STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago.
I went to a podcasting conference last week in Chicago. That meant free T-shirts, an awesome and terrifying few minutes where I tried to act cool while drinking an old fashioned with Roman Mars, and also, I collected a lot of business cards. And because of the story we’re going to tell you this week, I was a little obsessed with the business cards.
I was scanning all of them in search of the lowercase letter A, written in un-ornamented, sans-serif type. And then I would analyze each of those little ‘A’s,’ looking for a telltale, jaunty little upward curve to the bowl, and a sheer, straight line on the right side. I was trying to envision what it would be like to be Mark Simonson, the Twin Cities type designer who created the ubiquitous typeface Proxima Nova.
CLARE HENDERSHOT: Proxima Nova is one of the most popular fonts for website text, which means that whether you know it or not, you’ve seen it—a lot. In fact, Mark has created dozens of fonts, and they’re all over the place—corporate logos, magazine headlines and TV shows. And Mark doesn’t have a master list of everyone using his fonts, so he just discovers them out in the wild.
SH: He’ll be at the movies, watching Star Trek, and then right there aboard the Enterprise, is his typeface Changeling. Or he’ll be reading a Harry Potter novel, breezing through chapter four, and there it is — Felt Tip Roman, a script he created based on his own handwriting. You can imagine, it’s fun when he sees his handiwork in action, but it’s also kind of hard to know how to react.
MARK SIMONSON: It’s a weird kind of thing, because it’s almost like nobody knows. It’s like an oxymoron to be a famous type designer. It’s like this secret fame or something, you know?
CH: Secret fame is better than no fame, and an interesting thing about Mark’s typographical journey is that it almost didn’t happen. Mark has been designing type since college, and even created a first sketch of Proxima Nova in the early 1980s. But for decades, his type design work went nowhere.
SH: On this episode of Cedar Cathedral, the story of Mark Simonson, type designer extraordinaire, who had to wait and wait before he made it. But when it finally happened, it happened.
CH: Thanks for listening to our show, and for caring about artists from the Great Lakes. This is the time of year when the Great Lakes is pretty much the most amazing place on earth, and as we’ve been traveling around recently, both collecting interviews and visiting family and friends, it’s been fun to see what summer looks like across the region.
SH: We picked blueberries near Kalamazoo. Had ice cream in Madison with our feet dangling in Lake Mendota. Climbed up to the overlook at Mill Bluff State Park and shared an awkward few minutes with two teenagers that we … interrupted. We’ve taken our daughter to the beach pretty much every day we’re home in Chicago, because really that’s what summer here is for.
CH: So here’s hoping that you’re listening to this on your way to someplace cool. Now let’s head back to Mark Simonson’s Prairie-style home in St. Paul, where there’s a 1970s paper mockup of the Empire State Building just inside the door. Mark’s studio is in the back, off the kitchen, and he’s sitting there beside an illustration he drew of Mike Ehrmentraut from Breaking Bad. It’s a little disconcerting because there’s something eerily similar about Mike’s and Mark’s expressions, as Mark talks about his early experiments with typography.
THE EVOLUTION OF TYPE
SH: Mark came up during a transitional time in the world of type design. He got into type as a student at North Hennepin Community College in the mid-70s, just as phototypesetting was completing its takeover of the printing industry, replacing the wood and metal blocks that had done the job for the previous 500 years. Mark created his first typeface in the late '70s and sent it off to the International Typeface Corporation, which at the time was a high-tech, photoset-based type foundry in New York. He figured stardom was a formality at that point.
MS: You always think that, no matter what, but it almost never happens. I think there probably isn't a type designer out there who hasn’t imagined that this could be the next big thing.
SH: Nine months later, he got a letter in the mail.
MS: 'Thank you for your submission. We chose not to pick your design, but don’t be discouraged.' And so it was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow, this is harder than I thought, you know?’”
CH: And for the next decade, Mark’s typography took a backseat. He was working as an art director and graphic designer in the Twin Cities, often in the service of Garrison Keillor’s weekly public-radio show A Prairie Home Companion. He was content working on Star Wars cassette tapes and toilet paper dispensers and mail-order catalogs, and with being an early fan-boy of Mystery Science Theater 3000. But occasionally, his design work would remind him of his first love. He would be designing something, and notice that the right font for the job just didn’t seem to exist.
SH: That’s how Proxima Nova took its next step forward, a few years later.
MS: I was working at this magazine at the time that used Gill Sans for the house sans serif. And I love Gill but I sort of wanted something that was a little bit plainer than that, but I didn’t want to use Helvetica or something like that, because that’s just so overused. I was thinking, well, what if you had something that was sort of like Helvetica in a way, but a little bit more geometric and didn’t have those sort of European characteristics ...
CH: This approach would gradually become a hallmark of Mark’s creative process—his ideas would be sparked either by a project where he just couldn’t find the right font, or by his constantly morphing series of hobbies and interests. Mark has typefaces inspired by old Superman cartoons, Italian art deco, and film noir titles.
MS: I would get obsessed with one thing for like a week or two, and then would completely drop it because something else would catch my attention. So i’d be reading stuff about architecture one week and buying all these books about architecture, and the next thing you know I’m like reading about the history of animation or something. I would have these like serial obsessions where I would kind of rotate through several different things over a period of time. I guess it all feeds into the overall picture in a way, because knowing all these different subject areas I think is useful, because you end up with these kind of things you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, if you’d just totally focused on one area. There’s this kind of cross-fertilization that happens.
SH: But for the longest time, Mark kept it all quiet. All of his typographical work was done on the side.
MS: It was like a constant obsession during those years. It was a pipe dream really. It was just like I was an armchair type designer for a long time, just like, you know, whenever I was like doodling in a meeting or something like that, I would just be like coming up with ideas and it would just be this very stream-of-consciousness visual work and it was not really like, it was not intended to be used for anything in particular, it was just like I liked exploring different ideas thinking that someday, you know, I might try to like get them published somewhere.
SH: After a decade of this, he finally started tinkering a little more formally. In the late ‘80s he picked up a copy of the first desktop font-making software, called Fontographer, figuring it would help him polish his work before he tried again with the big foundries. The future was calling, and he sort of answered by accident.
MS: I started doing fonts on that, thinking that I would use that just to submit something new to ITC and they would make it into a real font. Not realizing that these were the real fonts in the future, and that the old type-setting industry was falling away and there was this new desktop publishing based paradigm.
SH: Mark released three fonts during the early 1990s, then nothing for the rest of the decade. Among that power trio were Proxima Sans, the forerunner to Proxima Nova, as well as Felt Tip Roman. Those would both go on to become hits—I mean, Felt Tip Roman has its own U.S. Postage stamp—but they weren’t hits at the time.
MS: It was just like you know beer money, basically, at the time. I never really made very much in the ‘90s even though I was technically in it.
SH: In hindsight, this seems insane. Mark wasn’t just a great artist waiting to create his masterpiece; these two commercial hits were already out there, begging to be seen and used. But throughout the ‘90s, for years and years after their release, Mark just heard crickets.
MS: You know, I struggled for so long at trying to make any money in the font business, and you know, I just never thought it was going to happen.
CH: Finally, everything changed in the year 2000. But not because Mark’s work was suddenly discovered. Instead, it was because his partner Pat won big on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. That windfall, plus the fact that Mark was growing tired of his art-director gig, pushed him to open his own studio, with an emphasis on type design.
SH: And the creative floodgates opened. Over the next year, Mark cranked out six new fonts whose range spoke to the breadth of his influences. The list included two Euro-themed families—the flirtatious, French-inspired script Coquette, as well as Mostra, a font that looks so 1930s Italian that it’s a little unsettling to realize it’s 15 years old and made in Minnesota. Mark also started blogging up a storm, publishing a diatribe against the font Arial as well as a bunch of homegrown Flash animations, because, you know, it was 2001. It all worked together to get more designers looking Mark’s way.
CH: Soon Rolling Stone magazine featured Proxima Sans in a redesign. Proxima Nova came out in 2005, and the momentum continued to build. When Adobe included Mark’s work on its popular Typekit platform, it gave a generation of web designers fast access to a red-hot font, and soon the Internet takeover was on. Suddenly, a mere quarter century after submitting his first typeface to ITC, Mark Simonson was a star type designer. And he was prolific, churning out dozens of new typefaces, revisions and expansions during the 2000s.
RULER OF THE INTERNET
SH: Now Mark was not only making money, but his fonts were showing up everywhere. He had gone from overconfident to hopeless and then succeeded anyway. But that came with a new challenge—what to do now that he had made it. Having been so squarely at the center of a typographical trend with Proxima Nova, Mark had to figure out what to do next, starting with whether to follow his muse, or try to anticipate the next big thing. The muse won.
MS: I try not to think about trends too much because every time I’ve tried to follow a trend in the past, it sort of backfires. Because it’s kind of like that whole like 'you want to go where the puck is going to be, not where it is now,' and it’s like especially with type design, because it’s not like you can just kind of make a font in a couple of days or something like that and ride that wave somehow. It’s like, no, it’s like, 'I’m going to make this typeface,' and then two years later, 'Here it is! Where is everybody?' You have to remember, too, it’s something you’re going to spend a long time working on, and so if it’s something you’re not really into, it’s going to be really dreadful.
CH: That’s challenge number one. The second challenge is that, now that Mark’s reputation is established and his existing catalog is paying the bills, his motivation is flagging a bit. His iMac is full of interesting fonts in progress, including one called Lake Gothic that’s another callback to his Garrison Keillor days. But Mark hasn’t released anything since 2011.
MS: I’m not really like in a situation where I have to release new stuff to keep the lights on. So it’s sort of bad in that way creatively. I mean there is something to be said for deadlines, as much as we hate them you know. It’s like, they’re motivators. It’s like, yeah, it’s easy to be sort of complacent once you know you’re in that situation where the money keeps coming in whether you do anything or not.
SH: That, I suppose, is the creative professional’s version of a first-world problem. It’s also interesting as it relates to the creative life, because it suggests that maybe there’s some optimal middle ground of income and success that encourages maximum artistic flourishing. But for most of us, it’s like, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
For most of us—certainly for Clare and me—the relatable thing here is the struggle and dissonance that occur when you believe in what you’re creating but wonder why the rest of the world seems slow on the uptake. Well this guy, Mark Simonson, drew his creative and commercial masterpiece three decades before it took over the Internet. Three decades! Next time you’re surfing the web—including at CedarCathedral.com—and you see that jaunty little curve on the lowercase A that says Proxima Nova, take a moment to appreciate the vision and skill and patience of a master typographer.
CH: For more on Mark Simonson, visit CedarCathedral.com, or check out our Cedar Cathedral Instagram.
SH: We close every episode with a song by a great indie band from the Great Lakes. This week we’re staying in Minneapolis, with the song Transference, from Rogue Valley. It’s from the band’s new record, which is going to be released with a huge concert at the Fitzgerald Theater on Friday, July 29. Rogue Valley is great, and the lineup that night is great as well, including Jeremy Messersmith, Chastity Brown and the Laurels String Quartet. The link for tickets is on CedarCathedral.com. (Here's the link for tickets.)
CH: Cedar Cathedral was produced this week by us, Steve and Clare Hendershot from The Diving Bell. Thanks to Mark Simonson, and to Rogue Valley. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another tale of Great Lakes creativity.