Interview with mark Simonson.

To help me try and establish a better understanding of the typeface industry and whether what I am investigating has a role in this area of graphic design I went about interviewing a handful of practitioners including typeface designers and graphic designers. The first of which to respond was Mark Simonson, A typeface designer from Minnesota. Mark opened up his own font shop in the year 2000, but has been involved in typeface design and lettering since 1992. Mark also has strong links with the online font shop My Fonts which is how I first came to find out about him as a typeface designer. This is the following e-mail that I sent to Mark and other practitioners in order to get a better understanding of a typeface designer’s opinion on conceptual typography and where this subject may sit within today’s typeface industry.

Hi Mark,

Thanks for getting back to me so quickly,

as I mentioned in my previous email I am planning to produce a conceptual, typeface based keepsake. Similarly to FUSE magazine I have derived a theme for my publication, which is based on the topic of ‘Broken Britain’. After brainstorming I identified a number of sub categories such as football hooliganism, knife crime, drug abuse etc etc which are all aspects of modern British society that have the full focus of the media at this present time. From these sub categories I chose to pursue the theme of football hooliganism, which is a phenomenon demonized by the British media via The Deviant Amplification Spiral, a term first coined by Stanley Cohen in 1972 in his book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics: Creation of Mods and Rockers’.

Through my research into this phenomenon I have established certain social aspects of football hooliganism and The Deviant Amplification Spiral itself which can be transcribed or regenerated into elements of a typeface. For example, part of the nature of The Deviant Amplification Spiral is that the media is the catalyst, taking an isolated event such as trouble between football fans at a single match and blowing it out of proportion, thus creating a moral panic within society that there is now a nation wide football hooligan epidemic.

Through initial sketches I took this idea of elaboration, blowing out of proportion and distortion to create a serif typeface where certain aspects of the letters such as ascenders, ears and serifs would be over enlarged and disproportionate to the rest of the character. Therefore developing a typeface with a conceptual idea behind it.

My only problem now is identifying where such a typeface would sit within contemporary graphic design, as far as I can establish the typeface industry is much alike to the fashion industry in regards to clothing, the correlation is uncanny in that some companies will produce a bespoke typeface to suit a client who is willing to spend a lot of money on branding, this is the tailored savile row, three piece suite. Other companies such as online font shops will generate emails and newsletters promoting the newest and freshest typefaces money can buy.

These are the seasonal t-shirt and jean combinations which are constantly evolving and fluctuating. Then there are the conceptual typeface designers, such as Oded Ezer and to some extent Johnathon Barnbrook. They produce the one off catwalk pieces that serve no practical purpose other than to challenge the art and design world.

I hope I have explained clearly enough to you what it is I am trying accomplish! so here are my questions to you which will help me determine what place there is in contemporary graphic design for conceptual typeface design.

 Question 1.

What steps do you take when producing a new typeface? Do you derive a concept? Or look for visual influence and inspiration?

Question 2.

Do you believe that a typeface can remain conceptual but still have useful everyday application? Or is it simply an art form?

Question 3.

Do you believe that there is any pressure on modern graphic designers to maintain a socially recognized style by utilizing the ‘fashionable’ typefaces of today?

Question 4.

Can you see a place in the magazine / book market place for publication based on conceptual typography?

Question 5.

What advice can you give me on typeface design? Are there any specific rules I should adhere to? Or should I just let my creativity run riot?

Question 6.

Where do you see yourself in the typeface fashion industry? Are a T-shirt and jeans guy or bespoke tailor? These are all of my questions for now!

Thankyou very much for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.

Kind Regrards

Tony

As of yet Mark is the only practitioner to have replied to my e-mail, these are the answers he responded with: Hi Tony, Here are his answers:

> Question 1. > >

What steps do you take when producing a new typeface? Do you derive a concept? Or look for visual influence and inspiration?

It depends on the typeface. In some cases, I look to past letterforms for inspiration. For example, Mostra was based on Italian Art Deco lettering from the 1920s and 1930s. There didn’t seem to be any existing typefaces that captured the essence of that, and I thought it would make an interesting and useful type family.

In other cases, I try to come up with a hybrid based on established typefaces or styles. Proxima Nova would be an example of this. It combines elements of grotesk and geometric sans serif styles. Coquette is another example of this approach, but with geometric sans and upright script. Overall, I find this to be the most interesting type design strategy.

I do occasionally have purely conceptual ideas for typefaces, not based on any past typeface or lettering style. That’s what led to my earliest success–Felt Tip Roman. I simply wondered what would happen if I turned my handwriting into a font. At the time (1989) this was a novel idea. I did not consider it to be a “serious” typeface design–it was not planned out or “designed” at all. I intentionally avoided correcting inconsistencies and mistakes, although I did the tracing by hand (not auto-traced). The result surprised me. It had this weird tension between mechanical and handmade. I was even more surprised when it became a commercial success.

> Question 2. > >

Do you believe that a typeface can remain conceptual but still have useful everyday application? Or is it simply an art form?

I do think that as you move toward purely concept-based typeface design it does become more like art, but I don’t think it precludes usefulness. It depends a lot on what the concept is. Futura is a good example of a concept typeface that became very useful and popular.

I think this is partly because its forms had their roots in classical roman letters. Conceptual typefaces are more common now simply because it takes dramatically less work to create a font today. Historically, the amount of time and effort it took to make a font effectively put a prohibition on all but the most conservative approach to typeface design, at least for anything actually produced as a font. I find most purely conceptual typefaces to be rather academic. It’s not that I don’t find them interesting, but I am more interested in the practical end of typeface design.

The more a typeface becomes the content rather than a carrier of content, the more it becomes art. “Normal” typefaces are not meant to be looked at for their own sake (although they often are by people who study type). They are meant to be more or less invisible.

> Question 3. > >

Do you believe that there is any pressure on modern graphic designers to maintain a socially recognized style by utilizing the ‘fashionable’ typefaces of today?

Of course. People are social creatures. We have a natural tendency to imitate one another. At the same time, we find novelty stimulating. This creates a kind of feedback loop which results in fashion. All this is tied up with the need to be accepted by others, and that’s what that pressure is. It’s been around forever.

> Question 4. > >

Can you see a place in the magazine / book market place for publication based on conceptual typography?

Yes, I think some graphic designers would be interested in it. It might be more appealing to people who are into art.

> Question 5. > >

What advice can you give me on typeface design? Are there any specific rules I should adhere to? Or should I just let my creativity run riot?

One thing I’ve learned is that the concept is the easy part. I have more ideas for typefaces than I could possibly complete in my lifetime, but it can take a long time to complete one. Hence, before I commit to going ahead with a typeface concept, I consider whether it is worth doing relative to other ideas I have. I am most interested in making typefaces that will appeal to or be useful to other people. You can do whatever you like, but I think you need to be clear about what you hope to do with it and let that guide you.

> Question 6. > >

Where do you see yourself in the typeface fashion industry? Are a T-shirt and jeans guy or bespoke tailor?

I try not to follow the fashions too closely. I keep an eye on it, but I try to do what excites me; make typefaces that I would want to use myself if they existed. When I am lucky, there are others who share my taste and want to use them, too. Trying to do what you think other people will like is a sure way to be mediocre and unhappy with what you do.

Mark

I have found this feedback from Mark incredibly useful as it has given me a better perspective on what on am trying to achieve and where it could possibly sit within the graphic design field. From Mark’s questions I have derived that conceptual based typeface design is generally only going to appeal to graphic designers interested in the art based side of graphic design, however he does also mention that people find novelty stimulating, to me this suggests that typefaces can be compared to the fashion or car industries.

Every year clothing companies will have fashion shows which showcase designs which aren’t particularly practical, but display design ideas and characteristics which can then be extracted and utilised in high street designs within the up and coming season.

Car companies undergo a similar experimental phase in the form of concept cars which are exhibited at annual motor shows, designers attending these motor shows will then identify a particular trend within the concept cars and what the public see are finalised cars with practical use that exhibit influence from the concept cars.

(BMW Concept Car 2007)

(BMW Commercial 7 Series 2009)

Underground music genres follow a similar pattern in that initial ideas for tracks will be pressed on limited vinyl known as dubplates which are then circulated around the industry and based on feedback on what the industry approves of is then formatted and finalised into the final track, which may be completely different from the initial experimental track but still maintains the essence which was first generated from the experimental stages of the tracks production.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqq_BdAgHic

(Hypercaine DJ Fresh Breakbeat Kaos 2008 Dubplate)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JaLH1RPXfU

(Hypercaine DJ Fresh Breakbeat Kaos 2009 Radio Edit)

The other main aspect from these questions I found particularly useful where Mark’s opinions on why and how a typeface should be developed, Mark highlights that typeface design is often about solving a problem or recognising an aspect of design where a new typeface can address design issues. For example, his typeface Mostra was based on 1920’s Italian letterforms, a style which had yet to be utilised within the design industry, thus filling a previously unrecognised gap.

Preview Image

(Mostra One regular, Mark Simonson 2009)

VINTAGE ITALIAN ART DECO PASTA CHEF POSTER 28

(Buitoni 1928)

This also highlights another point that Mark makes regarding typeface legibility, he states that the most useful typefaces have some kind of historical reference which goes back to a statement that I read in Émigré which highlights that practical legible typeface design is an area that has been conquered and can’t really be improved upon.

This in some way goes into solving my problem of generating a conceptual typeface that retains legibility, providing I reference some basic historical design principles when creating a new typeface I should be able to maintain legibility and concept. Having said this I could simply focus purely upon concept and go down the fashion / car show route and create a publication which is based upon creative and experimental work from which myself and the rest of the typeface industry can recognise particular trends and styles to work into more practical typeface designs for the future.

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