Jeremy Mickel entered the craft through which he soon will change the face of every Kraft macaroni and cheese box from an unusual place: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s subway platform at 33rd Street and Park Avenue in New York City.
Mickel’s account of what happened on the Website ilovetypography not only covers the events of that day, it does so in a way that harnesses the passion that propels his work.
In it, a hyper-alert character surveys the general chaos of the New York streetscape and finds his eyes lighting on lettering on a subway sign.
“I had taken pictures of type on the street for some time,” Mickel wrote. “But there was something here that caught my eye.”
“The way the 8 curved back on itself, the charming tail of the a,” both were of a different ilk and had subtleties most others would miss.
Having seen characters that were just his type, Mickel wrote: “I knew that that I could actually make this into a font.”
While working on the typeface he would name Router, the 1995 Springfield North High School began to reroute his career in a way that has led to do work not only for Kraft but ESPN, WeightWatchers, House Beautiful and Adidas. Router has been used in Minute Maid packaging and a special edition of the New York Times Magazine.
Mickel spent a year Washington University in St. Louis, then transferred to Indiana University and graduated with a degree in fine arts.
With his mother, Karen Mickel, working at the University of Dayton, he then took advantage of free classes to faculty family and “took as many graphic designs classes as was humanly possible.”
His vision on the subway after he relocated to New York prompted him to get further training through a type design course at New York’s Cooper Union, an institution revered enough in 1860 that Abraham Lincoln chose it as the place to deliver the speech that launched his presidential candidacy.
When the class was canceled for lack of numbers, Mickel arranged to take private lessons with the instructor, Hannes Famira, a designer who had trained at the Royal Academy in the Hague in the tradition of Dutch type design.
It added international flavor to an aesthetic sense Mickel developed in the Midwest.
As a graphic designer, “I was immediately drawn” to letters as “the fundamental building blocks of design and communications,” he said.
Quoting one of his “biggest design heroes,” Paula Scher, he said, “Words have meaning and type has spirit, and the combination is spectacular.”
Although few think of it, we daily look into a crowd of different type faces on street signs, business signs, billboards and television ads, newspapers and books.
From the standard issue fonts available in computer software, “a lot of people have favorite type faces,” Mickel said.
What people don’t realize, he said, is that in those types, “every single letter has been drawn” or designed.
“You can create a mood through lots of little choices” in that shape of type, he said. “You can make a typeface friendly or strong. It’s not in any of the specific details. It’s how they all go together.”
That involves what he describes as “a complicated process” in which the devil and the delight dance together in the details of design.
The first steps often involve drawing the related letters capital H O and the lowercase n o.
“From these characters you establish the basic proportions and weight of the straight and round characters, which is then used to build the rest of the alphabet,” he said.
With characters like b, d, p and q, “You draw one of them and you rotate it” to create the others, he said.
Similarly, there are relationships within a type face between the lowercase n, h and m.
But what lies between the letters — the spacing — is nearly as crucial.
“You need to have an even space between the black and white characters to make it legible,” he said.
But not all spaces are created equal.
Mickel said that because of the angles of the letters, in the word “AVALANCHE,” you get this huge space between (the A and V), so it’s necessary to pull them together” in a process called kerning.
It’s important and “completely invisible” to the reader, he said.
It’s part of the sometimes painful path to pleasing proportion.
He described the process of perfecting the spacing for the italic version of Router “a counter-intuitive mystery.”
And the marathon nature of the work becomes obvious when Mickel mentions that he usually creates his typefaces in six or more weights in both roman and italic, all made not only with numbers and letters but glyphs including fractions and symbols for both American and international use.
In all, each includes 500 to 1,000 different characters, for a total of 6,000 to 12,000 drawings in a complete family of 12 styles.
In the digital age, the “drawing” is done on computers.
“It’s basically math,” experimenting and adjusting angles, translating them across all the curves in the alphabet, then adjusting so the spaces among all the letter combinations have pleasing relationships to one another.
And many of the individual characters are a result of a balancing act among their black and white shapes.
Black shapes are the bodies of the letters themselves, and the white shapes the spaces inside the d or the capital R. Those comparisons often are done by reversing the type to see the white spaces in black and vice versa.
Other details making optical corrections: the horizontal bar of the H is always thinner than the vertical strokes; and typography’s history in calligraphy dictates the thickness of the right slanting leg of the A be thicker than the one slanting left. Both are examples of typeface conventions that have been with us so long that being unconventional is out of the question.
Having successfully completed the subway platform typeface he called Router, Mickel developed Shift, Fort and the soon-to-be-released Superior Title.
“It’s a very classic, proper serif typeface,” he said. “the italics are really nuanced. It took years to be able to draw.”
The time has been worth it for Mickel.
His work with type has bled over into logos, and he was hired to slightly modernize the Kraft logo.
“With Kraft, it ended up being and upper and lowercase version of their logo, which had been all caps,” he said. “It’s not far from what it was before, but it’s an improvement.”
The recent job for WeightWatchers allowed him to work with graphic designer Scher, whom he first studied in classes at UD.
“I end up being better at (at typeface design) than graphic design,” he said.
At 36, he has developed his talent by taking additional courses in calligraphy and even stone cutting, the latter of which he called “a humbling experience. It’s not easy.”
All the work has allowed him to establish his own company, MCKL, and allowed him to work with designers he has admired and companies “I could only have dreamed of working with.”
“More and more companies are seeing typography as an integral part of their branding,” he said. “So they want something that is proprietary to them that they can use (exclusively).”
And that means they need a designer.
Now living in Minneapolis, Mickel’s hopes are “to challenge myself to do better, more creative work,” and to continue to use his craft to breathe personality into the characters people use to communicate every day.