Taking a Stand w/Tre Seales Vocal Type Studios

Words: Q&A Ouigi Theodore + Tre Seales
Type Design: Tre Seales for Vocal Type

At 20 years old, Seals made a pact with himself that by the time he was 25, he’d become an internationally renowned designer. Now 26, Seals is more than he dreamed he could be. Before graduating from Stevenson University in 2015, he had amassed a portfolio featuring the likes of Black+Decker, Panasonic, and Whole Foods. Seals had already gotten incorporated in less than 4 months after graduation, and started making plans for opening the studio on his family’s farm 20 miles outside of D.C. By month 7, he’d received nine job offers ranging from art director positions at startups to a design position at Pepsi.

In 2016, Seals founded Vocal Type Co.—the 3rd Black-owned font foundry in America, and the last in operation today. In 2019, the renovation was complete, and Studio Seals opened its doors.

Now 26, Seals has worked with over 250 partners (not clients) ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses. He’s been recognized as an Ascender by the Type Directors Club, a Young Gun by the Art Directors Club, and has been featured in Fast Company, Eye On Design, and much more.

How important do you think type design is now to the current state of the world and movement?

I wouldn’t say type design is important on its own. I think it’s the way in which graphic designers put these typefaces to use that make type design import in the current state of the world and movement. Since the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, white designers and creatives of color alike are finally stepping up, and using their skills (in combination with Vocal typefaces) in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. I just hope that they don’t forget the impact of their works going forward.

We found out that you were a one-man team, which is pretty impressive for the amount of work you put out. How do you balance your life to be able to create so much work?

On the one hand, it’s my passion. It’s my job and what I do for fun. I also get bored often, so being able to juggle design and business affairs balances me out. On the other hand, my parents inspire me daily. They’ve been running a business together for the past 30 years (40 for my dad), and it’s genuinely inspiring.

How were you introduced to design and specifically type design?

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. So when I look back on my life, I can connect the dots and see how one thing directly led to or impacted another. My journey began at the age of 4 when I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After the tumor was removed, drawing and writing became my means of coping with the pain. When I got tired of drawing, I’d practice writing in cursive until I could get my handwriting to look like the sample sheets. And then, four years later, a residual tumor was found. That’s when everything changed. I stopped drawing pictures of basketball players and skateboards and started drawing pictures of Venus De Milo, Greek columns, and David (until I realized that I could make money doing what I loved).

In the 5th and 6th grade, I would graffiti people’s names on index cards and sell them for $3 a piece. Throughout middle and high school, I designed bead jewelry, Lego™ jewelry, tattoos, and more. But during that time, I also started a three-year-long personal project. During my senior year of high school, I started drawing what would become the basis for my very first typeface. I didn’t know anything about type design back then, but I knew that one day I’d be capable, and would release it to the world. In 2013, during my sophomore year of college, I finally did it. I unveiled “Unveil.” I still didn’t know anything about type design, but I released it as a vector font. It was downloaded over 30,000 times. After the hype died down, branding became my passion.

In May of 2015, I graduated with seven job offers ranging from art director positions at startups to a junior design position at Pepsi. I ended up taking a full-time position at a staffing agency where I worked for 8 or 9 companies over the course of 2 years. I learned a lot about what kind of designer I wanted to be and what types of clients I wanted to work with. After that, I went full-time freelance and started focusing on renovating the stable that is now my studio.

One day, I was working on another brand identity for another real estate agency (I did a ton of those as a temp). As usual, I was aimlessly searching for inspiration, and all of a sudden, I just got really bored. Everything looked the same to me. No matter how beautiful, everything looked the same. There was no character, no culture. I started wondering if I had chosen the wrong career. Not long after that, I came across this 1987 article titled “Black Designers: Missing In Action” by Dr. Cheryl Holmes-Miller. In it, she talked about how, like most industries, the design industry is white male-dominated. If our job (as designers) is to communicate an idea to Black communities, Black designers need to have a seat at the table, and I say the same for Latin communities, Female communities, LGBTQ+ communities, and so on. Everyone needs to have a seat at the table. The world continues to become more and more diverse, and the industry needs to catch up. A few weeks after reading this article (2016), Cheryl released a sequel for the original article’s 30th anniversary entitled, “Black Designers: Still Missing In Action.” This version was less analytical and was her way of passing the torch to the next generation of Black designers. It made me want to figure out a way to somehow add diversity to the design industry. I looked back on my life and thought about those days of practicing cursive, graffitiing people’s name on index cards, designing tattoos, and making Unveil. It just made sense to start a font foundry.

How do you propose shifting the design industry to be more inclusive of the minority perspective?

I think it’s going to have to start with decolonizing art and design history. It’s time that people recognize how the works of W.E.B. Du Bois inspired Bauhaus or how Picasso is famous because of African art. These are just two examples, but I don’t think design will genuinely be inclusive until the industry begins to look beyond Europe for what “good” design is. From the Black perspective, I think the industry will eventually need to realize that we, the Black community, define culture. Like when Kanye used blackletter/calligraphic type for the Life of Pablo merch, then that same style of lettering became a more extensive design trend. Lastly, I think it’s going to take more representation in the media before minority perspectives are taken truly seriously.  It’s disappointing that it took a tragedy like this for it to happen.

Name some of the great type foundries or designers that have influenced your work?

The first person to influence my work was one of my professors at Stevenson University, Andrea Pippins. It was in her class that I realized how type works, and more importantly, how powerful it is. It can convey emotions and attitudes; it can tell you what to read first without even realizing it. She taught me that it’s okay to be a designer and be Black through her design and hand-lettering work, and that design and culture don’t have to be separate. The first font foundry I ever really admired was House Industries and the lettering work of founder Andy Cruz, and then there’s Joshua Darden who ran the only other Black-owned foundry in America—Darden Studio. He’s my “If he can do it, I can do it.” Nowadays, I’m more inspired by lettering artists like Ade Hogue, Cymone Wilder, and Eso Tolson.

What are the key components to being a great graphic artist-your opinion?

In my mind, there are only two. Number one, I think the greatest designers aren’t only interested in design. Back when I was at S.U., there was this kind of career day, and there was this panel of 4 business owners who spoke. I don’t remember anything about that day except for these words of the last panelist. He said, “Every class you take is a future client. Every industry is a language. You don’t have to be fluent in every language, but you need to be at least able to understand them.”  So now, my bookcase is filled with books on Asian Culture, African Culture, Latin Culture, graphic design, architecture, interior design, and things as niche as antique directories and cookbooks.This leads me to number two, which is to know your history. History repeats itself continuously, so I use it as a reference to understand what came before me and what is coming next. www.vocaltype.co