Designer who worked on Prince’s love symbol talks about power of typography

Font designer Chank Diesel chats about his little-known art form.

Font designer Chank Diesel poses for a portrait with his dog, London, in his Minneapolis home on Tuesday. Diesel has been designing fonts for nearly 20 years.

Ellen Schmidt

Font designer Chank Diesel poses for a portrait with his dog, London, in his Minneapolis home on Tuesday. Diesel has been designing fonts for nearly 20 years.

Katie Lauer

Chank Diesel’s typefaces have appeared on movie covers for “The Hunger Games,” Crayola crayon boxes and in the World Series logo. But that’s only a small selection of his work.

“Have you ever thought about who makes fonts?” Diesel would ask those confused about his profession. “Everyone would be like, ‘No … I thought they just showed up’ or ‘I thought a computer made them.’”

Based in the Twin Cities, Diesel is a pioneer in the field of custom fonts. He thinks the often-overlooked trade has the power to affect emotion.

“I often say that fonts are the printed voice of the printed word,” Diesel said. “You look at a passage of text and the font is the feeling. … It allows you to instantly gauge the audience and voice of those words without reading the words.”

From designing band names for a punk rock show in high school to focusing on typography while working at Macalester College’s school newspaper, fonts have always interested Diesel.

However, the ability to design and create typography solo is a result of technological advancements. The initial equipment required for the digital production of fonts came along when Diesel was at Macalester.

“I was there to help the newspaper switch from photo type settings to desktop publishing,” he said. “I was just receptive to new technologies.”

A lot of Diesel’s early fonts were inspired by vintage logos of a single word. He would design a full alphabet based off those letters.

While working as the creative director of the music magazine Cake in 1992, Diesel applied a similar concept for the late Minnesota-born singer, Prince.

“I had designed every font in the magazine except for his symbol,” Diesel said. “It drove me crazy that there was one glyph in the magazine that wasn’t mine, so I went through all my fonts and added his symbol like it was any letter of the alphabet.”

Paisley Park ended up buying every design.

Diesel has had many companies utilize his fonts including Cartoon Network and PBS Kids. A recent client is Disney with Stan Lee’s “The Zodiac Legacy” books.

“There are a lot of font designers, but to make custom fonts for corporations … it’s a different thing,” Diesel said. “That was pretty original.”

When it comes to the future of typography, Diesel is interested in applications of full color, shadows, overlapping layers and even animation.

No matter the field’s future trajectory, Diesel will continue to work with the “cloying” and “visceral” possibilities of design. He’s never gone the way of normalcy.

“I like to be fun, and I like to be different,” Diesel said. “I have about 350 fonts for sale now, and the one thing that ties them all together is that they’re not Helvetica.”

Correction: A previous headline for this story mischaracterized Diesel’s role in designing glyphs for Prince.