Designer Spotlight

Women in Type: Alphabettes

March 18, 2016 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

At the tail end of the Summer of 2015 Alphabettes.org announced its existence with a friendly “Oh, Hello there!”. Saying it is the brainchild of German typographer and teacher Indra Kupferschmid, and American design educator and self-proclaimed type nerd Amy Papaelias would be telling only a small part of the story. This platform for supporting and promoting the work of all women in lettering, typography, and type design is a group effort, the collective voice of an impressive group of female creators. More a loose network than an actual organisation, Alphabettes currently counts 135 members from around the world. While this wonderful initiative provides new opportunities for women in our industry, a cynical person might wonder why inequality needs to be countered with exclusion. Because I personally am a big fan of Alphabettes I decided to ask Indra and Amy why they feel there is a need for an all-women typography blog.

Indra Kupferschmid, Photo by Andrea Piffari
Indra Kupferschmid, Photo by Andrea Piffari

Earlier last year, there had been a sense of unease growing among contributors on TypeDrawers (the discussion forum for professionals and enthusiasts in the fields of typeface design, lettering, and typography) regarding the tone of some of the comments. One night last August, Indra started to numerously comment on the platform as an experiment. She also invited other women to join the forum and add their voices to the conversation. Diversifying TypeDrawers, a post by Stephen Coles published a few days later to welcome those new female members to TypeDrawers, inexplicably devolved into a stream of controversial reactions from members. Without delving too deep into the ramifications of this thread, coincidence or not, shortly after Alphabettes were born.

Indra Kupferschmid | “You could say Alphabettes started that night I binge-posted on Type Drawers. At first it was an e-mail chain among a number of type-women. When the volume of e-mails sent back and forth got too much, Jessica Hische suggested we’d set up a chat room. And that’s what I did. Amy mentioned there used to be a group named Alphabetties on Typophile. I didn’t particularly like the ‘girly’ connotation, so we chose Alphabettes as the name without really thinking about it. [By the way, there is still no consensus on how it should be pronounced.] Ironically, I had been so absorbed by the TypeDrawers situation that I completely missed Google announcing Alphabet that same day.”

Exactly one month after the group started talking to each other, the Alphabettes.org blog – hacked together by Amy and Indra – was launched as a place where they all can post the things they want to see on the web. People approach the Alphabettes, the Alphabettes approach people, friends recommend other friends … The blog aims to be inclusive: any woman who wants to contribute can get in touch.

Amy Papaelias
Amy Papaelias

Amy Papaelias | “There haven’t been any specific guidelines for how people can contribute. We recently updated our About page to include a Contribute form. Because we were just a dozen or so women who know each other online, Alphabettes started out in a very small way. We are still figuring out how to maintain this sense of closeness, of community, yet also welcome and support as many women in type and lettering as we can. It is a delicate balance, and the blog can accept contributions from any women doing work or research in our fields.”

Besides the authors/contributors, a number of people help behind the scenes. One of them is Portuguese graphic designer and Type & Media graduate Tânia Raposo.

Tânia Raposo
Tânia Raposo

Tânia Raposo | “Because I was one of the people in the e-mail chain initiated by Indra, I got involved with Alphabettes from the very start. I have been helping writers with editing and managing media content and have also contributed articles myself, with some more on the way. As a graphic and type designer I feel very fortunate to be part of this group of people. I have met a lot of peers I didn’t know about, and have learned so much from them.”

Another person helping behind the scenes is graphic designer and MA Typeface Design graduate Bianca Berning, who joined Alphabettes last summer through a dear friend, Zeynep Akay.

Bianca Berning
Bianca Berning

Bianca Berning | “Alphabettes was still very much in its infancy when I joined. The beauty of the group is that it runs solely on the enthusiasm of the women involved. Most of the initiatives and blog articles come out of lighthearted conversations we have among ourselves or with other women in the industry. As I see it, Alphabettes is a network of insanely motivated individuals that share a passion for letter forms. It’s great to have this bunch of smart people at hand to bounce (admittedly sometimes silly) ideas off each other. Fortunately, some of those ideas develop further and end up being shared with a wider audience on the blog. We don’t have assigned roles within the group: whoever is excited and has some time to spare jumps in. While I consider myself very dedicated to Alphabettes, I don’t stand out more or less than any of the other women. I merely provide spreadsheets to keep some order behind the scenes, and to try and push things forward. We all have very different skill sets. I’m heading a multidisciplinary team of typeface designers, font engineers and software developers at Dalton Maag. My team is, among other things, responsible for the implementation of internal standards and the improvement of our font development processes. You could say that it’s my job is to keep things in order. I’m happy if Alphabettes can benefit from those skills.”

Alphabettes publish articles, interviews, opinion pieces, reviews, news items, and more. There is, as of yet, no editorial board nor official review committee to assess the quality of the submissions. Everything happens in a very organic and informal way. And it is working.

Alphabettes blog headers so far.
Alphabettes blog headers so far.

Amy Papaelias | “Indra and I both don’t sleep a lot. We wanted to make this blog, and just did it, with the help and encouragement of the whole group. There’s always someone willing to volunteer to read someone’s article, help with images or code, etc. We have people in all time zones, and the chat room really facilitates the collaboration. If we had to wait around for the blessing by some official group, things would never happen. We just created this thing and are fumbling through it, every day.”

Victoria Rushton
Victoria Rushton

I would like to put a question mark next to the “fumbling through it”, because the contributions are very varied and of very good to excellent quality. This has quickly established Alphabettes as a strong and confident voice, a new publishing platform not just aimed at women in the typographic community, but at the entire industry. Articles dealing specifically with gender issues – like Victoria Rushton’s spot-on examination of Type and Gender Stereotypes or Lynne Yun sharing her experiences working in male-dominated environments in A Lovely Night Out with the Ladies – are alternated with typeface and book reviews, pieces on type history, and more. ’Bettes, Live lists and recaps conferences and events attended by Alphabettes, while the monthly Alphabettes in News is pretty much self-explanatory. The latter was initiated by Indian graphic designer and MA Typeface Design graduate Pooja Saxena.

Pooja Saxena
Pooja Saxena

Pooja Saxena | “I was invited to join Alphabettes about six or seven months ago, while the group was still somewhat new. When the idea of an Alphabettes website began to take shape, I immediately thought that it would be great to celebrate the work and achievements of women designers and give them the attention they so thoroughly deserve. Soon I began writing a regular roundup focused on women making the news in type design, lettering and typography. Writing this feature has opened up my eyes to some wonderful designers, who don’t always toot their own horn, and I hope that has been the case for the readers too. Especially since I don’t live in a city where I can easily stay involved with the type world, Alphabettes has been a godsend. Being a part of a community of such talented and generous women, I have interacted with so many peers I have never met, and found a place where conversations – no matter how serious or fun, challenging or easy – are always welcome.”

There is a great interview series conceived by Israel-based designer & MA Typeface Design graduate Liron Lavi Turkenich stringing along throughout the blog.

Liron Lavi Turkenich
Liron Lavi Turkenich

Liron Lavi Turkenich | “I got on board pretty early on. The timing couldn’t have been better: I had just given birth, and balancing career and motherhood preoccupied me. This was one way to stay involved in the type world, by being part a community full of energy. I was happy to contribute and share ideas that quickly became reality. Each interview consists of three parts – first a series of short questions like ‘What is your favorite glyph to design?’ or ‘List three locations from your life’; then a visual part with photos taken by the participant according to set titles such as ‘view from my window’ or ‘design process’; and finally the actual interview with in-depth questions about design, life and work. At the end of each interview the interviewee nominates the next one, which creates a nice flow that connects all the interviews in the series. This idea came from my desire to talk to other inspiring ladies, and from the hope that it may be relevant to many others as well. It is a great opportunity to hear and read the honest thoughts of women in our industry.”

The month of February was particularly exciting. Alphabettes flipped the corny concept of Valentine on its head by posting 29 Love Letters to letter-related ephemera, each day written by someone else. This produced a rapid succession of very eclectic and vibrant posts. And just yesterday Alphabettes absolutely killed it with the absolutely brilliant Our favourite typefaces of 1915 (yes, 1915). They managed the formidable feat of producing (in record time!) a genuinely funny satire on the obligatory “Best of…” lists that has both substance and relevance, by infusing actual typeface reviews and a historical framing with in-jokes and delightful wit. It is one of the most enjoyable typography features I have read in quite a long time.

Especially the interviews and series like Love Letters are very valuable, as they help new female voices reach a larger audience. At the same time, young women studying or starting out in typography and related arts can learn about potential role models. The changing blog headers offer a nice showcase. They run the gamut from calligraphy and custom lettering to typefaces designed by women. But the fact that all contributions are by women is not the focus of the site. It merely lends it a particular ‘flavour’, just like any other blog has its specific identity.

[Dyana Weissman](/designers/dyana-weissman) wrote a superb four-part series for Typographica: [_Women’s Voices in Type, On- and Offstage_ Part One](http://typographica.org/on-typography/womens-voices-in-type-on-and-offstage) and [Two](http://typographica.org/on-typography/womens-voices-in-type-on-and-offstage-part-two), and _[Type Women Talk: Experiences with Sexism](http://typographica.org/on-typography/type-women-talk-experiences-with-sexism)_ and _[Positive Forces](http://typographica.org/on-typography/type-women-talk-positive-forces)._
Dyana Weissman wrote a superb four-part series for Typographica: Women’s Voices in Type, On- and Offstage Part One and Two, and Type Women Talk: Experiences with Sexism and Positive Forces.

Amy Papaelias | “There are many outlets for publishing about type these days, many of which are open to discuss issues of gender and publishing the work of new writers. Yet there is something to be said about having control over what we are producing – we don’t only write but also develop, code and manage the blog. I think it is valuable and important to have a space where we can have a collective ownership over the entire process.”

Indra Kupferschmid | “We select the topics and decide what is posted ourselves. I have written for so many people, but in the end it’s never your own thing – someone else is in charge (and in the limelight) and makes the final decisions. This is a much more direct method of working, without a lengthy editorial process. I love the idea of having a space where someone can write what is on their mind that day, without anyone having to edit their phrasing or correcting their English. I would be fine with people posting in their native language. Thanks to the blog the type community got to hear about many more women over the past months. I thought I knew a lot of people, but this has opened a whole new world for me. It is incredibly rewarding.”

Amy Papaelias | “When I attended my first TypeCon in 2004 or so, I knew very few women in type. And then to go to Face Forward last December and not only meet, but immediately know so many women… that was amazing.”

All that said, Alphabettes is very conscious about not seeming as an exclusive insiders group that all the cool kids belong to. It should not be about clubs one wants to join, but about making the whole industry welcoming to everyone.

Alphabettes pins: custom lettering by Victoria Rushton and button designs by Veronika Burian. Photo by Elena Veguillas at ATypI 2015 São Paulo
Alphabettes pins: custom lettering by Victoria Rushton and button designs by Veronika Burian. Photo by Elena Veguillas at ATypI 2015 São Paulo

So after more than half a year of Alphabettes, what does the future have in store for them?

Amy Papaelias | “There has been some discussion of making Alphabettes an official entity and getting some sort of sponsorship. This is both very daunting and really exciting. It’s all happening so quickly, and the question is how much of our lives can we devote to it. That route offers a lot of opportunities, but presents quite a few challenges as well. The fact that we are this loose network allows us to move very quickly. I can’t wait to see what the next six months brings.”

Indra Kupferschmid | “The group can be a stepping stone, and we want to pass that on. Alphabettes can help others who are just starting out and who could use some moral or practical support. We likely have more details on that soon.”

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