Local Current Blog

How a Minneapolis font designer helped Prince make his mark

Mail-order font ad from CAKE Magazine, circa 1995. Courtesy Chank Diesel.

You may not know Chank Diesel as a person, but you’re likely well-acquainted with his work. If you’ve glanced at The Hunger Games‘s cover, seen last year’s World Series logo, or picked up a box of Crayola crayons, you’ve already spent time with the font pioneer; he’s one of only about 100 independent typeface designers in the country, and all those products belong to his body of work.

Prince fans, in particular, will recognize Diesel’s art. He had the special honor of designing several love symbols, some of which made it onto album covers — but the Macalester grad didn’t set out to sell them to Prince. Sitting at Diamonds Coffee Shoppe, Diesel tells the whole story.

“It all started when I was working at a music magazine called CAKE,” Diesel says. “I started it as a designer, and then I moved over to be designer, art director, editor, and mayor. I called myself the mayor,” he says, laughing.

Diesel also served as typeface designer, having fashioned every font in the magazine — except for the one that contained Prince’s symbol. According to LogoLounge, a team comprising Prince, Mitch Monson, Sotera Tschetter, and Lizz Luce created the original glyph. And when Prince changed his name, journalists received a floppy disc which contained one font with one symbol. Shift + P in that font would pull up his new name.

As an artist who took pride in his fonts, Diesel wasn’t happy with that compromise. Grinning, he says, “Every time [Prince’s] name came up and it wasn’t in my font, it pissed me off.” Eventually, Diesel set out to fix that, going through every one of his fonts and adding an interpretation of the Prince symbol. “Not every font needs a pi,” he said, so the symbol replaced the Greek letter.

At first, Diesel didn’t think much of his quest, seeing it as part creative exercise and part inside joke. But when the people at Paisley Park saw it, they were impressed. “They bought all my fonts,” Diesel says. “[Prince’s] art director just recently thanked me […] it made his job a lot easier. He was able to say, ‘Do you like this one? Do you like this one?'”

In the end, Prince used Diesel’s work on seven covers (this includes different symbols and/or words set in Diesel’s type). “He chose some of the dramatic ones,” Diesel says. “Like, Mister Frisky was a distinct difference from his original one. My Crusti font is on the Chaos and Disorder record, and it’s this really funky, dirty, gritty font.” Diesel’s work also ended up on Prince’s first website, “The Dawn” (see also: the message hidden in Purple Rain‘s credits).

By virtue of working with Prince, Diesel has picked up a few things from the Purple One. For example: the importance of creative rights. Like Prince, Diesel has given away work for free; his website gained traffic and goodwill after he started offering fonts for download. With free fonts, he says, “The most important thing is to be able to retain distribution.” He offers the free ones “for personal use only,” and he’s in charge of the licenses. “I think that comes back to Prince again,” he says. “That’s something he taught artists — you don’t have to give it up for free. You don’t have to give it out if you don’t want to, and you should be able to control that.”

Prince and Diesel shared a fascination with the world wide web and all its associated technology. “I got to be an internet pioneer, because I was there at the beginning,” Diesel says. He saw it as a “playground,” or the perfect sphere for a self-described “rulebreaker by nature.”

Two decades later, he’s still in demand. His 350 fonts now join about 75,000 others, but he keeps working in FontLab. He’s partnered with everyone from Taco Bell to Ludacris. “We’ve had good years, and we’ve had bad years,” he says. “But I still get to do something I enjoy — something that nobody else really knows how to do.” When he’s not making fonts, he enjoys music and painting (Northeast’s Cultivate Minneapolis mural was a joint effort between him and graphic designer Mike Davis, a.k.a. DJ Mike 2600).

To celebrate his company’s 20th anniversary and Spectrum Studio’s 40th, Diesel and Spectrum will co-host a party on Thursday evening at the Norseman Distillery. He encourages anyone and everyone to stop by between 6 and 9 p.m., and while the official party ends after that, Diesel notes that DJ Fundo will be spinning at the Norseman from 9 p.m. until midnight.

Sometimes, a small joke snowballs into a huge career move, and we know that Prince loved jokes. It’s heartening that this partnership worked out.

If you’re interested, The Daily Dot dug up and repackaged a downloadable file with Prince’s one-character font. To see Diesel’s work, check out the following album covers:

Emancipation – Thymesans font

Chaos and Disorder – Crusti fonts

Crystal Ball – Mister Frisky

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic – Bonehead font (for the symbol)

The Vault – Moonshine font

Newpower Soul – Parkway Hotel font

Betcha By Golly Wow [Japanese import] – Thymesans font