With a wink and a nudge, Jeffery Keedy's digital typefaces twit the type establishment's traditions. But to hear him tell it, it's Keedy who's the real keeper of the typographic flame.
Jeffery Keedy--Mr. Keedy to you--designs type that makes the tastemakers of typographic design mighty uncomfortable. The experimental fonts of the I maverick Mr. Keedy are calculated exercises that jar our expectations about what "good" type is and how it should behave. Although rooted in traditional type forms, his iconoclastic approach to type is definitely working on some people's nerves: One respected design commentator called Keedy's Lushus font "taking vernacular to the point of stupidity."
Keedy dismisses such criticisms; he,d rather argue for the need for more experimentation. Besides, his bastardized type families are turning up all over the place these days--from magazine layouts and broadcast graphics to gas-station signage. He's probably best known for Keedy Sans, which borrows freely--very freely--from prim Helvetica. "Old typefaces have been used up in endless rehashes," he says. "If you,re going to do new typography, you need new type."
And, he adds, "You have to understand that typefaces we consider classics today looked just as strange when they made their appearance as Keedy Sans seems to people today. When Baskerville first came out, for example, they said you,d go blind from reading it."
The historical reference is to the point, since typical Keedy designs are based on some common typefaces familiar to everyone. "People will say I'm all kinds of wacky things, but I see myself as an experimental type designer in the tradition of Americans like Dwiggins, Goudy and Cooper," Keedy says. "And traditionally, you build on the shoulders of giants."
Back to the future
He prefers to be called Mr. Keedy because, as he once stated in an interview in the graphic design magazine, Emigre, "`I like the fact that ,Mr., is about formality and respect, while also having a cheesy commercial connotation about it--like Mr. Clean, Mr. Frosty, etc. and the teacher thing, Mr. Chips. The ,Mr., designation is a really loaded signifier in our culture."
Keedy, who is 38, was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, came of age in Arizona, and worked in Boston and Hawaii before finally settling in Los Angeles. Along the way, he put in time at various agencies and design studios, even working in television graphics. "I wanted to go out and work before I got into teaching," recalls Keedy, who has taught at California State Institute of the Arts (CAL Arts) in Valencia since 1985.
Keedy first emerged into prominence as a type designer with his work for Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), an experimental arts organization for which he designed monthly calendars, announcements and invitations. The eponymous Keedy Sans, which mixes echoes of Futura and other early 20th-century sans serifs with his signature wry misstatements of classic type elements, figured prominently in LACE publications of that time.
In fact, Keedy Sans wasn't the first digital typeface he designed; it was preceded by Neo Theo, a minimalist font that paid homage to the style of the Dutch modernist graphic designer Theo van Doesburg. Neo Theo surfaced about the same time that British designer Neville Brody's Industria family was attracting attention. "That sort of look was hot then; basically, it was the easiest kind of type to draw," Keedy notes. "We were all working with the early version of Fontographer, which was pretty crude."
Keedy Sans, initially distributed by Sacramento, California-based Emigre, Inc., reflected further improvements in Fontographer. "It was a bit more sophisticated in terms of forms and ideas," Keedy recalls. Every inch the type designer of the nineties, Keedy today sells his fonts exclusively online.
Keedy Sans was followed by Hard Times, the designer's witty reworking of venerable Times Roman; and Skelter, loosely based on Franklin Gothic, followed soon after. Skelter he calls "hyping up Franklin's industrialness, making it crude on purpose." The new typeface, Keedy feels, "is meant to address the darker, angstridden side of contemporary life. It expresses the industrial aesthetic at the heart of American grotesque typefaces that came out of the industrial revolution."
Keedy introduced Hard Times and Skelter in the pages of Details under a "semi-exclusive" arrangement that gave the magazine exclusive rights for one year (later extended to a second year) while allowing Keedy to continue to use the type himself. It's a practice other independent type designers he knows follow as well. "I think the system works out pretty well for everyone," Keedy observes. "You don't have to charge the magazine as much for a typeface as you would if they were going to keep it forever, since they,re probably not going to want it for more than a year anyway."
Once the magazine has retired the font, Keedy can take advantage of the "free advertising" when he sells it privately. With a font like Keedy Sans, which went immediately into distribution, Keedy found that "the first year it didn't do too well, but in the past year I've seen it just about everywhere. I guess people are beginning to get it."
The much-maligned Lushus, a radical reworking even by Keedy standards, which debuted in the British digital publication Fuse, was inspired by "the wild, hyped-up expressionism of-turn-of-the-century typography exemplified by Egyptian fonts," Keedy explains.
Ever the historian, Keedy clearly sees himself aligned with an American design tradition that is polarized toward Old World, European ideas about what constitutes "good" type. (It's worth noting that the American type designers he admires have never been taken very seriously by their European counterparts.) "I'm a big fan of American modernists, designers like Eames, Loewy and Nelson. They took modernist ideas with a grain of salt, as opposed to the more dogmatic European approach," Keedy says.
Borrowing and lending
Keedy eschews working directly from the fonts that inspire him. He first does drawings by hand using his personal collection of vintage fountain pens, which includes valuable Parkers and Montblancs. "I don't use Rapidographs or anything like that. I like the feeling of the flow of ink and the connection to writing." Using the drawings for reference--he doesn't scan or retrace--Keedy then roughs in his designs on the computer. The printed output is then redrawn by hand, and the process begins anew. "I use very old tools on the one hand, and on the other I draw only in the computer," he says.
"Nowadays, a lot of people who are fooling around with type design do it by sampling; they open up the outline and keep whole chunks of type intact, but they'll add a few things. Personally, I'm pro-sampling." As proof, Keedy points to Fuse, which deliberately provided outlines so customers could open them up and play with them. "If the designer is dead, he obviously isn't getting a dime for his work anyway, so I don't see a problem. At a certain point, a typeface becomes public domain. But for myself, I draw the line at sampling the work of living designers and encroaching on their intellectual property."
Keedy plans to sell his own fonts, and acknowledges that buyers probably will experiment with them. He says he won't take a hard line on that: "Anyone can take my typefaces, open them up, look at them, transform them, or whatever they want to do with them."
Keedy has several newer typefaces available. ManuSans "was inspired by the basic letterforms that American children learn to write or ,print, in school." It is a simple sans serif, similar to Futura except for its old-style character widths, which are exaggerated as if written by hand. Keedy plans to develop ManuSans into an extended family of serifs, sans serifs, script and condensed versions.
Another new font that's sure to set the wattles of aging design critics aquiver is Jot, Keedy's "informal correspondence typeface." As with ManuSans, there's a pointedly vernacular twist to this face. "Jot stems from the idea that with informal writing and communication there are two contradictory things going on. One is the calligraphic impulse you see in Dom Casual and script faces like it; the other is the typewritten form of expression where the look is mechanical and monospace, which is almost exactly the opposite. With Jot, I tried to bring the two opposites together."
It might seem that the widespread availability of software like Fontographer will lead to a deluge of marginal new typefaces, but Keedy sees it differently. "Once I thought designing your own typeface would become part of being a designer. In fact, I'm surprised how slow it's been. But that doesn't really surprise me anymore. No designer who's in business has the time to invest that it takes to come up with a good typeface. It's something you really have to have the desire--and the knack--for."
Keedy is planning to issue at least 10 original type fonts under Cipher, his own online "imprint." Citing the World Wide Web's new sound and motion capabilities, he adds, "I think we'll be handling things a little differently from what's been done traditionally."
Knowing Mr. Keedy, we can take him at his word that how he brings this body of work to the public should amuse his fans as much as it exasperates his tormentors.
RELATED ARTICLE: A FEW FAVORITE FONTS
Bring up the subject of typography in the company of magazine art directors and the opinions will be strong and varied. There are as many fonts as there are magazines; each has its share of fans and detractors. Folio: asked five art directors to pick their favorites.
Inside Media: "Aurora is a very stylized, classic, sans serif typeface that has a little twist. It's not dull. It's one of the old typefaces that I fell in love with when I was a novice." (IM uses Century Old Style for text and Champion for headlines.)
Harper's Bazaar: "We change every six months or so, but we used Didot when we relaunched in 1992. The beauty of the shape of the letters is so elegant, perfect for a fashion magazine." (HP uses Champion and Belizio Bold for heads and Bodoni Book for text.)
Garden Design: "I love Firmindidot. It's a serif font and it has such niche thicks and thins. It's very classical." (GD uses Perpetual (text) and Gil Sans (heads).)
Automobile: "The whole Bodoni family. It's a clean, simple serif without fillets. Also, all of our text is Times Roman. It's the best font for reading, and magazines are about reading." (Automobile uses Torino for headlines, Times Roman for text.)
Yachting: "I like to keep it clean, classy and contemporary. Helvetica is just a cool-looking font. You can't go wrong with it." (Yachting uses Sabon for text and Bauer Bodoni and Helvetica for headlines.)…