Types of Fun: Reflections on my first talk
For a long time now, I’ve been an unashamed type lover, though that love has often manifested itself from a distance. I’ve drawn letters, but in the most amateur of ways, and admire those who devote themselves to that craft, full- or part-time. A beautifully-made letterpress print, type debossed into heavy stock, will always delight me in a tangible, tactile way that digital type never can.
Day-to-day, I’m an interaction designer and work exclusively in the digital space. The act of creating with my hands appeals to me, as it seems to do for many who work digitally. I have many type-related aspirations; I want to build a letterpress, learn calligraphy, draw my own typeface (ha). At the same time, though, I also never want to stop learning what makes users tick. I want to learn more about web animation and SVGs. I want to wrangle some data visualisation libraries and gain a better understanding of data analysis, Nate Silver-style. I’m never short on aspiration; it’s the follow-through that tends to trip me up.
I can safely say that speaking in front of people has never been one of my ambitions. I had never given a talk before. I responded to the tweet, bizarrely, because I thought I had no chance. I had a vague idea that wasn’t so much typography-focused but personal, a history lesson with a typographical leaning. But my judgment deserted me at a critical time and I sent in a proposal. When Kenneth got in touch with me, saying they’d love to have me on the 4th of June, I was committed.
Talking on the fun scale
I class most worthwhile learning as Type II fun; fun only in retrospect, but terrifying or difficult at the time. I felt that talking would be the same way– a few months would need to pass before I would have enough emotional distance from it to proclaim it enjoyable. But it wasn’t.
Giving the talk was fun. Type 1. Fun during the act. I stood up and spoke and, despite the um‘s and complete lack of microphone control (turns out you have to hold it up to your mouth for people to hear you), I didn’t fall on my face. Some reasonably eloquent words came out of my mouth, and I managed to surprise myself. I enjoyed sharing my story and my opinion with people, and felt humbled that so many (~75 was Woodstock, as far as I was concerned) wanted to hear it, ask questions about it, and engage with it.
The talk itself was about the Cyrillic writing system and how it became entwined with identity after the wars in Bosnia where I was born, and how type in general is powerful enough to both divide and bring people together. I spoke about the anti-Cyrillic protests in 2013, the Antiqua-Fraktur disputes, and urged typeface designers to view their creation not just in the past and present, but in the future as well. I loved talking about this, and learned so much along the way.
This made me wonder why speaking was so different; I had expected fear and there was some, but not enough to put me off immediately wanting to speak again, to share something and have it both embraced and questioned, but in a way that only provoked deeper thought. I came up with a few reasons, all of which seemed to be geared towards tricking my over-anxious brain out of worrying– and somehow, it worked.
The talk had nothing to do with my job
At Myplanet we don’t do typeface design, and that professional distance helped me approach this in a far more relaxed way. If it went terribly, at least it wouldn’t affect my livelihood. Type is a personal passion of mine first and foremost, and not a professional one. This made it seem less risky.
I practiced (and then practiced some more)
I delivered the talk to my wife and a friend first. As engineers politely not obsessed with type, they focused on the general-but-important aspects; was my delivery appropriate? Did I talk too quickly? Did I spend too much time on history and not enough on type, or vice versa? Was it balanced?
I then practiced the talk for the event organisers (they were kind enough to meet me a week beforehand and listen to my first draft), who gave me some excellent suggestions. I incorporated these, and then practiced it for my wife a few more times. Her advice on both content, delivery, and pace was invaluable. All of this helped to build my confidence.
I was honest from the start
Throughout the process, I made it clear that I wasn’t a type designer, but that I loved type and just had a story to share. This was my way of ensuring that my brain couldn’t sabotage me. I didn’t feel like I was deceiving the people who came to watch; they knew I had no credentials whatsoever and yet there they were, listening anyway. It must mean it’s because I have something worth listening to?
It was just personal enough
This seems a bit counter-intuitive– one might think that a personal story is that much more difficult to tell. For me, though, this meant that there was no right way to tell it, and therefore nothing to get wrong. The story of encountering Cyrillic for the first time was already there, in my memory. It provided a foundation that I was confident with, one from which I could build the typographic aspects of the talk. The details helped to anchor the talk, and me in turn.
Despite the preparation and the brain-related acrobatics, I had no idea what would happen when I stepped on stage. I’d prepared as best I could, but I still expected something to go wrong. When it didn’t and when I had fun, I knew I wanted to build on that.
So often in this industry, we focus on how we’ve failed and what we can improve on and while that’s okay, I think we need to revel in our wins just that little bit more sometimes.
In the end, I’d been worrying about the wrong thing. I worried about getting wrong the technical details of typeface design, but that wasn’t what the talk was about anyway. It was about identity, something that I’ve spent a good deal thinking about, something that is personal (and therefore individual and therefore not open to evaluation), and how typefaces intersect with that. I wasn’t an authority on Eastern European type; I was just explaining the intersection of type and history, as I’d seen it.
I suppose that would be the advice I’d give (if anyone asked for it, I suppose) to those interested in speaking, who might just need that little push to submit a proposal or offer to speak. That advice is to find that personal story, the story on which you cannot possibly be questioned, and intertwine it with your talk. Allow your personal experience and history to form your foundations; the talk will be that much more worthwhile as a result, both for you and for those listening.