A few weeks ago I was very happy to receive a message in my facebook inbox asking me if I’d be interested to run a type creation workshop for young kids, randing from second to fifth grade in age. I used to work with children when I was a Junior and Senior in high school as a youth group leader, and I always loved interacting with kids and positively having an effect in their lives—even years after I stopped doing this kind of work I had my former kids, then teenagers, come to me ro reminess about my tenure as their group leader. So it was an easy “yes” to get me back to work with kis, and even more so since I love typography and I thought it would be a nice challenge to teach kids about the process of designing typefaces.
The Beam Center in Brooklyn was the host; the organization whose mission “is to guide kids and teens to build their future and brihten the world through collaboration and creation” runs a two-week summer camp, each week with a diferent theme. I was invited to participate in the week of multiples, where each day they ran a different workshop that related to the topic. The kids did playing cards and hats on two of those days and I covered the idea of letters.
In the morning we did a short introduction on what is graphic design and typography, as well as how typefaces are designed. I asked the kids a lot of questions to gauge their intrest and knowledge, and was very pleased—and entretained—with most of their answers that showed either knowledge or creativity on what graphic design and typography are. I once heard someone say—and unfortunately I can’t remember who to give them credit—that nowadays everyone—even our grandmothers—knows what a font is because we all use Word and it’s harder to educate the client about what we do as designers, but these kids were very open to learning, and to sharing what they knew about the subject.
We only had a couple of hours in the morning before the lunch break, so we quickly jumped on the first project: I assigned each kid a few letters and they were instructed to draw them however they wanted. There were no parameters beyond which letters they were to draw, so the kids came up with very creative solutions. Some letters were very easy to read right away, while others required context to decipher. We wrapped up the activity with a show-and-tell where the kids gave their impressions and we discussed how hard it was to work with a set of letters that was so disparate. I was very impressed both with the drawings and with the level of discussion we had.
After the lunch break we switched modes. Each kid was given a sheet with outlines of the vowels and were instructed to experiment with developing a theme to produce a decorative typeface. After trying at least three themes, they were to pick one and expand it to a full alphabet based on a grid of outlined letters. Again, the parameters were limited and the only instructions were to come up with a theme and apply it to the whole alphabet. Some themes were more concrete, such a monsters or animals; others were more abstract with lines and spikes; and some were more cute and decorative, including hearts. After each kid was done decorating their grid of letters, they made copies of their alphabets, cut them out, and glued them down to make words.
At the end of the day, we met for a final show-and-tell, where each kid talked about their theme and showed their letters and words. Working with children can be challenging because their level of involvement with an activity can vary drastically, but overall the results were great and it offered a fresh perspective on the regimented discipline of typeface design. The kids were very excited to see their typeface in action and being able to wrtite words and sentences based on their theme. I was challenged with great questions about the process of typeface design and saw some amazing letters drawn in a short span of time.
As a surprise ending, while the kids were working on their alphabet, the Beam team and I worked in the background to digitize the letters they drew in the morning and put them together in a font. The results were silly and fun, and the kids had a blast typing on the keyboard and seeing their letters come to life.
Photos courtesy of Alen Riley at the Beam Center.