Primitive Typographic Communications from Afar
A discussion with type designer Kris Sowersby
Klim Type Foundry’s Kris Sowersby lives in New Zealand, 14,000+ km from where Typographics will take place in New York, but his voice and work are as present as any local – type designer, anyway. The designer of the new Untitled type series talks to Elizabeth Carey Smith in advance of his talk at Typographics this June.
What’s your studio down in New Zealand like? Do you have Tui on tap or what?
My studio … I’ve never considered myself to have a studio as such, I’ve always thought of it as an office. My office is at home, I’ve worked from home for as long as Klim has been an entity.
I think it’s an important distinction for me. I consider a studio to be part of an artistic practice, whereas an office is where more quotidian work is done. No Tui on tap here I’m afraid!
What’s up with all the references to Nineteen Eighty-Four? The Klim catalogue is full of it, and you mention it as part of your process in making Untitled.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a fantastic work, I re-read it every year or so. The writing is hard and clear, the story is prescient and it doesn’t end well. Stories that don’t end happily seem to resonate with me. Perhaps there is more to think about when a story isn’t a positive closed loop, a negative ending feels more honest. The subtext of language – Newspeak – and its power over thought and the population is terrifying and true. In a small way typographic choices and use echo the ideals of Newspeak by shaping the language and atmosphere of text. It’s much more subtle, obviously. I use the Newspeak definition partly because of this reason, but also because Orwell’s writing has an excellent texture. I prefer real language and words for specimens over the synthetic ugliness of pangrams.
In the description of your process of making Untitled you write: “Any remaining traces of my fist in National were slowly and systematically erased.” You describe your fist as opposed to the artistically romantic hand. Was this an anxious or frustrating process for you, as you “erased yourself” from drawing?
The idea of “the fist” comes from a Morse-code operator’s transmission style. During the war, if I remember correctly, codebreakers could identify Morse code transmissions by their style, their “fist”. I found this fascinating, that a communication so stripped back and primitive as a sequence of dots and dashes could be identified as unique. Perhaps this is how I feel about my work, in the office: primitive typographic communications from afar.
At a certain point, the design process itself was quite the opposite of anxious or frustrating. All typefaces start out with a measure of frustration and anxiety. Frustration because what I draw never really matches the image in my mind. Anxiety comes because the drawings don’t do what I want them to. But, eventually, this all dissolves and the letterforms take up their own identity and logic. You know the old adage about the sculptor “seeing” the sculpture in the block of marble, and she cuts the material away until the form is released? Well, I think that is how it works for me. There is a sound typeface lying amongst the bézier curves, and I have to coax it out. With Untitled Sans, it was a matter of coaxing it away from National – from my stylistic fist.
You have always had a very forthright and thoughtful perspective on type, one that seems uncomfortable with contentedness. You almost convey a sense of restlessness in your work, which is something we appreciate in artists but don’t tend to see in designers. We’re all so staid! Is this all part of a Klim Master Plan? Do you consider yourself an artist? Is your process a critical one?
Uncomfortable with contentedness: This is because it’s virtually impossible to like my own typeface. After spending a few years looking at it, fiddling endlessly with points, considering a career change, wondering if the weight range is useful, despairing at yet another mountain of proofs, pulling teeth through the final-final-02.ufo kerning round, it’s hard to see the positive. Mostly, my typeface design process ends in a denouement of exhaustion, followed by a shallow sense of hope that people will actually buy and use the thing. And it takes ages for a new typeface to find its feet, to get out in the world, to be used. It’s not until a typeface has been licensed and used that it truly exists. Foundry specimens, marketing, fake in-use examples, promotional videos, humourless .gifs: none of these make a typeface real. It’s impossible to feel content until it has been used.
A sense of restlessness. As described above, the process is long and tedious. I am usually a patient worker, but we all have limits. Perhaps this sense of restlessness arises because of the long nature of the type design process: you will change over the years. Your drawing skills will improve, your ideas will broaden. A 6-year-old in-progress typeface reflects who you were, not who you are. So, yeah, after every typeface is finished I want to change it! But it has to end at some point. There is a special irony that all “cutting edge” design work using the newest fonts is using ideas at least a couple of years old.
There was never a Klim master plan until about a year ago when my wife joined. She’s got things up to speed now, we have a vision and goals. We take the future plans seriously. We now work with Alt Group for strategy and marketing. It’s bloody good, I tell you, to work with such great people.
I do not consider myself an artist. My mate Courtney Johnston says, “if it doesn’t do anything else, it’s probably art”. I am loathe to think my typefaces are works of art. My process is definitely critical, but that isn’t a specific condition of making art, all sorts of work entails critical thinking one way or another.
Type designers often think about the design of certain characters as “opportunities” to express the spirit of a typeface. Were there any particular glyphs in Untitled you had to stop yourself from over-designing?
I don’t actually remember anything specific about Untitled Sans to be honest. We released it in March 2017, but I stopped working on it creatively in about 2015, at the latest. Untitled Serif was different, I remember making endless tweaks to the overall width and stance of the Roman. The italic was very difficult actually. What constitutes a “normal” serif italic? There were several versions until I settled on the current forms. Here you can see I made a decision that “ink traps” were effectively useless:
And here you can see the end process of agonising over the actual Italic angle:
You write that, “Post rationalisation is an open secret in the design industry […] However, I suspect the process is largely irrational for most designers.” This is refreshing compared to many process descriptions offered up to various branding blogs. The way you describe designing the Untitled series feels more like an intuitive process, with a more nebulous expectation for the outcomes. Should we be talking about design like this?
The common wisdom in typeface design is that you must start with a purpose – a brief – in order to have an acceptable solution/typeface.
It’s taken me a long time to understand that I don’t work like this. If it’s a typeface for a client, sure. They usually have clear specs, restrictions and limitations. But for all of my other retail work, they’re the end-points of curious exploration. I usually have a vague idea or impulse and pull the threads to see if it works. So I don’t set myself briefs, and that means the creative process is largely irrational.
This has caused me lot of guilt over the years. Because my process isn’t “design”. No matter how many Medium articles, creative workshops or thought showers to the contrary, the dominant narrative of “the design process” is client/problem/solution. This makes it easier for clients to understand, and easier to frame a workday in an office. However, I dare say the retail typeface design industry has few “problems”. We manufacture solutions to suit sales targets. Re-purposing old solutions for contemporary environments is fine, it’s happened for every technology shift. But now, I think we’re largely involved in pure aesthetics. And I think that’s what our customers are interested in, the aesthetics of new typefaces, new letterforms that reflect our time and culture.
Because typeface design is so intertwined with the design culture at large, we are perhaps anxious to speak the same language, to show that we employ similar, understandable processes. It makes it seem more rational and logical. But we are more like musicians, releasing singles and albums. Nobody frames music making as “solving problems”, and perhaps typeface design should be freed of such framing as well.
I’m not sure how we should be talking about our process. Part of the reason I write the design information for my typefaces is to close the project. It’s the last thing I do before general release. As explained above, by the time I’m finished with a typeface I’ve had a gutsful of looking at it. The design info is the final part of the process, a sort of reflection and explanation for my own needs. It also functions as a part of the story, the marketing of the typeface – those pages get loads of traffic and feedback, people seem to like them. But the reflection part is almost like a form of counselling or therapy. Sometimes you do things, you know more-or-less what you are doing, but don’t fully understand the intent. It takes a bit of time and space to reflect and understand why certain design choices were made, what your actual intentions were. A vague notion of “I want to draw a neo-grotesk typeface” can be satisfied pretty easily, the mechanics are known. But the intent can be a bit more elusive.
See Kris Sowersby talk more about the process of making the Untitled type series during his presentation at the Typographics conference this June.