I’ve been a huge fan of designer Alexander Isley ever since I saw his presentation at a Type Directors Club (TDC) luncheon many moons ago. Not only was his work thoughtful, clever, innovative, and oftentimes humorous (I’m a sucker for that), but he came off as one of the nicest guys in the business – a rare thing in a world peppered with big egos, attitude, and unapproachability. But what struck me the most was how his skillful, creative use of typography permeated everything he does.
A bit of background: Alex first gained recognition in the early 1980s as the senior designer at Tibor Kalman’s influential M&Co. He then served as the first full-time art director of Spy magazine. In 1988 he founded Alexander Isley Inc. in New York City. In 1995 he moved the firm to Redding, CT. Over the years, Alex has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards, as well as being past president of AIGA/NY. In 2014 he was awarded the AIGA Medal in recognition of his body of work and contributions to the profession. (Check out this thoughtful AIGA video interview.)
His studio, Alexander Isley Inc., is known for effective and innovative design that engages people’s imaginations and inspires them to take action. They create identities, architectural signage, Web sites, exhibits, books, magazines, retail interiors, posters, packaging, naming programs, furniture, and environmental design programs, many of which have won prestigious awards. Alex says, “We help companies and organizations communicate with intelligence, wit, passion, and purpose. Our not-so-hidden agenda: To engage people’s imaginations, get them thinking, and encourage them to act.” Quite a lofty goal, but one that he reaches time and time again.
As for his belief in the importance and power of typography, he says, “I’ve always been interested in the idea of using typography to convey spirit or attitude, and in a lot of our work the letterforms themselves serve as the primary illustration within a design.”
We asked Alex about his early influences, his most memorable projects, and his love of typography.
What or who stimulated your interest in, and love of typography?
I have always been interested in words and writing (my mother had once been an English teacher and advertising copywriter), so I suppose that helped get me started. When I was a student at North Carolina State University we learned to set type on a typositor, and it was there that I was introduced to lettering, typography, and what you could do in crafting words. Working with phototype in particular provided a lot of possibilities for combining, overlapping, and manipulating letterforms. Basically I copied whatever Herb Lubalin did.
In between classes I freelanced for one of my teachers who was an art director at the Raleigh ad agency McKinney, Silver, and Rocket. My job was to prepare presentation layouts for the Royal Caribbean cruise line account. It was there that I was exposed to the craftsmanship required to make type work. Every headline – and most of the body text – was assembled by hand. (I graduated college in 1984, the same year the Macintosh was introduced, so I am of the last generation where everything had to be done manually.)
This was invaluable experience. We’d mock the layouts up and send a manuscript off to Phil’s Photo in Washington, DC, the closest good type house. We’d get proofs in and rework, recut, and reword the text to get it to flow editorially as well as visually. The house style called for tight letterspacing along with ragged type that was carefully crafted so that every third or fourth line was justified to the same measure in order to make the text look just so. A fake rag, so to speak.
As you can imagine, this took a great deal of collaboration between writers and designers. Every element was cut apart by hand and the attention to detail was incredible. I was nowhere near good enough to be allowed to work on real mechanicals…we did all of this work just preparing the client presentation boards!
Those lessons have stuck with me to this day, and I find a great deal of pleasure in getting words and letterforms to work in harmony and fit perfectly. (This requires close collaboration between writer and designer. I’ve been lucky to work with good writers who understand the importance of this approach. I also do a good deal of the writing on our projects, enabling us to craft messages the way we want.)
After studying at NC State I went on to Cooper Union in New York. My studies there really gave me exposure to a typographic sensibility and awareness that I embrace in my work today.
Who were your mentors?
At Cooper Union I studied and worked under George Sadek, the one-time Dean of the School of Art who headed up the design program. With George, type could be red, black, or gray. There were only six or so type families that were allowed. (OK, really only two: Bodoni and Futura.) And that was it. George believed those choices were all any human should ever need in order to do good work. Using quirky type was cheating. I did not see these as undue restrictions; I liked the challenge of trying to make a design have a voice and spirit without relying on letterforms to provide a personality.
What work are you most proud of, and why?
Proud is a tough word for me because it suggests self-satisfaction, and that’s the crest of a slippery slope. However, I think back at my work when I was designing Spy magazine with fondness because I was young, everything was hand made, and the content I was given was pretty much perfect. I’d get excited just reading the manuscripts, so my job was to not screw things up. We had very little budget for artwork, so in many cases the typographic approach served as the main illustration for stories. I was all over that.
At that time, I somehow knew that I was doing the right thing despite the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. I hope to feel the same way again some day.
What was your most challenging project?
My firm was approached by the New Times chain of weekly newspapers to do a redesign. They had a dozen or so alternative papers in various cities around the country and wanted to standardize the formats.
Each paper was printed in a different location using varying grades of newsprint, so as you can imagine the look of the text varied widely. I wanted to use a body text that could respond to differing conditions to achieve a uniform look. I asked Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones for help, and they developed what has come to be known as Mercury Text, basing the structure on a display typeface they had been exploring.
The family is unique in that there are several “grades” of varying boldness that have the same letterform widths. Each grade had a standard range of weights. A publisher would select a grade that best suited their specific printing conditions, enabling them to achieve the desired result. (The clients had not asked for any of this, so I suppose the challenge was internally generated. Jonathan and Tobias and their team did all the thinking and heavy lifting, so they must get the credit for this solution. I just wrung my hands a lot.)
Was there any one project in which the type played a primary, most transformative role in the success of the outcome, more than others?
For the past several years we’ve worked with TEDMED, the TED conferences devoted to health and medicine. Every year we develop a signature visual approach that can be applied to publications, environmental design, staging, and videos.
For the 2014 conference, we decided we wanted a proprietary typeface that responded to a pattern that we’d developed and that allowed for unpredictable variation. Working with designer Graham Bradley we developed Bacterium, a typeface that has multiple variations for each letter, automatically substituting characters to achieve a variable, shape-shifting look. The substitution routine for an entire typeface can get complicated. Graham wrote a Python script that output the OpenType substitution code. The letterforms became the cornerstone of that year’s visual identity. You could never tell how a word would look, and I liked this idea.
How do you select typefaces for a job, and when in your design process does this happen? How long do you spend on font explorations?
I spend a good deal of time considering type for a job. A lot of our assignments are part of ongoing initiatives, and while we do a certain amount of one-offs, more often that not a type approach needs to work for a variety of applications over the course of several months, if not years. For this reason I spend a lot of time selecting type that can be put to a lot of different uses. There needs to be distinctiveness, along with a lot of weights, good italics, and good numerals. Easier said than done.
I usually prefer to work with classic (or classically inspired) typefaces. I suppose that’s the Cooper Union influence, but I generally stay away from decorative, novelty, or of-the-moment types. I want people to be inspired by how the message is presented through the arrangement of words, conveying excitement and personality through layout rather than relying on the charm of individual letterforms.
What advice would you give budding designers, especially in relation to typography?
Don’t pick a funky font. Pick something straight and do something funky with it. That’s harder to do, but it’s better to do. (Plus in five years you won’t look back and groan with embarrassment at your font choice.)
Any cool or interesting (type) stories?
We designed the large scale lettering over the Staten Island Ferry terminal, using Tobias Frere-Jones’s Interstate as a foundation. The neon-lined letterforms were engineered to withstand gale-force winds and feature protective screening to keep pigeons out. The kerning was done with a crane.