TDC Member of The Month

An interview between Elizabeth Carey Smith and Kris Sowersby for the TDC Member of The Month series.

2,134 words by Elizabeth Carey Smith & Kris Sowersby

ECS — So my first question is, what book are you reading at the moment?

KS — I usually have more than one book on the go. At the moment it’s The Bone People, Printers Type in the Twentieth Century and The Design Philosophy Reader.

Do you find a connection between avid reading and your immersion in typography? I realized at some point that there’s something to that, for me — I love reading and poetry and rap… I love words and their combinations.

Yes, there’s always been a connection. I’ve always been drawn to the power, expression and subtlety of language. When language manifests visually as letterforms and typography it can be sublime.

I read for many reasons. Recently I realised that I do my best thinking while reading. And only reading print, not on a screen. I can’t think on a screen, I can only work.

I can only read printed books. I get that. I can’t even watch a movie on a laptop because laptop = work. How do you document your thinking? Or is it all in your head?

I can and do read on my computer and phone, but it’s somehow not the same. It’s a temporary state, like I’ve just switched a tab and can switch back at any time. Perhaps I just don’t have the discipline…

I document my thinking by writing it down and in the work itself. All those design info posts I do on the Klim site start as massive, unstructured text files. They’re messy, but contain all the fleeting thoughts and concepts about the fonts.

What I find so insightful about posts like that, from many type designers, is they’re often trying to name a thing into tangible existence. You’re capturing something ethereal and aesthetic and you make literal binary decisions out of them. It actually must be kind of maddening.

I’ve never thought about the binary aspect, but I see what you mean. Translating an ethereal concept into a black & white abstract shape is the job, isn’t it? It’s very easy to describe how a typeface was drawn and what it looks like. That’s almost banal, like describing a piece of clothing by its cut and cloth. The harder, more interesting part is describing why it looks like it does. Articulating the underlying concept — and explaining it to a diverse audience — is the actual hard work. If I’m successful in framing a typeface with a concept and story, it will determine exactly how a designer will think and understand it.

How much of what you’re articulating, in this analogy, is “how to wear this font”? And how is that related to the typeface’s origins or the motivation or concept that led to its creation?

Ah — I never say explicitly “how to wear this font.” The Klim site is organised with three main principles:

  1. Displaying the font as plainly as possible on the specimen pages.
  2. Explaining the concept & backstory of the font in the design info blog posts.
  3. Showing real-world examples of the font in use.

I try to avoid saying things like “Domaine is great for wine labels”, because the implication is that Domaine is only really for wine labels. If a designer is looking for a project-specific font and reads “great for wine labels,” it subtly precludes it from their project. I’ve always wanted to show the fonts in a way that allows designers to see them as raw as possible. I trust they’re more than capable of making their own judgments and choices. This is why I dislike fake “in-use” sample graphics for fonts. It’s sort of pandering to designers under the guise of being helpful.

Having said that, I am quite aware of the fine line between “selling the sizzle, not the sausage” with font marketing.

I’m not really sure what the line is between pandering and marketing, but it does seem like successful font marketing is more elusive than other products. Ultimately type designers luck out when good designers use their fonts better than they could. You’re among a small handful of foundries that consistently releases big hits with good designers. How would you characterize that success? How much of it do you attribute to marketing?

I’m not sure I agree about successful font marketing being more elusive than other things. It’s not that hard if you engage professional designers & marketers to do it for you, like we do. If you’re doing it all yourself then it feels elusive.

Does a foundry really “luck out” when a designer uses it better than they could? I’d hate to think that a foundry presents the best, “canonical” way to use a typeface. At best they should suggest and offer practical guidance (don’t use below 30px, old-style figures are here, etc.). I’ve written before that a typeface is not a tool, but I’ve not quite clarified for myself what a typeface actually is. The closest I’ve got, so far, is that a typeface is more like a material. Just like architects use various materials in space, designers use typefaces. A concrete manufacturer relies on architects to shape and use the material. I think the whole aim for a foundry is for designers to use their fonts. Our expertise is making the material, the designer’s expertise is using it.

I’m lucky enough to make fonts that are useful to designers. For a long time my decision making was driven by pragmatism: would this detail be useful to a designer? I’m neither nostalgic nor super trendy with my aesthetic, so perhaps that helps? I believe in type history, but I don’t feel obliged to emulate specifics. I’m not interested in the typeface for its own sake. The things I’m interested in — and good at — drawing are seemingly well received by designers.

I’m also rigorous in documenting our fonts in use. I treat it as both a showcase and archive. It’s very important for me to know what designers are doing with my fonts — it’s endlessly fascinating.

For the first several years of Klim there wasn’t any systematic marketing, except for Vllg’s activities. To be honest, I don’t exactly know how Klim became known to designers. But over the last few years we’ve been executing a consistent marketing & branding strategy. And it’s worked. Sales are way up, traffic is up, everything. Good marketing works.

Do you have emotional connections to what you make? What do you think the connection is between you as a person and what you make? What’s the goal?

Yes, like all humans I have complicated mix of emotions governing my behaviour and relationship with my work. For a very long time I had a toxic mix of high self-esteem but low self-worth. Coupled with a decent talent for drawing letterforms and a high work rate resulted in making lots of good fonts, but never really being satisfied with them. Even as I made more fonts, got awards, recognition, money, etc., I was still not satisfied. All those things were a small dopamine hit, quickly extinguished by a drive to keep working. It’s taken a lot of personal work to untangle all that shit, and now I have a healthier relationship to work.

However, I’m not sure if there is a clear, direct emotional connection to any of the typefaces. At different times of my life I’ve felt differently about them for different reasons. I’ve worked on typefaces in many emotional states, ranging from mild to extreme. I’ve kerned while exhausted and afraid at 5am wearing my baby in a front pack, sketched through tears on long-haul flights, and drawn letterforms feeling fury and shame. None of these emotional states manifest in the letterforms themselves, because my typefaces take a rather long time to make, usually measured in years. Working on something over time and distance evens things out. It’s very hard to see the emotion that goes into a typeface, unlike music, painting, or writing.

The goal has changed over the years. First it was to survive, to learn how to make a typeface and earn a living. Then it was refinement, to find my rhythm and place in the design world. Now it’s focus and expansion.

You clearly have drive, and have been successful in perhaps anticipating the wants and needs of your customers. I wonder how much of this all goes to plan, or how much you have to adapt, pivot, or improvise? Do you ever get stuck?

I’ve never been sure exactly what our customers want and need. I’ve always assumed they want a certain degree of functionality, like a decent weight range, character set, well-drawn curves etc. I’ve also assumed they want a relatively modern aesthetic. I don’t get into overly nostalgic, slavish or fussy revivals. In terms of planning what to draw and release… that’s much more organic. For example, we don’t sit down and plan to release, say, two geometric sans and a transitional serif in 2020. At the moment I have about 50 partially completed typefaces. Most are rubbish, some have potential, a few are viable and will be finished. All of them need time and distance. I can’t work continuously on a single typeface from beginning to end. I tend to have short bursts of intensive work on one, then leave it and switch to another. This prevents exhaustion, keeps my eyes fresh and stops me from getting that myopic excitement for “the new thing”. You know, when you’ve just made a new concept and everything is rosy — you can’t see the flaws in it? You’re all like 😍 getting high on your own supply? It’s easy to start something new, it’s harder to finish something old. Typeface design is more like making whiskey than cocktails. Having multiple typefaces on the go keeps me from getting stuck.

Design is a funny occupation, in that as much passion goes into it, it burns out, for a lot of different reasons. People pivot and go back to tactile things, or writing (thinking), or teaching. Do you think you will always be a type designer?

That is a very difficult question. Recently I bore witness to my mother’s death. As we sat with her while she died, the family shared stories of her life and reflected how she adapted to significant changes and difficulties. I’ve been thinking about impermanence, mortality and change since then. On one hand, I hope to continue practicing as a typeface designer for as long as possible. It’s rewarded me socially, philosophically and financially. However, if the time comes that it’s no longer viable for whatever reason, I hope I have the grace and dignity to let it go, to adapt as necessary.

Taking this back to how we look at the longer timeline of typography… You’re very thorough in your type projects, drawing from a plethora of sources that inform how you approach what will become your drawing decisions. I’m specifically thinking about Heldane… would you consider this process your conclusion to a style? Do you consider the decisions you’ve made — serif structure, x-height, etc — is the conclusion of amalgamating all of the historical precedent?

Those decisions are formed in part by the historic material, but mainly by my own preferences and ideas by how a typeface could be put together. I hope the end point of my typefaces isn’t merely an amalgamation of historical precedent… perhaps it’s naive to think otherwise. As Sumner Stone said, “That’s really what we have, that’s what letters are made of – other letters. There are cross-cultural influences.”

I would never assume that it’s the conclusion of that style. It’s perhaps a conclusion, my small conclusion from a limited set of historical precedent. I don’t think any typeface is, or can be, conclusive of a style. They’re all part of an ever-changing and evolving lineage, no style will ever have a conclusion, no typeface will be conclusive. And it’s a conclusion from that time in my practice from that set of material. If I were to revisit the material now, there would be a different conclusion.

***

The abridged version of this interview was first published July 2019 on the Type Directors Club.

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