Profile: Luke Prowse

Type designer Luke Prowse took on the daunting task of condensing the Times font when the newspaper turned tabloid, a success that has brought a variety of work to Research Studios, says Simon Loxley

In the light of being one of the few designers to have updated Times, the most famous text face of all, it is perhaps surprising that Luke Prowse’s current focus is on letterforms that work best used very large. His latest design, Sans Papier, released next month, ‘really sings at display size’, he says. ‘But, large or small, it’s the craft and detail that really absorbs me.’ This much is evident from his short, but varied career to date: at an early age, Prowse has joined the small, distinguished band who have redesigned Stanley Morison’s resilient 1932 creation, Times, to meet once again the changing demands of technology, materials and format.

Prowse shares with Morison an oblique journey to the world of type, neither having undergone a conventional design education. The computer was a constant feature at home during his childhood, and Prowse began programming applications and designing interfaces for the domestic models. Leaving sixth-form college with no real career inclination, after a short stint at a fashion house he began working as a Web designer for Lycos. It was there that his fascination for letterforms grew, but a placement with Jonathan Barnbrook proved a false start, and he returned to his old employer. Yet the pull of type design was irresistible. Prowse enrolled on a three-month apprenticeship with Bruno Maag of Dalton Maag, spending much of his days brush in hand, drawing and painting letters. ‘I would curse Bruno under my breath as he inspected what I’d done: “Take a little off here” or “This part is slightly too narrow”. But he was right. He really taught me how to “see” letters,’ he says.

In 2005, Prowse joined Neville Brody’s Research Studios, and within eight months found himself working on the redesign of The Times. The newspaper had switched completely to compact format in November 2004, but its year-long dual-size existence meant the design of the smaller pages had never been properly addressed. Research Studios was nicely placed, having redesigned The Times2 section, but still had to pitch again against seven other contenders.

The existing body face, redesigned as Times Classic in 2002 for greater economy of space, remained unchanged. The problem area was the headlines, now with far less room to manoeuvre. Under Brody’s art direction, Prowse condensed the characters, and redrew the serifs; angular and assertive, they allowed Times to punch above its weight in confined spaces. The direct inspiration was an earlier masthead for the paper drawn by Berthold Wolpe, which saw service from 1966 to 1970 and sported, in places, sloped serifs. Prowse’s version adopted a similar weight relationship to Times Classic’s thick and thin strokes, while pushing Wolpe’s angularity to its logical conclusion.

‘We met regularly with The Times art director David Driver to discuss the way the font was developing, but there was no big round of initial ideas. Everyone seemed pleased with the direction fairly quickly – a pleasant surprise in such a big institution. Deputy editor Ben Preston sent me a thank-you note; he could now fit the word ‘universities’ into a front-page headline,’ says Prowse. The Times editor Robert Thomson christened the new version Times Modern.

Other typographical influences were Christian Schwartz’s Farnham, Jonathan Hoefler’s Mercury, and the work of the 18th century Dutch-based type founder Johann Fleischmann. ‘I’ve always loved Dutch type,’ says Prowse. ‘Its combination of straight edges followed by sweeping curves is, in spirit, a link between the Arts and Crafts movement and the clean lines of Swiss design.’

At Research Studios, Prowse has also designed the book Power to the People for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Trust, an accompaniment to The Power Inquiry, which was an investigation into the state of British democracy, and he worked on fonts for Egg and Nickelodeon. Although the latter allowed the same creative freedom he enjoyed with The Times, the approach was somewhat different, calling on the hand-lettering services of Brody’s eight-year-old son Declan, the results of which were developed into a complete font set.

How is it working with Brody senior? ‘It continues to be a great experience, both in terms of education and the opportunities on offer,’ he explains. ‘Neville has always been committed to creative exploration, and supports this in his designers. He’s very down-to-earth, a pleasure to work for, quite unlike the persona you might imagine.’

For Prowse, the opportunities keep coming. Building on his success with The Times, he is involved in the redesign of an undisclosed European daily, and will now be dividing his time between Research Studios’s offices in Paris and London. ‘I feel ready for a change. Our Paris studio is heavily engaged in perfume packaging, so perhaps I’ll sink my teeth into that.’

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