Black Designer’s “Martin” Font Featured On Hawks’ Once-In-A-Lifetime MLK Nike City Edition Uniforms
The Atlanta Hawks’ unprecedented partnership with the Estate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the culmination of the MLK Nike City Edition Uniforms has been a collaboration years in the making. Every single detail on the uniform is intentional and has a story behind it. From the crown and shield symbol inspired by Dr. King’s home church, to the Freedom Stars representing times Dr. King was jailed fighting for justice and equality. The three iconic initials of Dr. King are stitched across the front of the uniforms. The name of the font that the Hawks chose is coincidentally called Martin and was created by Black designer and VocalType founder Tre Seals. Hawks’ Digital Media Assistant Cassidy Allen Chubb talks with Seals about his journey and how his font is used for a once-in-a-lifetime uniform and campaign.
CAC: Growing up, were you exposed to black entrepreneurs?
TS: Definitely. It’s in my blood. I was born in Washington, D.C. and raised on a farm outside of D.C. that was established by my great, great, great grandparents in 1911. My great, great, great grandmother was a boss. She was on the board of a bank and sold land, but would only sell to people of color to help them get their start. She would loan money to people of color when others wouldn’t, and she ran the farm. My dad got that business mentality from her. I’ve been watching my dad and mom run their own business my entire life.
How did VocalType start?
My journey began at the age of four when I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Drawing and writing became my means of coping with the pain and when the tumor was gone, it also became my means of expressing what I was feeling. So, I’d either draw a lot or practice writing in cursive so I could get my handwriting to look like the sample sheets. I started designing my first font in the twelfth grade with no idea how to design a font. But I released it in 2013 and it got 30,000 downloads so it inspired me to keep getting more and more involved in typographI started working out at a staffing agency in D.C., and one day in 2016 I was working on a brand identity and was scrolling to find the perfect font and I got bored. I started wondering if I chose the wrong career because everything looked the same and there was no culture and no character.
It wasn’t long after that that I found out that eighty-four percent of all designers in America were white and it was all areas of design. It made me realize that when there’s one race and one gender, there’s only one way of learning and one way of thinking about how things should work. And looking back at all my racial experiences, I realized that fonts can be more than just a design tool, but a tool for education and for sharing stories, and VocalType was born.
How did the opportunity to work with the Hawks come about? Did you create Martin font specifically for the City Edition jerseys?
They reached out to me. I’ve been a huge fan of the Hawks for a while now, I have some family in the Atlanta area, but Martin was actually the first font I ever made through VocalType. I released it back in 2016 and last year it was just crazy with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Martin just kind of blew up. It was on so many protest signs around the world, on street murals throughout America, it was just kind of everywhere. And the next thing I know the Hawks reach out and they’re like “Hey, we want to use Martin for the City Edition,” just because of the story behind it is so perfect and with him being from Atlanta.
What’s the process going into creating a font?
The process is pretty much the same. It’s twenty-five percent research, twenty-five percent design, twenty-five percent research, twenty-five percent design, just in case I miss something (laughs). In terms of finding or figuring out what to make a font based on, I try to identify a movement and then find a specific event within that movement. And then try to find a piece of typography that multiple people have a connection to. So, with the Martin font one thing you’ll notice, I never make a font based on one sign that one person carried. It might be one sign that thousands of people carried, like in the case of the Martin “I am a man” sign and the “Union Justice Now” signs.
It kind of reinforces this idea of unity. And then from there I’ll try to find an activist associated with that movement and that event to tie it all together and name the font after. And since the Memphis sanitation strike was Dr. King’s last cause, it just kind of made sense to name it after him.
What’s the toughest part about being a Black designer and business owner. How do you continue to overcome it?
I think the hardest part for me, especially with Vocal--my mission is to diversify design, which means making fonts inspired by all cultures not just Black culture. But I feel like I’m speaking at opportunities especially that are all tied to the fact that I’m a Black type designer not the fact that I’m trying to give a voice to all people. Like how Dr. King was only known for civil rights, even though he fought for all these different causes.
What’s some advice that you’d give to Black designers who are struggling to break into the industry or to feel seen?
The best designers are interested in everything, not just design. So I think that’s a huge part of my success. But at the same time I feel like looking back on my days of being a graphic designer, I worked based on the idea that everything happens for a reason. So every design decision should have a reason. And by the time you have a reason for every single design decision, you end up with this beautiful story that can transform and be remade over time. And I feel like that process has given me the most success in my career.
How do you stay on top? What makes your fonts stand out?
The storytelling aspect of all my fonts. The cultural relevance that really draws people to the work and not just the way the fonts look.
What was it like to finally see the jersey in person and all over social media?
I honestly don’t think its still registered that it actually happened. It was just amazing. Probably one of the greatest projects I’ve seen Martin be used for.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t give up. There were so many times when Vocal first started and I wanted to stop because there was just no momentum at all. Don’t give up and just keep pushing through even if people don’t believe in what you’re doing. As long as you believe it, then you can be successful.