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  • Writer's pictureAshley Ehman

Week 2: Story Told

This week has us examining how typography can be used to capture the essence of a location or community. Not only do we look at instances where type was made for a particular event or place, but we also investigate how to go about making our own. Through this week's materials, resources, and additional research, I determine how to effectively translate a sense of place through self-developed letterforms.

Lecture + Resource Reflection

The lecture kicked things off by introducing Colophon Foundry. As they discussed their process and experience with creating a typeface for the Welsh government, it was interesting to see what they used for inspiration, as well as the limitations that were involved with the project. Some of the limitations made sense, such as not being familiar with the Welsh language. It makes sense, but I had never thought about the fact that type designers probably encounter projects that aren't in their native language more often than one would think. This made the idea of a language consultant very interesting to me. I'm not sure I would be able to design for a language other than English, myself, and Colophon goes beyond that and even tackles Arabic and Cyrillic languages!

Other limitations were unexpected. One important piece of information that caught me off guard was the fact that Welsh signage always included an English translation with it. This can mean a few different things when designing a font. 1. You either have to make a font that stylistically works for Welsh and English or 2. You have to create a font that will pair well with whatever font family the English translation uses.

As I perused the other resources, I was left with a few different ideas to consider when I got down to creating my own letterforms. As Dan Rhatigan put it,

The best typefaces are beautiful and usable (SOURCE).

I knew I wanted to create something that met both of these unspoken traits. Rhatigan also used readable and "good personality" as ways to judge the effectiveness of a font. His own iteration of Ryman Eco was especially inspiring because it took into consideration the effects his font would have on the environment. We touched on this idea of designing with environmental impact in mind in GDE710, but Rhatigan's take on things was so simple yet inventive. If you want to use less ink, then have less letter! Ryman Eco still reads like a fully fleshed-out font but utilizes less surface area as a way to lessen its negative impact on the world. Simple, but brilliant.

Another piece of information that stuck with me from Rhatigan's video was what he had to say on the letters "A" and "N." As he puts it,

"A" and "N" are a good starting point to get the building blocks of a font (SOURCE).

Do you know what "Madison" has in it? Both of those letters! Without much more of a plan in place at this point, I knew I would start my Workshop Challenge with those two letters before moving on to the others.

The other resource that proved interesting covered the logo that defined the Summer Olympics that took place in Mexico City in 1968. Created by Lance Wyman, the Mexico 68 drew on influences from Aztec and Mayan cultures. I loved that he used ancient runes and symbols to shape his design, and I hope to capture the same energy in my final piece. I also appreciated that he drew upon popular art movements of the time period, including the Optical Art Movement.

The troubling areas surrounding this design definitely gave it an interesting story. I had never been taught about the "Mexican Miracle" in school, but it reminded me of similar themes within my own county. One might even argue that the pandemic-induced recession was also an instance where the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer.

Drawing on Rhatigan's idea of fonts being usable and beautiful, this translated well to the '68 Olympics logo. As the anti-government movement gained traction, I was especially intrigued by how the protesters used Wyman's design to promote their own agenda. From signage to building tagging, there were bits and pieces of Wyman's design found in a variety of propaganda. It speaks volumes to his design that it could be used in instances of global promotion, as well as localized protesting.

Research + Analysis

With a variety of ideas in mind to draw inspiration from for my own letterforms, I opted to look into the history of my city. Despite living here for almost four years, I didn't know much about Madison's past. The Wisconsin Historical Society seemed as good a place to start as any, so I began my search there.

The information I came across should have been obvious to a transplant like me, yet I had never made the connection between the very obvious references to the past and how they're used in the present-day. Some of the most notable nods to Madison's history were:

  • Native American populations - Between 300 and 1300 CE, Native Americans lived in the area. While the original effigy builders were likely gone at that point, the Ho-Chunk tribe was present in the 1940s, when the first white settlers began to call the area home. Nowadays, the various Ho-Chunk casino locations are the most obvious nods to these Native populations.

  • Doty References - There are multiple instances of the name "Doty" appearing throughout the city of Madison. The most recognizable one being "Doty Street", a well-used road that goes through the center of the city. This comes from James Duane Doty, who, in the 1800s, bought a large part of the land that would eventually become Madison. He even convinced the state government to make Madison Wisconsin's Capitol.

  • Madison - There are even historical references in its name. Chosen by James Doty, Madison was named after the 4th President of the United States, James Madison. We even have a James Madison Park, and I still never made the connection between Madison's namesake and its Presidential reference.

Madison's history proved to be quite vibrant and I learned even more than listed above. The majority of its original white settlers were of Irish, German, and Norweigan descent (like much of Wisconsin). As the other designers had pulled upon cultural references, I thought this could also be a potential avenue of inspiration to explore. In addition, I learned that construction began on the capitol building in 1836, as well as the University. With its population growing, more and more industries found themselves drawn to the area. The railroad came in 1854, and business began booming. Popular areas of industry included agriculture, as well as food processing. In fact, Oscar Mayer Foods Corporation's headquarters are located in Madison (and we often get to see the "Weiniemobile" in real life!).

With a better handle on its past, I dug a little further and looked into what made Madison the city it is today. Its most notable traits include a vast array of bike paths and other recreational opportunities, as well as large parks, pretty lakeshores, and a bustling downtown (when there isn't an active pandemic, of course.) The culture and art realm is also thriving within the city. There is a slew of theatres, museums, and libraries that host a variety of plays, musicians, musicals, and other educational events. Madison itself is also extremely liberal when compared with the rest of the state. In fact, Dane County was one of only a few that voted for Biden in the last presidential election. This free-thinking bubble is most likely the result of the University of Wisconsin - Madison and the fact that our state legislature does business here. With educated young people, combined with the presence of politicians, the city remains informed on controversial topics and usually adopts a stance that welcomes and supports the majority of the diverse community that calls the city home.

Having uncovered quite a bit about my home, I felt better prepared to tackle the Worskhop Challenge for this week.

Workshop Challenge

This week's challenge built on our work from last week, with the final outcome being a letterform piece that represented our city.


To start things off, I mulled on the information I had found during my research. I felt it would be useful to create a list of words that I felt described Madison. My original list can be seen in the photo to the left. After that, I shortened the list down to five traits that I thought captured Madison best. Those words were:

  • Vibrant

  • Diverse

  • Active

  • Accepting

  • "Midwestern Nice"

While other places could definitely embody the first four, the final "Midwestern Nice" is something that is unique to the area. When I finally began my design phase, I wanted to be sure that I had certain themes to inspire my final piece.

I also looked into the history of the Capitol building in Madison for any spark of inspiration. The history itself didn't bring anything to mind, but the ceiling of the Capitol building proved interested. As you can see in the photo, the ceiling is divided into 24 slices. I thought perhaps I could use this in my final design, and so I began workshopping the idea.


I first used the ceiling as a grid of sorts on which to build my letters. I spent a fair bit of time on this before I realized I completely hated it. The photos below outline the steps I had taken to finish my city name.

I don't know if it was the spherical shape that the perspective of the ceiling gave the letters or what, but I was not happy with the final result, so I completely scrapped this idea.

I turned to paper for my second attempt. This time worked a little better. I was inspired by the depth of the different pieces I found in my Week 1 Endeavours. The Green Owl Cafe, for example, had been cut into its sign and could cast branded shadows when lit. Monty's Blue Plate Diner utilized neon lights, which protruded from the actual words themselves. I thought it would be interesting to play with the idea of the depth of field in my letterform piece.

I began by sketching out the word "Madison" in my sketchbook. I chose my perspective point and began building. As I continued, I realized my letters almost looked like buildings, and so I went further with this idea. Madison has many different parts to it, and it's constantly growing. Some places are pretty standard residential neighborhoods, with houses and parks. Other areas are tall buildings and busy restaurants. I chose to represent this by making my "M" and "N" letters uppercase. This also served as a nice symmetry point since these letters served as bookends to the word. From there, I created a shadow, to build my image's depth. However, I didn't do a shadow of "Madison" but rather of "Home." I thought this was a nice, unexpected development to my piece since it gave the word "Madison" a double meaning. Sure, it's a city, but it's also where I live and thrive.

I ended my project by incorporating other elements that made the word appear to be a skyline of sorts. I added a road, a curb, and some grass.

Final Outcome

This project could have gone a lot smoother. I don't think letterforms are for me. I looked at my classmates' projects to see what they had done, as well as other resources for inspiration, but I just ended up getting increasingly frustrated. If I had had more time to work on this, I would have added more elements to make Madison more present in the final piece. I would have topped my "M" with a dome that resembled the one on the Capitol building. I'd connect my "M" and my "D" with a walkway, much like the ones that can be seen at the University. My "N" would have been made to look like a parking garage, and my "a", "i", "s", and "o" would have been molded into the different styles of houses you can see around the city. Finally, my "D" would have been an apartment building.

Maybe I'll revisit this project in the coming weeks, but I feel like I've already spent too much time on and I need to move on to other things. It could be a nice piece of art if I were able to commit more time and energy to it, but it definitely won't be turning into a font anytime soon.


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