A while ago, an attempt to stifle a difficult conversation made me realize that there are no utopias, not even the community where I had come to feel at home: the type world.
On May 25th, 2018, the revered (at least by me) Dutch Type Library posted a progress report on DTL Prokyon Cyrillic — an extension of the successful, well-drawn DTL Prokyon, designed by Erhard Kaiser. This prompted Erik van Blokland to ask: “Still the same designer?”
The ensuing exchange of tweets confused me a little, but eventually I came to understand: Kaiser is a public supporter of the openly anti-Islamic organization LEGIDA (Leipzig against the Islamization of the Occident)1, and there was video evidence to prove it: a clip of him reciting a nationalist poem — which I didn’t understand because of the language barrier, but which was good enough for me, since it was posted from LEGIDA’s official YouTube channel. The clip has since been deleted, though footage of Kaiser reciting the poem appears elsewhere, and you can catch him delivering an address at another LEGIDA event in 2015.
On September 6th, 2018, DTL posted a flyer that linked to the Plantin Institute of Technology’s Expert class Type design exhibition. The flyer made prominent use of DTL Prokyon. This led to another, blunter question — this time from Indra Kupferschmid: “[D]o you really prefer to promote and use the typeface of an openly fascist, racist hate speech campaigner over any of the other DTL fonts, or your students’ work?”
It was a good question. I thought it merited a response, so I stuck around for one. And immediately, in the most despairingly typical fashion, came the “What about X?” questions — X being Eric Gill, in this case. Eric Gill, for the uninitiated, was both a highly accomplished type designer and a rapist who molested his two daughters in their teenage years.
Those reactions were predictable enough, but there followed a bit of talk (in German, translated by my browser) about making this a private conversation. Some asked if a person’s political views should be a factor in choosing a typeface: there was, or at least should be, no politics in design, the argument went. It wasn’t just one person saying this; influential industry leaders echoed this line of reasoning. Industry leaders who have publicly called out bad kerning on logos were asking for this conversation, which deserved public dialogue much more urgently, to be held in private.
That made me uneasy.
I am a young black man living in a postcolonial, racially stratified, Caribbean country; I spend most of my days on guard against, and actively victimized by, fascism. I am far removed (physically) from the cosmopolitan centers of type design, but I was made to feel a sense of place in that world as soon as I decided to take it. While at [email protected], I’d call my partner after a sixteen-hour day and tell her: “You know, these are really nice folks, these type people.” And I still feel that way. I’ve found mentorship, advice, and constructive criticism from people I didn’t even think answered emails. Through avenues like Twitter and Typedrawers, I’ve found a way into a community — and I cherish that.
It seems that we, as a global society, have long acknowledged that diversity is a good thing in principle and in practice. What really pushes conversations about diversity to the fore, however, are its real-world, monetary implications. I’m not critical of the reasons for more discussions about these matters; I’m just happy to be drawing type in 2019. But the response by so many esteemed professionals in my chosen field to an issue that has concrete ramifications for someone like me was deeply unnerving.
I believe that the type industry, as a whole, is moving in a positive direction: Alphabettes, for example, prioritizes underrepresented groups for their crits, and many type conferences now get tickets sponsored by foundries or individuals specifically trying to bring fresh faces onto the scene. It’s beautiful. But I find it troubling when this progress is undermined by willful ignorance; it’s possible to have internalized biases, but it’s also possible to move past them. Using a typeface designed by a fascist undermines the hard work of those attempting to open the type industry to more than privileged white people.
In case it needs to be said: yes, it is wrong to promote, reward, and give voice to fascists in any way. I wouldn’t spend money at a Trump hotel, even if I could afford it. Type design is not a celebrity field, but the reality is that the proliferation of a type designer’s work comes through its use. Giving voice to people who give their voices to hatred is at best normalization and, at worst, endorsement. You don’t agree with Kaiser’s beliefs but you’re using his fonts? Well, then, maybe you don’t disagree enough. Fascism kills. It especially kills people who look like me.
I’m not advocating only for my sake — I’m lucky to have people who I believe will continue to nurture my development in my new life with letters — but for other underrepresented people like me who may be considering entering what is already a technically and mentally demanding profession. The quiet act of knowingly using a typeface designed by a supporter of fascism, and then vigorously defending that position, speaks to determined, privileged ignorance, and poses additional challenges to entry. It could even be enough to keep someone from wanting to fulfill their potential with type. In an environment where there are so many high-quality fonts produced every day, selecting a particular typeface becomes more and more an active choice. Typeface selection isn’t just about aesthetics, or features. It’s also about context and source — especially now. In other words, you don’t have to use a typeface designed by a fascist. You choose to.
The reality is this: if type design, like any other industry, wants to open itself to inclusiveness and diversity, that means necessarily distancing itself from forces that undermine those values. The tolerance paradox states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant. I don’t think type design in 2019 is going to suffer from a fascist uprising, thanks largely to people who are working hard to break down barriers to the discipline. But it will ultimately suffer if it gives way to the naive assumption that everyone deserves to have their voice heard. The opening of some doors requires the closing of others.