Thanks again Thomas for speaking with me. Shall we jump right in?
What parallels do you draw between designing type and building a community, where the characters you work with are people? How do you make that relationship work?
Thomas: I think that’s the word: Relationships. In type design, fundamentally you’re dealing with relationships—and how different components that seem not to be similar at all harmonize, and still be different. Building the right community works the same way in a sense: it’s a skillset just like design. If you know the right tools and the right methodology of how to approach it, you can do just the same with relationships with people. There’s so much unknown and unpredictability with people, much like any type design project. There’s a lot of unknown variables that you only really know when you get in there, or if you have the right process, the right mindset behind why you’re doing it. You can usually work through it and come to a very successful result in the end.
It’s easy to think of design as this controlling process, but that doesn’t really work with people. How did you get organized and set expectations and limits that worked for people attending?
Thomas: The control part is you can only control yourself. You can’t control others. So this is kind of a woo woo [fancy] concept, but it’s true. You can’t control anything else in external reality. The only thing you can control is yourself, and when you’re building a community, it’s very much intentional to you. To assign first: what do you appreciate in people, what do you care about, what matters to you, and then communicating that to people as a priority, as an intentional action.
Then taking time to understand people: where they’re coming from, what they care about, what matters to them, what’s their context, how did they get to where they are today—that’s an intention. So those are very designed. That’s a methodology. A process, a kind of mindset that they make, anyway, that’s what you can control. Now everything after that, kind of what those two things do which we create trust with, in people you relate with—you don’t control that. You don’t have control over that part. But you know what? It’s just like type. You work so intentionally in your projects, and then you release it.
Thomas: Out into the world. It’s gone. It can go really well, or really horrible. The best you can do is give the best intentions as a designer. Then you give this gift out to other people. A little cheesy, but it’s true. And really, the more I think about that, I think it’s a really fair analogy. Because there’s gonna be some people who really appreciate type and really love it and care for it, and really know how to use the tool [you created] beautifully—maybe in ways you never expected. Much like with people: there may be some people you engage with that you had no idea what their story was. You’d find out there are these dynamics that come out of it that are so much more powerful than anything an individual can do by himself. So that parallel is really powerful and really exciting.
So let’s back up. The first Type Thursday was—when?
Thomas: So, I’ll give you the history of it because there’s a kind of format, like a type crit, this existed for a long time. I know in Seattle they had it, they have it. It’s called Type Tuesday. They’ve had it a very long time. John Berry has been doing it. In New York, I was an apprentice for Joshua Darden. He did something—the first Thursday—that was back in … 2005? Yeah, 2005 and it went to 2006. Basically, when I finished the Type@Cooper program, I initially needed or wanted a format like that, so that was 2015 when it started.
How many people showed up to the first one?
Thomas: Three people.
Thomas: Yeah, and these were just a few friends of mine.
Great. Start small. It’s just a year later now and how many show up, on average?
Thomas: Fifty people.
Wow. And what do they want to do when you get together? Discuss typography in general? Get a critique on their type or lettering work? Is it all this stuff?
Thomas: That’s the thing. When you’re building community, you have to find these multi-layer relationships. You could almost think of it as concentric circles. There is that core group of people who are developing typefaces, who are just out of school and they want to get input. You have practitioners who can show work but don’t feel like they need to show work, or it’s under an NDA or whatever. They enjoy talking about type and may offer input. Then you have type users—people who are interested in type—who come because it’s basically a fun thing. They come in to see this critique happen.
They’re there to see the process?
Thomas: Exactly. So it’s something that goes from, like, they never understood [type] or even perceived it in any way, to really seeing the intentionality and the thought process behind something they thought was air. I think that’s actually the most rewarding part. Most type crits are just type designers and aspiring type designers coming together giving type crits to each other. But when that’s a performance seen by a larger audience of type users, they get so much information out of it and so much perspective. I think that’s the part I was really surprised by.
A lot of them will either go on to take workshops, a percentage will probably go into type, some of them will just be more educated on how to use type. I think there’s a net win for everybody involved.
Does the event run itself, or do you get up at the beginning, welcome everyone and lay out the structure of how you want things to go?
Thomas: At a certain point, you add some structures in there to keep things going. I think a big thing in organizing events is you have to minimize ambiguity, so it’s almost like figuring out relationships. There has to be a clarity of forms, positive or negative, or in this case, where do people go, what do they do next, what’s the socializing section, how do you move forward? Generally, this works by having volunteers at specific locations—[e.g.] that welcome you at the doors. In sociology, they talk about this: whenever human beings enter a new social context, like a new room or a space that they’re not familiar with, they get a pang of social anxiety. Because human beings pang socially off of everything around them. So when they’re in a new environment, there’s anxiety built from that, and that can be mediated by a volunteer. All they have to do is say, ‘Hi. Welcome to Type Thursday. It’s this way.’
And you break through and they relax?
Thomas: Exactly. You might have multiple turns [to get in] … where there’s a sense of ambiguity—someone might get lost or confused where to go next. You would have a volunteer there or something directing them where to go. So usually at the main entrance, someone usually tells them ‘Hey. Here’s where the drinks are. We’re going to start at (a set time). Hang out. Have fun.’ Also, the volunteers are told that if anyone’s kind of wallflowering—doesn’t know anyone because it’s their first time there—to socialize with them. Talk with them and see what they’re doing, what they’re interested in, and then to make introductions for them to anyone in the group.
Thomas: So that’s the thing. All these details. When the actual critique happens, we have a specific volunteer called the critique lead. He or she has a specific set of questions, and they have a conversation with the presenter. Normally you kind of have to prime the conversation for a type crit. Because if you just leave it open for anyone to talk about anything they want, it’s usually not useful. We keep it to ten minutes. We’re very concentrated on the allocation of time. That’s a kind of example—you introduce these little design intentions to kind of direct the boat. And the boat just kind of rides that river.
For people who want to start something like this, what are some ways they can get a regular type crit going in their area?
Thomas: We’re very open to having new chapters open up. We recently opened a chapter in San Francisco which I’m very excited about. But you know what, that’s not even necessary. At Type Thursday, we’re here to offer resources, input, and encouragement to help make this thing happen in every major design city or country. So they’re more than welcome to reach out to me directly if they want to start a chapter in their own city. Or even just start whatever they want to do. Building this kind of a community doesn’t have to be type-focused. It can be anything you care about that you think is important. Type is just something I really care about and love, and I know a lot of other people love this stuff, so [I] figured out this way to connect with people. Yeah, so I’d love to hear from them. I’d love to encourage and mentor anyone who’s learning the processes and steps to building community in their own lives.
Thanks, Thomas. This has been really helpful.
Since doing this interview together at TypeCon in August 2016, Type Thursday NYC’s regular attendance has grown to 150 each month, and a Los Angeles chapter has opened. TypeThursdayHQ: facebook.com/TypeThursday