a keyboard person, who’d run it through the imagesetter. At the other end, there’d be a proofreader, who would mark corrections. It would go back to the keyboarder until the proofreader was happy. Then, it would go to keylining and get pasted up on a board. This was the routine, and it would go on continuously throughout the year. All of these people were proud of their craft. They had been working at it a long time. Maybe their mom or dad had worked this job before them. There was a whole tradition of this graphic arts process that could happen almost instantly, and at a high level. And in the middle of that came Steve Jobs, with his insanely great computer with a seven-inch screen and a LaserWriter.
This seamless process would be disrupted by the dawn of digital publishing, when Thompson found himself looking for work. Through a chance encounter with an old family friend who happened to be the director of technical support for Altsys, the company that made Fontographer, Thompson began acquiring custom font jobs. “He told me, you buy Fontographer and learn how to use it and I’ll get you work,” Thompson recalls. Early jobs included adding accent marks to existing fonts for an Alaskan Inuit tribe’s book on its written history and Suntory Sans, a font for the Japanese beverage manufacturer. Thompson became skilled at the process of scanning and tracing bitmap images. “I could see I wasn’t just blindly following the bitmaps—I could see the weight and logic of the whole thing.”
As he continued with this production work, Thompson attended an Apple-sponsored design conference featuring none other than Roger Black. Black spoke about a new company he’d just formed to develop custom fonts for PostScript. “I was on the edge of my seat listening to this,” says Thompson. Since he was “living by his wits,” Thompson always made sure to have samples of his work with him. After Black’s talk, Thompson got up the nerve to introduce himself. Black gave him the number of his partner, David Berlow, who was “living in a small apartment in Boston and running Font Bureau out of his closet.” Berlow told Thompson he didn’t need any help with production; instead, he suggested that Thompson try his hand at a new typeface design.
Thompson didn’t feel very confident, but credits his tenacity to “my willingness to jump without knowing where I would land.” He picked up an art deco-inspired logo he had created for a music producer while living in Los Angeles. Given its long history in title design and LA’s own architectural influences, art deco was a popular style in the entertainment industry. “Art deco is optimistic; it encapsulates the triumphs of industrialism with an international flavor.” Thompson steeped himself in research and references on art deco graphics. He was interested in understanding the many layers of the style and included American Type Founders’ Huxley Vertical as an influence. “I incorporated some of those characteristics into the design, such as the extended crossbar on the capital E that goes past the vertical, and some of the gestures on the lowercase n and m. Then I thought, maybe I need to make it more regular to give people more of a choice.”
One of Bodega’s great successes is its versatility; its use extends beyond a typical art deco revival. From food packaging to clothing brands and environmental signage, Bodega Sans has a voice that is both adaptable and distinct. Bodega samples art deco without most people even realizing it.
Although he admires and respects a typeface design process based on historical references, Thompson notes: “I’m not one to go through musty manuscripts to look for a pristine sort of an old Jenson.” In talking with him, it becomes clear that Thompson’s approach to type design parallels how one might go about making or producing music. Sometimes, it’s just about what feels good. “At some point, I decided to just spend as much time as it took. At the beginning, I didn’t have that much to lose. I just worked on it until it was right.”
Thompson’s designs are both contemporary and timeless. Clicker, for example, originally commissioned by TV Guide, includes some subtle but very thoughtful design decisions. Thompson was inspired by OCR-B, the machine-readable monospaced typeface designed by Adrian Frutiger. From CSI to Pepsi One, Clicker exudes a feeling of techie-modularity while maintaining warmth and a human touch.
As Thompson reflects upon his typefaces and his near-thirty-year relationship with Font Bureau, a few things become apparent. For one, he sees his typefaces as very much a part of himself: “The fact that my vision can go out to users in the form that left my hands is exciting. People who like it can know it was from me.” But even with this singular vision, Thompson talks with great admiration about the people and the relationships he has built through his work. During our discussion, he is getting ready for a trip to visit Berlow. “There’s something that happens when you spend time with a person face to face. Information is exchanged in a way that you can’t really explain. I learned that early on from my design work. I picked and chose my projects based on the people. It’s a way of thinking and looking at and experiencing the world.”
As for what’s coming next with Type Network, Thompson anticipates some real opportunities for his clients and potential users to learn more about his typefaces and their applications. “Now, I have my little area where I can express my sensibilities and people can connect with me.” After my great conversation with Thompson, I’d recommend doing just that.
All Greg Thompson fonts are available for print, web, applications, and ePub licensing. Webfonts may be tested free for thirty days. To keep current with Greg Thompson and other foundry partners, subscribe to Type Network News, our occasional email newsletter featuring font releases, foundry happenings, type and design events, and more.
Amy Papaelias is an assistant professor of graphic design at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She has written for The Recorder and Typographica, and coedited an issue of Visible Language. She helps keep the lights on at Alphabettes.org.