There's a standard yellow Post-It note stuck to a page in Arlo Vance's unlined Moleskine notebook. An unassuming capital "K" is sketched in black ink, along with what looks like a few squat Ts or, perhaps, some half-drawn Is. These doodles and notes ("slab," "monospace feeling") are the fodder that will be used to make Tribune, the working name for Vance's current typography project, an all-caps font intended for newspaper headlines.
"You have to love tedium to love typeface design," he says, admitting that one weight (think: bold or italics) of a font might take up to 100 hours to draw on his computer.
But one glance at his latest creation, Nika, wipes out any thought of tedium. The font was inspired by a friend's hashtag on Twitter: #kthxbi. He describes Nika as playful and quirky, with "a thin body and chunky serifs." She's a whip of a fashionista posing in this season's oversized boots.
"As long as it has a little more staying power than fashion trends normally do, I'll be OK with that," Vance says.
Nika is the first font released by Typecaste, Vance's own font foundry and graphic design business (arlovance.com). Although the company's been "in the incubator" for the past four years, he officially launched it upon moving to Charleston in September. The goal is to create a type-centric graphic design business, with clients both in the Holy City and beyond. In addition to his nascent company, Vance is also working for Blackbaud and, in the past, has designed for national brands like American Eagle and DC Shoes.
Vance began dissecting all things font as a graphic design major at Brigham Young University, after a professor told him that "the number one rule of graphic design is typography, typography, typography." He heeded the advice and began "collecting" fonts, frequenting blogs and websites that analyze typeface and lettering. History wasn't lost on Vance, who says the inspiration for Tribune was an old French hand, and he can rattle off the creators of popular fonts with the same familiarity some people might use when ordering a coffee. He sealed his fate as a typeface designer with his final project at BYU, where he forged a new font by modernizing an abandoned Dutch technique.
"I ended up drawing every single letter by hand," Vance says, "and then ignored those when I went back and created the font digitally. The differences aren't striking, but they're subtle enough that the two had very, very different personalities, even though they started from the same imagination point."
The result was Daphne, named after the Greek nymph who eschewed Apollo's advances ("I love this so much, but this typeface is never going to give me any love back."). Vance didn't stop tinkering with his creation once he was handed a diploma. Instead, he continued remastering her 852 glyphs (what a non-fontophile might consider "characters") into different weights for eventual sale. He describes the slim-yet-curvy Daphne as a "workhorse," which is why it's so crucial to craft upper- and lowercases, as well as bold, thin, and italic options. In the future, an art director at a magazine will be able to select the exact version of Daphne — puffy, skinny, slouched — that fits the feeling they want to convey.
While font design may seem obsessive in nature (he likens the work to programming, where 20 percent is aesthetic and the other 80 percent is technical), Vance has an amiable lightness about him. When we met, clad in a T-shirt covered in Futura glyphs, he described Nika's Twitter-y beginnings as a "funny, nerdy thing."
"I like to have structure, but I like to have room for spontaneity."