Notes from the Carl Dair Typography Workshops – Winnipeg

Carl Dair Typography Workshops the typographic event of the year for GDC Manitoba

You could call it Manitoba’s typographic event of the year. GDC Manitoba was fortunate to have two giants of the type world visit Winnipeg in October 2014 for the Carl Dair Typography Workshops.

Working with the title, "Looking & Reading," Rod McDonald and Patrick Griffin presented a public talk Oct. 17, followed by two day-long workshops, held at Red River College (well attended, thanks in part to a publicity campaign that included a website contributed by Andrew Boardman).

Karenia Niedzwiecki CGD has written about the CDTW on her blog, She also shot plenty of great photos at the event:


Photos © Karen Niedzwiecki CGD

In the public talk, McDonald posed the question, “What is typography?” The answer isn’t so simple. “It’s five decades and I'm having a little trouble with that,” he admitted.

Sometimes, you have to consider two approaches to the written word, McDonald told the audience. "You can't read and look at the same time."

Designers sometimes get caught up in how good a page looks – print or online. However, type isn’t just there to be admired. "You're supposed to read the damn stuff; you're not supposed to look at it,” McDonald laughed.

In some sense, the text is like radio, he continued. "That concept of allowing the reader to create their own picture is incredibly important."

Photo © John Lyttle CGD

"This is a human invention, maybe our greatest invention." But it's not rocket science, he added, pointing to the letter A projected on a screen.

He recalled working on a redesign for Maclean's magazine and having an editor tell him he wanted 60 words back.

Photo © Oliver Oike CGD

McDonald stressed that as designers, we have to understand the content we work with. "If we don't focus on the reader then we're going to miss the whole thing."

Photo © John Lyttle CGD

Patrick Griffin of Canada Type discussed three design projects, starting with a cover of The New York Times Magazine – the Lives They Lived issue of 2008.

He took the audience through the process of working with art director Nancy Harris Rouemy to create  a typographic magazine cover, based on the names of famous and recently deceased New Yorkers.

The typeface Memoriam Pro was developed after the success of that magazine cover. You can read Griffin's account on the web page that sells the font.

Griffin followed up that project with another New York Times Magazine cover, again the "Dead People on Display" issues, as he called it.

His experiences illustrated how – at that high level of publication design – details go through sea changes as the designer and client work towards the a result they hadn't fully imagined at the beginning of the process.

The NYT Magazine covers are beautiful examples of typography, as a quick look in a search engine can show: 2008 & 2009.

The last project Griffin discussed was something completely different: a client who knew exactly what they wanted. He needed to design a typeface according to exact specifications so that pilots could read directions written on runways. The audience learned a few things about setting aside personal preferences and deferring to client needs … and about how painful a helicopter ride can be if one has recently had dental surgery.

Workshops – Oct. 18 and 19, 2014

Photo © Adrian Shum CGD

Maybe it’s not rocket science, but good typography can go a long way in graphic design. "If you've got a custom typeface, you don't need a logo," McDonald suggested.

As part of the workshops, McDonald spoke about a classification of type project he began working on with Mike Parker (1929–2014), the man credited with popularizing Helvetica worldwide when he worked as Director of Typographic Development at Mergenthaler Linotype.

McDonald also gave workshop participants advice on how to design effectively with type. His booklet Type Tips is available here as a PDF (type_tips_compiled.pdf) or your can view the pages on an online flip book.

© Rod McDonald FGDC

The designers who attended the workshops showed projects they were working on and received feedback from McDonald, Griffin and other members of the group.

Advice arose on numerous fronts – adhering to grids, aligning drop caps, and making your type choice historically consistent with the subject matter.

At times, setting type needs careful attention. Fonts and applications such as Adobe InDesign make a designer’s task manageable but skill will always be necessary in the creation of truly great designs. In other words, don’t be lazy. "It's almost expected that the tools do the job for you," Griffin cautioned.

And another thing: Don't use the same machine-like font that every other designer in the world is excited about. "Designers are kind of like lemmings," McDonald chuckled during one discussion.

The workshops sometimes covered broad general topics; at other times, they were detail-oriented. "If you go short on column width, you're inviting short attention spans," Griffin remarked during the critique of a particular project.

McDonald, drawing on his experience as a type designer, reflected on the way some people try to make letter forms conform to mathematical principles or other elements of the outside world. "Typefaces are a human invention, done by humans for humans," he said.

On the other hand, a skilled type designer can take a geometric form and humanize it, as Paul Renner did with Futura. However, McDonald hastened to add that while it's a triumph of a sans serif, designers should never choose it for large amounts of body text. "Unless you really hate the reader, don't use it."

For those in attendance – and even for those who made it out to the free public talk – the Carl Dair Typography Workshops in Winnipeg were a great success, an event GDC Manitoba can be proud to have organized.

Thanks for reading the #@%* copy.