Type (font) conferences

It seems like these days I go to, and usually speak at, at least three type conferences a year. Each is quite different in strengths and flavor. As I prepare to go to my third and final type conference of the year, the St Bride conference in London next week, it gets me thinking about the general topic. So here I present my thoughts on each one’s strengths and differences.

I can’t pretend this is a completely objective analysis: I count the people behind all of these conferences as friends and colleagues, I’m on the board of directors of ATypI, and there’s a conference I’ve never been to (TypoBerlin). But I genuinely like all the ones I’ve attended, while still appreciating their differences.

Here are my capsule reviews on the various conferences….

US/North America
350-550 people
single track of programming
run by: Society of Typographic Aficionados (SOTA)

TypeCon is run by SOTA, although this year’s conference in New York City was co-sponsored by the Type Directors Club (TDC). Despite being a relatively new conference (started in the late 1990s), it is already starting to get the highest attendance of any type-focused conference. Although the conference started in the northeast US, it has started moving around, and has been in San Francisco, Toronto and Minneapolis as well as Rochester (NY), NYC and Boston. Prices for the conference are kept low, which makes it more accessible than ATypI.

TypeCon’s single track makes for more shared experience among attendees, but if you don’t like the current talk you don’t have a lot of options. Overall, TypeCon has the most “cutting edge” and “avant garde” content, a few big typographic stars, but less serious/academic content. TypeCon usually has various hands-on workshops prior to the main conference, on a variety of topics from calligraphy to various aspects of font development.

Global, esp. Europe
300-500 people
two to three tracks of programming
run by: Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI)

ATypI is the oldest ongoing type conference. Although ATypI is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, its annual general meetings didn’t turn into conferences as such until 1987, and weren’t annual until 1990. The ATypI conference is hosted in a different city every year, but destinations are more often than not in Europe, and occasionally in North America. Recent conferences have been in Helsinki, Prague, Vancouver, Rome, Copenhagen, Leipzig and Boston.

Prices are the highest of the three conferences, supporting the many more speakers and tracks of the conference. The “gala dinner” has been a highlight of many ATypI conferences, and this year was included in the main ticket price for the first time.

With multiple tracks and more speakers, ATypI offers the richest and most varied options to attendees. The orientation tends to include on average more theoretical and academic topics than TypeCon, and focuses a bit more on traditional and less “avant garde” typography.

A two-day “Type Tech forum” prior to the main conference itself has multiple tracks: one for FontLab (and potentially other vendors in the future) to offer training on their software, and another for a variety of seminars on type technogeek topics. Mostly the Type Tech forum focuses on topics of interest to font producers, though not exclusively. I have a special interest in this because I ran it two years ago in Prague, and have been involved with it for many years.

Here are a couple of interesting perspectives on comparing TypeCon vs ATypI.

St Bride
London, UK
100-125 people
single track of programming
run by: Friends of St Bride Printing Library

The St Bride conference is perhaps the most enjoyable for me in some ways. The size of the venue (at the Library itself) means just one track of programming, and restricts enrollment. I like the intimacy of a smaller conference like this. The conference also tends to have a unifying theme, and that theme seems to be slightly stronger than the theoretical themes of ATypI and TypeCon. The programming tends to be light in attitude but not necessarily fluffy in content, which is a combination I enjoy. The single track makes for more shared experience among attendees, but if you don’t like the current talk you don’t have a lot of options. Conference parties sometimes take place in nearby Fleet Street pubs, with their marvellous atmosphere.

Heidelberg (twice) or London (once)
varying months (spring?)
100-200 people?
multiple tracks of programming?
run by: Linotype Library

I’ve been to two of the three TypoTechnica conference Linotype has hosted. This is an irregularly-held conference rather than an annual conference like the other two. It’s sort of as if somebody took the kinds of programming from ATypI’s Type Tech forum above, and made a whole conference of it. Multiple tracks. Aimed clearly at type designers and font developers.

unnamed TDC type tech event?
New York City
April 2006
small (<100 people?)
single track of programming
run by: Type Directors Club

Next spring we’re looking at the TDC hosting some sort of type tech event. Details are still to be determined, but this would presumably appeal to the same folks as TypoTechnica or the ATypI type tech forum. This would be the first time something like this has been done in the US in quite a few years. However, the limited size of the TDC space would cap the total attendance.

two tracks of programming
run by: FontShop AG

Typo Berlin is a long-running type conference that I’ve never been to myself. Maybe Erik will invite me to speak one of these days. It seems to be on the biggest scale, and the most expensive, at almost 600 euro for full price registration. The two big tracks both have simultaneous audio translation (German and English). Speakers seem to have a very strong German emphasis (as one might expect).

(note: edited this entry a couple of times October 6th to add more conferences, clarify ATypI history, and correct typos.)

Thomas Phinney

Adobe type alumnus (1997–2008), now VP at FontLab, also helped create WebINK at Extensis. Lives in Portland (OR), enjoys board games, movies, and loves spicy food.

About the author

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