An interview with Aura Seltzer on her amazing typographic dating game
We have to agree on something: pairing your typefaces used to be a headache even for the most experienced designers, a game without rules to play with, up until Aura Seltzer created an OkCupid for letters in 2012. Type Connection is an application which "presents you with potential 'dates' for each main character—without the misleading profile photos and commitment-phobes. The game features well-known, workhorse typefaces and portrays each as a character searching for love. You are the matchmaker. You decide what kind of match to look for by choosing among several strategies for combining typefaces. Along the way, you explore typographic terminology, type history, and more. By playing Type Connection, you deepen your own connection with type." We are happy to introduce you to some of the finest details behind Aura's ideas for her very interesting project.
How did you come up with the idea of making an OkCupid for fonts?
I created Type Connection in 2012 as part of my MFA thesis at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. The idea to create a dating game for typefaces stemmed from the perspective that, like people, typefaces have personalities, physiques, and voices. Like matchmaking, there’s also some chemistry to look for when it comes to choosing more than one typeface for a design. I hoped the dating metaphor would lighten the mood and provide an engaging way to learn more about typography.
You worked on your thesis for seven or so months, before launching your website. What was the most difficult part of this process?
I started the project in August 2011 and launched the website in March 2012 to coincide with my accompanying thesis exhibition. Over those seven or so months, I taught myself most of the HTML, CSS and jQuery necessary to build the site. While that was certainly a task, the most difficult part of launching Type Connection was deciding which typeface pairs I would consider “successful” matches. Typography can be quite subjective, so I devised four strategies to guide both how I would create the matches in the first place and then help me judge whether a pair was faithful to its intention in the game.
“Typography can be quite subjective, so I devised four strategies to guide both how I would create the matches in the first place and then help me judge whether a pair was faithful to its intention in the game.”
What are the strategies of pairing?
Rely on Family, Embrace the Other, Seek the Similar, and Explore the Past. Rely on Family is about making use of a single type family, extended family, or superfamily (or even typefaces designed by the same designer), because many times they innately share structural consistencies or a similar conceptual approach. Embrace the Other is about finding contrast in a pairing, looking at how each face can play off the other. Seek the Similar focuses on physical similarities to unify a pair’s voice. Explore the Past requires a bit more research, finding typefaces that share a back-story, a concept, output medium, or time period.
Please pick for us your favorite happy couple on Type Connection?
I knew that I couldn’t get away with deeming pairs successful (or unsuccessful) without demonstrating some proof of the pudding. Much like how dating websites promote their own successful matches, Type Connection’s “happy couples” are design examples of the successful matches that also represent the activity the typefaces (as people) would share on their first date. One of my favorite pairings was (spoiler alert) Century and Futura. ITC Century is an upstanding gentleman, and I always thought of him as the “type” to enjoy some fine whisky. Meanwhile, Futura is posh, assertive, and feminine—not quite the outdoorsy kind. So, if the two were opposites, where might their interests collide to meet for a first date? ITC Century and Futura enjoyed après-ski cocktails after a long day on the slopes. Just one sip warmed them like a cable-knit sweater. The design artifact from their date was the label of the whisky they shared.
“ITC Century is an upstanding gentleman, and I always thought of him as the ‘type’ to enjoy some fine whisky. Meanwhile, Futura is posh, assertive, and feminine—not quite the outdoorsy kind.”
How challenging is it to combine typefaces that are not conventionally or historically compatible in the first place?
The anatomy of a story behind typefaces plays a large part in executing a successful design—but not the only part. You can focus on clear typographic hierarchy and assigning distinct roles—things like headline, body copy, caption—to each piece of text to help readers deduce the relationship between the faces and also order of importance. The interplay that a typeface pair adds to a design can liven up a layout for sure, but it can’t fix what may be already broken underneath.
If you were a font which one would you be and why?
It may be because I used this type family for so many months, but FF Tisa (used almost exclusively on the Type Connection website) feels like home. It’s academic but casual, soft but legible. I appreciate that when you read it, it feels like the voice is coming from a real person, not a computer.
What’s your all time favorite game?
Scrabble. I’m still trying to master my memorization of two-letter words.
If Barack & Michelle Obama were typefaces, how would they pair?
The Office of the President is the highest in the United States; the title evokes prestige, honor, intelligence, durability, and artful diplomacy. I’d choose a typeface for President Obama that references the early history of the country, like Caslon. For the First Lady, I’d select something with flair, grace, and a bit of pep, like Brandon Grotesque.
What’s your all time favorite font?
It really depends on the content and context. I try not to choose any favorites—I truly feel that one of the best things about using type is that you don't have to only use one go-to typeface. It's exciting to be able to explore so many different ones!
What’s your least favorite one?
To avoid the cliche "Comic Sans" or "Papyrus" answer here, I’ll say that my least favorite typefaces are those that are frequently used out of the context or ambivalent to the purpose for which they were designed. For example, Bell Gothic was designed to work at small sizes on low quality, absorbent paper where the ink trapped in parts of characters. So, letters like the capital “I” have sections carved out where the ink would pool; when printed, the ink would fill in the gaps. Bell Gothic is still a wildly effective typeface in these contexts, but, without these kind of printing situations, its letters just look plain awkward.
“To avoid the cliche 'Comic Sans' or 'Papyrus' answer here, I’ll say that my least favorite typefaces are those that are frequently used out of the context or ambivalent to the purpose for which they were designed.”
What’s the ideal typeface for the following words?
When it comes to typography, I don’t think there are ideals. There isn’t one and only way to choose or pair type. Frankly, if type was like that, it wouldn’t be much fun, would it? That being said, free associations can be a start point for making judgments and asking questions that lead to more educated type decisions.
Love: Young Baroque, because can’t love be fancy and flowing like an elegant script?
Hate: False Idol. In searching to replicate glamour, Jonathan Barnbrook ended up somewhere decrepit and uncomfortable. Its unpredictability, like a threatening person, is jarring.
Old: Centaur, a Jenson revival with edge and elegance.
New: Glosa Display, polished with a bit of pizazz.
Happy: Tekton, for its cheery roundness and movement.
Sad: FF Mister K. It’s eccentric, imperfect, and slightly tormented.
Sun: ITC True Grit—it reminds me of the reflective, crumpled foil.
Moon: Futura, for its commemorative text left on the Moon.
Which typographer do you admire the most?
I have the utmost respect for Matthew Carter. His work touches so many type technologies, from his being trained as a punchcutter to later designing highly legible, digital type. I don’t go a day without reading something set in Verdana or Georgia. There is also a sense of generosity to his work; his designs and perspectives are a selfless (and tireless) contribution to our field.
“When it comes to typography, I don’t think there are ideals. There isn’t one and only way to choose or pair type. Frankly, if type was like that, it wouldn’t be much fun, would it?”
What’s next for you?
Type Connection opened the door to my interest in web design and type on the web, as well as content creation and strategy. Since earning my MFA, I’ve been working as a designer at Happy Cog, where I make beautiful, responsive websites and design systems for clients like Ben & Jerry’s and Harvard University.