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These powerful fonts are based on protest movements, from civil rights to suffrage

Typeface foundry Vocal Type honors the contributions of black Americans like Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Protests have long been an important part of American history, from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the Women’s March. The images and symbols of these demonstrations are rightly seared into the national memory. Now, they’re also available in typeface form.

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[Photo: Wiki Commons]

[Image: courtesy Tré Seals]
Graphic designer Tré Seals runs a font foundry called Vocal Type devoted to transforming the letterforms that can be seen in archival photos of protests into fonts that designers today can use. So far, he’s made fonts out of the iconic “I am a man” signs from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, signage from the 1963 March on Washington, and images from a 1957 protest in Buenos Aires where Argentinian woman demanded the right to vote, among many others.

Now, Seals is working on a new typeface family inspired by the group of hand-drawn infographics by the black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois.

Du Bois famously designed the infographics for the Paris World’s Fair of 1900. They visualized data about black Americans’ economic and social progress since the end of slavery by documenting the numbers of teachers, increasing land ownership, and rural versus urban populations. More broadly, the visualizations depicted how black people were being held back by institutionalized racism. So far, Seals has developed three separate fonts using the letters in Du Bois’s data visualizations and is planning to create different weights for each variety.

[Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images]

The foundry’s work is not just historical; for Seals, it’s also political. He first decided to take on the project after reading an essay about the dearth of black people in design. “That made me start wondering how can I increase diversity in design,” Seals says. “I can’t increase demographics. I love typography, and that’s the basis for every great design project. Why don’t I base typefaces on the history of minority cultures?”

[Photo: Library of Congress/Wiki Commons]
It’s not an easy task, though—many protest posters are drawn by hand. For the type inspired by the March on Washington, which is named “Bayard” after one of King’s closest counselors and one of the primary leaders of the movement, Seals said that he was faced with decisions about how to streamline handwriting into a contemporary digital typeface.

“In the sign that Bayard references, there’s an S on [two] sides and they are completely different,” he says. “It’s always hard figuring out how many liberties I should take in terms of making the typeface more legible…essentially my process is trying to find a balance between that and trying to figure out how to tell that story.”

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For some of his fonts, that means that Seals creates a historical version that maintains many of the quirks of the original protest posters, as well as a cleaned-up version that hammers out some of the inconsistencies.

So far, Seals’s typefaces have been used in magazines, posters, and on tote bags. His biggest claim to font fame is that Netflix used his font from the ’68 protest, named Martin, to market the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?

“I was scrolling through Netflix. I was like, wait, I know that S,” he says. “I was so shocked.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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