VTC Tré is a Typeface 30 Years in the Making

Posted inType Tuesday

It’s hard not to fall for a typeface like Tré, born out of the thoughtful examination of a personal and professional history. That history is Tré Seals’, founder of Vocal Type, a foundry that aims “to introduce a piece of minority culture into the root of any good graphic design work—typography.” You’ll no doubt know Tré Seals, but here’s a sampler of our coverage: an interview with Charlotte Beach, The Daily Heller, his book, Dream in Color, and, of course, Type Tuesday.

Though he started Vocal Type in 2015, until this fall, Seals hadn’t fully fleshed out his brand identity. VTC Tré is the fruit of that exploration, which Seals launched on this 30th birthday along with his personal portfolio site treseals.com.

But, rather than me telling you about the history of VTC Tré (Vocal Type does a bang-up job here), Seals was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

(This conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.)

During a post-talk Q&A session a few years ago, someone from the audience asked, “Do you consider yourself an activist, and if so, will you make a font inspired by your own story?” How would you answer the first part of this question today? 

TS: When the question was first posed, I thought activists were people like Martin [Luther King], Bayard [Rustin], Eva [Perón], Carrie [Chapman Catt], and so on—people who were actively in the streets and organizing. It wasn’t until I began working on VTC Du Bois and studying the works of W.E.B. Du Bois that I realized there were different types of activism. Prior to that, it didn’t occur to me that activism did not necessarily require protest signs and multi-miked podiums. I learned that activism, in its various forms, sometimes meant inserting oneself into spaces in which we (people of color) have been excluded. It wasn’t until I understood this that I began to see myself as an activist.


Considering that VTC Tré is emblematic of your progressive arc as an impact-focused creative, what would your protest slogan be?

TS: It would definitely be “I AM MANY” because no one gets far alone.

Despite already having a prolific body of work, especially in the last seven years, Tré only recently emerged from the fundamental act of branding yourself (and creating your logo). It feels like a distillation of your work’s purpose–the why that underpins what you do and a refinement of your voice. As a creative who helps client partners do this daily, what was it like to do it for yourself?

TS: It was the hardest task that I’ve done, and probably ever will do, in my career. Developing a symbol and a wordmark seemed impossible because I see myself as a storyteller more than a designer. It wasn’t until I decided to create a font family inspired by my story that my personal identity came together.

These surgically cut letterforms (stencils) connect to my experiences as a two-time brain tumor survivor and my experiences with lettering, graffiti, political communication (e.g., stencil protest signs), and storytelling.

It also ties to my French heritage (mom’s side). As you may see in Steven Heller and Louise Fili’s Stencil Type book, the French perfected stencil lettering.

These surgically cut letterforms connect to my experiences as a two-time brain tumor survivor and my experiences with lettering, graffiti, political communication (e.g., stencil protest signs), and storytelling.

Lastly, when it comes to my final wordmark, I’ve honored my great-great-great grandmother, who established the farm on which both my studio and home reside, along with my parents’ home and office. When I began renovating the stable turned studio, I came across her purse filled with hundreds of legal documents. My great-great-great grandmother was a strong-willed businesswoman; she ran the farm, a boarding house, and a foster home. She was also the bank of the local Black community. I discovered something interesting while looking through these legal documents, but I’ll get to that momentarily.

When I made my first brand identity, way back in my freshman year of college, I found out that the last name, “Seals,” was the occupational name of someone who made wax seals and signet rings. Wax seals were a means of verifying the authenticity of a signature. However, as I looked through these documents of my third great-grandmother, I found out that when wax seals became obsolete on legal documents, the word “SEAL” would be printed in parenthesis or brackets to verify that a signature was authentic. While I didn’t want to isolate my last name in parenthesis or brackets, I italicized my first name so that it acted as a signature.

You mention that your original idea to do Tré came from a desire to tell your story. What are some of your hopes for your future chapters?

TS: At the least, I’d like to make a monospaced version and a rounded version of VTC Tré. Beyond that, I’d like to make an edgier sans-serif version of VTC Tré. Maybe something that highlights my love of [graffiti] tags and their relationship to calligraphy. I have sketches for a slab, but that’s not as important to me as the previously mentioned, at the moment at least.