Interview With Ray Larabie

As well as Mark Simonson I also sent the same email to another typeface designer named Ray Larabie who has designed such typefaces as Madawaska, Korataki and Meloriac. Here are Ray’s responses to the questions that a posed to him:

Question 1.

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

I try to break up my pattern and avoid having a system for coming up with ideas . . . inevitably with enough frequency, a system develops. Most font ideas are born from a client’s need that can’t be fulfilled by existing typefaces. Usually they’ll have some font choices which come close but don’t quite do the job . . . so it’s my job to come up with something that will serve that function. The rest of the time, I’m trying to second-guess what designers need based on the typeface choices they’re making. If I see a designer has been modifying existing fonts it’s usually a good indicator of an open niche.

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 wouldn’t say a typeface is even an art form. Lettering/typography can be an art form. An alphabet could be art (I guess) but the typeface itself is just a tool or a concept than can be used to make art or non-art. Conceptual fonts always sacrifice legibility which makes them a poorer choice than all the thousands of non-conceptual fonts. Conceptual fonts are “purpose built” so, really, they’re the poorest choice for everyday applications. I guess if your concept was extreme legibility then a conceptual font would have useful everyday application. If you stretch the definition of everyday applications: there are some applications where interesting, hard-to-read lettering can be an advantage. Example: a sign for a hair stylist. A conceptual font might make people slow down and take notice. But I don’t think that’s the everyday use you were referring to.

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?

As anyone who wears clothing knows, you can break the rules of fashion if you know the rules of fashion; if you break the rules unknowingly you come across as someone who’s at best, unobservant, at worst, out-of-touch. In the case of fonts, the reader may doubt whether or not the design is out of step with fashion. For example: if a designer is using Modula in a way that’s cheeky 1989 cultural artifact, it’s not the same as if a designer uses it because they actually think it looks cool and futuristic for 2010. I think if there’s any pressure it comes from the natural fashion cycle. Fonts, though frequent use, become associated with a particular idea or time period. The idea becomes old fashioned and new or recycled ideas come forward. I think some designers see that as conformity but it’s not as is there’s a big council of font fashion experts who sit in a boardroom decide what’s cool or not. Fonts are fashionable when the environment says they are. Some typefaces lead the way but they only succeed because the timing is right.

Question 4.

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

I certainly think you can showcase successful conceptual typography in a coffee table art book. I don’t see it as a big money maker though. It’s hard for me to answer this because I don’t pay attention to those types of books.

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?

Rather than explain what you should do, I’ll explain what you shouldn’t do: Don’t design a full alphabet in Illustrator or on paper. You need to test letters in words as you design them. How letters look next to one another in the context of words helps you make design decisions. It doesn’t mean you can’t explore possibilities on paper but you need to be willing to make compromises based on the way neighboring letters behave. If you have a great idea for a letter R, you may have to redesign it because it doesn’t get along nicely with neighboring letters . . . or maybe you’ll decide to make the other letters work with your R. That’s the kind of decisions you have to make while the alphabet is designed; not at the beginning or the end of the design process. You’re probably heard it before but: trust your eyes. Measuring can help but don’t rely on it too much.

Question 6.

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

I’m a t-shirt and jeans guy. Nothing I do is exclusive, nothing I do is classic. None of my fonts are as expensive as a suit.
All the best,
Ray’s responses here are quite dissimilar to Mark’s answers which is quite interesting to see. The main aspect I have taken from Ray’s answers is mainly on how to go about creating a good typeface, the idea of creating a typeface by putting random letters together rather than creating a straight forward alphabet makes perfect sense as rarely in everyday print do alphabetic neighbours appear together. Ray also states that he doesn’t have a particular formula that he follows when creating new typefaces which on the other hand is quite similar to what Mark was saying, from this I have established that it would perhaps be best to identify my own method of generating ideas for a typeface.

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