For the past two decades, Tal Leming has been crafting typefaces—beautiful, functional typefaces. You may have seen his work for clients like Adidas, Paramount Pictures, and The Hollywood Reporter, or know the consistently excellent work coming out of his (relatively new) foundry, Type Supply. More than that, he co-authored of the Web Open Font Format (WOFF), which is basically the magic behind bringing all the tools and typefaces, long available in print design, online. He’s a blend of code jock and type geek who can create a lovingly formed script font with the “smarts” to swap glyphs on the fly for a spontaneous, hand-lettered look.

At the same time, he’s a humble guy who’s genuinely excited by how letterforms come to life and how other designers put his typefaces to work. Right now he’s watching the world take to Queue, his latest release, which manages to marry machine-like precision with a warm, human touch. The challenge was to create a font that negotiates the uniformity required of the mechanical (like the monospaced fonts used for code) with the proportions and rhythm of the humanist (like calligraphy). The result is a typeface that can work just as well in an app or a website as it can in print.

I recently caught up with Leming about the process behind making Queue, his emotional approach to designing type, his new definition for what “typeface” really means, and what the deal is with all those extra letters in Queue.

Queue's evolution
The evolution of Queue as bits and pieces went back and forth between mechanical and humanist forms.

In your talk at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in September, you mentioned that creating Queue was your quickest type design project yet.
Queue was the fastest thing that I’ve ever drawn for myself. The drawing phase took about two months of almost nonstop work. I’m very quick when drawing things for clients, but when it comes to drawing typefaces for myself, I tend to take a very long time. Last summer I had a two-month window in my schedule and I thought it would be fun to try to draw something for myself within that available time. So I treated it like I do with my client work: hard deadline, no exceptions.

The project was an experiment in another way. Normally when I start a new typeface, I think about what I want it to do or what I want it to look like. In this case, I thought about what I wanted it to “feel” like.

That probably sounds weird, so let me back up a bit. I started teaching a type design course last year and my wonderful students have asked some excellent fundamental questions. At first, we started with, “Where do ideas come from?” That led to, “Why do we make new typefaces?” And that led to, “Why do designers pick one typeface over another?” It’s a very good, very serious, existential question. Designers have lots and lots of different typefaces that can do specific jobs (for example, working at 12px on a screen in paragraphs of #FFFFFF text on a solid #000000 field), so why does one get picked over others?

My current thinking is that designers pick typefaces based on the “feeling” that the typefaces can give to the design they’re used in. The definition of “typeface” that I give to my students now is:

“A typeface is an emotion, or set of emotions, encapsulated in an alphanumeric form.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I thought it would be interesting to approach making a typeface from what I wanted it to feel like instead of what I wanted it to look like. I’ve been watching as technology becomes increasingly integrated into our daily lives. That fascinates me, so I wanted to try to capture that feeling—a combination of the cold precision of data and the warmth of humanity. I had no idea what I wanted this to look like, but I knew what I wanted it to feel like. So I had an objective and a deadline; those are pretty good things for helping me to work fast.

Do you think Queue will especially lend itself to the so-called “quantified-self” apps that measure our steps, heart rate, calorie counts, etc.?
I hope so. I was thinking about that stuff a lot while I was drawing; I paid particular attention to making the numerals very clear. It’s really interesting that we’re now starting to quantify all of this stuff that we’ve been doing for the entire run of humanity. I’ve taken 2,619 steps so far today. My five-year-old son had a 90 percent pass completion rate in his futsal game last weekend. My website has an average session duration of 00:01:04 right now. Those are all just numbers, but for some reason we see these things as vastly important at this point in time. Data points are our zeitgeist!

Queue is an extremely clear and clean sans-serif. A lot of web and app designers were tired of always reaching for Gotham or Museo Sans. Do you think Queue can fit the bill?
It would be great if it does. I tried to make Queue look as much like “today” as I could, so I think it would be a good fit for a lot of what needs to be said these days. Plus, the family was meticulously hinted to look great on screen. I hope to start seeing it on the web soon.

At MICA, you also spoke about how important it is to find the right name for a typeface. Where does the name Queue come from?
“Queue” is a funny word. It sounds like “Q” but has a bunch of unnecessary letters at the end—an unnecessary “ue” and then “ue.” It’s a five letter word using only three letters, which ends up sounding like a single letter. I find all of that to be really funny. Plus, in computer science, “queues” are important things for handling processing sequences, so there’s a computational connection. But, really, I just think it’s a funny word that looked good when typeset in the typeface.