Sharp Type’s Chantra Malee Wants to Pay it Forward


Sharp Type’s Chantra Malee Wants to Pay it Forward

Writer: Kim Tidwell

Applications are open for The Malee Scholarship, but the deadline is approaching (May 5). Founded and funded by Sharp Type, The Malee Scholarship aims to advance and empower female and female-identifying designers of color with financial help and mentorship to pursue a career in type design. In addition to a $6,000 award, the opportunity includes an optional four-week mentorship program with Sharp Type staff to produce the recipient’s typeface. Find scholarship information and application details here.

Chantra profile
Photograph by Ryan Young

Sharp Type is a global type foundry based in New York City. It was co-founded by Chantra Malee and Lucas Sharp and is known for font projects such as Ogg, Sharp Grotesk, and Sharp Sans. Chantra Malee, Sharp Type’s CEO, started the namesake scholarship fund as a passion project.

Malee was happy to answer a few questions about the scholarship, why she started it, and her experience as a woman of color in design. Our Q&A is below.

In past interviews, you’ve discussed type design being “beholden to the typographic exemplars of the past.” How have you experienced this in running a studio and digital foundry? Do you find that this reverence for what came before is diminishing?

It has become less relevant. The type design industry is rapidly evolving as the digitization of type becomes more and more accessible. Sure, there are still plenty of historic type figures that we revere. But inspiration comes from more than your antiquarian book market these days, and even more so from social media and transient digital landscapes, making it harder to cite and credit sources. This changes the landscape that type designers have been akin to for centuries. As a foundry, we have always relied on digital platforms to produce our work; however, we’re more careful not to jump the gun and share our work on our social channels before it is ready for release. In our excitement in the past, we have shown sketches very early in our design process, which has the potential to inspire others’ work, often resulting in uncomfortably similar work. While type design has been harder than ever to protect, it has never been easier and more widely accepted to experiment and push the limits. Sharp Type has taken great advantage of this progressive atmosphere. This past year, for example, we conducted extensive research to create a new Omni Latin character set and develop a complex Omni Latin tool to support indigenous languages in South/Central American and African regions that are not traditionally accommodated in the type world. This is an exciting example of the kind of work we can do now with all that is available to us.

How does reverence for the past hurt or help today’s expanded design considerations, such as accessibility/readability and inclusiveness?

We live in a vastly different landscape than our predecessors, so it’s hard to compare our contemporary needs with theirs from the past. It’s important to have a healthy respect for them to learn and benefit from their triumphs and failures. Ignoring them would be a detriment to our progress as an industry. However, looking back shouldn’t bind us to a single track, and we should expand our awareness to incite constructive change in the industry.

2023 Recipient: Kornkanok “Mint” Tantisuwanna
2023 Recipient: Kornkanok “Mint” Tantisuwanna
2023 Finalists: Shaqa Bovand; Hyeyun Min; María Laura Olcina
2023 Finalists: Shaqa Bovand; Hyeyun Min; María Laura Olcina
Lineca type sample by 2023 finalist, Shaqa Bovand
Lineca type sample by 2023 finalist, Shaqa Bovand

What sparked your idea to start a scholarship program? What specific experiences or aspirations led you to create the Malee Scholarship?

As a young woman, I received a scholarship from The Urban League of Rhode Island. They granted me $5,000 cash to go toward my upcoming year in college to support me however I needed, whether for books, gas, food, or directly for my education. For me, what felt even more gratifying than receiving the money was being recognized, seen, and acknowledged. They believed in me and my potential and trusted me to use my best judgment to use the money however I needed. So, later in life, starting The Malee Scholarship came naturally to me. I had a good model.

Paying it forward is an important aspect of my mission for The Malee Scholarship—to be grateful for any opportunities we may have had in life and offer support or mentorship when we’re in the position to do so. I actively choose not to dwell on any particular experience that I may have had but instead take action to make positive change. The Malee Scholarship was my effort to create an opportunity to uplift, recognize, and support other women from an underrepresented ethnic background.

When I first entered the type industry, much like the world of branding where I started, there was space, and I felt a need for a platform like mine. I’m so proud and happy to see that more and more women from across the globe are getting much-deserved recognition and opportunity that further enriches our industry and paves the way for greater inclusiveness and creative progress.

Typefaces created by Malee Scholarship winners and finalists.
Malee thumbnail

How can type foundries and design studios further the work of this scholarship opportunity? Can you offer any insights from Sharp Type’s culture?

My-lan pic
My-Lan Thuong, Sharp Type member, and Malee Scholarship juror

There is so much incredible talent out there. Work with people from all walks of life and use it to your advantage to learn. As a personal example, when we first invited My-Lan Thuong [left], who is half-Vietnamese, as a type designer to the team, she recognized that Vietnamese was widely unsupported. It didn’t take much to convince us to add Vietnamese support to our default character set. Just from that one connection and authentic relationship, we moved the needle in the right direction. That is one of many experiences we’ve had since the beginning. If you do that enough, you can make incredible progress and positive change.

While perusing the Sharp Type website, I found myself ogling Ogg [pictured below]. Do you have a favorite Sharp typeface? What’s next for the foundry?

Oh boy, so many! Ogg is certainly one of my all-time favorites, but I’m also incredibly excited about what is around the corner. Next month is a big moment for us as a foundry. We will drop a brand new website and release our most expansive typeface ever called Sharp Earth, which took five years of development and will be available in seven language scripts and a plethora of global languages. We’ll also release our first published book, Sharp Type Volume 1, a visual homage to our 8+ years as a foundry.


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