If we’re going to be being honest with each other, it wasn’t the type that pulled me in, I was there because I had to be.
It was March 2012 and I had volunteered to be on the press team for TYPO, a conference for type designers, type nerds, and wannabes like me. Typically I’m not a fan of conferences because of the marginally ridiculous price tags and all of the weird hype that surrounds them. That being said, I purchased a ticket to TYPO on impulse one evening under the influence of a beer and peer pressure from my husband. So even though I genuinely wanted to go, I jumped at the chance to receive a free ticket for the next year by volunteering for the Press Team; my job was to live-blog some of the talks on the FontShop blog. I knew this opportunity would give me one-on-one access to the phenomenal typographers and designers that were going to be speaking — Erik Spiekermann, Michael Bierut, and Neville Brody...my designer heart was swooning. If we’re still being honest, it was a relief to find out that I didn’t have to blog during any of the big name talks. I was assigned mostly to cover people whose names I didn’t recognize.
Rod Cavazos was one of the presenters whose talk I was asked to live-blog. His name didn’t ring any bells for me, but the moment he announced that his type foundry, PSY/OPS, was founded under the lordship of a transdimensional alien, I knew I liked him. I sat up a little straighter when Rod mentioned that he taught an undergraduate type class at CCA, since I had been seriously considering the MFA in Design program as a top contender in my grad application process. Then he won me over completely when he launched into his side business, Glyfyx, a creative salon for self-diagnosed alphabet junkies. At Glyfyx, Rod and his team make things like BitBlocks, wooden blocks with bitmap letters, because "...children in the 21st century should be able to experience the joy of jaggy type.” At this point, Rod had solidly shattered any preconceptions (and misconceptions) I had about typographers and designers whose names I didn’t immediately know.
Rod is a quiet but funny, matter-of-fact type guy with the ability to charm an audience and as he started winding down, I realized my notes from the session were minimal at best. I had gotten so caught up in listening to him speak about his practice that I’d completely forgotten I was on duty; I needed to find more time to talk to this guy. Unfortunately, my chance didn’t come until at the TYPO after party, but the music was so loud that after a few minutes of attempting to carry a yelling conversation, we finally just exchanged email addresses and agreed to touch base later.
The next time I met Rod was a month or so later when he invited me to lunch with the PSY/OPS team for Thai-Day Friday. I was unsure of what to expect; we had met in person just once and had exchanged emails only a few times since the conference, and inviting me to lunch with his team seemed like an especially generous, if not surprising, invitation. The PSY/OPS office is located on Market street just at the edge of the Tenderloin in a spot that straddles a fantastic collision of downtown, tourists, and street drama. Rod introduced me to his three employees, two of whom were former students and all of which
seemed to be as polite and kind as the man himself. After showing me a few new projects they were working on, we headed over to Smooth Thai, an unintentionally kitschy restaurant inside the Parc 55 Wyndham hotel. The food was great and since we all loved talking about design and type, that was all we needed to keep the conversation exciting. An hour and a half flew by before I realized that I needed to be getting back to my own work. As I left, Rod promised to keep in touch regarding new projects and a potential type workshop he was hoping to launch within in the next year.
It was almost 12 months before we had the chance to meet again in person, at TYPO oddly enough. A group of CCA faculty and students — Jon Sueda, Geoff Kaplan, and James Edmondson — were presenting their work and Rod was there to support them. After the session we chatted briefly, but there was another talk I wanted to catch and a few other people were waiting to talk to him, so in what was becoming our customary sign-off, we promised to keep each other updated on any new projects in the works.
There are a few things you should know about Rod. He’s one of the few successful type designers with no formal training; typography isn’t just something you fall into. It takes years of practice and and requires extreme attention to detail. I recently met up with him to learn a little more about career path and found out that in fact, not only did Rod have no formal type training, he’s a largely self-taught designer who “wedged himself into graphic design over the summer doing quality control in a print shop.” He eventually weaseled his way into the art department by sheer curiosity in graphic design. The creative director of the print shop — who had a fine art background and was also one of the few qualified cartoonists for Sesame Street — noticed that Rod had an eye (or maybe a hand) for design and allowed him to make his learning mistakes on the job. As Rod described his experience, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was where he got his willingness to work with and pay attention to people like me who were clearly inferior in terms of technical skill and knowledge.
“That creative director was really pivotal to where I am now, actually we still keep in touch.”
“And what about your other mentor? You mentioned you had two of them.”
Mark van Bronkhorst, the type designer behind ITC Conduit among many others, and principle at MVB Fonts, is another person Rod considers to be a mentor and good friend. At the time they were introduced, Rod was somewhat unhappily working textile design and playing around with letter design on the side. He knew he had a sense for it but was learning the hard way through trial and error — doing everything the wrong way first. Mark noticed Rod’s knack for type design and graciously offered him some production work through Font Haus, where Mark was working at the time, and Rod eagerly accepted.
“Mark’s a really talented designer and he keeps a low profile. I like that. A lot of good people were willing to team up with me along the way.”
“So how did you go from doing type design on the side to running a type foundry?”
“After a few years, I let go of textile design, that was too much.”
Then he started shedding layers. He let go of graphic design deciding he wanted to focus on just logos, and then he let go of logos to focus only on word marks. Finally Rod decided he only wanted to work with letters.
“All of the same principles apply but you’re working at a micro level, so it’s hard to get away with mistakes. I love the purity and simplicity. ”
“Would you say you’re creatively satisfied?”
“Oh no,” he shakes his head, purses his lips, and looks down in a way that indicates there is more to that statement than those two words.
“I always wish I had more time.”
Rod goes on to explain a conundrum I’m already well aware of, not because I’ve had experience running a business but because I too am someone who would love to focus the majority of my time on side projects. It’s the reason he started Glyfyx and it’s the reason he hosts workshops like Alphabetic Order, an educational play-lounge for the typographically curious.
It’s easy to be deceived by his calm, humble demeanor, but don’t let it fool you. Rod’s work has been prominently featured in books like Just My Type by Simon Garfield and Steven Heller’s Typography Sketchbooks. His type foundry has designed fonts for companies like Motorola, EA
Sports, and KFC, he’s even done work for Madonna. When I ask him how he does all of this great work without getting a big head, he just smiles and says he really likes to collaborate.
And that’s the reason Rod is such a great guy. It’s not just that he’s an incredibly talented, hard-working designer. It’s that he’s incredibly talented and hard-working, and takes time to reach out to people like me who are, as he calls “type interested”. He doesn’t just tell me about the exciting projects he’s working on but asks what I’m working on as well.
When I ask him if he ever feels the need to contribute to something bigger than his own work, he says yes. He starts to expound but my mind wanders and his reply is lost, because I already know that he’s making huge contributions to the type and design community with his enthusiasm to interact with typographically curious people like me. He’s giving back and providing opportunities in the same way these things were given to him and by doing this, engaging in the very act of what it means to be human.