“Everyone discovered Vocal Type at the same time,” says Tré Seals, recalling the summer 2020 racing events. “Part of me felt like it wouldn’t be a success without George Floyd. “
Vocal Type is the type foundry that Seals runs from Washington, DC, USA – it’s his second business, after design studio Seals which it closed last year due to the sudden popularity of its typography. . The foundry creates typefaces inspired by signs of protest from real movements, like the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike or the protests of the Vietnam War.
Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in May of last year, protesters contacted Seals to purchase and use his fonts for protests. On social media, he saw how they were applied to panels and murals not only in America but around the world. “There were some in Denmark, others in Australia,” he adds. “And that’s when I realized how important voice type was. “
“People don’t have to buy my policies”
The breakthrough was bittersweet, not least because his story-inspired typefaces were still so relevant in today’s society. In 2014, Seals interned in Minneapolis, Minnesota, living and working in the downtown area. “My dad and I actually cut our hair in George Floyd’s neighborhood,” he says.
When he saw the 8-minute video of Floyd’s death, he recalled a less pleasant memory: being arrested by four cops in Minneapolis while walking down the street. “All I could think of was it could’ve been me, and the whole time I was watching the video it was like my face on her body.”
As events were close to home, seeing his fonts being used by protesters was “certainly empowering,” Seals says. He differentiates his type work from his past branding work, where clients have to use the work they paid for. “People don’t need to buy my policies,” he says.
Sometimes people actually have suggestions for his work, and Seals says he encourages that collaboration. When someone contacted him about using his Marsha typeface – inspired by LGBT activist Marsha P. Johnson – they asked if he could change the “r” in their Black Lives Matter mural. This version of the “r” is currently in the Font Family.
“I knew I couldn’t just change the demographics or the education system”
The voice type was established when Seals stumbled upon some startling statistics after finding “monotony” in the design landscape. Only 3 to 3.5% of American designers are black, while about 85% of them are white. “I knew I couldn’t just change the demographics or the education system,” Seals says. “So I tried to find a way to introduce a non-stereotypical element of minority culture into the design itself, starting with the basis of all good design – typography.”
As its online manifesto states, “The Voice is for creatives who care about telling the stories of the people we serve, not the false story of the industry in which we work.
The idea of using the story as a starting point can often create “a-ha moments,” says Seals. Bayard is a sans serif typeface inspired by the signs of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is named after Bayard Rustin, an adviser to Martin Luther King who was instrumental in organizing civil rights movements from the 1940s. The 1963 march is particularly important because it is there that King gave his “I have a dream” speech.
During last year’s virtual march on Washington in August – which took place on the same day, nearly sixty years later – protesters used Bayard for identity, social media and the website. In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, the march sought to reform the systems that “Allow police brutality and racial discrimination”. “It was a historic moment that came full circle for me,” Seals said.
“No culture, no character”
The historical and political resonance of the fonts is clear. But they also go to some extent in another of the foundry’s ambitions – to diversify the design landscape. Part of the reason Seals found the landscape so monotonous is that he saw no part of his culture reflected. “You could say it was because of our obsession with grids and perfection, but the truth is there was no culture, no character,” he says.
When Seals designed Eva – a font inspired by the banners at a 1957 women’s suffrage protest in Buenos Aires, Argentina and named after the country’s former first lady – he probably wasn’t thinking of applying her for an English tailoring company. However, the font was used for London tailors Edward Hale, in a monochrome identity designed by studio Horror Vacui.
“Someone using one of my culture-based fonts and putting it in a place where that culture wouldn’t normally be seen or heard is diversifying the design,” he says. “It’s really inspiring to me.”
“If you remove the historical context, it looks like any other font someone created,” he continues. And while most people are interested in the surrounding social issues, aesthetics are crucial. “There is a humanity to them,” Seals says. Has he ever felt the pressure that it was real people who inspired his designs? “These signs were designed to be used once, and by taking them out of that area and putting them in a font, they rekindle the story,” he says. But the end result is its own version, Seals points out.
Usually he works from photographs of protests, although for Martin there were poster scans. This inevitably means that the designer has to orient the photos in Photoshop to get a front view. “There is a certain level of character that I try to keep but there is also no way to keep it 100% original,” he explains. With Eva, for example, Seals worked from a photo of “super wide diagonal banners” that required a lot of Photoshop manipulation. He first traces the photos, then cuts out the existing characters to form the rest of the alphabet.
“We can always keep the historical context without removing too much”
Historical accuracy must also be balanced with the demands of potential customers. There would be no point in creating something “out there” because it would not be used by customers. In Bayard’s case, the sign of protest was two-sided. While one side had a condensed capital “s”, the other side was unlike anything Seals had ever seen before.
“It was unusable,” he adds. In the end, he made the first part “s” of the font, and the less traditional version as a stylistic alternative. “You can still keep the historical context without taking too much away from it. “
There are challenges to overcome, mainly in trying to find the photographs in the archives. For Carrie, inspired by women’s suffrage and peace activist Carrie Chapman Catt, he worked from one photograph until he finally found two more. It was only then that he realized that the signs were double-sided. In the future, he would like to work with a historian to help him with this part of the process, Seals says. Currently, he runs the foundry alone.
He is currently working on a font inspired by a 1930s typeface called Jim Crow. Although the typeface talks about America’s racist segregation laws, it also has a “crazy story” that has captured his imagination, Seals says. It was made in 1850, stolen from the French, made in Boston, and has since been modified and named after the Jim Crow caricature.
Following suggestions from followers, he is also working on a typeface based on the 1989 student protest panels in Tiananmen Square in China and one inspired by the internment of the Japanese in the United States after WWII.
Vocal Type turns five this year, and with Seals planning an anniversary exhibit, the pandemic has put an end to that. And although there have been breakthroughs during this period, it is not sure how the industry is developing when it comes to diversity.
He noticed a decrease in typographic stereotypes – such as the use of calligraphic brush scripts by East Asian brands – and says there have been more typeface scholarships for people of color. . But design education, which Seals says should start at his school, needs to do more to raise awareness.
“When you think of the demonstration, it’s the people in the streets carrying signs”
In the future, Seals hopes to explore different types of protests. “When you think of a protest, it’s people in the streets carrying signs,” he says. But there are other types of activism depending on the creator. For example, its Marsha typeface was inspired by the neon sign hanging outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City, the site of the 1969 LGBT riots.
He also almost finished work on a font inspired by education activist WEB Du Bois whose infographics sought to change people’s minds about alleged scientific justifications for racism. “He was an activist even though he was not in the street,” he says.
Regarding contemporary inspiration, Seals says there would be “sensibilities” in naming a typeface after an activist today. “I would love to make a font out of Greta Thunberg’s handwriting, but I would really love to collaborate on it,” he says. “Right now I’m finding what I can do that still conveys the idea of unity and that isn’t a font someone has already created. “
Tré Seals is in talks with Naresh Ramchandani for the first episode of D&AD’s Dinner With series, where a designer will discuss his career so far. It will launch on January 28 at 6 p.m. and can be streamed for free. here.