Neon Signs and Fear of Failure — Typographics 2017 Blog


Neon Signs and Fear of Failure

Tal Leming and the origin story of the Ohm typeface

“I’m really good at getting typefaces halfway done and then not finishing them.” Or so claims type designer Tal Leming when asked about designing the typeface Ohm in 2009.

Since the 2017 Typographics branding makes prominent use of Ohm, we decided to ask Leming about the origins of the design and the motivation behind it.

Ohm typeface

After moving to Baltimore, Maryland Leming would walk down the street near his house and pass a closed meat market that had a 1970s neon sign in the window. “I don’t remember the name of the shop, but I remember the S. The S was amazing.”

Around the same time, Erik Van Blokland was working on a pre-webfont online type-testing tool to help designers called “LetterSetter” and it needed a logo. Leming immediately thought of the S from the meat market sign and designed the characters needed for the logo. After that, he thought it would be fun to make more letters in the same style. He would work on it for a bit, and then wouldn’t touch it for six months. At some point, he realized he basically had the entire uppercase already designed for what would become Ohm. 

“It was just fun, there was never a plan. Ohm was one of the few times that I made something just to make it.” To make Ohm look as much like neon as possible, Tal did research on the technical details of neon tube bending and sign making, but it began to get too detailed and literal, so he stopped trying so hard.

“I drew a lot of it on paper using dots and then tried to trace out the path neon would take. If I tried to draw it on a screen, I would get lost.” Figuring out the “breaks” turned out to be especially challenging. “It was a delicate dance: I wanted the breaks be as hidden as possible, but still be obvious. I wanted it to look like neon, but not a caricature. I didn’t want it to be a joke.”

Ohm styles
Stepping Out as an Independent Designer

Ohm was released in 2009 along with another typeface, Torque, as Leming’s first release under his own independent type foundry, Type Supply. Tal was endlessly worried about what his first type release should be. “I just remember being scared. I’m a perfectionist and have this intense fear of failure. That is why I have problems finishing things, because someone could say it isn’t good. I just had to release something and Ohm was a good way to get over it.”

Leming is the first to admit that designing a typeface is a strange experience. When making and then releasing a design, ”You have to be an obsessive control freak and then suddenly not care anymore. You have to pay attention to tiny details for so long and then just let it go.”

“A typeface isn’t really a thing, it’s a tool. It’s like sitting around and making a new hammer, but you don’t know how people are going to use it. There is this level of anxiety with it.”

Looking back, Tal sees that releasing Ohm was a healthy way to get over his anxiety of starting Type Supply. ”I find that I have to take breaks. I have to stop and give myself time to think of something stupid or otherwise I’ll go crazy. Having something pointless to work on is not the most economically-advantageous business decision, but from a mental-health perspective it is good.”

Ohm neon sign

Ohm comes full circle, being used for an actual neon sign. Photo by Tal Leming.

“Pointless” or not, Ohm has found an audience and application — including a local European-Style Market just down the street from Leming’s house. The Belvedere Square Market used Ohm for their outdoor neon signs which Tal admits is a bit absurd, “They had to figure out how to turn a fake-neon typeface into a real neon sign. If you really study it, they had to use multiple tubes to pretend to be a single tube. It’s pretty funny.”

Attendees of this year’s Typographics festival will get to see even more use of Ohm, since it will be used for event signage all around the campus of Cooper Union.

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