Like a no-nonsense boxing match, the rules of Typefight are simple, ruthless, and clear-cut. Each week, two designers are pitted against one another, tasked with creating the same, single letterform that the “(mostly) good folks of the internet” then vote on to determine the champion. As Drew Roper, an art director and one of the Typefight founders explains, anyone can vote, no matter their design credentials.
“We encourage everyone from designers and illustrators to accountants and astronauts. Even my mom votes sometimes.”
Designers are matched by skill set and style, so two illustrators or two calligraphers might be brought into the ring, or two designers with a particular penchant for neon colors. Interestingly, social media plays no small role when Typefight select its contestants. If they create a match between a designer with 50 followers and another with 50,000, voting will likely be severely skewed. Not that a large social following is always a reliable indication of skill or talent, but in this case it’s akin to putting a 300-pound heavyweight in the same ring as a skinny, timid boxing hobbyist.
Typefight started out as many of blogs do: from an urge to make use of spare time outside working hours and as a way to force its creators to pursue personal creative endeavors. At the time, Roper was working at an ad agency in Chicago, reading Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap and sites like Friends of Type during his lunch breaks, and whenever he was particularly bored he’d dream up concepts for his own typography blog.
“I’m terrified of doing anything solo, so I dragged Ryan Paule into it,” says Roper, who found that competing against his friend spurred him on and gave him the motivation to design his characters. Paule and Roper would battle it it out each week, going through the letters of the alphabet one by one, and allowing the internet to decide which was best. After a while they brought in “Guest Fighters,” which soon became the norm.
That was four years ago, around the time Austin-based graphic designer Bryan Butler first got involved. Now Roper, Butler, and the rest of the Typefight team work together across states, sharing the responsibilities of social media, talent scouting, and managing the sales of their online store, where they sell prints of favorite letterforms.
Back in the early days, fighters were given a timely theme like Halloween, Thanksgiving, snow, or mustaches, but now themes are random and less specified, like a color, a tone, or an idea. And since Typefight has already gone through four cycles of A-Z and 0-9, a randomizer is used to determine which character will be played next.
Over the years there’s been a lot to celebrate, as well as a lot of rolling with the punches. Typefight had their very own hacker, who messed with the voting systems so that all the fights were very close. They’ve organized live Typefights in real boxing rings, where designers sat opposed with just a few hours to design a character.
Some of their online matches have been real nail biters, like an extremely close fight between Elizabeth Garcia and Isabel Urbina Pena that had Butler “pulling out [his] beard hair.” For a brief while (maybe just a week), Typefight also had a comments section, but it didn’t take them long to realize that it was a terrible idea. “We really try to create an atmosphere that’s fun and inspiring, even though smack talk is always encouraged,” says Roper.
“Our project is not meant to be heady or fussed over,” continues Butler, “but if people are comparing letters and talking about why this one is better than that one, then I think we’re doing something good. Do we want people to argue about why one letter is better than another? Absolutely. Do we want a comment section? Hell no.”
So are there any reigning champs of the Typefight ring? “Luke Lisi might be the only undefeated fighter,” says Butler. “We’ve had so many fighters it’s hard to recall, so please don’t send me any angry emails if I forgot about you.” Roper intervenes (with just a hint of competitiveness). “Actually, I think the biggest champion is Ryan. He won six times.”
Matt Stevens’ heavyweight A print is stands out as particularly noteworthy, having sold out in the online shop in less that a week. Yet some of Roper and Butler’s favorite designs have been by losers, like a curving, emphatic N by Scott Hill.
Despite four years of organizing and closely following the weekly matches, it’s still difficult for Butler and Roper to predict a winner, though more often than not the letter that’s more legible leaves with the trophy though. Apparently, voters prefer function over experimentation.
“It’s funny, because we mostly love the really weird letters,” says Butler. “The project is all for fun and internet points, so I think people tend to let themselves loose and experiment a bit more, which is one of the best things about it.” Kelly Thorn was another stand out for Butler, with her extremely warped, majestic M.
And what about the most memorable battle? Butler and Roper wholeheartedly agree on this one—it was the fight between Oscar Morris and Missy Austin “back in the day.” Oscar won with a blackletter T made of gravy. “I love gravy” says Butler. Roper concurs. “Mmm… that gravy T.”
Even though he developed the concept, Roper is still the “losingest” designer to date, currently holding a score of 4-6. It did get him designing more personal work though, which was always his ultimate aim. Butler’s record isn’t any better; he’s lost the only two fights he’s been in. “My ego still hasn’t recovered,” he jokes. “I think one day Drew and I will have to get back in the ring together, and I’ll most likely lose again, crushing my spirit forever.”