Redaction, by Jeremy Mickel and Forest Young

Name: Redaction
Designers: Jeremy Mickel, owner of the type foundry MCKL and Forest Young, head of design at Wolff Olins
Release Date: March, 2019 (in conjunction with Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts’ The Redaction exhibition at MoMA PS1)

Back Story: Late last year, artist Titus Kaphar approached Forest Young, an old colleague from Yale, with an intriguing request. Kaphar was putting together a show for MoMA PS1 along with memoirist, poet, and attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts around the concept of “money bail,” the condition in which people who have been arrested and can’t afford bail are held without having been tried or convicted. The Civil Rights Corps (CRC) had provided the source material from which Kaphar and Betts were creating their pieces: lawsuits filed by the organization on behalf of people who couldn’t afford bail. From those legal documents, Kaphar was creating etched portraits of the incarcerated individuals, while Betts was making poetry from the briefs, redacting words and phrases to create rhythm and craft verse. What they needed was an original typeface in which to set the redacted poetry. Would Young be interested in making one?

“I said yes, and…” says Young, adding that there was one type designer who he would need to bring onto the project with him. “There are type designers who are incredible technicians, and there are those rare people who understand how concepts can play into the drawings of the letterforms. Jeremy Mickel is both.”

From the start, Young and Mickel wanted to subvert the typefaces typical to legal documents, Times New Roman and New Century Schoolbook. These fonts are so ubiquitous as to seem de facto in many official or bureaucratic contexts. “Even when people aren’t aware of typography, I think they still feel it,” says Mickel. “We see a legal brief, and even if we don’t recognize that it’s in Times New Roman, it fits into a template of what people have previously experienced. It has a sense of authority.”

Redaction, by Jeremy Mickel and Forest Young. GIF by Zipeng Zhu / Dazzle @zzdesign

Taking those two fonts as a starting point, Mickel and Young put together a survey of different types of redaction, a nod to Betts’ black-out style poems and to the eventual name of the show, The Redaction. “We realized that these details tell a story themselves,” says Young. “How many people had touched this document? How many passes of faxing and scanning has it gone through?”

Some of the legal documents were copies of copies of copies, causing degradation of the text, an unintentional, subtler form of redaction. From that idea sprung the concept behind Redaction, the typeface. “We thought, ‘How do we make new type history while wrestling with the inertia of the history that we were given?’” says Young.  

What are its distinguishing characteristics? Times New Roman and New Century Schoolbook make up the foundation of the face, with the designers rounding out the teardrop shapes and sharpening the acute shapes, in a nod to the extremes they consider inherent to the U.S. legal system. To mimic the levels of degradation they saw in the copied legal documents, Young and Mickel turned to early bitmap studies and document references, as well as Susan Kare’s designs for the original Apple icons and many of Zuzana Licko’s early digital fonts for Emigre.

Redaction, by Jeremy Mickel and Forest Young

The result is a font in three styles (Regular, Italic, and Bold) available in seven grades of degradation. The first grade is crisp, solid, and perfectly legible, while Redaction 100 is low resolution and pixelated. The five grades in between move along a scale of pristine to pixelated.

Why’s it called Redaction? For one, because that’s what the exhibition is called. But also, it “speaks to to the ideas behind the font,” says Mickel. “We’re obfuscating the text by rendering it in these pixels, at the lowest level of resolution.” Alongside the pieces in the show that use Redaction, the typeface is also used in the exhibition signage, graphics, and promotional material. 

What should I use it for? At the request of the artists, the font is free for personal use. Young and Mickel are eager to see what others use it for, and plan to put up a site showing the various uses soon. In the meantime, Young used it for a talk he gave at the AIGA conference this month, playing with the different grades of degradation as a storytelling device. “You can use one of the degrading variations to add a sort of emotional quality, or use one that’s pristine to communicate something effectively,” he says. “And the type can almost seem to degrade over time. Having a time-based shorthand within the face is an incredible narrative tool.”

Redaction, by Jeremy Mickel and Forest Young

The designers hope the typeface will convey the idea that there are codes in everything. Even a typeface as familiar and seemingly benign as Times New Roman carries in it other meanings of power and authority in certain contexts. “It’s about questioning and recognizing the details that tell these bigger stories,” says Young. “Ultimately, we want to charge people to write their own history in a typeface that’s now available to them.”