“Everyone found out about Vocal Type at the same time,” Tré Seals says, recalling the race protests from summer 2020. “Part of me felt like it wouldn’t be successful if it wasn’t for George Floyd.”
Vocal Type is the type foundry that Seals runs from Washington, D.C., US – it’s his second venture, following Seals design studio which he closed down last year because of his typography’s sudden popularity. The foundry creates typefaces inspired by protest signs from real-life movements, like the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 or Vietnman War protests.
Following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in May last year, protesters got in touch with Seals about buying and using his fonts for protests. On social media, he saw how they were applied to signs and street murals not just in America but across the world. “There were some in Denmark, some in Australia,” he adds. “And that’s when I realised how important Vocal Type was.”
“People don’t have to buy my fonts”
The break-through was bittersweet, not least because his history-inspired typefaces were still so relevant in today’s society. In 2014, Seals had been interning in Minneapolis, Minnesota, living and working in the downtown area. “My dad and I actually got our hair cut in George Floyd’s neighbourhood,” he says.
When he saw the 8-minute video of Floyd’s death, he remembered a less pleasant memory: being stopped by four cops in Minneapolis while he was walking down the street. “All I could think about is that it could have been me, and the whole time I was watching the video, it was like my face on his body.”
While the events were close to home, seeing his fonts used by protestors was “definitely empowering”, Seals says. He differentiates his work in type to his past branding work, where clients have to use the work they’ve paid for. “People don’t have to buy my fonts,” he says.
Sometimes, people actually have suggestions for his work, and Seals says he encourages this collaboration. When someone reached out to him to use his Marsha typeface – inspired by LGBT activist Marsha P. Johnson – they asked whether he could change the ‘r’ for their Black Lives Matter mural. That version of the ‘r’ is actually in the font family now.
“I knew I couldn’t just change the demographics or the education system”
Vocal Type was established when Seals stumbled upon some startling statistics after finding “monotony” in the design landscape. Only 3-3.5% designers in America are Black, while around 85% of them are white. “I knew I couldn’t just change the demographics or the education system,” Seals says. “So I tried to figure out a way to introduce a non-stereotypical piece of minority culture into the design itself, starting with the basis of any good design – typography.”
As his online manifesto states: “Vocal is for the creative that cares about telling the stories of the people we serve and not the false history of the industry we work in.”
The idea of using history as a starting-point can often create “a-ha moments”, Seals explains. Bayard is a sans-serif typeface inspired by signs from the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom. It’s named after Bayard Rustin, an advisor to Martin Luther King who was instrumental in organising civil rights movements from the 1940s onwards. The 1963 March is especially important as it’s where 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, almost sixty years later – the protesters used Bayard for the identity, social media assets and website. In the wake of Floyd’s murder, the march sought to reform systems that “enable police brutality and racial discrimination”. “It was a history coming full circle moment for me,” Seals says.
“No culture, no character”
The historical and political resonance of the fonts is clear. But they also go some way in another of the foundry’s ambitions – to diversify the design landscape. Part of why Seals had been finding the landscape so monotonous is because he didn’t see any of his culture reflected in it. “You could argue that it’s 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 banners at a 1957 women’s suffrage demonstration in Buenos Aires, Argentina and named after the country’s former first lady – he was likely not thinking about its application for an English tailoring company. However, the font was used for the London-based tailors Edward Hale, in a monochromatic identity designed by Horror Vacui studio.
“Someone using one of my fonts based an a culture and putting in a place where that culture normally wouldn’t be seen or heard diversifies design,” he says. “That’s really inspiring for me.”
“If you remove the historical context, it just looks like any other font that someone’s made,” he continues. And while most people are interested in the surrounding social issues, the aesthetics are crucial. “There’s a humanity to them,” Seals says. Does he ever feel a pressure that it was real-life people who inspired his designs? “These signs were made to be used once, and by taking them out of that realm and putting it into a font revives history,” he says. But the end result is his own version, Seals stresses.
Usually he works from photographs from protests, though for Martin there were scans of posters. This inevitably means that the designer has to angle the photos on Photoshop to get a head-on view. “There’s a certain level of character that I try to keep but there’s also no way to keep it 100% original,” he explains. With Eva, for example, Seals worked from a photo of “super-wide banners at a diagonal angle” which required a lot of Photoshop manipulation. He traces the photos first, then chops up existing characters to form the rest of the alphabet.
“You can still keep the historical context without taking too much away”
Historical accuracy also has to balance with potential clients’ demands. There would be no point in making something “way out there” as it wouldn’t be used by clients. In the case of Bayard, the protest sign was double-sided. While one side had a condensed upper-case ‘s’, the other side was like nothing Seals had ever seen before.
“It was unusable,” he adds. In the end, he made the first ‘s’ part 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 involved, mostly trying to find the photographs from archives. For Carrie, inspired by women’s suffrage and peace activist Carrie Chapman Catt, he was working from only one photograph until he finally found a couple more. Only then did he realise that the signs were double-sided. In the future, he’d like to work with a historian to help with this part of the process, Seals says. At the moment, he runs the foundry by himself.
He’s currently working on a font inspired by a 1930s typeface called Jim Crow. While the typeface speaks to America’s racist segregation laws, it also has a “crazy history” that caught his imagination, Seals says. It was made in 1850, stolen from the French, made in Boston and was since changed and named for the Jim Crow caricature.
After followers’ suggestions, he’s also working on a typeface based on students’ 1989 protest signs at China’s Tiananmen Square and another inspired by America’s Japanese internment following World War II.
Vocal Type turns five this year, and while Seals had been planning an exhibition for the anniversary, the pandemic has put an end to that. And while there have been break-throughs in this period, he’s unsure about the industry’s development when it comes to diversity.
He’s noticed a decrease in typographic stereotypes – such as the use of calligraphic brush scripts by east Asian brands – and says that there have been more type design scholarships for people of colour. But design education, which should start in his school according to Seals, needs to do more for outreach.
“When you think about protest, it’s people in the streets carrying signs”
In the future, Seals hopes to explore different type of protests. “When you think about protest, it’s people in the streets carrying signs,” he says. But there are other types of activism according to the designer. For example, his Marsha typeface was inspired by the neon sign that hangs outside New York’s Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 LGBT riots.
He’s also almost finished work on a font inspired by education activist W. E. B. Du Bois whose infographics sought to change people’s minds about supposed scientific justifications of racism. “He was an activist even though he wasn’t in the streets,” he says.
As far as contemporary inspiration goes, Seals says there would be “sensitivities” with naming a typeface after a current-day activist. “I would love to make a font off of Greta Thunberg’s handwriting, but I’d want to actually collaborate on it,” he says. “Right now I’m figuring out what I can do that still conveys the idea of unity and isn’t a font somebody’s already made.”
Tré Seals is in discussion with Naresh Ramchandani for the first episode of D&AD’s Dinner With series, where a designer will discuss their career so far. It launches 28 January at 6pm, and can be streamed for free here.