Well Made

Tobias Frere-Jones: Sphinx of Black Quartz – Well Made E2

May 19, 2016 · RSS · Apple Podcasts

In our second episode of Well Made, Stephan talks to designer and typography legend, Tobias Frere-Jones. Tobias tells us about the concept behind his new typeface Mallory. We talk to him about the personality and potential of type, and its power to level the playing field in business. Type affects the impact of how we communicate and in this episode, we definitely wax poetic about our love for typography. And pangrams. 

Photos throughout the transcript showcase Mallory, made with Lumi vinyl decals, rubber stamps and silkscreen kit.

Stephan: Hi, Tobias Frere-Jones, how are you?

Tobias: Hi! I'm doing very well thank you.

Stephan: Now before we really get started I want to say I'm so in love with what you've been doing with your blog. It tells little stories about typography through the lens of history and all these reference photos that you've taken, and the science of how a brain looks at a letterform — can I get you to update it more often?

Tobias: If I can get you to add more hours to the day then we have a deal.

Stephan: Maybe I can do that. But seriously, I really am amazed by all the photos and little insights that you've collected there.

Tobias: Well thank you.

Stephan: Where does all this stuff come from? I've heard that you walked around every single block of New York City taking photos so I'm assuming a lot of that comes from there.

Tobias: Yeah, many of the photos are out of that project tangent off of the work I did in designing Gotham and the plan was to visit every last block Manhattan I got from the battery up to 14th Street and that took something like three and a half years. But yes, that's where a number of the photos on the blog come from that.

But the blog itself is a place to put the things I had been wondering about and you know something to prompt me to look into questions that I just have the back of my head for a long time, like that first post about the location of type foundries in New York City in the 19th century. That was something that I had wondered about for a long time and it was also something that stood at the intersection of not only type but also the history of New York City which is a secondary interest of mine, and how the city has developed and overwritten itself. Yes so it was it was a chance to investigate something I wasn't able to get to before.

Stephan: Yeah, I think my interest in type has always come from how rich it is and how interwoven it is with everything else because everything we do for the most part involves a language at some point or another. It's just interwoven with history and any field you might think of has some sort of type history associated with it.

Tobias: Yeah it can't help but touch on pretty much everything around it. I mean in a way that's its job, it's to record what happens everywhere. Typography was described as the art that records all of the others. But yeah, that's with that kind of a perspective I think it's naturally going to have these dimensions of social history and political history that just make it even more interesting to think about.

 Tobias Frere-Jones: Sphinx of Black Quartz – Well Made E2

Stephan: I would guess every American sees a letter that you've designed, at some point in their day. I'm just curious what does it feel like to be in your brain when you see that? Are you able to separate the content from the letters when you see your own typefaces all over the place?

Tobias: Usually I can. I should say it is satisfying to see people use the letters that I've drawn. Just a couple weeks ago I saw a food delivery truck with a Garage Gothic on the sides of the van. This was something that I did twenty four years ago, and it's still out there in the world totally functioning exactly as it did decades ago. That's the nice thing about about typefaces — digital typefaces I should say — they function exactly as they did when they were released. How many pieces of software do you have from 20 years ago that you can still use? 

Stephan: Yeah, that's amazing especially when you go back to the old school. A lot of people have Garamond or typefaces that were designed hundreds of years ago on their computer and they don't even necessarily realize how and how old those are. 

Tobias: Yeah and the forms themselves go back even further. You know to have Garamond and Futura on the same page seems commonplace. There's nothing surprising about that. But if you're wearing an outfit with a Shakespearean lace collar and a straw boater and Air Jordans, then this would look completely ridiculous. But in type that works fine. 

Stephan: And why is that? 

Tobias: I think type has both the utility and the flexibility to stay relevant from one decade to the next. And I think if a design can make it out of it's home era then it can keep going indefinitely. 

There are plenty of designs from the 19th century or from the 30s or the 70s or whatever that really can't be used anymore because they weren't able to leave the 70s successfully because they were just so tied up in that particular period. So you could use them as some kind of ironic reference to signal that period in time but using Futura for something won't really strongly signal any particular period in time because it's been in use continuously since it was released. 

Stephan: So when you actually start a new typeface, is there a balance between the timeliness and the timelessness of a typeface, of a style, or do you enjoy working in both extremes? 

Tobias: I like making the things that stick around for as long as possible. It's certainly harder. To make something last people have to want to stay around and for it to be appealing it needs to have a flavor, it needs to have a personality. And if you can be self-aware enough to realize how current you're being, you can put enough of the present day into your work so that it's appealing but not so much that it will look dated tomorrow or next year or 10 years from now.

“We need new typefaces because we keep running into new problems.”

Stephan: I found this quote of yours which says "The day we stop needing new type will be the same day we stop needing new stories and new songs." Do you mean that on an emotional level? What is the purpose of a new typeface? I'd like to get your perspective on it because at the end of the day it's letters — how many different ways can you do them?

Tobias: That's that's a good question. For that particular answer I was thinking more of the emotional, cultural dimension of type.

There is a writer friend of mine who had this idea to classify works of fiction by the main kind of trajectory of their plot. But there aren't that many different kinds of stories. But that's fine because they're all things that connect to us readily and having them expressed or re-expressed for the present day is still important.

Stephan: Right. So if I'm designing a brand identity and I'm overwhelmed by thousands and thousands of typefaces that been designed in your repertoire alone, do you feel that your job is only to provide a selection from which to choose from? Or how does one make that kind of decision when faced with such a diversity of options?

Tobias: I think the other way to answer the question of why do we need new typefaces is that typefaces exist to solve problems and we need new typefaces because we keep running into new problems. So with that in mind to successfully choose a typeface for a given purpose you need to first understand and take a part of the problem that you have in the first place. Whether it's the most important thing is looking credible or the most important thing is looking friendly and approachable. That will start to narrow down the list. Another dimension is, technically speaking, what do you need to do with this typeface? Will it be to put a sign on the front of your shop or will it need to live on your website? Will I need to do advertising or packaging or any of these things? The family of variations that a typeface has will be better prepared or less prepared to respond to those needs. This is something that is not immediately apparent. While there is a technical standard for how a digital typeface needs to be made for a printer to be able to render it or to get rasterized on screen, that is really the only standard that there is. There's no standard about how many characters there ought to be, and there's no standard about how many weights there ought to be, and that is where an important difference between one typeface and another can start to emerge.

So depending on the type of work that you're doing, if you get caught needing to communicate something to a community that speaks Polish or Czech and your fonts can't go there that is a very difficult place to be. You'll have built this identity and this system, and a way of presenting yourself and find that suddenly you literally can't speak.

 Tobias Frere-Jones: Sphinx of Black Quartz – Well Made E2
 Tobias Frere-Jones: Sphinx of Black Quartz – Well Made E2

Stephan: Yeah that's really interesting. If I'm hearing you correctly, and this how I approach any branding project, that requirement alone cuts out 95% or more of the typefaces out there. So now from tens of thousands of typefaces you've narrowed it down to maybe a few hundred or a few thousand. So that's already some progress. And then there's all the emotional characteristics that you talked about at first.

Tobias: Yes. I think it's actually easier to sort of cull the list on a technical basis at first. Will this font be available on the web? And does this have all of the features that you'll need to communicate in the way that you need to to present yourself and your product in the way that you need to.

Stephan: Yeah and it represents quite a big investment for a small company. Obviously you've worked with some of the biggest companies who are commissioning you to design typefaces, but it sounds like you would approach that project the same way. Is that how you talk to the large scale clients that you work with when you're designing something new for them? The emotional versus the technical limitations of what they need?

Tobias: Oh they're both part of the brief. On the technical side of things I try to look at not only the problems they face now with whatever their content is, how their presenting themselves, in what kind of medium, how their packaging is being printed, how things work on their website, and whether that's accounted for, but also the things that will be happening next. Will they be launching an app that will work on phones? Will they be opening an office in Warsaw and they need to be able to speak to that audience? So that conversation happens in parallel with the more emotional conversation of "this is our brand", "this is how we want the customers to see us", "this is the association that we want our products to carry.

Stephan: It does seem easier to convince a client that on a purely pragmatic level they need this many weights, or this many languages to be supported, or these types of features. When you're dealing with the emotional side, do you find yourself advocating for something more emotional? What are those types of battles that you face with clients where you're trying to bring them into a more interesting direction with what they're doing on the typography side?

Tobias: There's a big range there. I've done a lot of work with publications, and one aspect that always comes up is how this will distinguish their title from all the other things in that same category that are going to be on the newsstand right next to it. That's certainly a valid concern but it has to be dealt with carefully otherwise we'll be designing this typeface in reverse as it were. That's probably not going to be very successful.

Stephan: So how do you set yourself apart when you're using typography whether it's on a newsstand or on the shelf of a retail store or whatever it is? What do you do to help tip the scale and basically prove that it's worth it to get a typeface from Frere Jones?

Tobias: I found that by the time you've addressed the technical concerns in the present and in the future, and been really clear about the personality and the goals of this particular brand, you will have already made the necessary distinction from your competition. The distinctiveness will naturally come out of the clarity. If you can focus on those things that are not inevitable like the completeness of the brief or the thoroughness of execution, then a distinct and recognizable voice will come out of that. The other half of that is making sure that the people using the type understand why it works this way, so they can make use of all the features that were put into this because that's the other part that will make a memorable and distinct image for the audience is not just the type itself but how it's used.

“The distinctiveness will naturally come out of the clarity.”

Stephan: One of the things that's most exciting to me about about the time that we live in right now — a defining characteristic of the Internet or technology era that we're in right now — is that companies have the opportunity to look bigger than they are or present themselves in a way that is equally professional to a very large company. You can have a URL that says yourname.com just like Coca-Cola has, your website can look good, and with what we're doing at Lumi we're trying to help people get packaging that looks just as good. But typography also seems like a major area in that respect, because we first of all we now have a very powerful web fonts. And even in the world of print you can pretty much get the same typefaces as a large company or you can get something that's very distinct and interesting and present yourself differently on that level. Is that is that a consideration for you when you're when you're designing a typeface? How they'll end up being used by the public at large?

Tobias: Oh absolutely. The things that I draw have to be not only effective but they have to be easy to use. It should be readily readily apparent to the user what they can do with this and it's up to us to present these typefaces in a way that makes it clear what they can expect from this from these typefaces so they can get the most out of what they are licensing.

Stephan: Yeah. I guess the question that I'm wondering about is, can typography level the playing field between a small and a large company? When you're thinking about those two magazines sitting on the same shelf — one might Condé Nast and the other is a little indie thing. Can you present yourself as professionally? What do you do to to to achieve that?

Tobias: Oh absolutely. Well certainly in publication, but also whether it's website or packaging, text is going to be part of it. Even if it's just the name of the company and there's nothing else on that box. Just the name of the product and that's all. That's still text and that's still the first encounter that the consumer will have with you, through these letter forms. Before they even pick up the box off the shelf, before they even look and see what's inside, this is what they'll see first. So that that first impression is really potent. So there's a range of types that's available now that's well past anything that's ever existed before. But, I think the skill and sensitivity of the person using the type is a really important ingredient here. Someone who understands how our eyes move across a supermarket shelf, or what will catch our eye or not catch our eye as we walk past a storefront. A typeface can anticipate these situations and put solutions in place for people to make use of and deploy. The user will still need their own understanding of the problem at hand. The typeface can create solutions but the user still has to apply them.

Stephan: You recently released Mallory which is your first typeface under the new company Frere-Jones. And I'm curious, what is the personality of Mallory?

Tobias: Well the idea there started as an experiment, sort of a "what if?" moment. What would happen if I used my own family history as the template for the conception of a typeface?

My mother is British. My father is American. What would happen if I tried to design a typeface that had the same background, the same origin that I do? What would you get with somebody half British half American? What does that look like? There are common characteristics of those cultures that I think come out in the type from England and from the US. On one side being very dignified and austere, on the other side very energetic and brash. I wanted to see if it was possible to find some bit of overlap there, where it was proper and chummy in equal measure.

Stephan: I love that vocabulary because people don't necessarily think of their companies that way, but I think you should. What is the personality of a tube of toothpaste? Whatever you're actually using that typeface on, you want to imbue it with that sort of personality and the more specific it is, the more human it is.

Tobias: Yeah it's difficult but I think very important and really powerful to be able to describe your product or your company or your brand in a way that's separate from any kind of business vocabulary.

What is the emotional presentation that you want to make? In type this gets really difficult because it starts off as being so abstract. To pin down the elusive quality of something that's abstract, that's two levels of difficulty. But it's important to do. And I find it's often useful to try to imagine a typeface as a person. What sort of person would this be? What kind of conversation would you have with this person?

In the case of Mallory it was getting quite literal with the national characters of the US and UK. But I think you can do that exercise with with pretty much anything. Whether you're selling cookies or you have some service that you offer. I think that can be translated in that same way and you can start to zero in on the vocabulary that will help you define what's important to convey. The fact that you are really really reliable, that is the most important thing to know about you. Or if you're really honest and transparent about you the way you source your ingredients, or whatever that may be. You can find the adjectives that define you and that's also another way to find the type that best suits your brand. Be really really clear about what you are in the first place.

Stephan: And there's also a bit of personality within a font family, where the Extra Light versus the Extra Bold are going to have some variation. Family is actually an appropriate term here because they all share those common quirks or little design features that make them all fit together but they all have their own personality as well.

Tobias: Yeah. That reminds me of a company we were talking to a while ago that has done a lot of careful and very deliberate thinking about their typographic voice. One of the things they mentioned in talking to us is was "we are not an Extra Bold company". They had thought a long time about their voice and their personality and determined that anything heavier than, say a Medium, was just incompatible with the kind of personality that they wanted to present. So they they've been using a few families but only ever use the lighter half of anything that they had because that was the part of the family that suited their voice.

Stephan: Yeah that makes sense. The Light will have that very elegant and wispy nature. For some reason you were describing this and I was thinking — what if I was selling pillows? What would I want to have? I could see it go both ways, I could see one company doing a very light treatment, very delicate and breezy, and I feel like I am about fall asleep... and I could see another one going on the opposite scale, very chunky and rich, and I'm going to have a great dream.

Tobias: Squishy.

Stephan: Yeah, squishy! It's really up to your personality as well, what you feel fits the ethos of your company, I suppose.

Tobias: Yeah and as long as those expressions are clear from the start, and been agreed upon, then I think it will go much much more smoothly in making this personality, making this agenda visible to the public.

Stephan: What happens when you deal with a client that hasn't figured that out yet?

Tobias: It can be difficult because the criteria for figuring out whether the project's going well or not, or whether we've hit the mark or we've missed it, come from the definition that needs to be clear. It's the foundation of how you'll present yourself. So if the foundation is in two parts, and they don't really match up with each other and don't actually meet, then it will be difficult to say whether or not this draft of the typeface is successful or not.

This person might I think that feeling friendly and approachable and energetic and young is the more important thing to emphasize, while someone else might think that the history of the company and how long it's been around and how reliable it is and the experience of the people who work there and the implications that has for their customers and so on and so on. That is the thing that really needs to be emphasized. And those two things can both be there, but one really does have to take precedence over the other. They need to be clear priority and if that discussion hasn't happened and been resolved, then it's going to be really difficult to proceed from there

 Tobias Frere-Jones: Sphinx of Black Quartz – Well Made E2
 Tobias Frere-Jones: Sphinx of Black Quartz – Well Made E2

Stephan: Do you do you ever help them figure that out or do you tell them come back when you've figured it out?

Tobias: Yeah it's often necessary to help finish the conversation that began and then got put aside without without realizing it. Sometimes it does feel a bit like a therapy session where "You know what, these serifs are too heavy", "Why would you say that? How long have you felt that way?" And so on and so on.

But it doesn't seem so strange because type has a really strong emotional dimension to it. I think anything that is so inherently abstract naturally takes on that kind of dimension. With nothing very directly figurative in these forms there's all kinds of room in there for our own emotions to move in and take up residence in these letterforms.

Stephan: Yeah. Some friends of Lumi have made this interesting Brand Deck which is a set of cards that allows you to figure out the personality of your project or your company. You just shuffle through it and it just has these personality types, and you can decide whether that fits or that doesn't fit, and that really helps narrow it down.

Tobias: Yeah that sounds like a really useful exercise. I think the most successful project I've done with clients are with ones that have gone through some kind of exercise like that and come out with a very clear answer. Who they are and what kind of adjectives make sense for them. But also the ones that don't.

Stephan: So with Frere-Jones Type, are you looking to do some new things that you haven't done before? It feels like a fresh start. You only have one typeface on your website and it's a great one. Where are things going?

Tobias: There's more soon.

Stephan: That's exciting. The first one is obviously a labor of love. It has, like you said, a personal side to it, and there's also a whole area that I hope people will investigate around the MicroPlus feature which seems very interesting. I'm curious what are some of the challenges that you've set for yourself with this new company?

Tobias: Well I think the first idea behind the company was to actually to continue doing what I've been doing for a couple of decades and more. Designing type on a commission basis for clients, and also offering type for retail sale through the website. And there are also dozens of projects that I'm waiting for the chance to get back to and finish off. So another part of this picture is to get to these new designs that I have in mind that need a place to live.

Stephan: What does it feel like starting a foundry today as opposed to 20 years ago?

Tobias: Well I think starting any business is a very serious task. But people expect more, as they should, from typefaces on a technical aspect, what kind of features they offer. I think there's also an expectation for what a type business should be able to offer, what a what a foundry should have in place to be in business. Whether it's licenses for desktop use, or licenses for use in mobile apps or licenses for use on a website and a storefront and a mechanism for users to test out the type and get a sense of how it would work for them before they before they license it. This is all a lot more complicated than it used to be. These are these are answers to new problems, problems that we didn't have you know 10 years ago or 20 years ago.

Stephan: Yeah. On the other hand what's exciting is now your identity can feel much more cohesive across the different media, because when the web first started it was pretty much Times New Roman and Arial.

Tobias: Yes. A lot of this had to do with what the browser manufacturers were willing to support, you know whether you know IE or Firefox or Chrome would support a particular feature, has a lot to do with how the type will look on the web. Some of it is in our hands but a lot of it is actually in the hands of the people who make the browsers. But once that era began things changed very quickly. Within a couple of years the terrain of this industry and also the process of licensing the typeface and what you could expect from it was very different.

Stephan: One thing that's definitely interesting about the landscape of typographic today sort of goes back to what we were talking about with the idea that the Internet has leveled the playing field, if I'm an Etsy seller. In the same way it's much easier to be a small foundry now, because you can transact with your customers much more easily you don't have to have a staff of people who are dealing with the payment side of everything. And it seems like nowadays there's an explosion of smaller foundries.

Tobias: Oh yes, there are many more smaller players these days than have ever been. It is actually plausible for one individual to start a foundry by themselves. But the machinery, the back end of a type foundry is a pretty significant piece of construction. Whether it's for processing payments and sending out invoices, but also producing the typefaces and testing them and making sure that they appear the way they should in a Windows browser as well as a Mac browser. That's a lot of back end work, and there's at least as much of that — probably more of that then actually just drawing the type.

Stephan: Do you foresee trying to grow that staff around the new company or do you want to keep it a little smaller?

Tobias: Right now we're four people in total and that feels like a good size and I'm not interested in running a really enormous place. There would just be less time drawing stuff and it's important to me that I stay close to that part of the business and the actual making of of the designs that go out and what people use. Yeah so massive exponential expansion is not in the cards here. 

Stephan: I think it really shows that you've struck the right balance of making sure that this is a real workhorse as they call it in terms of having all that technical capability in the testing that's required but also creating something that feels friendly and artistic and you know has its own artistic vision.

Tobias: Yeah, I've wanted to keep an eye on both of these because I think the most successful typefaces, the most successful applications of type have had both of those in equal measure. The practicality but also the inspiration as well.

Stephan: I have one last question. What is your favorite pangram?

Tobias: Oh boy. Wow, that is one that I have not been asked yet.

Stephan: No way!

Tobias: No. No one has asked me for a favorite pangram.

Stephan: I was actually just thinking about this myself, completely unrelated to this conversation. I really like "A wizard's job is to vex chumps quickly in fog." I like that one.

Tobias: That's a good one. Wow, there are so many of them. Actually I'll look at a proof here and try to refresh my memory. Getting out a proof of Retina here, which will be the next design that's coming out...

Stephan: I thought for sure you'd have one off the top of your head, your default go-to for any typesetting that you need to do.

Tobias: I'm just looking at a block of text, a series of pentagrams sort of massed together so you can see a typeface in progress — setting a whole block of text to have a realistic preview. Looking at this now I realize that I put the pangram "Amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes" right at the start of that paragraph because I just like that.

Stephan: That is a good one. I forget who said it but some writer gave the advice that if you're having writer's block you should start just writing anything. Just take a pen, a piece of paper, and start writing gibberish. Getting that mechanical motion going will actually help you get in the feeling of writing. So whenever I'm kind of stuck on something I'll do that, and what I'll write are pangrams. So I have them all loaded up in my head... "Sphinx of black quartz judge my vow". You know, all those types of things ready to go for my next writer's block.

Tobias: It's also a lot of fun to go searching out pangrams in other languages, finding a trove of pangrams in French and German.

Stephan: "Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume". That's my French one, because I happen to be French as well. You probably didn't know that.

Tobias: OK, well I was going to say that accent sounds quite good.

Stephan: That's all I got.

Tobias: Yeah, they get just as entertaining, somehow more so, if this kind of absurdist tale is being spun out in Swedish or Italian or something.

Stephan: I have a notebook that has a bunch of ideas, because my dream is to have a pentagram of my own in the list on Wikipedia or something... but I haven't figured out one that matches all my needs. I want it to make sense but also have as few letters as possible, so it's a work in progress still.

Tobias: That's ambitious.

Stephan: I'll let you know if I figure it out and I'll just let you use it for whatever you want.

Tobias: Ok thanks I appreciate that.

Stephan: All right, well, if anybody wants to play with Mallory they can go to frerejones.com. There's a very nice interactive thing you can play with there. It's just beautiful. Everyone should go read your blog. Is there anything else people should do if they want to find out more about you?

Tobias: Oh there's the Twitter feed which is also frerejones but without the hyphen and I also put up some some work on Instagram again with the same handle frerejones. And yeah so between those three things, that's plenty to keep you all occupied. 

Stephan: Excellent. Well thank you very much.

Tobias: All right! Thanks.

On the next episode of Well Made, Lumi hosts a Dribbble Event and Stephan talks to founder and Creative Director of This is Ground, Mike Macadaan. Find this and all future episodes on iTunes, Google Play, and here on the blog.

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