Typeface project: Imaginary Alphabets

Published:  August 24, 2012
Stephen Banham
Typeface project: Imaginary Alphabets

Designer: Elizabeth Carey Smith
Category: Found Lettering

Have you ever walked past a hand-drawn sign and thought that it would make a great typeface? Elizabeth Carey Smith did just this via a number of signage sites in Melbourne, producing these as entire alphabets presented as a series of posters known as ‘Imaginary Alphabets’.

What was the reasoning behind Imaginary Alphabets? Was it a reaction to being an ‘outsider’ (from beyond Melbourne)?
I started the project because, as a new freelancer, I wanted something productive to occupy my time between projects. I’d been thinking about it vaguely for some time, and thought I’d act upon it. I’d walked by that Lucattini sign [that inspired the first imaginary alphabet] a number of times and always marvelled at the script. To this day, I’ve never seen another like it.

Imaginary Alphabet 1: Lucattini. The original Lucattinis sign found in Punch Lane, Melbourne

The letters (taken from the above sign) that Carey Smith had to work with

The lowercase alphabet developed by Carey Smith

What inspired its formulation/design? Were there particular precedents that you built upon?
Even though I’ve always been a type- and letter-based designer (in my thinking process anyway), I hadn’t drawn many letterforms since leaving art school in 2002. Certainly not full alphabets. The project became a challenge to see how much existing structure was needed for me to ‘fill in the blanks of found lettering’, which became the tagline to Imaginary Alphabets. I started thinking about the letters as 26 children, who all had to look related, but of course retain their own personalities. There may be other similar projects out there, but when I come up with an idea I purposely don’t look around the web. I don’t want to skew the results or dampen my enthusiasm, so there are no precedents aside from the challenge itself and, of course, wanting to maintain a quality that type designers and purists could appreciate.

What did you ultimately intend to do with the project?
With few exceptions, I never noticed much interesting type exploration in Melbourne  (a lot of knocking out counters and other rudimentary trends), so I thought it might be a way to differentiate myself from other designers in the freelance market. The project did not become something that sold me to studios, per se, but then it did eventually evolve into a little show in Brunswick (Direct to Public), which was fun, but a lot more work than I’d anticipated. I decided after that to go back to just making alphabets for the value of the exercise.

Imaginary Alphabet 6: Jada. The source material found on sheet music in an antique store in Cold Spring, New York

The full character set

The final booklet

What particular challenges did you experience?
I had one semester of type design in undergrad, plus a crash course at Cooper Union in FontLab, so I was really relying on my own assumptions about the construction of letters. I very much was just putting myself and my ideas out there and practically winced as I mailed them out in fear of a backlash of criticism. When the alphabet was positively received, I got the confidence to try another. Tobias Frere-Jones was collecting them on the shelf over his desk – when he told me that, I nearly did a cartwheel.

Are you going to continue the project now that you’re back on home turf?
I’ve completed two Imaginary Alphabets since returning to New York: the first was Harlemite, based on Harlem park signage, and the second, Jada, based on sheet music from the old American jazz standard. The latter is the first to have been built as a usable font, and will be available on My Fonts. I keep thinking, ‘OK, this will be the last one’ and then I’ll stumble across an old sign or something at a flea market and change my mind again.


Thumbnail image: Jesse Mallon.

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