Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak about Vernon to a class of Design students at Chapman University in Orange, CA. The professor, Rachelle Chuang is also an artist who showed near my mother at the Laguna Art Festival this summer. She incorporates a lot of lettering into her collage work (you can see her work here) so when my mother told her about Vernon, whose work she was already familiar with, she invited me to speak to her Typography class about ‘the man behind the design.’
I brought a lot of his antique sourcebooks, some photos, and a notebook of type sketches. I think the sketches impressed the students more than the 51 fonts he made for Google between 2010-2013. One was impressed that there were Pokemon drawings mixed in with all the lettering. Another couple of students poured over how straight his lines were: “It doesn’t look like he used a ruler. I can’t make that straight of a line WITH a ruler!” (I’ll share some of his sketchbook pages at the end.)
Of course I couldn’t tell the class how he made his designs. I never understood the workings of his font-design software. In fact, when he worked, he was such a multitasker, that it was hard to tell if he was actually designing or just plucking away at the keys, listening to loud music or some British comedian or even a news channel. It seems he was doing all of them. He had the kind of mind that could handle a lot of things at once, and yet he was able to hone into the tiny details that ensured that the weights and the kerning were even, printing out page after page of a single letter, comparing them at different sizes to look for differences only a type-designer’s eye could see.
But I could talk to the class about the philosophy behind his work. He was involved in the Open Source community, which allows users to collaborate, share and change the software codes freely (as opposed to Closed Source, whose codes closely guarded by a commercial company.) Vernon loved the idea of sharing information on the internet and being able to get his fonts into the hands of the people, so that they could custom make their own websites and publish their own materials as they chose and not be beholden to the few companies that seemed to hold the keys at the time. When Google began to pay him for his work, which would be made free for anyone to download, he was attacked by the powers-that-were. In his mind, I think he was a bit of a modern day Design Robin Hood. At the time there were only a handful of fonts that one could use on the internet…but now Google shows almost 850, and many of the traditional font foundries are happy to get on board. It was the way the future was going, and Vernon just happened to be on the spear’s head. He was also generous in other ways: happy to teach others to make their own fonts, and would guide anyone who emailed him questions to an answer.
The other thing I could share to the class was my own feelings about being a creative maker. When I look at Vernon’s body of work online (only what was published in a few short years) I am amazed by the fact he was able to work so fast and put so much out there. We had no idea that he would be struck down and die young. None of us do. But we all have a chance to contribute and leave a legacy. It’s so easy to focus on getting things perfect (in our eyes) and hoarding our gifts because we don’t think someone is willing to pay enough for them. Van Gogh never allegedly sold one painting in his lifetime, but there were 900 more waiting to be discovered (and sold for a high price) after he died. If he hadn’t made the work, that wouldn’t be the case. His legacy became more important than his life. I encourage creative people not to wait: make more work, share your work, let it take on a life of its own, free it up to find the people who WILL appreciate it. When Vernon died, we didn’t care about the things he owned, we cared about the things he made. I barely remember the infuriating moments or his weaknesses, but I remember his generosity, his kindness. And after speaking about his work, I realized his brain damage and years of disability were just a season in a greater life. I remembered his brilliance. Thankfully we have these fonts speaking out to our family (and still being used around the world) to remind us of his contribution.
Life is short, some are shorter than others. We are all uniquely gifted. This is your time to share yourself…who knows what legacy you will leave.
(A meme I discovered from one of Vernon’s font’s, Amatic.)
Anyway, Rachelle (the professor) suggested the possibility of curating a small exhibition of his work, perhaps in the university library…we do still have a lot of his old sourcebooks to show his inspiration. We’ll see…to be continued. 🙂