How did you discover that you wanted to be a creative technologist? I studied computer science to become a software engineer, but realized that I had an interest in the design and overall creative part of the work. A common complaint from software engineers is that nobody understands what they do or the effort they put in is not valued as much as the marketing of the final product. When I realized that, I wanted to have more control, first over the design and then over the product itself. In the end, I became a creative technologist by working backwards from where I was, because I wanted my work to be useful and shown in the best possible light.
You currently work at BBC Research & Development. What challenges must news organizations address in order to remain relevant? The news is always going to be relevant, but the challenges are how we present it and how people access it. People want to be informed about what’s happening in their country and the world at large, but the news is complex and can easily make people anxious. Presenting the news in a format that makes it approachable and easy to understand should be the first step in reaching a new generation that grew up in a world of “bubbles” and “fake news.” It comes down to media literacy: Who can you trust? How do you go about understanding something that’s initially out of reach? That problem is bigger than news organizations.
What led you to create the literary sci-fi magazine Visions? During my time at Penguin, I saw that sci-fi, something I read regularly, was not considered to be on the same level as other types of literature. People seemed to shy away from the genre because it carries a lot of stereotypes with it, one of them being that you have to be a geeky man to enjoy it. I didn’t think so, and I wanted everyone to know that they can read sci-fi.
At the same time, working with book designers showed me that books can do more than carry the words of the author; they are also objects that deserve a lot of care. I wanted to try my hand at making something physical for a change, and this was the perfect opportunity to design sci-fi differently—to echo the sci-fi canon I loved, but take a more literary approach, with the hope of attracting a wider audience.
How have your skills in user experience fueled how you approach the design of a print magazine? Visions is a magazine, so you dip in and out of it, but it’s also a book, with a sequential and linear delivery of stories. The order in a print magazine matters more than it would in a digital piece, where you can jump from one thing to another in an instant. By putting two pieces next to each other, I provided some framing, while also easing readers into another part of the magazine. I wanted to hold the reader’s hand in the same way I do when designing a website, by providing cues in the editorial design. I wanted to create something that felt dynamic and visually varied, but also retained what a good book is about: a great reading experience.
What were the greatest challenges of reviving and expanding the typeface Marvin for the identity of Visions? After tracing the source material, I realized that I didn’t know enough to raise it up to the standard I wanted. I looked around for resources, but couldn’t find anything that was beginner friendly. You can pick up the basic technical aspect of type design—drawing Bézier curves, etc.—pretty quickly, but building up your eye is what takes time. You keep looking at letters and try to make sense of their designs. It’s very abstract; you never know how much progress you’re making until one day, you think, “That circle isn’t quite round enough.” But once I released the first font, Marvin Visions, I received a lot of positive feedback, which inspired me to continue and deliver the font family. That was another challenge because for the first time, I was alone. Before, I could rely on the original drawings by Michael Chave, the designer of Marvin, but to draw these new weights, I had no reference and no safety net. There was just more reading, testing and asking for feedback before I felt confident enough to release the family.
What is the connection between type and sci-fi? Type has a connection with style and genre that you can’t quite touch. The shapes of letters can reflect a mood or a place, so using typography appropriately is crucial for immersion. Some typefaces scream science fiction, like Eurostile. It’s important to know the type history of sci-fi so you know how to appeal or how to get away from it. For instance, Amelia can say that something is sci-fi without any effort, and Futura is pretty neutral but can work very well for sci-fi. By building on the image of sci-fi that’s been provided by book covers and movies, type carries a small universe that you can’t ignore.
What advice do you have for designers tackling a type revival project? I wrote a general guide based on what I did, but the two essential books I would recommend are How to Create Typefaces: From Sketch to Screen and Type Tricks: Your Personal Guide to Type Design. These books will give you the technical grounding required to start your first project.
Beyond that, you have to train your eye to look at type around you. What looks good? What doesn’t? Take a look at open-source fonts and see how they’re built. Look at letters on their own, and then as part of a word. A typeface is a system, and when you change one thing, it may have repercussions throughout. Lastly, good spacing makes a good font. It’s up to your eyes to work out what looks even, too close or too far apart. Maybe start with a display font to wrap your head around all the different concepts and optical illusions, and then work your way down in terms of size. Going for a text font as your first type project is like choosing hard mode when you’ve never even played a game before.
How does sci-fi inspire you? I see sci-fi as a tool to think about the future, to dream, and to be creative and marvel at the world and the infinite possibilities. But it is also a tool to be critical and to get readers to realize the dangers of certain politics and technologies. Many researchers use speculative fiction to formulate hypotheses, both in the technology field and in the design field. The element of speculation is enticing. It’s constantly asking “What if?” and I find that to be a terribly efficient way to take a peek into the future.