Creative Play: Hands-On Fontmaking With Chank Diesel

When he's not designing custom fonts for corporate clients, typographer Chank Diesel can often be found leading fontmaking workshops for fellow creatives. The trainings are truly hands-on and, perhaps, a touch off the wall. At an event earlier this year in Wisconsin, for instance, the self-described "alphabetician" and his workshop attendees crafted a set of capital letters out of artisanal Gouda cheese.

Over the years, Diesel has led groups in making fonts with homemade playdough, found objects, neon bracelets, fresh-cut flowers, M&M's and many other unexpected materials. Diesel is an unabashed advocate for stepping away from the keyboard and having more fun with your work.

"Playing is an important tool for the creative professional and I like to encourage it whenever possible," says Diesel, founder and principal of Chank Co. in Minneapolis. "Building with your hands unleashes some creative areas of the brain that may be clogged or untraveled.

"It saddens me how much time we spend staring at computers," he adds. "The workshops get people's eyeballs off the screens for a little bit. I like the fontmaking to be tactile, three-dimensional, hand-influenced and active. And if you can eat it, that makes it even better."

Here's a look at some of the less-than-conventional letterforms Diesel and his workshop groups have created over the years:


Say cheese. Diesel facilitated a workshop in March 2013 at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he and 26 other designers created a set of capital letters out of a wheel of Gouda cheese he bought at a farm on his way to the event. Why cheese? "I always try to use a readily available local cultural resource wherever the font workshop is held," Diesel says. 


Modest mouse. Weeks after his first cheese-themed font workshop, Diesel held a second one with a different group to craft the lowercase letters, including the mousy "b" seen above. (The Gouda was paired with a flight of sweet wines and Marcona almonds.) 


Child's play. A letter made out of homemade playdough from a workshop at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts last fall. Diesel says a real font based on the playdough glyphs is in the works.


Sticks and stones. I first met Diesel back in 2003 at an AIGA Minnesota Design Camp retreat. He led a session in which we made letters out of found objects. Yours truly created this awe-inspiring lowercase "d" made of sticks, rocks, flower petals and discarded cigarettes.


"W" is for woodchipper. At an event in Fargo, N.D., Diesel and his workshop attendees celebrated the movie "Fargo" – famous for the disturbing woodchipper scene – by making a creepy font out of "dripping blood" (red paint).


Flower power. Images of a floral font created by participants of a 2010 Diesel-fueled workshop in St. Paul, Minn.


The "alphabetician" in action. Diesel (at right) directs the creation of a "Q" at an AIGA Minnesota "Alphabet Adventure" workshop in April 2013. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Valencour)