Q&A Paul Shaw

On 1 June 2024, the Now24 conference will take place in Paris. On that day, more than a dozen graphic design lecturers, art directors and type designers are expected. Join to attend talks by international speakers around graphic design, web design, motion design, publishing, visual identity, communication and type design. If not already done, register now to take advantage of the best rates.

It seemed interesting to us to make you discover the profiles of our guests. Discover Paul Shaw’s interview.

Biography Paul Shaw is a calligrapher, typographer, type designer, graphic designer, design historian, and type historian. He has taught most of those subjects for various New York City universities and art schools since 1980. He has also taught the history of type for California Rare Book School. Paul was a partner in LetterPerfect, one of the earliest digital type foundries. Since 1996 he has led or co-led twelve editions of the Legacy of Letters tours and workshops in Italy. For the Type Directors Club, TypeCon, and other organizations he has conducted lettering walks in eighteen American and Canadian cities. He is the author of Revival Type, Helvetica and the New York City Subway System; the co-author of Blackletter: Type and National Identity; and the editor of The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital.


Describe your typical day?

Paul Shaw I work at home. I try to do some work as soon as I wake up, before I do my morning exercises and have breakfast I like to feel that I have accomplished something. Other than that I don’t think I have a typical day. Sometimes I head to Columbia or the New York Public Library to do research. Sometimes I stay home and work all day. And other days are occupied by visits to doctors, meetings with friends or clients, shopping trips, etc.

Do you prefer a permanent/dedicated workspace, separate from home or at home?

Paul Shaw I prefer to work at home. I don’t like to work on the move. It is too distracting. Once I leave the home/office to do research or whatever, I am focused on that task. I ignore my cellphone. I use it only as a camera or watch.

Have your work habits changed notably as a result of the pandemic restrictions?

Paul Shaw The only thing that has changed because of the pandemic is that I now go to bed at 1 pm instead of 3 pm and wake up at 6:30 pm instead of 8:30 pm.

Do you enjoy music?

Paul Shaw My favorite music is jazz from the 1920s to the 1960s. I don’t listen to it as much as I did in the era of CDs. Now I usually see what I can find on YouTube: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Horace Silver, etc. With YouTube I sometimes mix it up a bit and listen to John Fahey, Peter Green, Santana, Bach, Beethoven, Gershwin…

Do you read news?

Paul Shaw Yes, I read parts of the New York Times every morning at breakfast: the front page, the op-ed section, and the business section. The rest of the paper I read in the evening at dinner. During the day I don’t pay any attention to the news.

What do you do to evade yourself from work? Do you practice any sports?

Paul Shaw I don’t practice any sports. The only time I am not working or thinking about working is when I am out of the house or cooking dinner. Dinner is always a break in the day.

“If you are designing an original typeface, be open to everything as a potential inspiration, even the smell of a flower.”
– Paul Shaw

Why is it so important for you to share your knowledge?

Paul Shaw I enjoy sharing what I learn. Keeping things to myself is not very satisfying.

Do you consider typefaces inspired by the ideas of historical typefaces as revivals? What do you think of the inflation of typefaces revivals in the Helvetica genre?

Paul Shaw I find typeface revivals to be fascinating. Type is unlike most aspects of human culture in that we are constantly recycling the past. Caslon and Garamont are as much a part of the 21st century as they are of the 18th and 16th centuries. Their types are more contemporary than Paul Renner’s Futura or Novarese’s Eurostile. I am interested in which typefaces of the past people choose to revive and the decisions they make in creating their interpretations. Pure revivals are impossible.

I am not sure what you mean by the “inflation of typefaces in the Helvetica genre”. Now that Christian Schwartz has made Neue Haas Grotesk, I don’t know why anyone would waste their time on making a revival of Helvetica. Helvetica is an overrated typeface. It is a relic of the 1960s and 1970s. Akzidenz Grotesk is more visually interesting; Univers is more legible; and Frutiger is more functional.

What complementarity is there in sources derived from everyday uses such as the sign painting and the typefaces present in typefoundry catalogs?

Paul Shaw I am all in favor of type designers using whatever resources and inspirations they can find to make new typefaces, whether those sources are signpainting, books, inscriptions, old type specimen books, graffiti, or whatever.

Are you always on the lookout for new typefaces?

Paul Shaw I have to admit that since the advent of variable fonts I have paid very little interest to contemporary type design. There are too many type designers, type foundries, and typefaces to constantly follow. I don’t want to devote all of my time to such an activity. I would rather do other things. So, I only pay attention to the typefaces that seek me out. My time is increasingly devoted to researching type specimens, especially those of the 19th century. The more one digs into the 19th century, the more fascinating it becomes typewise. It is as diverse and weird as the present.

I am not usually searching for new typefaces anymore. When I stumble across new typefaces what grabs my eye is how they look. I find most marketing copy to be repetitive B.S. I don’t look at a glyph set or care about OpenType features unless the basic design is interesting to begin with. I appreciate foundries that make PDF specimens that are downloadable.

Do you think AI will change the way to design typefaces?

Paul Shaw I am curious—and worried—about the effect of AI on type design. Will designers use it to generate new ideas? If so, will we just get more typefaces that fit in the niches between the old categories or will we get weird hybrids like some of the 19th century designs or those of the late 1980s and early 1990s (e.g. Fudoni or Not Caslon?) Or will individuals and companies use AI to bypass professional type designers and type foundries entirely? What about the source material that AI will scrape to make its type designs? Will this be the ultimate end of moral and intellectual rights? It’s possible that AI will be used to make typefaces using other material found online than previous types or existing fonts. Maybe it will also use digitized writing books, lettering and signage manuals, photographs of signage and graffiti, or even flowers and dogs.

Marian Bantjes has a good article on AI and illustration in the current issue of Eye magazine. Someone in the type world needs to do a similarly balanced and thoughtful investigation of the possibilities of AI in type design.

Is it possible to draw a typeface for a language or writing whose language we do not know?

Paul Shaw Of course it is possible to design a typeface for a language (script) that is not one's own. How “good” it is depends both on how much research one does and on what the expectations are by native readers of that language (script). What has puzzled me for years in discussions about designing Arabic type or type for the Indic languages or other non-Latin scripts is the assumption about getting things right. There is an expectation of purity that (thankfully) does not exist with Latin types. In the history of Latin types there are numerous bizarre or unexpected designs: Granjon's Civilité, Centralschrift, Eckmannschrift, Bifur, Raffia Initials, Stop, Narly… People have complained about such designs as being ugly, unreadable, or not functional, but no one has disputed whether they were authentic expressions of French, German, Dutch, Italian, English or another European language. In fact, Civilité and Eckmannschrift were tied to efforts to find typefaces that reflected specific languages.

I find Latin typefaces to be both weird and liberating. No other writing system—excluding the related Greek and Cyrillic ones—has a lowercase or native concept of weight, or such elasticity about what each character/glyph can look like. We're lucky that theorists and ideologues like Stanley Morison, Herbert Bayer, Jan Tschichold, Massimo Vignelli, and others did not succeed in circumscribing the typefaces that could be designed and that can still be imagined. The world of non-Latin type design needs to be freed from the yolk of calligraphic, religious, nationalistic, and other traditions.

What do you think of this trend of free fonts?

Paul Shaw Open Source or “free” fonts will not kill type design. It may change the landscape, reducing the number of type foundries making retail types. But individuals and foundries will still be needed to make those Open Source fonts, custom fonts for companies and organizations, and fonts for specific usages such as electronic signboards or for the visually impaired.

Type has gone through previous periods when there were too many foundries, too many typefaces. This was true of the second half of the 19th century and the 1960s/1970s. Foundries will disappear. Just as ATF emerged in the 1890s as a monopoly in response to price-cutting in the United States and Linotype bought up foundries in response to photocomposition, we have a new Monotype gobbling up smaller foundries in search of intellectual property. Type did not die in 1900 nor in 1980. New companies emerged along with new technologies. That will happen again. Maybe AI will be the impetus.

“Content and context come before concept”
– Paul Shaw

Let’s talk about your career.

Paul Shaw I ended up in design by accident. I drew letters as a kid. I can’t remember when I began to do so. But when I was in high school I was told that I was doing calligraphy, a word I had never heard before. I drew letters, but some looked like those made by abroad-edged pen. I bought a book called Letteringwith the Broad Pen by Byron Macdonald. At first I continued to draw such letters rather than to write them. I eventually taught myself to use abroad-edged pen. I chose to go to Reed College without knowing that it had a famous calligraphy tradition with Lloyd Reynolds. I studied literature and history. I have never taken a calligraphy class in my life.

The only design class I have ever taken was Commercial Art in high school. What I remember from the class was how to do collages and use a ruling pen. I don’t recall type being apart of the class, though we did have an assignment to draw typographic letters.

After I left Reed I went to Columbia University to study history. In the first few months I was there I discovered the Butler Library’s huge collection of books on calligraphy, lettering and type. They inspired me to do my master’s thesis on the impact of William Morris on American private presses and then to begin a dissertation on the career of W.A. Dwiggins. (I am still working on it.) At the time I was not interested in Dwiggins for his type designs, but for the totality of his workand his writing. While at Columbia I began doing calligraphy and graphic design to earn a living. Eventually that work took so much of my time that I left Columbia without finishing the dissertation.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I was focused on doing calligraphy, lettering and graphic design. I became a type designer when Garrett Boge asked me to design some typefaces with him around 1992. I quit a decade later when Garrett bought out my share of LetterPerfect.

While still at Columbia in the early 1980s I spent time researching the work of calligrapher, book jacket designer and book designer George Salter and the typefaces of Morris Fuller Benton. Both were the products of grants and, although fun, they were as much distractions from my dissertation as was my design work.

Although I taught a design history class in 1984, I didn’t become a serious design and type historian until 2002 when I spent half a year at the American Academy in Rome researching the connection between the Renaissance calligrapher Bartolomeo Sanvito and the workshop of the sculptor Andrea Bregno. When I returned to the United States my clientele had dwindled and it continued to dwindle as the Internet killed off businesses and organizations. My last major design client went out of business in 2015.

I have been teaching various design subjects ever since 1980 when Ed Benguiat asked me to teach calligraphy at the School of Visual Arts. I did that for five years before my class was cancelled to make room in the curriculum for computer classes. I was already teaching calligraphy at Long Island University when a faculty member there convinced Parsons (where he also taught) to hire me to teach calligraphy for them. This was 1985. Over the next 37 years I taught calligraphy, typography, book design, history of graphic design, and history of type at Parsons. Meanwhile I taught the history of graphic design at the Fashion Institute of Technology for one year in 1984/1985; and from 1981 to 2001 I taught calligraphy, lettering and book design at New York Institute of Technology (where I met Tony Di Spigna). In 2000 Richard Wilde invited me back to the School of Visual Arts, this time to teach history of graphic design. Four years later I convinced him to let me also teach a class in the history of type, which I am still doing today.

Since I am self-taught as a calligrapher, designer and design historian, I have had no mentors. But there are people who have changed the course of my twisting life and career by either encouraging me to pursue a specific passion or offering me a job I had not considered: Mr. Mawhinney (I don’t recall his first name), Stuart Bruchey, Ed Benguiat, Elizabeth Harris, Mike Parker, Garrett Boge, Maria Saffiotti, Milton Glaser, Richard Wilde, and Julia Gorton. The people who have influenced me the most in terms of my aesthetic preferences in design are mainly people I have never met in person: W.A. Dwiggins, George Salter, Morris Fuller Benton, Byron Macdonald, Erik Lindegren, Jan Tschichold, Rudolf Koch, Koloman Moser, Bartolomeo Sanvito, and Giambattista Bodoni. Those who have most influenced my career as a design historian are: Nicolete Gray, James Mosley, Michael Twyman, and Rob Roy Kelly.

Do you have words of wisdom for someone who wants to become...?

Paul Shaw I am not sure if I have any words of wisdom, but I do have some basic advice:

— calligrapher: Follow the rules, then ignore them and discover for yourself what each tool can do.

— graphic designer: Content and context come before concept.

— type designer: If you are creating a type revival, be respectful of the original but don’t be worshipful. Understand the context in which it was created and the motivations of the original designer. If you are designing an original typeface, be open to everything as a potential inspiration, even the smell of a flower.

— type historian: Read the classic authors (Updike, Morison, Johnson, Gray, Kelly, et al), but don’t believe everything you read. Be critical and skeptical. Stand on their shoulders and then stand on your own two feet. History is continually changing because we discover new material and we gain new methods and techniques to investigate and analyze the past.

What will be the message you would like to convey during your Now24 talk?

Paul Shaw I don’t know yet what I will be talking about. I gave Jean-François Porchez a half dozen ideas and he liked all of them. And since then I have come up with more ideas. I am not sure if I should talk about Dwiggins, about type specimens, about type revivals, or something new.

What other speaker wouldn’t you want to miss at Now24?

Paul Shaw The only speaker whose name I recognize is Jeremy Tankard. I definitely look forward to hearing his talk. And I am curious about the Lopukina sisters whose work looks very interesting. However, I will be excited to discover what everyone else is doing and meet new people.

Thank you very much, Paul!

– Interview by Jean-Baptiste Pernette

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