The Many Faces of Mr. Keedy

By Coupland, Ken | Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management, May 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Many Faces of Mr. Keedy


Coupland, Ken, Folio: the Magazine for Magazine Management


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The historical reference is to the point, since typical Keedy designs are based on some common typefaces familiar to everyone.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. …

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