Excelsiorama: Type Design from a Collective of Creative Imaginations

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It takes hours, weeks, months and in some cases years to design a typeface. Who does it all? The lone type designer, who toils away in a studio in solitude, of course. That singular person knows how to manage the formal, technical, linguistic, and functional elements—just to name a few—to design and release a typeface.

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In some cases it does happen that way, but not all the time. Sometimes it takes a family. Collaboration happens around the clock and a team of individuals, each with their own expertise or overlapping experiences, work as a “hive mind.” Their collective intelligence comes together and they each contribute to the monumental task.

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One AIGA chapter did just that, coming together as a family to design Excelsiorama one letter at a time. Excelsiorama is billed as “A typeface made by graphic designers living and working in ‘Upstate’ (not NYC) New York.” That part in parentheses is important, according to Doug Bartow. Not only is he id29’s principal and design director but he’s also the president of AIGA Upstate NY.

[Excelsiorama’s website is one of this month’s Top 10 Sites for Designers. See more here.]

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According to Bartow, “AIGA Upstate New York is a bit different than the other 70 chapters nationwide in that we don’t have one central city we regularly gather in. Our chapter—founded in 1989—covers over 45,000 sq. miles, and we are actively programming events in as many as eight different cities—or hubs—at the same time.” Despite that broad reach—or perhaps because of it, and the diverse members of their design community—AIGA Upstate managed to design a typeface with the help of some of its members who communicated through Slack.

Take Up the Slack

Slack, the real-time messaging and communication tool, has grown into an asset for offices, enterprises, and even schools to chat about everything and anything. Equal parts team management and team building, if you’re working on a large project like designing a typeface, Slack can make communication easy. For AIGA Upstate, Slack helped everyone come together to design Excelsiorama.

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“When someone has a question on the nuance of typeface design, for example, experts like Tyler are usually available to lend a hand. When Tyler suggested this project as a state-wide collaboration, people jumped right in. It was done remotely, but the conversations in our #collab Slack channel kept the project rolling and all the designers involved through its completion.”

Tyler Finck has designed a number of fonts, many of which according to Bartow, are used by Upstate’s members “in everyday work,” making Finck a resource, as well as an inspiration. Finck wrote in an email interview that participants “weren’t chosen as much as they were simply given an opportunity to participate. The request for letters and this opportunity went out only to people on our regional Slack group, which is several hundred strong.”

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One look at Excelsiorama and you might not know where to use it in your own work. And that’s part of its charm. Some letters are architectural, such as the “F.” Others are handwritten, such as the “G.” And a few are distressed, looking like they were pulled from a screen print or the result of multiple photocopies. Make sure you check out the “&” too, a thing of beauty.

I could write an entire article about each letter if I wanted, because each one works on its own. In that respect, any one letter could work well as an initial letter, such as a raised or drop capital. But when the letters are used together the magic happens by way of variety—lots and lots of variety. And that is what makes Excelsiorama special, according to Finck. “Contributors to Excelsiorama produced letters I never expected to see, and that’s pretty great. On screen and off screen I try, and hope others try as well, to push my own capabilities and get outside of a comfort zone.”

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And what about that name? Excelsiorama. Finck credits Syracuse designer Stef Noble. “We were kicking around others but wanted something representative of our state. Excelsior is the NY motto, which in Latin means Ever Upward and several contributors drew attention to the circus style we were working with.“ The suffix rama has its roots in the Greek horama, “sight, spectacle, that which can be seen,” according to Dictionary.com.

The First, of Many Spectacles

Finck sees Excelsiorama happening again, with all new letters. “I’d love to have each year be completely unique, so Excelsiorama 2016 has an entirely different set than Excelsiorama 2017, and so on. I don’t envision suggesting a specific style or format like sans or mono, as the wide, wild range of characters (pun intended) is part of the charm.”

This year’s Excelsiorama may not be the same as next year’s, or subsequent years. But if there’s one thing you can count on when it comes to the next iteration of Excelsiorama, it’s the teamwork that AIGA Upstate will put into the project. They say It takes a village, but in Upstate’s case, it took a family to create a typeface.

Love typography? Want to see more fonts? Check out the latest issue of Print, which includes a cadre of experts who selected the best typefaces of 2016. The chosen faces—which you can find in the Fall 2016 issue—include Hoefler & Co.’s Operator, Grilli Type’s GT Eesti, and others.

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