How did you get started in type design and eventually become creative type director at Monotype? I studied graphic design at Middlesex University in north London and worked on a few self-initiated type projects as part of that course, but I didn’t really study type design in any academic way. Upon leaving university, I did the usual journeyman trip around all the agencies in London, trying everything out. I met Jason Smith as I was wandering, and he had just formed Fontsmith; essentially, he took me on as an apprentice, and I eventually became co-creative director for the whole company. We built it up over a period of eighteen years, growing from two people to fourteen, and then we joined forces with Monotype.
What do you do in your capacity as creative type director? It’s a mix of literally everything the company’s involved in, such as marketing, writing and giving talks. I had one a minute ago at Future London Academy, a design event. I also meet agencies and introduce brands and designers to the idea of what good type is, what can be done nowadays and how you can own your own voices. There’s a misconception that custom type is expensive, but it’s really not as expensive as you might think!
I’m also lucky that I get to do a lot of design as well. I’m a little bit siloed from others in the studio team, so I can collaborate with Fontsmith contacts and get hands-on with logos and type design projects. I play the hovering art director role, too. It’s a bit of everything, really.
Has Monotype been creating any Metaverse-based projects for its clients yet? Not at the moment, but we’ve been speaking about them a lot, which is why there’s so much buzz around it in general. Everybody’s talking about the Metaverse, but nobody’s quite committed to doing anything. Like variable fonts—we’ve been talking about variable fonts for ages, and brands are only now starting to adopt them. Now that there are other aspects coming into conversations regarding the Metaverse, it’s like, “Oh, will this work in the Metaverse?” We have been experimenting. Even this morning, I was talking about “ecofonts” or “green fonts,” I think there’s space in the Metaverse for that kind of thinking.
Everyone wants to create this new immersive future. We’ve been speaking to a couple of clients about how we can create fonts that adapt to each other’s personalities. Or when one person looks at another person in a virtual space, there could be a way to suggest one’s attitudes, feelings and individual voice by changing the typography dependent on their relationship to someone else. So there are lots of weird, interesting conversations taking place, even if nothing’s quite happened.
We created a really nice project for WPP’s Amsteldok campus in Amsterdam a couple of years ago. We created this adaptive, live, breathing logotype out of a variable font alongside a camera system. As visitors walked into the WPP campus, they could start interacting with the logotype via the camera. The camera system had a heat map feature, and you could move your arms around to play with type. It became a responsive, engaging experience with the brand. The communication between digital and physical is probably what got me interested in VR.
We also worked with Scout24 in Germany. That project involved creating a VR-inspired identity and a typeface but nothing specifically typographic for VR. It did start us asking a lot of questions, though: you can see how the type was being used in the virtual space—there are some nice case-study videos online and on DesignStudio’s website as well—and as you walked around, you see the type moving with you. We began asking lots of questions about how we could create fonts that adapted to the surroundings or in gaming environments—that kind of thing. We haven’t really done a lot yet, but all the signs are saying it’s going to happen at some point, it’s emerging, and that‘s exciting.
How does designing for VR and the Metaverse feel different than Web 2.0 digital experiences? There’s that classic problem where you design a font in a traditional, 2-D sense, and you put it on a website for sale, and all of a sudden you see a brand using it, and you’re like, “Oh my god, what have they done?” We can create these fonts now that can do almost anything and shoot off into all kinds of weird possibilities and directions. What would happen if we created a typeface that goes off in all ways, and how would that respond in different scenarios?
The biggest challenge is adding that third dimension, like going from flat space and adding depth. Brands want that to feel genuine, like an authentic experience; they don’t want it to be all jittery and glitch. I feel like design is going to get super granular, and designers are going to go into all the possible fine details of thinking about that extra dimension, the transitions and the smoothing, and what that means for type technology. I can see big explosions in rasterizers and accessibility as well, like how readable something will be for different users.
What additional considerations will type designers need to think of when designing for VR environments? Accessibility is going to be really important. You look at OpenType fonts now—we’re creating these accessible, stylistic sets all the time, and few people use them properly, even today. We’ve also got variable fonts, and browsers can automatically pick the most appropriate accessible type design for websites when the type implements the optical size axis. Accessible type design is actually very accessible—it’s just that no one’s doing it. There are, however, so many people writing about it.
Again, I think it will come up in the Metaverse as well. How accessible are these lettershapes when viewed at different angles? Is there a way we can automate that? Can this l suddenly start growing a tail when it’s viewed at such-and-such degrees? And along those lines, you’re going to have your own user profile embedded in your space. So, how will fonts adapt to your specific needs?
Brands today want to speak to their audience on an individual level all the time. I’ve had conversations already regarding variable fonts with brands asking: “How can the design change if we’re talking to person type B and person type C?” And that’s going to happen again, but it’s going to be pretty hardwired and programmed into your headset. You may even input your eyesight prescription, and fonts will change accordingly at some point in the future. There are tons of possibilities, and we’re just scratching the surface. Every time I have one of these conversations, up pops a new idea. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole every time we speak about it.
What do you think developers and type designers can learn from AR and VR games, apps, and other virtual user interfaces when creating Metaverse experiences? Gaming worlds are interesting in that they’ve got their own ecosystem—they’re already in their own bubbles. And that’s almost the way gaming looks; it feels like it exists within that world, and it’s tied to its own history. Think of the FIFA games and how they’ve built a lineage. The Metaverse doesn’t really have those restrictions, so it can be whatever anyone wants it to be. It’s completely detached from expectations.
In terms of gaming influence for developers, there’s a lot to learn from storytelling and narratives and how brands can tell stories in that space. You see brands already embracing that. Balenciaga did a VR catwalk show in 2021 because of the pandemic restrictions. IKEA has a virtual AR app that shows you furniture in your own home. The Metaverse feels like it will be an amalgamation of all interactive things, and that could be anything from the internet, like hover boxes, interactions or holographics.
Earlier, you mentioned ecofonts. What are you seeing emerging in ecofont technology? Well, I was talking about that more in terms of variable fonts. Every brand right now wants to be as ecofriendly, sustainable and inclusive as possible, and I was reading an article this morning about a website’s carbon footprint. It has got me thinking about variable font technology and how it’s designed to be quite effective at making a whole family of fonts in one font file, optimally compressing the file size. But it’s a bit of a red herring: unless your website uses several different fonts on the same webpage, a variable font probably offers no advantage for you. I’ve been thinking about what more there is to be done in this area in terms of restricting the number of characters you have or trimming out kerning. Type designers love to just kern and kern like for months and add so many kerning pairs. It is interesting when you look at how much energy we use just to build typefaces. I’m wondering if there’s a more efficient process of designing type that could come out of these discussions.
I’ve been talking to Bryan Comeau, the senior director of software engineering at Monotype, who’s really pushing the digital side of things. He does a lot of work with car brands on screen displays and rasterizing, and we will be experimenting in the Metaverse as well.
I’ve also been reading about the money that Meta is putting into its Horizon Worlds program, a money pot of $10 million that the company plans to give to contributors. It’s basically outsourcing creativity and asking designers and developers to build VR worlds—I don’t know how to feel about that. It has got me thinking about money and maybe we can be more efficient with the money we spend and the energy we use and siphon that to the font industry—remember “digital is reading.” Type is so important.
Do you have any thoughts on where the field of typography is going? I don’t know! It’s certainly very active right now. What’s trending right now in typography is nostalgia and retroactivity, reinterpreting old things, as well as a lot of DIY, punk, super-expressive, intentionally bad typefaces out there. I don’t really know in terms of the future of type; I feel like we’re getting to a place where everyone will soon have access to everything and every font on one platform. Obviously, there is Adobe Fonts, and at Monotype, we have the Monotype Fonts platform with more than 30,000 fonts.
In the future of type, I see more and more exploration of technology rather than form. I feel like it will become more purpose-driven in the next few years. We’ve reinvented ink traps—these kinds of stupid, quirky things in typefaces that you can blow up and they look ugly. However, they’re now seen as this handcrafted feature that makes typefaces feel bespoke or curated. But ink traps weren’t really created; they emerged from this idea of purpose. There was a problem with ink spreading beyond letterforms at small sizes in print, and ink traps fixed that. We’re entering that age again with the Metaverse, digital design, inclusivity and accessibility. The constraints are beginning to surround us again, and we’re trying to operate and create uniqueness within what’s possible. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the Metaverse and what restraints will force new versions of letters and typefaces. We won’t know until we get our first project, and I think that’s going to happen very soon. ca