Interviews

Feel and Form: A New Font Inspired by Miles Davis' 'Masqualero'

Masqualero font photos from Monotype.com

Like Miles Davis, the Masqualero typeface has a strong duality; there are two ways of looking at it, outside and in.

...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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.