Gridfolk: Interview with Zephram
For our latest interview we ventured to the outer fringes of ’Structia – a zone where the bricks are strewn sparsely, the grid is overgrown, and the woods begin to thicken. Here we encountered a man in a broad-brimmed hat answering to the name of Zephram.
While quiet of late, between 2018 and 2019 Zephram was an extremely prodigious and influential contributor to FontStruct, publishing a total of over 700 FontStructions to date.
His ouevre is extremely diverse – from pixel designs, through all kinds of geometric experiments, to the occasional, seemingly-reserved, sans-serif – but in each FontStruction you will recognise the distinctive, confident signature of the well-practised artist. While there is plenty of quirky detail to discover in each design, when you take a step back you will see the coherence and balance of the whole.
We waylaid this mysterious character from the fringes. We plied him with unfamiliar and exotic bricks from distant regions, and eventually he agreed to satisfy our curiosity and answer some of our questions about his FontStructive life.
How did you get interested in typography?
I was often bored in school and doodled a lot. This began with classics like the bubble letters and the cool S which just about everyone has seen before. Later, in my early teenage years, I got a calligraphy set from a mail-order catalogue. Since I’m left-handed, many of the strokes were impractical to perform, so I had to invent my own system. I don’t remember how it worked or looked though, because the ink cartridges ran out quickly, and that was over 20 years ago.
In early adulthood, I began doing digital art using Photoshop 7. This led to me following–and then making–a number of styled text techniques. These involved things like making letters look as if they were made of gold and encrusted with jewels (an idea that had a bit of a resurgence with Disco Bling), making glyphs look like gems or engravings, and so on. I spent a lot of time on this, so I guess my background is really in typesetting and graphic design more so than typography.
After that, I hardly did anything with text for a while, until I began doing pixel art, which eventually led me to FontStruct.
How have you used the fonts which you have created?
They’ve been used in album covers, book covers, games, chat clients, browsers, terminals, and a bunch of other things that I’m not even aware of.
My first uses of them were in pixel comics, IRC, Multi-User Dungeons/MUDs, and the like. Most of these have fairly intricate text protocols. Text can be colorized, stylized, and so on. Think of it like a version of HTML, except code tags are replaced with invisible control characters that you usually enter by typing Ctrl+[Key] in your IRC or MUD client. I developed some MUDs of my own, including DSRPG, which used the block characters ▀, ▄, and █ to create an ASCII version of pixel art. This was later combined with traditional ASCII art to create a hybrid art style. I’ve also used tools such as PLAYSCII to generate textmode art which is a combination of raster color backgrounds and glyphs from a user-defined character set. This is very similar to the IRC/MUD art.
Since most networks and clients only allowed you about 16 colors, you really had to make the most of them. Font choice, and color choice, played heavily into the aesthetic theming of something. One nice thing was that you could define both a foreground and background color. This allowed for the building-up of rather complex art.
When and how did you discover FontStruct.com?
I found Fontstruct while looking for a way to turn my bitmap fonts into usable TTF files. It was probably a search for “online font creator” or similar.
What attracted you to the FS platform initially? And what has made you stay?
I was initially attracted to the FS platform by its ease-of-use and its ability to export TTFs. Getting to see my own fonts being used in IRC clients, Notepad apps, browsers, etc. was great. I didn’t have to settle for the stock look or go around hunting for someone else’s design to put on there. I could just make it how I wanted it, down to the pixel. After this novelty wore off, I found more. I realized I could make fonts that were really small, and thereby make pixel comics which were accompanied by proper text. I decided to see just how small a design could be while retaining its legibility and a decent character set, and that led to the main body of experiments which got me addicted to FS. As the designs got bigger, they were able to get more interesting as well.
What are your thoughts on the tool that is FontStruct and the creativity of its community?
The creativity of the user base is incalculable, as is the range of possibilities that can be achieved within FS. Each design is like a crystal. Two of them may be of the same mineral species, but the fine details and inclusions almost always show a great degree of variation. FS includes enough brick types and a big enough grid for an astronomically large range of variations to exist even within highly standard forms of type. This makes evident the great design principles of the FS engine. It keeps all the doors open and leaves it to the user to decide when and how to close them. Eventually, enough decisions are made, and enough material placed onto the canvas, that a design emerges. Because this medium is digital, whatever you publish looks like it was always that way. It lends a sense of conviction to the work. It’s not like a drawing where you see the sketch and the errors which were erased. Digital creation leaves no trace of one’s errors or iterations except when one allows it.
The mantra of “The right tool for the right job” focuses on the importance of the tool but underplays the creativity of the craftsperson using it. Do you agree?
Using the right tool is usually a matter of saving effort. There are very few jobs which can only be done with one kind of tool, and I don’t think many such jobs exist within the realm of digital typography. Digital is wide-open by nature.
There’s also a balance to be struck between achieving the original vision and allowing the thing to become the best it can. Forcing everything into the mold of a vision is a great way to ensure you’ll worry far too much about things others will never see/hear while also accelerating your own burnout. Some do manage to both enforce their vision and avoid burnout, though I don’t know whether this is due to talent or neurosis.
Sometimes in the process of creating, you discover more possibilities, and they strike your fancy far more than your original idea does. And sometimes, you see possibilities which can be more ideally rendered with the tools you have at your disposal. A creative sees those latter cases and takes advantage. It plays to its strengths more than it endeavors to reinforce its weaknesses. These strengths are developed largely in the absence of the perfect tools or ideas, which leads rather nicely into my main point: The essential skill of the creative is to persist. Whether afforded the perfect tool for the job or not, a creative makes the best of things, and never throws its work away it can help it. There’s knowledge to be gained even from the most frivolous and abortive of attempts. Keep working on something long enough and it will eventually become good – even when you have no idea why!
With digital creations, do you see the lack of evidence of past “mistakes” or experimentation as a positive?
I find it to be helpful, but this really depends on the software environment and workflow. When making digital art, I will often find a combination of layers and layer blending modes which looks cool but requires every layer in the document to have a particular order and blending mode. In these cases, I’ll just save a copy of the project . This preserves the modularity of each design variant.
Thanks to copies/clones, everything can be customized or replaced without disturbing the other bodies of work. So, for people who are content to see their experiments branch out into multiple forms, the neatness of digital can be very encouraging.
There’s also the option of using a method that is not the neatest (for instance, making a digital painting using only one layer, or not allowing yourself to use Undo). One can choose a degree of neatness that lies anywhere between traditional art and digital art. So even digital art styles can tell their own history, and reveal mistakes and corrections made, if that’s desired.
You have created tutorials on FS about FS that are very helpful for beginners. What made you decide to do them? How do you select what topics to tackle in them?
It’s a rare case where things can be reduced to principles of operation. Art is open-ended, but on FS, certain methods simply have to be followed to do certain things. FS exists in a sort of transitional space between what I’ll call “freehand art” and pixel art. This allows some aspects of the process to be approached methodically or intellectually rather than artistically. I think this is part of why FS appeals to so many programmers, neurodivergent people, and the like.
The barrier of entry on FS also seemed quite high. A lot of the knowledge is worked out through trial and error. It also seems that a lot of new users are reluctant to post comments or ask questions. They need knowledge they can get right when they have the idea to try FS. So, the tutorial knowledge needed to be seized from the mists and brought out into the open. Hopefully, this saves people time in discovering what FS is capable of, at least on a technical level. You’d need to look to more proficient users to find out what kinds of art FS can make. I would recommend the likes of jirinvk, four, elmoyenique, geneus1, Frodo7 and so on.
What inspires you to create your fonts?
I made most of them just to have something to do on a given day and to train some skill or another. When I started on FS, I didn’t know many fellow creative people, so when I wanted inspiration, I had to make it myself. Making fonts was one of my ways of acting on ideas rather than keeping them captive in my head.
Most of the fonts are doodles. I open FS, pick a letter, draw a basic form of that, and then try out bricks and ideas until I see something I haven’t made before. Sometimes I get a design which I can use to template all the other glyphs, but usually I have to adapt a lot of them. The adaptations made tend to have a strong bearing on how a design looks. So I’d say the inspiration comes half from messing around, half from reacting to it. A lot of my creative output exists only because I created something ridiculous, it made me laugh, and that amusement made me continue working on it.
How would you compare creating fonts with other creative processes. Is the ability to, say, paint or create music a help or hindrance in making fonts?
I had experience in making pixel art before I started making fonts. That one’s sort of easy mode for purposes of answering your question since it is just like using FS with only the square brick. Having that previous experience did help, not only with pixel fonts but high-res ones as well. Practicing pixel art causes one to develop a number of principles, such as how big to make something in order to have the desired amount of detail in it. All of this translates rather nicely into making fonts.
As for the musical side of things (my main hobby), I can say that I have entered many situations where I was making a cover image for a song, needed a distinctive font, and then set out to make that font. This is also helpful because much of the esthetic sense is already established. By the time I’m making the font, I already know the mood of the piece and how I want to portray it through text and imagery. So, there are far less questions to answer when it comes to actually making the font and deciding whether it fits.
Different strains of creativity can build upon one another and even force each other into being. I almost always find this to be helpful. Even when the extra information yielded from this process is of no use, it’s still interesting, and thinking about interesting things is certainly among the best ways to cultivate a creative mindset.
You mentioned music creation and production is your main hobby. Can you tell us something about that? Is there some place where we can go and hear some of your music?
I have a SoundCloud: Sonic Kitchen
Most of the material on there was made between Summer 2021 and now. The picture you’ll get from SC is vast, but still incomplete. I have a small wall made of lunch boxes full of hard drives and archival CD-ROMs of all my own music, video games (it’s mostly Klik&Play, Multimedia Fusion, Flash, RPG Maker, Game Maker Studio, and similar), and other projects, because it’s just too laborious and expensive to host ALL the stuff online. There’s a lot of variety on the SC, but of course that means some of it is weird. No sense downplaying that part.
No FontStructor is an island: Besides music and pixel art, are you involved in things beyond FontStruct, music and pixel art? – e.g. other hobbies or passions?
I’m retired from the Navy, so my schedule is wide open. I occasionally start art or musician groups, but always become disenchanted with them and leave them before long. I have been an island and seen many other islands. They aren’t as impossible or as astronomically rare as people think. People are predisposed to create associations where none exist, and this causes them to assume influence where in fact there was independent original thought. This mindset estranges those who actually come up with things themselves. The global interconnectedness many enjoy is still an opt-in sort of thing and many of us choose not to opt in because we hate to see the homogenization of culture. Islands are becoming proportionally more common than ever.
Where do you FontStruct?
I do all my PC stuff at a giant desk I built. The studio is a cabin out in the woods.
I don’t read many books because cults of personality tend to form around authors. I would rather create my own culture from scratch than siphon off someone else’s. But I can say that I once liked authors such as Spider Robinson, Cixin Liu, Elisabeth Vonarburg, and so on. Most of the media I do consume now is on YouTube. It’s much more interactive than traditional books or TV, and people there are very good at teaching skills in a concise way
Many would-be creatives find themselves struggling in internal psychological mires. They suffer self-doubt, transient motivation, or other anxieties. They find that they cannot sustain or even begin their creative practice.
It is a big problem, for a multitude of reasons beyond the scope of the interview, but so few people are talking about these issues, they must have become desensitized to them.
First, we have the I don’t have time argument. Modern people busy themselves a great deal. They try to go everywhere, do everything, and make use of every opportunity, but end up understanding and appreciating very little of it. It’s an oversaturated, busybodied, neurotic way of living, more fit for ants than for human beings. A creative makes time, ensures time can be made, and tries not to blame tools or circumstances.
Second, we have the What is the point of doing this? question. Why keep drawing, why keep designing? Someone who needs to ask this question just doesn’t get it, and only that someone can ever resolve that problem…
Third, we have the I’ll never be as good as X argument, where people shoot the metaphorical ship down before it can ever get off the ground, because they have forgotten the joys of flying. You can’t let thinking like this stop you from doing anything. Your mind is your domain and your place of sovereign power. The work of X, who you admire, does not exist there. You are the captain, not a passenger!
The key to motivation is to relinquish all need for motivation. Do the cool stuff just because, do it out of second nature, do it just because that’s the sort of creature you want to be. Do it the same way you get out of the bed, take the breaths, eat the food, and drink the water. Do anything other than falling into this goal-oriented, reward-center-stimulating, addict-like rigmarole that successful people insist on. They only know how to hoard things and then sit atop their hoards like dragons. If I relied on motivation, I would never get to make anything.
A creative runs at any speed and never thinks about time or money or motivation. That is why creatives keep living, and keep creating, while others are condemned to sit on the sidelines. It doesn’t matter if this makes money or fame. It will always make us happy, and we can keep doing it forever.
Do your creative work in a mindset which is immune to ruination. Avoid direct comparisons when possible; they make everyone’s work feel belittled and reduced. If you see a style that reminds you of a great Impressionist painter’s work, talk about Impressionism, or the use of color/technique, not the other painter. And, do your best to appreciate things for what they are, not what you want them to be.
If your design looks good, it IS good!
Thank you Zephram!