Genderfail creates fonts from hand-drawn protest posters

Genderfail is a project conceived and led by writer and host Be Oakley with the primary goal of publishing the work of queer, trans, and non-binary writers and artist curators. Launched in 2015, Be describes the importance of such an endeavor: “Publishing is personal, it’s a livelihood and a tool for delivering imperfect but urgent content.” The type design arm of the project originated in 2018, when Be was in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her first visual impulse was the “Mother Nature is Lesbian” poster, as Be explains that upon seeing it, they were “so struck by the message and the beautiful vernacular writing.” Prior to this time, Be attests to having “no knowledge” of character design, but an understanding of how “powerful” she had the potential to be.

To create the fonts, Be’s process begins with a fair amount of research, usually a lot of googling of protest events, which then leads them to “a very flawed search engine.” Sometimes, however, Be is lucky enough to use more effective sources, and for their recent Take control of the FDA do they collected information from the ACT UP Oral History Project. After research, Be will then use photographic documentation of the protest event(s), then in Photoshop, edit and crop each letter they use. “Once the letters are cleaned up and cropped from the images, I bring each letter into illustrator,” they explain, “in illustrator I do a simple live trace and tinker with the controls to that the resulting vector resembles the original photo as closely as possible.” Then, once the provider is created, Be copies and pastes each letter into the intuitive Glyphs Mini type design program. Here, Be finds it important to emphasize that they are not a typesetter – “the way I transform photo documentation into a usable open source typeface may not be typical of the way ‘skilled’ typesetters work” – but their use of these media and resources proves to how powerful and fruitful it can be when the right tools are put in the hands of people with radical intentions.

Abdul J. Gaspar