Feel and Form

A New Font Inspired by Miles Davis' 'Masqualero'

by Megan Volpert

1 June 2017

Like Miles Davis, the Masqualero typeface has a strong duality; there are two ways of looking at it, outside and in.
Masqualero font photos from Monotype.com  
...I don’t see much of a difference between drawing these letters and sculpting in marble or metal.

What do Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and Telly Savalas have in common? A font. Specifically, Baby Teeth, designed by Milton Glaser. Dylan used it for promotional posters released with his Greatest Hits album in 1967. Davis picked up on it immediately and used the font to title his Sorcerer album a few months later. When Davis opted to go electric shortly thereafter, he rose to greater prominence in the mid-‘70s as an influence on psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd used the Baby Teeth font on the single for “Money” from Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, their first major stateside hit. Savalas got on the bandwagon in 1974.

Glaser’s poster design has won awards. As the music itself becomes iconic, so too can the graphics or typefaces associated with it. Consider how well you know the font associated with Woodstock. That one is Burko, by Monotype, which is often paired with very common fonts like Futura or Helvetica. Monotype has many fonts in circulation among music industry giants. Consider the proliferation of Franklin Gothic: the Ramones’ self-titled debut album, Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, Springsteen’s Nebraska.

Miles Davis would have turned 91 this month. The Sorcerer album is turning 50. Monotype has a new typeface, Masqualero, inspired by Sorcerer. PopMatters spoke to the designer, Jim Ford, about it.

Your new typeface was stirred by Miles Davis. What drew you to the song “Masqualero” on the Sorcerer album?

It’s the kind of song I’d want to play, on bass, piano or whatever. I love the dynamic twists and sharp turnarounds. It’s a very moody tune, but sophisticated.

Was it useful to deep dive into cover versions and variations of “Masqualero” when designing these letterforms, or did you focus on the original recording?

I’ve listened to most of them. But I mainly listen to two versions: the Sorcerer album version, and the live electric version, which is more intense (and is my personal favorite).

Is it common for designers to create fonts as homages or in response to other types of art objects? Have you personally found inspiration for your design work in this manner before?

I think it is common, though I haven’t looked into it heavily. I wonder about typefaces like Ellington, Strayhorn, Bowie and other designs named after musical influences.

My Posterama design was sort of a thesis on 20th century geometric sans serifs, spinning off art, design, pop culture, clichés and time periods. My Wolfsblood design recalls punk rock logos like the Misfits and Bad Brains. So, certainly a lot of designs are inspired by music and art—these are universal pastimes that inspire everyone.

While creating a font based on another piece of visual art seems completely possible, it must be difficult to design a font based on less visual mediums such as a sound or a smell. With your font based on Davis, is it just a matter of figuring out how the musical structure of jazz runs parallel to the line structures of your lettering?

It’s about feel and form, designing in the moment. And like Miles, the Masqualero typeface has a strong duality. Two ways of looking at it, outside and in.

I emphasized a “Gemini spirit” in the Masqualero typeface because Miles talked about that a lot, and even made an album about it. My thought was one part classical, one part innovation. The simplest example of this duality can be seen in the O’s, which you’ll then notice in other letters. The outer shape of the O is classical, familiar and Roman—balanced and easy on the eye, even. The inside, however, is the dynamic evil twin. It’s the hook, the cat’s eye, the almond, the cutting edge, or whatever you see in it. The interior corners represent the sharp ‘turnarounds’ in the music, and the bright slices and phrases from Miles’ horn in his solo. The inside of the letters touches on the more aggressive side of his personality, whereas the outside is more calm and stoic. After all, the Masqualero typeface is inspired by both the music, and the man.

In the case of Masqualero, the type, I don’t see much of a difference between drawing these letters and sculpting in marble or metal. Letters are familiar, symbolic and functional for us; but if we take them out of context, they can be quite abstract forms.

A lot of people hate jazz or reduce it as just being undifferentiated noise. Fonts, on the other hand, are very much expected to be legible. How did you balance the readability of the letterforms with the (sometimes) cacophony of the music?

A lot of people hate what they don’t understand. Jazz is an acquired taste for me. I didn’t grow up with it. It doesn’t reflect youth culture like rock ‘n’ roll, or street culture like hip-hop. I go all the way back with my jazz studies, though. It’s an American institution that led to all these other innovations in music.

The closest thing to jazz we had in our house growing up was Willie Nelson’s Stardust—another treasure. A friend of mine gave me a CD of Kind of Blue and I felt something from listening to it. That’s when I began listening more, I was about 26, very active with bands and music at the time. I started reading Miles Davis’s autobiography when I was at TypeCon in Boston. I didn’t have a lot of money that weekend, so I read and walked a lot.

I don’t think it is necessary to expose yourself to all kinds of music, but it’s a compulsion of mine. I love studying to the root of things. I’ll discover a band or a genre, and if I really like it, I’ll listen to everything in it and behind it. Where this music came from, what inspired it, let’s hear all of it! Similarly with jazz, I traced my interest in hip-hop music back to soul, R&B, funk and disco. Then neo-soul and neo-disco… What a party!

Music was just a creative springboard for me, as it always is. You don’t have to be a jazz fan to use or like my typeface. I took the name Masqualero, and made a new use for it, in a different context. It’s not a jazz font, but those early inspirations are pretty intriguing yeah?

I haven’t properly conveyed this yet, but the Masqualero fonts have little to do with jazz music, in their final state as a typeface. Sure, we can talk about the story, but I don’t think anyone would notice that it was inspired by jazz if we hadn’t communicated that. The inspiration is irrelevant to how people will use it, to tell their own stories.

The typeface Masqualero has a distinct tone and finish, but individually, letters are abstract shapes, symbols. If you take away the title, the song, the intentions and inspiration, what do you see in the typeface? It depends what it says, right? My point is that a pedestrian would see the typeface in no context of jazz. No one would look at it and say “Hey, that type looks just like Miles Davis! In that one song, you know?”

Can we talk about fonts with the same types of adjectives we use for other visual arts, like sculpture or painting, or is there a more specialized vocabulary for evaluating the quality of lettering?

There are the textbook type terms, many which are named after parts of the human body (leg, ear, eye, etc). I think letters are very relatable to people or sculptures. The capital G in Masqualero has a very distinct jaw, which I like. The S has a strong spine, it balances and whips like a scorpion. The legs of letters such as R, K and k are graceful and smooth, with a pointed toe like a stiletto shoe.

Monotype has many fonts that have proliferated through their usage in popular culture, on album covers and such. Of course, the company wants their fonts to be widely used, but is this an explicit orientation of Monotype’s goals? Do you seek out design projects that are likely to generate maximum exposure through their usage in the arts?

Monotype does a lot of customer-driven work, for everyone from creative professionals to brands. The studio has a very diverse group of type designers, as well as a Type Board that guides typeface designs and development, so we cover a large variety of styles, trends and innovations. We always seek to meet our customers’ needs and exceed their expectations with new and refreshing creative ideas.

An early version of Masqualero was first used for a fashion magazine, and I had to turnaround a working font on short notice. So, sometimes a perfect project or opportunity comes along, and that motivates you to draw the typeface. Make it work, designer.

Can you recognize your own font designs when you see them out in the world, or is it difficult to spot creations once they’re attached to other products?

I’m always looking for them, but rarely see them in the wild. And all the doppelgangers… I used to tell my wife, “Wait, rewind that, I gotta ID that typeface!” Now I don’t pay much attention, but I think someone else would recognize them first.

I don’t get out that much, and I rarely watch TV. Type is something that I make professionally, full time. So when I’m not working, I stop and look to other things. I’m always working and thinking of art or adventures anyway. When I’m out on the street, I’m usually drawn to the stains, the marks of time and weather. I’ve seen most of the common letters before, so I don’t gawk over them. Many of my friends here at Monotype are tuned into type all the time, so that’s why I think they’ll spot my typefaces before I would. My friend Terrance Weinzierl, also a type designer for Monotype, found my handwriting font on salad dressing bottles. I would’ve never seen it.

Also, when typography is working really well, the type can be somewhat invisible. Ambiguous. I tune in for type in movies, in the title sequences. I hope to see my own designs in that context someday. I also have an eye for packaging, from kid’s stuff to wine or whiskey labels.

Do you have a favorite iconic Monotype font? One you came to love because of how it ended up being used in the arts?

I don’t have a favorite, but I do like Futura typeface on things. I especially like finding relics from its hay days, when Futura was fresh and new—from metal type to photo type. The ITC collection also has a lot of iconic gems that are fun to see and use.

Let’s take ITC Benguiat, for example. Super cool points; anything you set in this typeface is going to look badass. Popularized by Quentin Tarantino in his films, and Netflix’s recent hit, Stranger Things. The Stranger Things titles are an entrancing typographic sequence combined with a classic ominous sci-fi score, that seduces you into binge-watching the show. Placed three- to five-minutes into the show, the type creates yet another cliffhanger.

Most third graders would like to be a doctor or an astronaut or something. How does one get into designing fonts, and then furthermore make a career out of it?

I got into type design through my interest in commercial art and graphic design. I drew a lot growing up and got into more technical illustration as I got older. I wasn’t aware of typography until college. Nowadays, I regard type design as something of a scientific art. It’s more technical than I want it to be, but at least all the drawing paid off.

I went to school for Graphic Design at Columbia College Chicago, where I was introduced and heavily exposed to typography. I liked the idea of drawing and mastering black and white form. Fonts are a very specialized field within graphic design. At the time, typography wasn’t so popular and educational opportunities were limited. I had to self-teach a lot, but I was very passionate about learning and drawing letters. I found a job with a Chicago type foundry right out of school and began my training then with type director Steve Matteson, Tom Rickner and “the good guys” at Ascender Corporation.

After five years at Ascender, I started a freelance business making custom lettering, posters, album covers and eventually fine art. I have a background in music and art, that runs parallel with my career as a type designer. Those few years as an independent designer made me a better artist. It also informed my type design, because I was approaching type more from a user’s perspective. As hard as it was, operating from a rural area, during a recession, I’m really proud of what I made during that time.

Since 2013, I’ve been rockin’ with Monotype and loving every minute of it. I’m fortunate to work with a great and talented team of people, who foster and encourage each other’s creative ideas. Everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets things done, too. It’s a wonderful place to work. So I’m very happy when I can contribute something vital and fresh to the Monotype library.

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