Design luminary Massimo Vignelli famously said that designers really only need about six typefaces. But type design has accelerated in recent years, anticipating and fueling our insatiable hunger for new letterforms. We can’t seem to get enough.
This hunger is justified. Standards for practicality have shifted as technologies evolve, and we need type to work in various digital viewing contexts. Type design education has become more widely available, enabling more people to learn the craft and bring their perspectives to the industry. And, of course, there’s the simple, addictive joy of finding beautiful, expressive letterforms.
So, what’s it like in the type design community these days? I tracked down five type designers around the world to ask them about their process, priorities and latest projects.
Fresh twists on classics
OH no Type Company, United States
Why would a type company be called OH no? The first answer that founder James Edmondson gives is that o, h, and n tend to be the letters he starts with when designing any typeface. Rearrange those letters, and he gets oh no. But then he gives another answer.
“There are so many type foundries today,” Edmondson says with a grin, “so it’s also like, ‘Oh no, another type foundry!’” Even so, he never intended to start just another type company.
“We’re in this golden time for type design. The tools have never been better and the internet provides all these new connections,” he says. But, again and again, he would see Futura and Helvetica look-alikes. These typefaces sell well and are useful, but don’t excite him.
According to Edmondson, a type designer must keep that balancing act in mind to be financially sustainable today. “Every designer gets to choose between how much is spent on art and how much on commerce. When you look to the past, it can be too easy. [The resultant design] will make sense to people and resonate a little easier, but it can be redundant. If you do something totally new and fresh, though, people will ask, ‘How the hell am I going to use this?’”
Take Degular, a low-contrast grotesk sans serif, Edmondson’s twist on a well-established genre. It’s like Helvetica, but distinctively not. It balances his freshness and artistry with what is established and already sought after.
As a child, Edmondson’s favorite toys were Legos. “I never saw why anyone would want another toy when you can make more toys out of Legos,” he says. Similarly, his typefaces can be paired together and repaired for boundless creative possibilities. “Many of the OH no typefaces can work together,” he says, “so the more in your library, the more possibilities you have.”
Nova Type Foundry, Portugal
“Typefaces can have a kind of magic of making people feel comfortable and nice without really knowing why,” says Joana Correia of Nova Type Foundry. “I’ve been focusing on making things less common in a way that surprises people.”
Correia’s typefaces do just that. Details in the kick of a k or the curves of a g flaunt an unexpectedly personable and charismatic liveliness. Laca, a semi sans serif with sass and class, is one of her recent creations. Another is Artigo, which she began as a master’s student at the University of Reading and has continued to expand, with a Cyrillic set forthcoming.
Before becoming a type designer, Correia studied architecture and graphic design. She began considering specializing in type design after she read a feature on I Love Typography about designer Alice Savoie. “I was really inspired. At the time, it was very unusual for women to be type designers. I thought, ‘If she can do it, I think I can too,’” she says. Pivoting from architecture presented unique advantages.
“Type [design] is like math for graphic design,” says Correia. “Similar to architecture, it requires a lot of time to learn how to do properly. The design aspect of technical drawings and curves, shapes and proportions—it’s all connected with architecture.” For a commission for the Zero Hotels, a hotel chain featuring modular bedrooms, Correia and type designer Natanael Gama codesigned, with creative direction from Sérgio Alves, a monospaced typeface with clean lines that relate to the rooms.
But Correia says she doesn’t design type simply to fill a functional need. “I [design] because I find a shape I’m passionate about—I’m not thinking about if it will work for this or that. I bring a lot of myself to my work,” she says.
Human connection is something Correia frequently mentions when discussing her work. “We call them typefaces, and, like faces, they can have something human to them. We can connect to them. Type designers see this all the time, but most people don’t,” she says. “When letters look different, people really feel it.”
Stretching the boundaries
Think of type families, and what probably comes to mind are suites of letterforms that differ primarily by a single feature, like stroke weight. But in the case of Nostra, a winner in Communication Arts’ 2020 Typography Competition, the inverse is true: everything differs except one feature, the letterform proportions.
Nostra’s creator, Lucas Descroix, likes to question what makes a type family. “What do members of a family need to share?” he asks. “Maybe it’s just a story that you don’t see at first.”
Writing on Future Fonts, where he released Nostra, Descroix describes the typeface as one that “started as an exploration into the unity of opposites.” It’s just one example of how Descroix aims to stretch the boundaries of how people think about type. He also enjoys challenging users’ conventional process of recognizing and reading letters.
“I’m not always looking for the most legible design, which has been one of the major quests for type designers. So, my resulting design can end up being shapes that you see before you read. You may have to take longer to read it. I like asking how far we can go from a letter that is commonly shared and have it still be recognizable in a way,” Descroix says.
With some letters, Descroix goes still further, exploring how their forms may realistically be drawn. He describes what he calls the “impossible gesture,” a stroke that cannot be created in a single hand movement with an actual pen. “These are fun because you can go with marks that don’t always make sense as handwritten gestures. And it’s fun because type comes from writing—typefaces were a way to crystallize the writing process,” he says. The impossible gestures in the S in Nostra, both in the roman and the italic, and the G in Grandmaster, another one of Descroix’s typefaces, twist this handwritten legacy behind letterforms.
“I don’t plan how something will fit into an overall thing,” Descroix says. “I’ll find a shape, ask what makes it special and go after that idea. Especially with display type, I really try to go for something special.”
A collector’s eye
Andrea Tinnes calls herself a typeface designer as well as a typographer who designs her own typefaces. And she loves to collect things.
“In the end, my approach to typeface design is usually based on the act of collecting,” writes Tinnes in an email. “Collecting and archiving are critical to me for investigating, exploring, comprehending and engaging with each project.”
Tinnes collects design ephemera, pop-culture artifacts, type specimens, books, essays and text fragments. She even keeps a file on her computer’s desktop where she stores quotes from her daily reading. All entries are sorted chronologically and tagged with dates.
This love of collecting, organizing and cataloging diverse collateral has led to several themed projects, each not unlike a museum exhibit on its own. One of these is called the Library of Shapes, Texts and Structures, an ongoing visual research project and personal archive that includes graphic elements, texts and her own typefaces. It was exhibited in 2019 at A—Z, a Berlin space founded by book designer Anja Lutz to showcase, develop and promote experimental graphic design.
The two typefaces featured in this project are Allgemein Grotesk and one currently called Affiche Collection. Both typefaces combine different skeletons and shapes and include many alternate characters. “In a sense, they both serve as a library of shapes,” writes Tinnes.
She says that over the years, she’s learned to embrace serendipity within an open-ended design process. “Starting from the blank page, whether screen or paper,” she writes, “every small gesture, action, observation, glitch or accident can be inspirational.”
Manchester Type, United Kingdom
“Throughout their history, typefaces have evolved as civilizations have become more complex,” says David Williams, founder of Manchester Type. “The use case is always changing. The technology is always changing. The print culture is always changing. Typefaces must respond to their environment.”
But even though technology has made it easier for people to create type, this hasn’t caught up in global scope. Many writing systems do not have digital keyboards built into operating systems, for example, or even comprehensive sets of digital typefaces. When there’s no keyboard for the language, people need to use the nonnative alphabets to represent the sounds that should be made.
Williams has been working to change this. “It feels like something worth doing, exploring the gaps within typographic accessibility. I’m helping to build a world in which people can more easily communicate using their native scripts,” he says.
Williams says that his master’s courses at the University of Reading shaped his perspective on the global significance of typeface design. With colleagues from Japan, Palestine and Brazil, among other locations, he began to surround himself with ideas that went beyond the scripts he knew. “I was embarrassed by my lack of awareness that in a country like India, there are hundreds of dialects that use dozens of scripts,” he says. “The complexity of scripts such as Devanagari,” widely used in India, “means that a basic typeface will require over five hundred characters to be designed.”
Williams emphasizes the value of researching cultural histories and evolution. When he was designing a digital typeface in Tai Tham, a writing system used in countries including Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam, he studied palm leaf manuscripts. The theory is that letters were based on circular shapes to prevent scribes from ripping the leaves as they wrote. Of course, digital type design does not have this constraint, but knowing this history informed Williams’s design to be more culturally resonant and reflective.
Today, as type is used within tiny rectangles on phones, on large theater screens, in augmented and virtual reality environments, and, still, in print, what it means to create an effective typeface is, as Williams says, becoming more complex—all around the world. “The fact that more and more typefaces are produced every year raises the bar for what is considered functional,” Williams says. “I’m all for it.” ca