L to R: Latin caseless letter, Pharyngeal Voiced Fricative; Latin small letter gamma, voiced velar fricative; Latin small letter s with hook, voiceless retroflex fricative

Typeface designer James Montalbano is responsible for designing a somewhat astonishing 800 fonts since he founded Brooklyn’s Terminal Design in 1990. If you’re doing the math, that averages out to more than 30 per year. The Clearview type system for text, display, roadway, and interior guide signage is perhaps his best known effort, used on highway signage all over the United States.

Clearview was also the first digital font acquired by the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in 2010. Besides owning his studio, and teaching at the School of Visual Arts and Parsons The New School of Design, Montalbano is a past president of the Type Director’s Club, a martial arts enthusiast (he’s been studying and teaching Xingyi Quan for 36 years), and once taught Industrial Arts—a.k.a. shop class—to high schoolers, back in the day.

It’s almost easier to imagine Montalbano in a wood shop than a type shop; he’s tall with a booming voice, and generally presents as the opposite of the pale, wan cliché of a screen-bound designer. He has a fairly wicked sense of humor, too, so when he started posting a series of mysterious alien glyphs on Facebook this past fall, with captions like “Latin small letter t with belt: voiceless alveolar lateral fricative,” it seemed likely that he was just doodling around, inventing characters with improbable titles for his own amusement.

Turns out it was nothing of the sort—the characters are real, known as standard IPA (International Phonetics Alphabet) glyphs. How’s that again? We caught up with him to sort it out.

Does everyone (well, every designer) know such things exist, or am I the only fool who’s never heard of IPA glyphs? I always thought an IPA was an India pale ale.
I’m not sure how many graphic designers would recognize them, but type designers of a certain level of experience should be aware. They are not commonly included in most fonts, but usually show up in OS fonts at the core of an operating system. Any font designed to be used in dictionaries or for scholarly publishing would be required to contain them.

What are they used for?
They explain how to pronounce a sound. Most of us are familiar with the “schwa” symbol—an upside down “e” that represents the “uh” sound in spoken English (which happens to be English’s most common vowel sound). An example is the “a” in “about,” or the “o” in “lemon.” IPA glyphs represent things such as sounds from varied African languages that don’t have an equivalent in spoken English.

There are about 150 different IPA’s on the Unicode charts! A designer would have to spend so much time building a full set of them into a standard typeface. Are they typically included as a routine part of a new design?
Most of these characters are mainly needed for typesetting arcane subject matter. In general, only a handful are included at first, and if a publisher needs a specific one, it’s often added after the font is out in the world for a while. It becomes a business decision—do I want to spend the time creating a character up front if it will never be used? One of my favorites glyphs, Big Yus, is a Bulgarian character not in common use since the 1940s. It represents a sound from a dialect that has now become extinct. Nevertheless, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve drawn one of these and added it to a font.L: Schwa; R: Big Yus.