Planet typography MyFonts
The typographic Times
Nick Curtis


[March 2003]
“The first step in the process of creating a typeface is to determine the rules to be followed (.) After that, creating the font is simply a matter of applying the rules consistently.”
Nick Curtis

Nick’s Fonts

Who is Nick Curtis ?

A bon vivant, a raconteur, a grandfather of ten. But I get ahead of myself; let me start at the beginning.

I was born on the south side of Chicago which, according to Jim Croce, is the baddest part of town, in 1948, the oldest of what would turn out to be eight children. That same year, my father purchased our first television set, a tall, narrow cabinet with a lid on top. The picture tube faced up, so you viewed the picture in a mirror on the bottom of the lid. My mother’s father, who was a professional scenic artist (designed and painted scenery for the theater) saw possibilities in this arrangement, and he and my father, with the aid of another mirror and a fresnel lens from a spotlight, created what may well be the world’s first projection TV.

This electronic marvel must have made an impression on me because, one evening when I was three, after seeing a Flash Gordon serial on the television, I drew a mural in crayon on the wall next to my bed. When my parents discovered it the next day, they were not pleased, and contemplated suitable punishment. My grandfather, however, saw artistic merit in the creation, and declared that "the kid has talent." Thus began my artistic career.

Our family moved to Texas in 1952, which would remain my home for the next forty-five years. I learned to read at an early age (four), and quickly devoured all of the books in our home library. I got my first library card when I was eight, and thereafter spent a great deal of my free time at the public library. As it turned out, my favorite subject proved to be American popular culture in print and on film.

My first exposure to typography as a distinct discipline occurred in my thirteenth year when, one fateful day, I was making the rounds of the neighborhood alleys in advance of the trash collectors to see if I could find any treasures that someone else had thoughtlessly discarded. This particular day, I found a treasure trove: hundreds and hundreds of mosaic tiles (mostly shades of blue and green), and a big fat green vinyl binder from Jaggers-Chiles-Stovall Typographers, Dallas, Texas. Inside were hundreds of typefaces – most utilitarian, but many exotic – with names like Orplid and Umbra and Venus. I gathered up my treasures and carried them home: some years later, the mosaics became a coffee table top; the typeface binder became my bible, my chapbook, my inspiration for forays into handlettering.

In high school, I was active in the drama club, the newspaper and the yearbook. In the last two clubs, learned the rudiments of practical graphic design, and I continued that involvement into college and beyond.

My second typographic awakening occurred in my later college years, when Push Pin Studios enjoyed its heyday, and the San Francisco rock poster movement flourished. Push Pin has strong Art Deco influences, and the poster guys borrowed heavily from Art Nouveau, two historical periods of type design that were entirely new to me. During this time, I tried my hand at poster design and did some of my first type design sketches. My freeware font Nickelodeon was taken from drawings I did in a notebook in 1969. After college, I pursued a career in graphic design – in succession, in a computer company, and advertising agency, an audio-visual presentation company, and broadcast television. These various positions also correspond roughly to the duration of my first marriage; when I divorced, I took about a year off to dabble in the acting thing again, with a troupe of aspiring stars. Most of them (including me) did simply aspire, although one member of our group, Lou Diamond Phillips, did get a paying job or two.

In any event, after a year of R&R, I returned to the graphic arts field in electronic pre-press at the time when desktop publishing was just coming into its own. In 1990, I met the lovely lady who was to become my second (and final, I hope) wife, and we married in 1993. She had two daughters, who each had three children, so I became an instant grandfather (both daughters have had two more children each since then).

In 1997, a friend of mine, who had become disgusted with trying to learn fontographer, sold me his copy, and I began my first forays into font creation. Later that same year, my wife and I moved to the Washington, DC area, where we have been ever since. In 2000, I notice that Bitstream was soliciting font designs for their New Font Collection, so I sent them a few of my designs. I was elated when they chose to license Steppin’ Out and Picayune Intelligence.

Emboldened by my newfound success, I submitted several designs to ITC. In 2001, they licensed twelve of my designs, and their parent company, Agfa-Monotype, licensed another three. Two of those designs – ITC Jeepers and Agfa-Monotype Woodley Park – were honored by the Type Directors Club of New York as among the best new type designs of 2001. I was gratified, of course, but I didn’t get filthy rich as a result.

When was launched as an independent marketer of third-party fonts, I took the plunge and established my own independent foundry, Nick’s Fonts. I have added incrementally to my collection and, with my first releases of 2003, will have 103 fonts in my portfolio, with more to come … always more to come.

Font used: Quigly Wiggly Art by Bert Beckers.
Font used: Quigly Wiggly

What is your classical process to create a typeface ? Do you only use a computer or do you draw it before on a paper ?

Many years ago B.C. (Before Computers), I did all of my lettering by hand, but I’ve gotten lazy in my dotage. Now, I almost always do all of my design work on the computer, unless I am out and about and see an interesting typeface on a poster or billboard or even, as in the case of Quigley Wiggly, on a toothpick wrapper.

The first step in the process of creating a typeface is to determine the rules to be followed: x- height, serifs or not, monoline or thick and thin strokes, and things like that. After that, creating the font is simply a matter of applying the rules consistently. For me, the most important characters in a typeface are the letters S (uppercase and lowercase), lowercase a, and the ampersand; a nice question mark, pound sterling sign and paragraph mark are also desirable.

A lot of your typefaces are Art Deco inspired. Why ?

I grew up in the 1950s, when commercial television in the United States was still relatively young. A lot of the programming in those days was movies and cartoons from the 1930s (which, incidentally, is when my father was growing up). Now, I don’t know if you have looked carefully at movies from this period, but many of them are textbook examples of Art Deco advertising, architecture and furnishings. Marx Brothers movies, for example, were particularly up-to-the- minute for their time.

In general, Art Deco typography is playful, inventive, a little sophisticated and a little naïve, all qualities that I find appealing.

You offer a large collection of free fonts on your site. Maybe larger than the collection of the commercial fonts. In which case do you offer your creation for free and in which case do you sell the typeface ?

There’s no formula. At any given time, I may have as many as 100 fonts in various stages of development. To determine which ones become commercial fonts, I ask myself "Is this font unusual enough that I would pay money for it if I didn’t make my own fonts?" If the answer is yes, then that font becomes a commercial property. So far, my instincts have been fairly good: at least 80% of the fonts that I have chosen to sell have been selling.

Art by Christian Musselman.
Fonts used: Boyz R Gross,
East Coast Frolics NF
Fonts used: Boyz R Gross,  East Coast Frolics

Do you have some news of the use the people create with your fonts ?

Yes. As a matter of fact, I have included a new section on my website called "Nick’s Fonts at Work," which showcases projects that have used some of my fonts. Since I instituted this new area, people have been sending me examples of my work, and I plan to add to this section on a regular basis.

Font used: Dusty Rose Art by Christian Musselman.
Font used: Dusty Rose

What is your favorite typefaces among the creations of your peers ?

That’s a difficult question. So many fonts, so little hard drive space/time/money. Once upon a time – even twenty years ago – it was possible to know virtually every typeface available by name but, with the explosion of typefaces that accompanied the desktop publishing revolution, that’s not the case anymore. There are many designers whose work I admire, and I discover new gems all the time.

But you probaly want specifics. I would have to say that Greg Thompson’s Bodega series is my all-time favorite. Both the serif and sans-serif versions are marvelous exercises in minimalism – not a single extraneous point or line. Other favorites include Daniel Pelavin’s ITC Anna (serious Art Deco), and Jim Parkinson’s ITC Jimbo series (just plain fun).

Related article: Riquet, typeface portrait (March 2003).