Q&A: Typographer Pete McCracken

In recognition of 25 Years in the business of Art, Music, Design and Type, Pete McCracken is presenting his work in design from the very beginnings of desktop publishing and the many ups and downs of a typeface design practice.


“FAME & FORTUNE: How to Become a Rich and Famous Type Designer”
Hear Pete talk about his success at Champlain College, 7:30pm September 23. More information →



What are some of the biggest trends you’ve seen as technology has changed in the past 25 years?

Biggest trends as technology changed? Let’s see… fire and then the wheel, those made a pretty big splash. Written language and the personal computer, certainly rank up there. It’s hard to talk about trends specifically these days because are so many of them, and they change so fast. But to answer the question in the broadest terms, everything has gotten smaller and easier to manage.

And what’s responsible for these trends in the last 25 years? – hands down it’s the internet. I lump email / mobile communications in, because they all came of age at about the same time. And they’re all accessible from one small device, which also happens to be a music player, camera, interactive mapping system, etc., etc.… The internet has changed the world as we know it, or knew it growing up at the end of 20th century.

What did you get your degree in?

I have a BFA in Printmaking from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. I started in design but switched to printmaking because it seemed more fun. Computers were still pretty clunky and frustrating when I was in school.

The basic principles of working in printmaking are the same – composition, color, style and technique. But the processes are very different. When you work with color, it’s with your hands, in your nose and right in front of your face instead of being on a screen. Switching to printmaking was how I got interested in screen print and letterpress. I experimented with mixing the two processes, since they were a natural fit and complemented each other on paper.

What kind of projects do you work on?

Design projects of every sort, and I prefer work that’s a challenge—a new problem to solve each time. Currently, I’m creating a mural for the Oregon Health & Science University and an experimental typeface for texting called TXTR™ which automatically condenses words into txt speak. For me, design is creative problem solving.

Or course, a main focus of my work has been branding and custom typefaces, because I just love that sort of design. But I’ve done many different categories of design over the years, from creative-directing photo shoots, to publishing magazines, to homegrown marketing for indie film. I tend to jump around to stay interested. I also love designing and printing posters. Generally speaking, my interests align with tangible items.

How do you get inspired when creating a new typeface?

Hmm…that’s a hard one. I do tend to look at historic typefaces for inspiration but I’ll also find inspiration in something written on the side of trash can. I recently completed a custom brand typeface (not yet released) that was inspired by the curves of a late 70s VW Bus. An object can act as inspiration. The typeface that I created for MTV was based on a thermos I had at the time.

I do like to come up with experimental typefaces as well, which can be real challenge. The Colorface I dreamed up in the 90s is a typeface of just color. At the time, there was no way to create an actual “font” in color, so it had to be typeset manually.

How do you view the state of typefaces in the mobile world?

Font technology keeps adapting and getting better. Every new platform requires upgraded fonts and so then the industry follows suit.

Mobile fonts and wearable technologies are certainly on the forefront of development and people’s minds. Currently the screen size limits what sort of designs will work, if set in smaller sizes, and there are limitations with screen technology but that’s going to change in the near future. Perhaps, as our species evolves, our eyes will be bigger, so we’ll be able to see smaller and smaller; or maybe everyone will stop caring what type looks like. Both seem plausible.

Pete currently lives and works as a designer in Portland, Oregon. He got his start in the design business here in Vermont, working at the Burlington Free Press and taking classes at the Burlington Community College and UVM. One of his first clients was the Vermont Pub and Brewery, creating their beer menu. (He got paid in 5 beers per hour – not bad for starting out.)


By Alaina Castillo-Kunkle
Published September 23, 2014
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