How Michael Cina developed the identity for TypeCon 2013

The design brief

SOTA's Corey Holms brings us up to speed:

"TypeCon is an international design conference focused on typography, organised by the Society of Typographic Aficionados (SOTA). In 2010, I was asked to design its identity, and, after being involved behind the scenes, I felt an even greater affinity for it. I subsequently moved into a board position, and am now responsible for organising creation of the identity for each conference. Each year, TypeCon has a new theme, the 2013 concept ended up being 'Portl&', with the '&' replacing the 'and' as a typographic pun.

"I wanted to get someone on board who was based quite a distance from Portland, and could give an outsider’s perspective. It was then that I thought of typeface design legend Mike Cina. As a long-term type aficionado, I first discovered his work online in the late '90s. I'd always wanted to release my own typeface designs, so followed Mike’s career closely and, later, he invited me to have my fonts distributed by his foundry of that time, YouWorkForThem. We quickly found that we have very similar ideas of how typefaces should be marketed and distributed. I trusted his sensibilities implicitly and focused my energies on trying to get him to take the job for TypeCon. It’s a huge commitment, which makes it a hard sell.

"I tend to give designers a lot of freedom – they're provided with a write-up of the host city, and the only real requirement is that the identity system relates to it in some way. For the Portl& project, the logo lockup needed to include the Portl& theme, the host city, the name TypeCon and the dates of the conference. From the research we had done, we knew Portland was going to be a difficult graphic to resolve, but I knew that Mike could easily traverse the project’s complexities."

Michael Cina with one of his TypeCon banners, which features Portland landmark Mount Hood

Work in progress

I studied graphic design in the early 1990s, so began thinking about what I was into during that time - distressed typography, primarily Chris Ashworth and Tomato, the hyper-futurist Designers Republic and the unique work of Vaughan Oliver. There was also a school of designers including Philippe Apeloig and Studio Dumbar doing work based on Swiss ideals.

My main pitch soon became 'Swiss gone wrong'. Everything would be rooted in classic methods but done through my lens. I knew it’d be pretty taboo to use Helvetica, Univers or Futura for the primary typeface, but that’s when I started to get excited about this direction – thinking it would be quite ludicrous to use a sans for a type conference in 2013. The Helvetica and Futura craze is completely out of fashion.

One of the 165 different interstitial screens designed for use between talks, which also became a desktop wallpaper

Eventually the concept was refined into a Cina-flavoured homage of that brand of '90s typography, but also playing off design, versus the conference, versus Portland. I started working on the marque itself, choosing the font Fakt by Thomas Thiemich. I love Fakt because, through OpenType, it can operate as a neutral grotesk or a geometric sans. I printed out ideas, cut them up and made collages with the graphics. I intended for them all to look different, with the Portl& marque as the anchor for the festival’s 2013 identity.


Once the concept was decided upon, the whole production process went really smoothly. I had no major problems and always came in ahead of schedule. In fact, the main challenge I faced was having too much time. I had some really big projects come in half way through, meaning I had to switch focus and spend some time on them instead.

This concept was used as a section divider in the programme

Whenever I come back to a project, I want to redo and rethink things and this happened a lot during this project. Knowing this about myself, I let TypeCon know in advance that the look would range from minimally clean designs, like on the poster, to crazy disjointed work, like on the programme.

That’s how I see things - I think there are always A million ideas inside one direction. You will rarely see me cling to a single idea because there are an infinite amount of solutions and approaches to take. I wanted it to feel like every part of TypeCon was held together by the Portland marque, but that it was re-imagined each time within the brand that I had set up.

I am most proud of the concept behind it all. I felt that the design approach almost contradicted the goals of the type conference - to be new, and current - and liked the way the style incorporated ideas from Portland’s design history. My main goal was to re-envision it into something new that worked for the conference. It couldn't have been more exciting to me, but I felt that the final identity could easily be misunderstood.

The final TypeCon identity, as it featured on the conference program and the attendee badge

People have made many comments on the design so far and each one is insightful in a different way. Everyone seems to pull out a different aspect of the idea. I’ve noticed that seasoned designers eventually work through the concept and love it. That, I feel, is the ultimate compliment.

Words: Michael Cina

Michael is an award-winning art director, typographer and visual artist based in Minneapolis. He’s the founder of online designer resource YouWorkForThem and owns design agency Cina Associates, with a top-tier client list that includes Facebook, Coca-Cola, and Disney.

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 219.

Liked this? Read these!

Let us know what you think of this project in the comments!