Character actors

The arcane skill of typography lies in teasing the subtlest significations out of the signifier – in the precise and delicate cutting of a bowl or serif to evoke culturally loaded forms, creating character and mood. Emily Pacey talks to some passionate practitioners

Typographers are the rock stars of the design industry, which is why I got into it,’ says Fontsmith founder and creative director Jason Smith. Typographers are often held in awe by other designers, and graphic designers in particular are known to get (justifiably) excited about typefaces. Recently, typography’s appeal has begun to spread even wider, with one famous font (Helvetica) even starring in its own movie. So what is the attraction?

’Graphic designers love logotype and typography because it is the glue that holds everything together,’ offers Smith. Its mystique is also heightened by a strict set of rules that make it a relatively inaccessible skill.

’Designers sometimes think they know about type, but they don’t. You need a professional to give you a good telling off when you are doing the wrong thing,’ says Interbrand creative director Ian Styles.

The enormous skill that goes into the creation of a typeface can be seen most clearly in custom fonts, in which a typographer’s creativity focuses on providing a perfect expression for just one brand.

Says Styles, ’A bespoke font makes a massive difference to a brand, as it means that any communication will be branded, even without the application of the logo.’

Styles waxes lyrical about Bruno Maag, his ’number one typographer’, praising his passion. ’Maag is the most enthusiastic person about type that I have ever met,’ he says. ’His energy and knowledge of every project is brilliant. You just can’t put a value on that.’

Smith is one of a rising generation of superstar typographers and a former Maag colleague. Styles describes him as ’very good and a lot of people’s favourite’.

[Typography’s] mystique is heightened by a strict set of rules that make it a relatively inaccessible skill

Fontsmith is responsible for Channel 4’s spectacularly cool and instantly identifiable typeface, launched in 2005. More recently, it launched a typeface for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. According to the brief, the font was to communicate ’integrity, honesty, confidence and strength’.

He admits to a difficulty in describing how a font can look ’honest’ but, along with other typographers, Smith theorises that the visual language of a font is culturally specific. ’It is largely down to history and about seeing which font styles have been associated with which brands or ideas over decades and centuries,’ he says.

There is no doubt that fonts have personality. ’That is why they are called characters and faces,’ says Smith. Commercial Type partner Christian Schwartz agrees.

He says, ’You can infuse them with a tone in the way the terminals look, in the contrast between thick and thin, in the shape of the serif. You have what the word says and then you have what that word conveys visually, so, very subtly, you convey a message.’

Schwartz is based in the US, while his business partner at Commercial Type, Paul Barnes, lives and works in the UK. Schwartz tells how, when the pair were creating The Guardian’s current typefaces, Barnes insisted that he come to the UK to soak up English art, furniture and architecture and get a feel for English proportions and shapes. ’I didn’t put much stock in that until I came over,’ says Schwartz. ’But afterwards I could really see its usefulness, because it did influence the way I worked.’

Commercial Type is currently working on the US edition of Esquire, having also created its previous typeface five years ago. Says Schwartz, ’The first one was brash and masculine, but this time it was meant to look a little more sophisticated and mature.’

Schwartz and Barnes have been having fun with the Esquire US font, as the magazine decided it couldn’t wait to implement it and debuted it in an unfinished state in the February edition. Schwartz describes panicky phone calls from the magazine, asking, ’can you draw us a question mark and can you do it today?’ Another sign that typography fever continues.


’We have had many arguments and conversations about the lower case “g” at Fontsmith,’ says consultancy founder Jason Smith. ’It is my favourite letter, because it is complex and you can have lots of fun with it. You can be flowery with it and you don’t have to keep to the rules so much.’

Commercial Type co-founder Christian Schwartz tells the story of his first contact with business partner Paul Barnes: ’I drew a revival of the 19th-century Schelter Grotesk typeface in 2001 and released it as FF Bau. Paul saw the “g” I had drawn for FF Bau and e-mailed to ask whether I had made the form up, because the historical sources he had seen for this typeface all had a single-storey “g” [that is, with a tail, rather than a loop, for the descender].’

_Fontsmith’s typeface for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board

’Like any design, you start from the bones up, looking at the brief and trying to find that great idea that will justify the reasons for your shapes. There has to be a reason for everything, otherwise it is just decoration,’ says Fontsmith’s Jason Smith.

Along the way to creating the Northern Ireland Tourist Board custom font, it went through various iterations, including descenders with trimmed corners, inspired by the form of the Giant’s Causeway stones, while the ear of the ’r’ took on the shape of a shamrock leaf. ’The Giant’s Causeway reference didn’t make it through, as it made the letters look a bit hard and unfriendly,’ says Smith.

He adds, ’We didn’t want to make the font too Irish, especially not too Southern Irish, but we had to have a bit of Irishness in there, too. There is also a cool modernity about Northern Ireland that we wanted to communicate’.

The result is a friendly-looking font, infused with a homeopathically subtle hint of Celtic letter forms. ’We missed a trick by not dotting the “i” with a shamrock, though, I think,’ says Smith wryly.

Latest articles