As one who took the road less traveled, Chuck Bigelow, a retired typography professor from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, where he is currently a scholar-in-residence, pursued a unique career path even by today’s standards. Between his multiple interests and innovative ideas, the former Cranbrook student was clearly ahead of his time – with no shortage of talent.
Back in 1984, the former Stanford professor and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship designed the Lucida font with his typography partner Kris Holmes.
The Lucida extended family of fonts have appeared in numerous publications, computer applications and been featured on products that include a French chocolate.
“Up until that time, very few people even chose a font or knew them,” said Bigelow, whose clients have included Apple, Microsoft and Scientific American. Now millions of people turn on a computer and see their fonts every day.
Divided up in a couple of ways, display fonts seen on supermarket ads are clearly noticeable, while people don’t give much thought to the text fonts that appear in books and other publications. In other words, these smaller fonts should not interfere with your reading, but the fonts on bottles of laundry detergent are meant to jump out at you.
Currently, there are around 100,000 fonts or more. “Fashion and technology probably affect changes in fonts every so often,” said Bigelow. “There was a lot of plagiarism, but there’s fashion among fonts just like music or performing. New fonts will be made and old fonts become fashionable again. Every font has a way of expressing something.”
Though Bigelow said he never intended to become a professor, he thoroughly enjoyed the profession. He earned his original degree in anthropology from Reed College in Oregon, where he also studied calligraphy and graphic arts with a very charismatic teacher, Lloyd Reynolds. In addition, he studied typography with Jack Stauffacher at the San Francisco Art Institute, and worked as Stauffacher's teaching assistant.
For him, typography felt like a good fit. “I seemed to have a knack for it,” said Bigelow, who remembers how they had to put little pieces of metal on an old letterpress back then.
He also recalls highlights from his childhood in Michigan. Born in Detroit, Bigelow spent his early years on his grandfather's farm in Troy. He grew up in Beverly Hills and went to Birmingham schools before attending Cranbrook Schools, where he took up writing and received the grand prize in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards in 1963.
“The News gave me a typewriter and several dictionaries of various kinds,” he recalled.
The same year, Bigelow received a National Council of Teachers of English award. After high school, he left for college in Oregon, but spent the summer of 1966 back in Detroit studying economics at Wayne State University to fulfill a college requirement so he could study calligraphy at Reed, where he first majored in anthropology.
Bigelow is currently working on a book that will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the world of font, but his early years seem to have set the stage for his professional success and forward-thinking career choices.
“Some of my happiest and most vivid memories as a kid were of visits to the Cranbrook Institute of Science and the Cranbrook Art Museum,” he said. “They deeply influenced me with their combined design and science inspiration that also got me engaged in science at an early age.”
Story: Jeanine Matlow