LADY OF LETTERS: Font designer exposes her undiluted passion for the English alphabet with style

Laura Worthington | Courtesy of lauraworthingtontype.com
Laura Worthington | Courtesy of lauraworthingtontype.com

Laura Worthington entered a conference room holding a Tory Burch clutch. She was wearing a blue blouse and a welcoming smile that inspired a sense of business casual.

Design is important to this lady of letters.

Worthington teaches visual communications at Highline Community College, but off campus she is a font designer.

She sat in one of the rotating chairs and nostalgically reminisced, “I went to college at Highline. I took a couple of extra classes sort of here and there at the Seattle Academy of Fine Arts in figure drawing and painting. Other than that, I’m a Highline alumnus.”

The Burberry fan revealed that she owns a Fendi Big Mamma purse, a wardrobe item, she said, that is “a must have.”

Her Fendi purse is not the only object she adores. Worthington also loves her job, which includes breaking down, building up, and rearranging the architecture of the English alphabet.

Actually, that was an understatement.

Designing typefaces is not just a trade. For Worthington, it is a unique craft.

“As a type designer, I feel like my job is to give a visual voice to words and allow people to express themselves more effectively,” Worthington said.

She is constructing her first custom font for a Fortune 500 company. She estimated such fonts can easily cost as much as $40,000.

Worthington is one out of 70 or so people worldwide who make a living by designing typestyles.

There are three ways font designers can make money. One method is to send one’s work to an online distributor, such as myfonts.com or fonts.com, and receive royalties.

The other two ways are to either sell custom typefaces or large licenses to companies.

“I’m on the retail sales side of type design,” Worthington said.

Her most recent published work, called Hummingbird, was released a few months ago. She said that she is extremely proud of the finished product.

Worthington describes Hummingbird on myfonts.com as, “Reminiscent of old-fashioned cursive penmanship, the sort learned by endless repetition and found in treasured letters bundled together by silken ribbons or in worn leather-bound ledgers.”

“It was by far one of my most difficult ones, because I started getting into this idea that I wanted to make a natural, flowing, organic, font,” Worthington said.

Part of the difficulty of building Hummingbird was battling writer’s block (or more like letter’s block), she said.

“When I’m struggling to get through, I either skip to something different or take a break,” Worthington said. “After a couple of days I’ll say, ‘you have to figure this out. You can’t keep avoiding this problem. You have to make this work.’ Sometimes you have to be that bully.”

Worthington said that the average time to develop a font takes around 300 hours – a long and iterative process.

“A lot of times [inspiration] come from lettering practice. I just sit down with [a] pencil, [a] pen, or brush, or whatever, and just start drawing words,” she said.

“I might find a word inspiring, and I letter that. As I go through, I usually will find something and go ‘Oh I love this style. I have to make a font out of this.”’

When it comes to work, Worthington is tough – an attribute seemingly tucked away by her bubbly personality.

“Laura is a very unique individual in a lot of ways. She is blessed with an incredible work ethic; she works very hard and takes a lot of pride in her work,” said Gary Nelson, Visual Communications Department coordinator at Highline Community College.

Nelson has known Worthington since she was in high school. She became one of his students and she considers him as her mentor and lifelong friend.

Browse through Worthington’s portfolio on myfonts.com and lettering students can find a familiar name.

It is no coincidence when they discover a typeface named Nelson, because Worthington named one of her fonts to honor the soon-to-retire instructor.

“There’s no better way to honor the person who opened the door to type design for me then to design and name a typeface after him,” Worthington said.

“I wanted to design something that would reflect Gary’s personality – artistic, masculine, rugged, [and] interesting with a lot of distinctive details and personality.”

In response, Nelson said that he feels privileged by Worthington’s tribute.

“There are a lot of fonts and types out there, but like most things, less than 10 percent of them are really good, and that’s where she’s at. She’s among the best in the United States – probably the best in the world,” said Nelson.

When teaching, one can see Worthington standing behind her desk as high priestess – her long brunette locks perfectly draping the shoulders like a nun’s cap.

Her eyes enthusiastically reflect the projector’s gleam as she lectures before the class.

“She is a rock star in the font design community,” said Valerie Thompson, a former student of Worthington and an owner of a graphics and web design firm called Highline Design Alliance.

“Laura strives to give her students as much applicable industry information as possible in the time she has with them,” said Thompson.

“She wants her students to be prepared and informed as they move into the visual communications industry.”

Worthington does not hide her passion. One can tell that she is eternally devoted to the art of typography. She possessed this kind of zeal ever since she was a toddler.

“You know it’s really funny, when I was a little girl, I always knew that I would be an artist,” Worthington said. “I remember being 5 years old, standing in the kitchen, and saying to my dad: ‘I’m going to be an artist.”’

As a joke her father asked if she planned on living as a starving artist, but he supported Worthington’s early career choice nonetheless.

“My dad was the one who told me, [I] should get a degree in graphic design,” she said. “I had never known that field even existed, and he was the one who brought that up.”

When she was 9 years old, Worthington said that she received her first calligraphy lessons from a “hippie” teacher who introduced a style of handwriting that was based off of 15th century italics.

“I don’t know what it was, I just loved it, just watching her draw the forms on the chalkboard this beautiful thing.”

Worthington’s brightly polished nails danced in midair as she imitated the strokes of her first calligraphy lesson.

“My mom was taking a calligraphy class at the same time – a night class at a community college. I swiped some of her calligraphy pens and paper. She’d be always looking for them.”

In pursuit of quenching her artistic thirst, Worthington worked fulltime as a graphic designer while sketching letters on the side.

In 2005, Worthington transitioned out of her fulltime job to become a freelance graphic designer, which she did for about five years.

She then published her first font.

The outcome exceeded her expectations. As if time travelling back at that exact moment when she found out about the success of her debut font, Worthington’s eyes widened as she said, “The sales from fonts took over.”

Worthington sees herself as a financially conservative person.

“I’m also a risk taker. I take calculated, educated, risks,” she said. “I saw the sales continue to get better and better. I was making more, so literally after nine months of designing my first font, I became a fulltime font designer.”

She has not looked back at her graphic design career ever since.

As the interview came to a close, Worthington stood up, said thank you, and apologized.

She said that she may have been too talkative.

Talkative is one word to depict her, but chic geek is a more accurate depiction.

What is next for Worthington? Worthington said that she wants to eventually design fonts for foreign languages.

“It’s going really well for me, [but] I’m not trying to focus on that too hard because I don’t know all of the possibilities, so I’m keeping my options open.”

It has been 15 years since she graduated from Highline Community College. Even after earning her dream job, Worthington still graces the college site with her presence.

She enjoys seeing students learn and expand their outlooks on life.

“It is fun to watch them put the various pieces of their design education together and watch them grow and expand their knowledge base from what I’ve taught them,” she said.

“Overall, the community here feels welcoming and comfortable, easy to adjust to for new students, and I always feel at home when I’m on campus. Plus, being able to teach in the same classrooms I was once a student in is awesome.”

This story was originally published by The Thunderword.

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