Found documents inspire Rockport font designer

By Jenna Lookner | Dec 06, 2012
Photo by: Jenna Lookner Brian Willson of Three Islands Press in Rockport develops fonts based on found documents including old letters and diaries.

Rockport — It's unlikely that viewers of the popular AMC television show "Breaking Bad" think of coastal Maine when watching the opening sequence. The connection, however, is palpable.

The typeface used for the elements of the periodic table that flash across the screen as the show begins is called Attic Antique, and it was developed by Rockport resident and type designer Brian Willson, who owns Three Islands Press.

The son of a professor of Germanic languages, Willson was born in New Haven, Conn., and spent his formative years in Austin, Texas. During an interview this week, he spoke often of his father, who learned German during World War II when he participated in top-secret intelligence gathering work conducted at the United States military intelligence facility code named P.O. Box 1142. Willson said his father's duties included interviewing German scientists captured as prisoners of war.

Willson has lead a life of multifaceted passions including music, photography, history, writing and the outdoors. A graduate of University of Texas at Austin, he studied film and radio with a minor in journalism. After moving from Austin to Maine in 1979, he worked in radio and as a print reporter for The Courier-Gazette and later as a stringer for The Portland Press Herald. He recalls that Camden and Rockland were hubs of journalistic activity at the time, with bureau offices for multiple daily newspapers located in the Midcoast.

In 1987 his father sent him an Apple computer.

"I got into doing some of the design stuff," he said. "I knew how Macs worked."

His initial foray into design was inspired by his desire to publish a compilation of his own nature essays. He also began designing and publishing newsletters for several regional land trust organizations before taking a job with then Camden-based National Fisherman magazine where he spearheaded the set up of the publication's first digital publishing network. He admired the handwriting of the publication's art director and made an attempt to create a font based on it using a font development program already on his computer.

"The result was pretty good," Willson said. In 1993 he posted the result as his inaugural font — called Marydale — and offered it as shareware. He asked people to send $10 and in exchange promised to license the use of both Marydale and a second, original font of his design, he explained.

"People started sending 10 bucks, so I made another font," Willson said with a smile.

He noted that his second font — Attic Antique — was inspired by the typeface in a turn-of-the-century edition of nature essays by the famed American naturalist John Burroughs. He posted Attic Antique, and several subsequent fonts, as shareware. Eventually he decided to create his first antique handwriting-inspired style.

"I couldn't find one, so I thought I'd just make one," he said of the aesthetically unusual typeface.

His mother was then volunteering at The Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, and he asked her to send a selection of copies of old letters. Her selections included a number of famous Texans, and the penmanship of Thomas J. Rusk immediately caught Willson's eye. The resulting font, Texas Hero, was a niche-market success.

"[Texas Hero] got lots of people interested," Willson explained. In 1998 he started his Three Islands Press type foundry, creating fonts based on found material, including several inspired by penmanship from that initial batch of letters sent by his mother.

"You're looking to the past," Wilson explained of creating his trademark fonts. "You're immersing yourself in history and yet you're using the digital world, there's this paradox, which is kind of cool."

Willson said although he dabbles in a variety of typeface aesthetics, old penmanship-inspired fonts quickly became his niche. He recalled the inspiration for his Schooner Script, an 1825 letter from a Massachusetts pastor requesting help for a family who had lost everything in an accident at sea. Every one of his fonts has a story, he said.

Willson said there is some gray area in the trademarking of a font. In the United States it's legal to trademark a name and a software code, but not the physical appearance of the font, he said. He licenses his fonts for $39 each, he said, and occasionally will see one of his designs in use without a license. He said he generally drafts an email requesting that the unlicensed usage be discontinued. He sells his fonts both directly — through the Three Islands Press website — and through a handful of distributors, he said.

"Many of them asked me," he explains of forging his relationships with the various distributors.

Willson has attended many typography conferences, both internationally and in the United States. He said there is a community of designers, and a respect for each designer's unique vision. He recalled a surreal moment meeting another designer outside a conference in Boston.

"It was as though my fonts had proceeded me," Willson said. He was invited to speak at a conference in Germany in 2000, and said he presented a talk about the process of creating old penmanship fonts.

He explained that it's difficult not to become enchanted by the content of the old letters and diaries he uses as a basis for his fonts. Soon he'll debut his novel, titled "Lydia," with some inspiration from the salutations in numerous letters written by Emily Austin Perry to her husband. While the story is modern, and, Willson admits, at times autobiographical, he said he gravitated towards the unusual salutations — and constant instructions to her husband — contained in Emily Austin Perry's letters.

The process of creating each font is time consuming, Willson said. He described the process of selecting the best specimens of each character, or glyph, and scanning them in large format. He then hand-traces each of his selections and imports the tracings into a computer program where he tweaks and resizes them. He also must adjust the kerning of each letter to create even spacing and uniformity between all characters, ensuring a visually-pleasing aesthetic on the page.

"That can be very tedious," he said, adding that it can take more than 200 hours to create a single weight of each font. "I never knew I had this eye for balance," he said.

A basic font has at least 220 characters, including numbers, punctuation, lowercase and capital letters, he said.

"People think there are 26 letters in the alphabet," he said.

Some fonts he has specially customized, including the creation of a Greek alphabet from in one of his existing fonts at the request of a customer. He said he pieces together bits and pieces of existing glyphs to create letters and numbers that do not appear in the original documents from which he draws inspiration.

"My sort of obsession is making [the fonts] look authentic, so you have to do a double take," he said. To date, Willson said he has developed about two dozen typefaces.

Some of Willson's fonts have appeared in movie titles and on posters and promotional materials. His clients are a diverse bunch including historical re-enactors, advertising agencies and graphic designers. He said he sent a copy of Old Man Eloquent, a font based on the penmanship of John Quincy Adams, to the Massachusetts Historical Society. He noted that one of his milestone moments was when one of his fonts appeared on the bicentennial license plates in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Three Islands Press is located on Commercial Street in Rockport. In addition to fonts designed by Willson, the Three Islands Press website also carries fonts by several other designers.

Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at jlookner@courierpublicationsllc.com

Brian Willson handles a folder containing some of the documents he collects to use as inspiration for his penmanship-based fonts. (Photo by: Jenna Lookner)
Willson's old penmanship-inspired fonts have become his niche, he said. Each font has a story attached to it. (Photo by: Jenna Lookner)
Old newspapers are among the documents Brian Willson uses as inspiration for his fonts. (Photo by: Jenna Lookner)
Brian Willson's Three Islands Press type foundry is located on Commercial Street in Rockport, but Willson said most of his business is done via the Three Islands Press website and through distributors. (Photo by: Jenna Lookner)
Comments (3)
Posted by: Albie M. Davis | Dec 07, 2012 09:16

Jenna and Brian.  Great story & photos.  I'm sending this to my son, Ben Davis, who has a cutting edge design firm in San Francisco!



Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Dec 07, 2012 09:02

I find this an amazing process. I think you are creative and have perhaps changed the print world. Actually the old script was perhaps due to penmanship as an important aspect of society. Somehow it got lost in the school system and now children seem to print rather than write. Keep up the good work Brian!

Mickey McKeever

 



Posted by: Emmet Meara | Dec 06, 2012 22:26

 

 

  Brain is too cool!

 



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