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An Interview with James Todd

Written by
Jared Adams
Published
January 21, 2017
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Over the past twenty years James Todd has made clothes, type, identities, music, musical instruments, albums, websites, car parts, furniture, and (re)built cars. He spent several years apprenticing as a bespoke tailor and ran an auto upholstery shop. In 2009, he became actively involved in both graphic and type design and graduated with honors from The State University of New York Fredonia with a BFA in Graphic Design. We caught up with him to ask him a few questions about his career, ideas, and upcoming workshop.

What drew you to the act of designing type?

I didn’t even know that type design was a thing I could do until Richard Kegler from P22 released his documentary “Making Faces”. At the time I was studying graphic design and, being near P22’s office in Buffalo, NY, went to a screening of the film. On the drive back to the university, on of my professors said, jokingly “so are you going to make a typeface now?” That night, I downloaded Fontlab Studio and I haven’t stopped since.

You apprenticed as a bespoke tailor for three years. Is there a connection between the skills of tailoring and typography?

There is. Both are skills you learn because you love to do them, not because you want to get rich. They are also relatively arcane in their skillsets; you won’t meet many bespoke tailors or type designers in your daily life. Then there’s the learning curve; both tailoring and type design take a long time to learn but the payoff is high. Seeing someone using your work, whether they are wearing a suit or setting your type is always a great experience.

In addition to clothes, many of your other interests, musical instruments, furniture, and cars are tactile, very much based in working with physical materials. Type design — at least in the twenty-first century — is a much more conceptual experience. How do you fill the need to get your hands dirty and work with materials now?

This is something I still struggle with. In my more pessimistic moments, I think about how most everything I’ve made in the last few years could be wiped out if a few hard drives around the world were erased. As long as people are using the type and it’s out in the world, those concerns are kept at bay. 

I still work on my car when I can and I do a lot of hiking and related activities. I’m predisposed to burnout—which may be why I’ve had so many different careers—so I find that I need to unplug  and get away from letters for a time if I want to keep working in a field where I can spend several years on the same project.

You are co-administrator of Typedrawers.com. A discussion forum for professionals and enthusiasts in the fields of typeface design, lettering, and typography. Why did you get that involved in promoting community?

Since my university didn’t have a type curriculum, I, like most type designers, am self taught. When I was starting out, I relied on the generosity of others, particularly strangers on the internet, to show me the ropes. The type design community is small and relatively close-knit. I, along with Tiffany Wardle, took over the running of TypeDrawers to provide a safe place where people could learn and discuss type no matter where they were.

What are you hoping people take away from the hand lettering workshop?

I’m hoping everyone learns that lettering is something they can do. With practice, anyone can add that skill to their toolbox. It’s important to continue to grow as a designer and to push yourself as a person; nobody has ever been worse off after learning a new skill; this skill just happens to be a lot of fun.

For more info about James Todd, check out his website here. James will be giving a workshop with us at PCA&D on February 4th on hand lettering, sign up here.

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