The next time you choose a font, you might pause for a moment and really look at the type. Consider its form and elegance, and realize that before it was given all its hints in Icarus, or Fontographer, it was a trail of lead and ink coming from the pen of someone like Edward Benguiat.
Take the logo that sits atop the front page of the New York Times — maybe the most recognizable newspaper typeface in the country. Benguiat certainly recognizes it — he’s the one who drew it. Or to be more accurate, redrew it, fixing the famous logo by hand.
“One hundred pen points, straight edges, freehand. A lot of freehand,” says Benguiat, the father of such typefaces as Souvenir, Korinna, Era, Fenice, Avant Garde Gothic, ITC American Typewriter, and Edwardian Script. “Lou Silverstein was the art director. His thought was, ‘Change it.’ My thought was, ‘OK, we’ll change it — but if we change it, nobody will recognize it.’ So all I did was take it and fix it.”
With a logo as prominent as the one on the Times ‘ masthead to his credit, you’d think Benguiat would be pretty satisfied with his handiwork. Hardly — he insists that he’s never satisfied with any finished product.
“I’ve never designed anything that I’ve ever been happy with when it’s finished,” Benguiat says.
The name Benguiat is familiar to many as a typeface. But the man behind those glyphs — the one for whom the face is named — is a singular character, with an increasingly rare approach to design. He insists on doing it by hand.
That makes Benguiat a throwback to a different era, particularly with the digital revolution now into its second generation. We’ve reached a stage where designers — several steps removed from the nuts and bolts of their digital machinery — take a lot of the tools they use for granted. Typography and font generation are now as invisible to us as the inner workings of a car engine — if it’s working right, we don’t even think about it.
But there was a time when someone had to draw by hand those beautiful typefaces, those elegant characters we throw around our system folders so cavalierly. Edward Benguiat is one of those someones. While modern typography can trace its history back to Gutenberg or Aldus Manutius, the roots of digital typography are harder to find. It’s rare to be able to point out a living being who actually created a typeface — Benguiat being a notable exception.
Pens and Pencils First, Macs Second
Currently a lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Benguiat was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame last year, joining a list of past honorees that includes Saul Bass, Herb Lubalin, Seymour Chwast, Walt Disney, and Andy Warhol. The septuagenarian designer continues to draw logos and letters, carrying on what he considers to be a lost art. “Lettering is a specialty thing that is gone. It’s totally gone,” he says.
Although Benguiat does use a Mac, he doesn’t begin a drawing on it. “When I design a logo type, I can’t go on the computer. I design the bridge. I have other people build it on the computer. I design using a pencil or pen.”
Benguiat (pronounced [ben-gåt]) was born in Brooklyn. The son of a display director at Bloomingdale’s, Benguiat got his hands on all his father’s pens, brushes, and drafting sets at an early age. Just shy of enlistment age during World War II, Benguiat put his talent for design to work, forging a photostat of his birth certificate so that he could join the armed forces. After serving in the Air Corps in Italy, he made a name for himself as a jazz drummer under the moniker “Eddie Benart,” playing with bands led by Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.
But design and typography were always there. During his stint as a musician, Benguiat enrolled at the Workshop School of Advertising Art. There, he worked under the famous designer Paul Standard, becoming his protégé.
Benguiat continued to work as a designer and art director for several agencies and studios, as well as on his own. He was instrumental in the establishment of the International Typeface Corporation, the cornerstone type foundry owned by Aaron Burns, the Lubalin Burns Corporation, and Photo Lettering. Benguiat’s association with other design luminaries such as ITC partner Herb Lubalin began very early on. “Herb Lubalin and I were partners,” Benguiat says. “I’d known him since my Bar Mitzvah.”
Benguiat’s first project at ITC was Souvenir. Originally just a single-weight face from the 1920s, Benguiat redrew it, adding different weights and an italic version. Souvenir soon became ITC’s best seller. It was the beginning of a long association with ITC that included art direction of the excellent U&lc , a quarterly publication that covered design and typography better than any other magazine then or now. (The print version is now defunct, though the magazine can still be found
Unlike other designers of his generation, Benguiat doesn’t fear the computer. On the contrary, he embraces it.
“A very important question is, ‘Has type had any benefits since it went into the computer?'” Benguiat says. “At the beginning, it wasn’t that good because the people who were doing the kerning weren’t typographers. They didn’t know the spacing. Today, it’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous. The only trouble is, they’re still using the same kerning programs they used 20, 25 years ago.”
Still, after more than 50 years of drawing without a computer, Benguiat doesn’t rely on one. “You know, when you pick up a pencil, you’re erasing, you’re making another tissue.” Even his vocabulary is arcane. Designers used tissue in the fifties and sixties, and acetates and vellum later on. Now we just use layers. “You can make 50 tissues of one letter. It’s a waste of time on the screen. If you can’t draw a shape that’s pleasing on a piece of paper, how the hell are you going to do it on the screen?”
There isn’t much use arguing with Benguiat over this point. Being able to draw a pleasing shape, no matter what tool you use, is essential in design. But drawing shapes isn’t enough. You have to be able to see what’s wrong with a shape or a layout, and then know how to fix it. And that, Benguiat says, is what he’s best at.
Just as he fixed the New York Times ‘ logo, Benguiat has also worked on logos for Estée Lauder, the San Diego Tribune , one version of Esquire magazine, and AT&T.
“When I did AT&T, I did three typefaces for them,” Benguiat recalls. “This is under the art direction of Saul Bass. He said, ‘Do what you want.’
“Coincidentally, the New York Times came to my office to interview me, and on my wall was all the AT&T work. The Times article ended up saying two things that I remember: that I was working on AT&T, and I’m never satisfied with anything when it’s finished. So Saul Bass called me up and said, ‘What the hell are you telling that for?’ He was the art director for AT&T, and the whole Board of Directors there says, ‘Why are you giving a job to a guy that’s not happy with his finished work?'”
So how did Bass respond? “‘Benguiat’s a schmuck,'” Benguiat remembers Bass saying. “‘But he works cheap, and he’s good.'”
Tinkering and Tailoring
He certainly is good. When Benguiat says that he used Garamond on the AT&T logo, he doesn’t mean that he typed it into the Mac and simply printed it out. “I took the ITC Garamond, redrew it. I’m tracing over it, changing the proportion, the weight,” says Benguiat, describing a process he calls “tailoring.”
Type on the computer was designed to work for text, Benguiat explains. “And there are thousands of combinations, of kerning pairs,” he adds. “Sometimes they sacrifice and use lousy spacing in some of the letters. When you blow it up to an inch high, you can see it. So you have to re-space it. At three feet high the serif of a face like Bodoni is going to be two inches thick. Someone has to fix it. I get called to do that.”
Fixing a typeface involves more than just resetting the kerning pairs. Benguiat will assess the different weights and curves of each particular character, and then make adjustments accordingly. When Adobe came out with its multiple masters font format, the company addressed this very problem — allowing designers to “fix” and play with the shapes and readability of fonts in real time.
Fixing logotype, as Benguiat does, is not the same as developing a logo from scratch. He makes a point that he spends most of his time as an editor of sorts. “I don’t ever remember doing a logo where it didn’t exist already,” he says. “Most of the time the company has a logo, or they have type that they call their logo. They have Helvetica with a box around it.”
Benguiat the fixer first analyzes the notoriety of the logo. “If it’s a very popular logo you can’t go changing it radically. It’s like this: the Beatles are playing ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ and Lawrence Welk gets a hold of it and [screws] it up in his own way. Lawrence Welk is doing a lousy logo, or revamp of the tune.”
Music and Design
Benguiat looks at the task of design as if he’s solving a puzzle. A designer lays out the pieces in a proper and most-pleasing order.
Benguiat often makes analogies between design and music. “What’s the difference between music and graphic design?” he asks. “Music is playing sounds in a proper order so that they’re pleasing to the ear. Whose ear depends on who’s listening. What’s layout and design? Placing things in their proper order so they’re pleasing to the eye. There’s no difference.”
In jazz, an idea is always communicated in phrases. One musician bounces off the other. The saxophone will say something, to which the trumpet or bass will respond. Layout is a conversation or dialog on the page between the elements. Subsequently, the viewer is witness and interpreter to that conversation. And typography are the syllables that make up the words of those dialogs.
Benguiat makes it sound so easy. But, he’ll be the first to admit things in that proper order sometimes take an inordinate amount of time and effort. Logotypes and typography itself are arduously refined and refined again. When Benguiat hand-drew Edwardian Script, for example, it took over a year.
Pennies for Thoughts
“You’ll never see the money for the hours of work you put in,” he says. “If you were getting $10 an hour, you wouldn’t see it.”
Benguiat points to Edwardian Script. “A line has a thickness, and I have to plot with both sides of the line. To draw it is hell. On the computer, it’s easy. I work four inches high in script. And I have to figure out the connectors. But if you’re off a thousandth of an inch it’s instant hell.”
Younger designers would do well to understand the environment in which the graphics professional works. The work is not intended as fine art — the intent of a graphic designer is commerce. At its best, the work touches on finer things, but for the most part, it’s good enough to satisfy the client’s project.
Benguiat certainly takes pride in his work and gives something of himself in all his projects. But, as he says, “I would say that about 75 percent of the jobs I’ve done, especially in book jackets, are rejected. When Herb [Lubalin] and I worked together, I would say about 50 percent of the jobs were rejected. But we got paid for all of them. So I get paid for my work. And when they do go for it, I say, ‘Thank God.'”
Digital designers are often fooled by the power of the computer. But Benguiat has a warning for us.
“A computer is a drum machine compared to a drum,” he says. “A drum machine does what it’s told. A drum feels it. And the computer will never be a drum.”
ANDREW SHALAT is a Los Angeles-based designer, illustrator, and writer. E-mail him at