I Love Typography

Type Faces

An Interview With Kris Sowersby

Many of you will have heard of Kris Sowersby, and something tells me that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about him. He’s the guy behind the sans serif typeface National and the serif typeface Feijoa; he was also on the team of three that created (perhaps type of the year?) FF Meta Serif.

How did you get started designing type?

There was a point at design school when I realised that I loved drawing letterforms, so much so that I would prefer to make typefaces than become a graphic designer. I think it was when I was drawing/copying Bembo letter by letter, trying to understand how it was put together. I noticed that the arch of the ‘n’ subtly curves into into the right-hand stem—all the way down into the serif.

bembo.gif

For some reason that struck me as being quite amazing. It is a detail that would seem rather innocuous, yet lends so much warmth and character to the overall printed impression. I still have that sketch, I wrote “cheeky Bembo!” next to it.

Why Type Design (as opposed to, say, bear wrestling in the circus)?

Because I love it! Why else would I spend countless hours doing it?

The Love of Type

What’s your favourite part of the design process?

I have two parts that are my favourite, if I may. The first is the initial sketching & drawing, figuring out the how & why of the face. This is the most creative, engaging part of the process. The second part is finishing a typeface, getting it on the shelf or delivered to the client. This is good for two reasons: the job is complete & I can get paid.

What is your biggest type-related pet peeve? (from Lauren )

I have several. (Please bear in mind that these don’t keep me up at night. I have other ‘peeves’ that are non-typographic & far more important.) One would be the endless, ill-informed comments a few people make on the internet. The internet seems to bring out the worst in people! Certain type-design software is buggy & frustrating, which is a hindrance to getting work done. Graphic designers that butcher existing typefaces in the name of ‘innovation’ or ‘doing something different/cool’ makes me roll my eyes. By this I mean adding a serif, chopping a serif, rounding a terminal, adding an ugly swash etc, etc. The worst one is seeing really good typefaces being used badly. This is always disappointing.

What one thing would you like every designer to know about type? (from Roger Gordon )

How to use type properly. I don’t necessarily mean adhering to the strictures of The New Typography or The Crystal Goblet or The New Brutalism or whatever. What I do mean is:

1) Most typefaces have environments in which they really shine, certain uses that they will never fail.
2) Others have environments in which they will always fail, typically in places where they were never meant to work.
3) A select few work beautifully in the most absurd situations.

A competent typographer/designer knows the difference between 1) & 2). It honestly isn’t that hard to do. A truly excellent typographer/designer knows how to use 3). This is someone who can make a typeface perform like a star. It is much harder to do—but, by Christ, you know when you see it!

feijoa-sample-iam.gif

What era of type to you most draw inspiration from?…it seems very 70’s. Off? If you were to choose a specific era, which one? (from Cody Curley )

The 1970’s? Are you kidding? There have been many centuries of typeface design; I don’t think that I have ever been directly influenced by the 1970’s. Recently I have been exposed to some 18th-19th century specimen books—the typefaces in there really blew me away. I love looking at old work, trying to understand what has come before & why; how one person’s work influences another. I suppose I find the historical/obscure type much more interesting, therefore influential, than most of the work that is happening now.

Does where you’re from influence your type? (from George Coltart [he says he went to school with you.])

Kia ora George! (It has been a long time, mate.) Being from NZ does influence my type, but I’m afraid I don’t know exactly how. Perhaps I’d need to travel some more to get some perspective, live in another country & work there, like you. There really isn’t much of a typeface design culture in New Zealand, which may explain something. This means I am effectively self-taught, so I don’t subscribe to any particular style or way of thinking, the distance allows me to be much more selective in my approach. I can look at, say, Spanish metal type from the 1700’s and remain rather objective about it. I am afraid that this doesn’t answer your question, sorry.

FF Meta Serif

Feijoa in four weights (illustration: display)

You have Feijoa, National and FF Meta Serif under your belt; what next?

Right now, I have several typefaces on the go. In no particular order, FF Unit Slab (a slab serif companion to FF Unit), Newzald (an economical text serif), Valencia (a warm Modern), Karbon (a pared-back sans serif), National Condensed & Compressed (familial additions to National) and Aperture (a sans for small sizes). There are also a few other exciting things that I hope to be involved in, but you’ll have to wait for that.

footnote.gif
[Kris Sowersby is a professional type designer from New Zealand. You can view his web site here, and buy his typefaces here.]

Many more interviews to come on Type Faces. Don’t miss out!


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  1. Thanks, John and Kris! Hey, Kris — what exactly are “an economical text serif” and a “pared-back sans serif”? Or should I just wait and see?…

  2. Great interview, John!
    Kris, you’ve done a fantastic job on your typefaces — very inspiring stuff.

    By the way, love the inverted header John, looks sharp :)

  3. Nick

    Great interview!
    Just a friendly note though: dates do not need apostophes unless it is to take the place of the first two digits… for example it would be 1700s and ’70s, not 1700’s and 70’s.

  4. Great interview, John!

    A neophyte question: did you set the header in National? If so, what weight? It’s so thin! It looks really great, the only reason I’m asking is I’m trying to sort it out for myself, and not coming up with the answer. :)

  5. Very interesting. Perhaps you could also include some personal type scketches from Type Designers in the interview? Just to get that personal feel?
    As for the naming this series, I see you renamed it to Type Faces, instead of Face to Face, that’s much better. Great suggestion, Nour.
    Lauren, congrats with the prize!!!
    Johno, in one of your future interviews with the Type Designers, could you please ask this question: How do you come up with the name for your newly designed Type? Do you name it after creating it or the type’s design draws inspiration from its future name?

  6. Great work Kris!

  7. I’ve changed my mind about meta serif: it’s growing on me. I don’t mind that “t” as much as I did last time. Feijoa is still fantasic!

    @Kris (if you’re still there…)
    I’m a total newbie when it comes to type. How can I learn 1) and 2) , or is it just something that one picks up over time?

    @InspirationBit
    If you want to see some personal sketches from Kris, you can look at his moleskin notebooks on his site.

  8. Awesome interview!
    Very interesting indeed. I love to know peoples thought process when it comes to designing a typeface. I’m loving these original sketches :) When Doyald Young came to our school he shared with us some of his sketches. There were absolutely amazing. His sketches are so tightly drawn you’d think they were printed. :) Good stuff!

  9. @Roger - thanks for the link - those sketches are magical.

  10. Alec
    By economical perhaps narrow set, short ascenders and descenderd; maybe. I’ll let Kris answer that one.

    Hamish
    I’d love to take credit for the header, but it Kris’ work; lovely isn’t it. I’m hoping to have the interviewee design the headers in future interviews.

    Nick
    Thanks. That’s my personal preference (no apostrophe), but I think it is a stylistic choice.

    Leah
    How very observant of you. I’ll let Kris answer your question—as it’s his header.

    Vivien (inspirationbit)
    Thanks. Good ideas. I’ve noted that question; and, yes, type sketches seem to be very popular. Keep your eyes peeled. I might even post some of my own for entertainment’s sake :) Perhaps a sketches article might be in order…

    Roger
    Thanks for the link.

    Robert
    Always interesting to see the sketches; I prefer the early ‘concept’ ones myself as they usually reveal more about the ‘intention’. Thanks for the link too.

  11. @Kris: Awesome work, absolutely love Feijoa! A brilliant name I reckon. Funny really, it’s only since I left NZ a year ago that I’ve noticed all the amazing stuff coming from the small islands so far away.

    Everyone else: Fantastic site, been lurking for a while and just want to give some very positive feedback since I’m new to typography as a whole and really enjoy the reading here! Cheers.

  12. TypoJunkie

    Hey John,

    Cool interview! And thanks for the Kris website link. I loved his typeface “Hokotohu” (along with the little insight into design competitions). And for some reason I love “Feijoa” on “I am”, but not so much on “Feijoa display”…strange…

    Anyways, keep the nice interviews coming and great idea on the header.

  13. I am embarrassed. His answer to my question is something I’m (sorta) guilty of! Remember our talk about the y in FF Meta Serif… I suppose technically John, you “butchered” it, but I was the instigator (and surely it pained you to do it! But out of love for a friend… ha). I hang my head in shame. Can I be forgiven if I plead ignorance?

    I really liked George’s question and Kris’ answer was a good one, but do you think it could be explained a little more? How exactly do you come to learn where and when to use a particular face? How is that skill developed? (I see from George’s comment above that he’d like to know more, too!)

    Wonderful, just wonderful! Looking forward to more of these! And I really like the idea of the interviewee designing the header. Brilliant!

  14. markhuser
    Good to see you here, and thanks for your comment. Hope to see you here again.

    TypoJunkie
    Buy Feijoa and print it; then you’ll really ‘see’ it. Yes, I’m really pleased with Kris’ header too. I look forward to seeing what other interviewees come up with.

    Lauren
    Only butchered to make a point, of course ;) Perhaps Kris can answer your other question, though it will be something I’ll touch on in future articles too. That’s a question I’d like to have John D Berry answer…

    everyone
    Kris has kindly send me a little taster of what he’s working on. I’ve added it to the end of the post. Enjoy!

  15. Kia ora folks,

    Thanks for reading! I will now attempt to answer a few of your questions, bearing in mind that I have been drinking in the sun—everyone has knocked off for the summer/xmas! Nice.

     what exactly are “an economical text serif”

    I can’t think of a better way to describe Newzald. By economical I mean spatially—it is slightly condensed with a high x-height. Hopefully this means that one could have more text to the page if one so desires, without sacrificing readability.

    and a “pared-back sans serif”

    How much can you take away from a letterform while maintaining it’s definition?

    A neophyte question: did you set the header in National?

    Yes, I did. It is a very early version of National Thin.

    How do you come up with the name for your newly designed Type?

    I decide the name very early on in the process—how else would you name the .vfb etc file! But the name itself is usually suggested by the letterforms themselves, either what they look like or where they came from.

    I’m a total newbie when it comes to type. How can I learn 1) and 2) , or is it just something that one picks up over time?

    This may not sit comfortably with some people, but I am a firm believer in raw talent. So much can be learned, like 1) & 2), but 3) will only come with talent, or perhaps luck. But for 1) & 2), look very closely at things that you like, or things that are supposed to be good. Keep looking at it, identify very specific things—the typeface, the grid, the contrast of weights, the line-length, the colour—and try to figure out where it came from. Why did they do it like that? Where did the designer get their inspiration from? Then work backwards through design history—almost everything has a precursor. It is the old chestnut of knowing your history—if you don’t know where you have been, you won’t know where you are going.

    “There are only two kinds of typefaces, those you know how to use, and those you do not.” —attributed to Alvin Lustig.

    How exactly do you come to learn where and when to use a particular face? How is that skill developed? (I see from George’s comment above that he’d like to know more, too!)

    Experience, basically. Also the above answer!

    I hope this clarifies a few things.

    —K

  16. Kris, thanks a lot for answering all our questions (including mine). I wonder how’s your regular handwriting looks like? Is it neat and decorative or more like the doctor’s one, and did it change since you’ve started designing type? Don’t feel obligated answering it today - enjoy your Christmas drinks :-)

  17. Great to read into the mind of the guy behind some great typefaces. Although, I would have liked the last little bit of my question to be answered. The part of does where you live and grow up have an affect on how you design a face. Then again, maybe that’s an entire article in itself.

  18. Thanks for the clarification, Kris. I think I’ll take a few more steps forward on on the journey towards 1) and 2) (and maybe 3) ) once I’ve read my first type book (which is in the mail).

    Have a good Christmas and New Year.

  19. TypoJunkie

    Kris,
    Thanks for returning to the forums to answer extra questions, we really appreciate it!

    John,
    Buy it??!! So close to Christmas??!! I’m broke dude!
    I will buy some typefaces next year, but I’s rather wait for Newzald, which looks GREAT from here.

  20. Kris,
    Thanks for answering my Q. I am interested also in the name-development process — does a name just come to you, or do you tinker with it? What is it about the typeface that says “Feijoa”, or “National”, or whatever you decide to name it? Do you run the names by a few trusted friends, first?

    However, as Vivien says above, drink your Christmas nog first, before answering. :) Take your time.

  21. Kris,
    Thanks for answering those questions. It’s so logical now that you mention how you develop your typographical skills. It’s the same way one develops a good sense of (graphic) design and I’ve recently written an article on my blog about that. Having those questions to answer really helps and gives a good direction to start out thinking about the design and use of type. (Johno, I hope this doesn’t preclude your article on the subject! Oh, and thanks for sharing the John D Berry site. He has beautiful work!)

  22. I wonder how’s your regular handwriting looks like?

    Fucking awful most of the time! But I can make it look a little bit pretty when I need to.

    I am interested also in the name-development process — does a name just come to you, or do you tinker with it?

    Don’t read too much into it, there isn’t much of a process. Name it from the gut! There are two things to consider: 1) The typeface should look good in it’s name, 2) the name can’t already be in use.

    The part of does where you live and grow up have an affect on how you design a face.

    I answered that in George’s question—I don’t really know. But it would be the same things that affect my language, thinking, cultural practices, what I wear, how much I drink etc. In short, it would be wound up so tightly with who I am that it is just natural.

    —K

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