Elizabeth Carey Smith. Image by Katharina Brenner. Photo by Catalina Kulczar.

Elizabeth Carey Smith is a creative director whose focus is on furthering the overlap of New York’s type designers, art directors, and their clients. Carey Smith regularly speaks and writes for conferences and publications around the world, and this year picked up the torch coordinating SVA’s Residency in Typography program. (Disclosure: I’ve lectured and taught there.) I was curious to talk to her about her first year directing the program, the interlayering of her approach, and how different it felt from the more traditional classrooms in which I’ve taught.

“All education is a cumulative process.”

In an era of internet tutorials and an ever-expanding gamut of type programs, what makes SVA’s Residency in Typography stand out?

I look at it as the most fun summer camp a type nerd⁠ can hope for—which is why this year I included field trips such as Colossal Media’s hand painted outdoor advertising studio. Perhaps that wasn’t so applicable to type design, but it added to the whole slew of ways you might see letterforms in a new environment. That’s what I’d really like to distinguish, that this program is a fun exploration. It will help you with type design, but it’s not going to give an apples-to-apples comparison to your daily life, or your daily work. That’s up to you to extrapolate from the program—how you’re going to see things after. 

A month is not a long time to train your eye, and I think most typography is really about seeing.

That reminds me of something I read recently, which was, “I can teach you everything I know in fifteen minutes. Then you just have to go home and practice for fifteen years.” Considering that, what’s important in those fifteen minutes? What do you start with?

All education is a cumulative process. With type design in particular, you have to start with certain materials or tools from which you can build something. If you start off asking a student to make anything they want, it can be overwhelming, and it can set them up for a lot of you saying “No, that’s not a great idea.”  

In this year’s program, students started with a few days of calligraphy. It was important to me for them to have tangible things that they had made, so they could start thinking about them in terms of making an original typeface. Our instructor, Lynne Yun not only taught them the classic principles of letterform construction in terms of calligraphy⁠—making shapes of letterforms, understanding why strokes are the way they are⁠—but also how calligraphy could very quickly turn into something more experimental via alternate tools such as balsa wood.

There was something very fluid in the way you coordinate different instructors and influences coming in and out. It felt like a symphony rather than a relay race, which I found nice. 

Most other type programs are quite dogmatic, and that’s not a bad thing. But we only had a month, and that’s not a long time for learning how to make an original typeface from scratch.  

“Most typography is really about seeing.”

I wanted to have a high-low balance—we had [field trips to see] vernacular lettering amid the grittiness of Coney Island, but also [visits to] the Grolier Club. I wanted to not get locked down into the dogma of any one particular person’s approach. For example—and not to say you two are necessarily opposite—but we invited both you, Ksenya Samarskaya, who has a self-described anarchist viewpoint, and Tobias Frere-Jones, who I don’t think would describe himself as that at all.

One of the things I was really glad about was that all the instructors, including Christian Schwartz in the final critique, really emphasized the fact that you can make things as weird as you want, but they need to look intentional. If you have something that’s weird and that’s also badly spaced, it’s hard to know which was intended, so it’s about making things weird within the constraints of making them well-crafted. 

Now that we’ve talked about what the program does, who would you say the program is for? 

Well, I appreciate that it was full of people from different backgrounds and from all around the world. I’m actually considering, maybe next year, I’d just take the program with them. Be a student in the program, as well as coordinating it. You could do it every year, and do a different project, and get a completely different outcome.