Craft in action: tracing the ubiquitous Wisdom Script typeface's origins

Wisdom Script typeface

In a new series focusing on industry craft, Fine partner and chief strategist Josh Kelly looks at how a craft mindset can influence all aspects of branding, from how products are made, to how services are delivered, and (most of all) how creatives are guiding the story. In this latest piece, Kelly dives deeper into type design with a conversation with James Edmondson

Chances are you’ve encountered the Wisdom Script typeface somewhere since its 2011 release. Nike, Disney, Starbucks, McDonald's and Whole Foods are a handful of major brands that have used the font. It became so popular, and so linked to a growing trend toward artisan aesthetic, that it inspired knock-offs and variations, along with blogs dedicated to using it, banning it, or doing fake rebrands with it.

San Francisco-based type designer James Edmondson is the creator of Wisdom Script and shares the history of the font, how it helped pay for his education and what he sees in type design’s present and future.

Josh: How did Wisdom Script begin? Did you think, “I'm an evil design genius, and I'm going to do something that invokes craft because I know that aesthetic is hot?”

James: Definitely not evil genius. At least not genius. I wasn't so keenly aware of this trend of craft and artisanal bespoke that is now kind of “jumping the shark” as a superficial aesthetic. Back at that point, it was maybe at the beginning of it, or in the middle of it.

In all honesty, this is a typeface that I spent maybe about a week or two on while I was a graphic design student at California College of the Arts (CCA) in 2009. I made it as part of a sprint for an assignment. It was very much an amateur effort, and there are a lot of things about it that are particularly cringeworthy to me now. It took on a life of its own once I posted it and people started downloading it.

Josh: What was the creative inspiration behind the signature look and feel of it?

James: Ironically, while it didn’t come out of some intention to reflect craft, it came about because I was really interested in craft, such as furniture making and woodworking. I got a book on woodworking, and I learned nothing from it. But I liked the format of the book, which had these helpful tips sprinkled throughout. It made skimming the book fun. I wanted to extract that idea and do a poster series with tips for living a good life.

Then I thought there's already been so much stuff like that, so I decided to do a sarcastic, silly version of it for a poster that instead had bad advice, which I sourced from friends or website visitors, like, "Babies save marriages," and, "Watch one Rob Schneider movie every day." At the end, I made a digital version of the type I had been using for this bad wisdom.

I was originally using just letters cut out of wood in this style, and then I went through and made a normal font out of it and distributed it as a thank you to people who had given me the advice. When I posted it on Lost Type, I actually started making money from it. That's how I figured out type design was an obtainable job for me. I created a bunch of other typefaces and released them, and then I eventually quit my day job. That was really transformative. I have Lost Type and Riley Cran to thank for that stuff in the beginning of my career.

Josh: Something about developing type and fonts seems to retain that feeling of Old World artisanship, even if the tools have evolved. How do you think about that?

James: Perhaps the job title type designer conjures images of artists smoking a pipe and scratching their chins. Maybe you can kind of see that connection clearer here because type stems from calligraphy; everything in type design is heavily influenced by calligraphy. So you can still see and feel the idea of using ink and nibs to write words beautifully. Maybe that fits with a more popular definition of what craft means, but I think craft is really everywhere.

There’s just as much craft in web design, product design, or graphic design. It’s about taking pride in what you're doing, and you can maintain a high-level of craft as an interviewer, a high school principal, a janitor, or as whatever. I don't even think craft is specific to any one profession.

Josh: Have you seen Wisdom Script used in ways that bother you? Like in poor design, parody, a knock-off, or attached to products you don’t especially like?

James: So like a McCraft Burger? The funny thing is that McDonald's does use it, and I’ve seen it in a lot of other mass-market contexts.

I actually don’t mind seeing it in amateur graphic design because I like to imagine what's going on in their mind when they're trying to do their job and solve a problem, just like anyone else. So it doesn't really upset me when it's not super high-quality. It would bother me a little if people use the type to make kids drink more soda, or to fool people into thinking big corporations appear more friendly or as something they’re not.

And yes, the font was knocked off as Thirsty Script, which also became wildly popular. Now, 90% of the time, whenever a friend sends me something like, “Hey, here‘s your font again!” I'm like, “Naw, that's actually Thirsty."

Josh: Rumor has it that you literally paid for some of your college tuition through sales of this font. Is that true?

James: I definitely paid for some of my college with it. I worked mostly for my older brother through college, so that paid for most of my tuition, but Wisdom Script and my other early fonts allowed me to quit that job.

Josh: What did you learn from this experience with Wisdom Script?

James: Never release your early work. There is way too much wrong with Wisdom Script, and it should never have gotten out into the world in the first place.

But also, many incredible things happened only because Wisdom Script is out there. So, I guess always release your early work.The real lesson here is that it's good to let the universe know what you're interested in. You have to put yourself out there, and that usually happens when you're not a fully formed version of what you want to be. Also, everything is a crapshoot, and just like in songwriting, you'll never know what's going to be a hit. It's all guessing at timing, and I won't pretend to have my finger on the pulse of type trends.

Josh: How do you feel about what's going on in type design today? What does the future hold?

James: I think we're totally in the golden age of type design because the tools, resources, and education around type design, lettering, calligraphy, and all these kinds of things have gotten so good through the internet. It's amazing how much they have bloomed, especially in the last 10 or 15 years. There are a few wonderful masters programs in type design. The one that I went to in the Netherlands (The Royal Academy of Art in The Hague) is an amazing school, and I feel so lucky to have been able to go there. But there are also certificate programs that are exceptional, which raise the standards and quality for people getting started.

When more people are better at something, they can help more people get better, and everyone benefits. We're seeing a lot of really interesting typefaces come out. There will always be revivals and things that you faithfully represent in older genres and styles, but even among those, the quality is always improving.

And then there are bonkers, amazing experimental things. We’re coming out of this trend of corny attempts at fake authenticity, and what we're starting to see now is people embracing exciting experimentation more. Imagining what San Francisco design was doing in the early 90s makes me wish I had been there. I wish I could've been a professional at that time.

It must have made people more excited and feel like what they were doing was important. Emigre Magazine and House Industries type foundry were just starting out and there was amazing stuff going on. But then it dwindled for a little while.

So I hope graphic designers are able to embrace what type designers are getting up to now and finding uses for some of these more interesting and adventurous typefaces that are getting created, each with its own origin story.

I also hope the future holds Future Fonts! I'm working on a platform with some friends that will allow people to distribute beta versions of typefaces, so designers can test interesting work earlier, and become a part of the process.

James Edmondson is an independent type designer in San Francisco. http://www.ohnotype.co/

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