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Man of letters
Sharing font memories with House Industries co-founder Andy Cruz
Andy Cruz

While it's nice to think that the written word still means something, chances are it's the ‘how,' as much as the ‘what' that matters these days. As co-founder of House Industries, Andy Cruz knows a thing or two about the ‘how' of writing - not because of his technical mastery of the English language, but because his company is one of the country's premier creators of fonts. Over the last few years, Cruz and the team at House Industries have styled new alphabets for everything from Fox Sports' statistics to Build-a-Bear and cereal boxes to Las Vegas marketing materials.

Cruz will be visiting Savannah on Friday to make a special presentation as part of SCAD's annual SCADDY awards weekend, where the school honors its best and brightest advertising students, before sending them off to compete nationally. We caught up with Cruz over the phone last week to talk about the art of letters, intellectual property and the ironic potential of Papyrus.

What drew you to fonts over other areas of design?

Andy Cruz: We were originally your standard graphic design studio but doing the service of graphic design and dealing with clients got kind of old. We decided we needed a product instead of a service. We were doing a lot of hand lettering at the time, so we thought, let's try this font thing. It was the early 90s. The digital movement was just starting to get momentum and we sort of lucked out. We did a little postcard and just made up enough letters to spell out the font names. Warner Brothers Records was our first customer. They said, "hey can you overnight these," and we were like "oh shit, if you read the little, little print there, it says you've got to allow a couple of weeks because we didn't really finish designing them."

How long does it take to develop a good typeface?

Andy Cruz: It's tough to say. People can do the scroll-y stuff and scan it in, auto trace it, and drop it into the proper places in an afternoon. We've got other fonts, like our Eames Fonts that we're getting ready to release - that's almost eight years in the making.

Where does a font start? Is there a Eureka moment where a couple letters appear, or is something that has to evolve?

Andy Cruz: It depends. If you're thinking from the display side - the more whimsical, almost hand-lettered alphabets - that's one animal. But if you're coming from the ‘we want a really nice face that's gonna work for text and editorial' - that's a completely different animal. We've been fortunate enough to play both sides.

What are the elements of a font that really convey emotion?

Andy Cruz: I think a lot of it is just association. I keep going back to hand lettering. When we look at a lot of stuff that got us into type - whether it was the Hot Wheels logo or cereal box lettering - a lot of that stuff was done by hand by guys that were commercial artists. If they weren't doing illustration then they were probably doing type. What we wanted to do was figure out a way to take the attraction of the hand lettering and make that work as a type face. We wanted to do something that looks like some biker lettering, so we go toward a German black letter and mix that with something Western. We're always pulling from these little pop culture references. Once you start digging deeper and you figure out where those original sources came from, it opens up this whole world of type history.

How has font creation changed in the digital age?

Andy Cruz: Obviously it's a lot more accessible. The computer just made it so much faster and easier. It still comes down to "shit in, shit out." You need a good operator. Just like there were before the computer, there's a lot of sketchy stuff - just because it's out there doesn't mean it's good. We're guilty of that.

How hard is it to maintain the exclusivity of a font - from unlicensed use to straight up theft?

Andy Cruz: It's a pain in the ass. You could police it all day, and have a staff of lawyers, but there's always gonna be somebody that's gonna take it and post it. My wife does it, she'll see something online that says "download the complete collection," and by the time you chase them down, there's another one up. The bigger fish you go after - the one's that make the chase worth while - but other than that you've got to rely on people that appreciate what you're doing and how much work you put into it. Support the scene as so to speak. Surprisingly, we get a lot of folks like that. A lot of the bigger corporate guys, their systems managers are really good about making sure they're legit, probably because they've been busted in the past. But even some of the smaller mom and pop shops are surprisingly supportive.

Is there a point when a font is dead?

Andy Cruz: Type runs parallel with fashion. Look at how it's used - magazines are just as trendy as clothing companies. Just like any other genre, you've got your taste makers that can take anything and position it in the right place and all the sheep will follow. That happens with type. The joke around here is ‘ok, we like it,' that means once we put it out there, it won't be as popular as we think it will be, because we're really into it. Like I said, I do draw a lot of parallels to fashion. This font was cool a couple of years ago, so were flaired jeans for chicks.

As a designer, which is more offensive Papyrus or Comic Sans?

Andy Cruz: I don't know. Everyone loves to hate that stuff, but something shitty like that, it could be ironic in the right set of hands. It could be kind of cool.

Helvetica had a documentary made about it recently. If you could document a font, what would it be?

Andy Cruz: I don't know if I'd do a font. I think I'd do hand writing because that's a little bit more pure, and fonts are killing handwriting, so it would be a much more interesting film.

Lecture by Andy Cruz

When: Friday, January 22 at 3 p.m.

Where: Alexander Hall Auditorium, 668 Indian St.

Cost: Free and open to the public