"What's Your Type?" Talking About Letters & How To Get Into Typography
Probably, like me, you've been playing around with fonts - unknowingly or otherwise - ever since first opening Microsoft Word and every time you use a program like it since.
Making newspapers, magazines and posters with varying pieces of Word Art at school. At home too, but there I didn't even print them. Just showed them to parents and siblings then moved on to something else. Back in IT class, time had to be afforded for choosing fonts,
"Ready to print?"
"Just deciding on my fonts, sir. What do you think of these ones?"
He usually wasn't arsed. It depended how many fights there'd been in that lesson or how many times he'd had to turn off the internet connection because everyone was on MiniClip instead of working.
Then, as an adult, I eventually chose to go back to my childhood interest of messing around with letters and words. Long story short, writing now pays the bills. But I also get to dabble in design, when making posters, social media images or download content for clients.
Compared to those who have formally studied their way into a creative design role or work in it day-after-day, I'm a relative novice when it comes to typography and lettering. But compared to my family at home I know a thing or two.
But, as I say, I'm actually by no means an expert. Though the more I learn about the rules and principles, the more it fascinates me.
That's why I've got in touch with some actual designers to share with us what they love about typefaces and lettering. This should give us an insight into life as a designer of something that everyone relies on. From choosing one breakfast cereal from another, to understanding flat-pack instructions with maximum clarity.
I spoke to;
- Adam Gill. Founder of Grammar Studio who plays a big design role at Proper.
- Peter O'Toole. Well-established illustrator who works with many famous brands and also part of Grammar Studio.
- Marc Jones. Owner of Blast! Creative and has worked with type since the 1990s.
"Typeface Choice Is Important For Communicating, Isn't It?"
Playing with type choices - when designing things like Lisboa and stuff for clients - is properly enjoyable. That's largely because I've noticed (and enjoyed experimenting with) how much font choices can affect the message you are trying to communicate.
One of the two things that Adam Gill loves about type is that same fact. "The way you can use type and lettering to say more than you are literally saying (with the actual words you use)... You can write or type the same words in two different ways and create two different messages."
It's quite mind-blowing, in a fun way, when having deliberated with the semantics in a piece, to then have to go through the process all over again when it comes to designing the layout and choosing which fonts to use.
(Pete says "calling typefaces 'fonts' is sooo 2000", but, hey-ho, that's ingrained in my vocabulary and unless I become as skilled as the pro's, I will stick with the colloquial terminology.)
Marc Jones noted, "to see how fonts can influence and create a sense of belonging, compare the London Underground signage and that of the New York subway. They're both iconic."
"What Do You Like About Typography And Fonts?"
Realising that, when charging people for your designs, it wasn't enough to be able to just play around until you thought 'yeah, that looks about right' made me learn more theory about typography. But playing around and stumbling to a finished product isn't necessarily a problem for a lettering fanatic. In fact, it's something Adam enjoys about it,
"What I like is that everybody has a different way of approaching type and lettering. It's fascinating to see the differences in how different people write the same letter or type out a homemade poster. I actually love to see people, who couldn't care less about drawing, matching letters or aligning words on a page - and this is all the stuff I take so much care over!
"Everybody has a different, natural way of 'doing words', so I never pass judgement on people's typographic eye." Says Adam, "unless they are a designer, then they should know the rules!"
Marc sums it up nicely: "It can both liberate or smother design ideas and communication. I'd recommend the film Helvetica to anyone, even if they don't think they understand or care much about fonts it will still be of interest."
Whilst Pete's favourite thing about lettering and type is the style and usage of it in 1950s advertising, "Anything before then is too type based for me and anything after that mainly uses photos rather than illustrations. I really like how the type is shouting out for attention on a page full of other adverts (usually in back and white) things like 'LOOK HERE!' - so literal. Anyway the typefaces in these adverts are usually all hand done from scratch and not a typeface, at all but thats an art in itself so i try and source the next best thing.
"How Do You Get Into Typography?"
"I'm self-taught." Said Marc, "And started in web design in the late 1990s." After working at BBC Sport Online and Trinity Mirror as Senior Designer, he set up his own print based design agency,
"The idea of displaying any font online was something I watched unfold; from the almost impossible to the here and now, where fonts are held with other website files." Blast! work mainly in print now, where typography is vital. "I always tell my designers to imagine paint flowing around type - ensure that the weight of the white space is sympathetic and harmonious. White space should never intimidate - albeit clients are often afraid of it."
But back to getting into designing lettering for a living. Here's Pete,
"Im a freelance illustrator and started in 2010. I went to art college in Huddersfield and then University in Bradford. I turned down a Masters at Edinburgh College of Art as i wanted to earn some brass!"
Whereas Adam worked at a branding agency for eight years, "I’ve worked for myself for 4.5 years after leaving the agency, so design is something I do every day, as well as a hobby. At the agency, I worked on everything from small identity design jobs with corporate stationery and flyers, to huge corporate rebrands with brand guidelines, brochures, websites (urgh) and all that stuff."
He says he had incredible creative directors who drilled into him all the rules about how to set typography, especially from a ‘corporate’ point of view: "I know now that it was essential to learn this stuff, so I’m glad it happened like that - even though as a 19 year old junior i just wanted to do mad stuff with no rules!"
And those rules are what I think makes it all so interesting.
"Where Can Typography Get You?"
Well, Marc's agency has done work for companies as big as Amazon and Argos, designing custom fonts for their branding. His agency is also pretty snowed under - so it can take you pretty far. But he's also worked for one of the biggest publishing houses in the journalism industry, if you aren't in a position to set up on your own company.
But if you are, Adam has also started his own design studio and agency. They've been working for some well respected publications, which are sold all over the world, as well as big sportswear brands like adidas and New Balance.
Away from the world of agencies is Pete (despite now being a big part of Grammar) - who works also as a freelance illustrator and designer. He has an agent for work in the US and has worked all over; from The New Yorker to doing work for Estee Lauder, as well as a massive range of other brands.
Everything from political campaign posters to Pot Noodle cooking instructions needs written words. And what they look like is just as crucial as what they mean.
Thankfully, there's people who understand the ins and outs of it doing the designing, not just idiots like me doing it for a bit of fun.
Some Further Info About Type
A great letter artist's website, recommended by another type-aficionado, Jake. This is the website of Jessica Hische.
Mastering Type is a truly fantastic book.
And here is Helvetica, as recommended by Marc;