I Love Typography

Type faces

Neil has published over 40 typeface families (over 420 fonts). In 1992 he opened his own foundry, Positype. He has also lectured on type design in Japan and the U.S., and his fonts have been used by the likes of XXL Magazine, MTV, VH1 and Sony/Tristar.

How did you get started in type design?

That’s a curious question….It happened a few years after I graduated from the Graphic Design Department at The University of Georgia. While I was in college, I studied under Ron Arnholm, a masterful type designer who most notably created the Legacy typeface family. Having already fell in love with fonts and the creation of letterforms and all of the minutia surrounding it, the injection of Arnolm into my education laid the foundation for me developing into a type designer. That said, years later I was invited to sit through a lecture by a visiting designer, a big name to say the least, so I was intrigued and went.

scan of Neil Summerour's type sketch

I’m not naming names solely because I do not want to insult anyone, but after the lecture I was so annoyed and aggravated at the lack of talent and amazing luck this designer had, I literally said to myself as I walked out of the auditorium “if this guy can do it, I sure as hell can!” So, I immediately went home and started sketching my first two type families that would later be picked up by T-26 in Chicago.

Why type design?

I love it. I love contributing to the evolving historical threads of communication. As a type designer, I provide visual tools that allow creatives to communicate, express and engage the masses. It’s exciting, awe inspiring and humbling to think someone chooses a font you have poured a part of your life into for months or years for something they are designing…and you get paid for it…it’s a win-win. Besides, nothing is sexier than a smooth bezier curve :)

What do you like most about type design? Which part of the process do you enjoy the most?

The concept. I like finding that ‘little something’ that lights the creative fire and gives me the energy to push through a design. My style varies depending on the type of font I am developing. The stylistic diversity keeps me from getting bored with it and each time, each new design, each completed glyph allows me to refine my skill. What I enjoy most is seeing all of the ‘parts’, be it the diacritics or opentype features, come together and ‘work’ on the screen on paper.

What kind of approach do you take when designing typefaces?

I get an idea and it sits in my head for a long time before I sketch it out. I have to like it in my imagination a long time before I put it on paper. I usually keep 5-7 new designs in the works at all times. Some of the sketches never get completed because I see something too similar to another design or I just end up not liking it.

What do you like least about type design?

The wait. Once a design or type family gets to a certain point, I can never seem to work fast enough to finish it.

What are some of your favourite typefaces, and why?

That’s not easy. There are so many. My answer will be a reflex to the question because if I think too long, I will either never finish the question or write way to much:
1. Scala Sans by Martin Majoor. That is a beautiful family. I’m attracted to this type of organic, mechanical, technically clean type of sans serif. This is not his only masterpiece, but it is a favorite.

Scala Sans by Martin Majoor

2. Legacy Serif by Ron Arnholm. No one has done a better Jenson than Ron Arnholm. This is one of the best digital typefaces that doesn’t look digital. I expect to see type fairies flying away with magical lead type after seeing a piece expertly set in this typeface family.

Legacy Serif

3. The expansive type family Leitura by Dino dos Santos. Dino’s work is consistently gorgeous. This is one of the most reliable families out there. Each style has a place somewhere within the context of the design and the diversity of offerings within the family make using it as workhorse type family possible.

leitura italic

4. Affair by Alejandro Paul. I know Alejandro has some newer work but this a major favorite of mine. Why? It’s lush and fun. You can’t use it everywhere, but its OpenType diversity allows you decide how much fun you want to have at any one time.

affair

5. Avenir by Adrian Frutiger. When I need a font, I look to this one first to see if it will work.

Avenir

What advice would you give to aspiring type designers (to beginners)?

Don’t go to the computer too soon. Spend time sketching the font out on paper and in your head. ‘See’ it and understand the eccentricities it must have to really achieve the goals you have set for it. Read, observe and experiment…understand that your first few designs may never ‘sell’ or even be completed but the process of designing type and failing i just as important as succeeding. And, be original…don’t do what everyone else is doing. It’s boring.

What kind of approach do you take when teaching your students about typographic design?

When I have the opportunity to teach at The University of Georgia it’s always in electronic graphic design which encompasses both advanced Photoshop® and web design but type and how and when to use it are always one of the first considerations I press to the students. Good type use or type manipulation can make or break a piece. Many times I borrow a quote from Yusaku Kamekura (a prolific and influential Japanese designer) that “good is good”, As a designer, with the knowledge you have and have been taught, you know when something is just “good”….it’s a feeling that your design, your creation invokes when you and others look at it. In many ways, type and typographic design is just that…you know when it is good. In my opinion, the great designer knows how to make it even better.

What is your proudest achievement?

As ridiculous and as cheesy as it sounds, I really have to say I haven’t been completely satisfied with any one project….yet. As a designer and businessman, so much of my time has been spent building up my core businesses: Sliced Bread, my advertising agency in Athens, Georgia and the TypeTrust in Chicago that I often do not have the time I would like to spend on my ‘work’. As a designer, as with any designer, you go through a maturation process where you begin to ‘see’ good work and can repeatedly produce it…as well as guide others to do the same. I’ve hit that stride and am excited with what I am doing now, but have not produced that great ‘piece’ yet. I think I’m proudest trying to be a good husband and dad.

What plans do you have for the future?

Continued work and development with my business partner, Silas Dilworth, to make TypeTrust a great distribution portal for really excellent typefaces. For personal typeface work, I’m finishing up a nice techno display sans, called Ginza, that will be released in January 2008. I will continue work on a heavily involved, versatile script, called Eros, and a recut of my first font families, Iru1 and Iru2.

Eros sample


[You can see more of Neil’s types at TypeTrust.]

In this weekend’s regular Sunday Type, I’ll be writing about some of the exciting things iLT has planned for 2008. You can subscribe to I Love Typography and never miss an issue.


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  1. Great interview! I like how your questions are different with every Type designer you interview, John.
    That was an interesting story - about the visiting big-name designer with the lack of talent. Is he still a big name, did his type designs improve over time?

    Several of the things mentioned by Neil can be applied to any designer, not just the Type: we all get impatient to finish the project and the fact that we have to spend so much time and energy on building the business.

    I checked out typetrust.com, and after a quick glance at all the types on the front page, my eyes fell on the typeface “Organic”, then I looked at the price - the second most expensive type on that page. I’m curious to learn how do you determine the price for the type? Does the price reflect the popularity or the beauty or the professional execution of the typeface?

  2. Vivien (inspirationbit)
    Thanks. It’s sometimes difficult to come up with different questions, but I hope to keep it varied. Your question about pricing is an interesting one. Often times demand is a factor, but I’ll let Neil answer for his types.

    Have a great 2008. Hope that you will have settled into your new home by then :)

  3. I love Affair by Alejandro Paul. It was love at first sight, and then I put it to use on my wedding invitations. I got so many compliments and questions as to what typeface I used. I also used it on my website, geez … I didn’t realize I was so obsessed with Affair until now.

    Neil: Have you seen Alejandro Paul’s new typeface, Feel Script? Another one that I fell in love with immediately.

    Johno: Great interview, I really like the fresh content that you keep putting into the site!

    Happy New Year!

  4. John — As always, thanks for this excellent interview.

    Neil & Diane — I love Affair, too. It is wonderfully friendly, energetic, and sumptuous. I’m in clothes shopping mode so I’d like to say it would make a great dress ;-)

  5. So cool to hear from some professionals! Beautiful work, Neil.

  6. So, who can name the type used in the header image (designed by Neil)?

    Diane
    It looks gorgeous on the dark grey background (on your site).

    Deb
    Thank you. Nt being a wearer of dresses, I wouldn’t know; however, it might look good on an iLT T-shirt, as would many of Neil’s types.

    Alec
    Hope you had a great Christmas. Good to see you here again (well, that goes for everyone).

  7. I can just hear Neil’s passion. It makes reading his words so exciting! Hehe, I could totally relate to his sentiments about the designer he heard lecture having more luck than talent. I’ve seen that too and it’s really rather aggrivating! I like that Neil took that disgust and turned it into something possitive for himself.

    It’s exciting, awe inspiring and humbling to think someone chooses a font you have poured a part of your life into

    :) I like people who are so down-to-earth. Neil sounds like a really great guy.

    I expect to see type fairies flying away with magical lead type

    He paints such vivid pictures! I love it!! John, I’m glad you asked Neil about his favorite fonts. It’s interesting to see what grabs the attention of a font designer.

    I think I’m proudest trying to be a good husband and dad.

    Ok, now that is just awesome. Things like this make me smile :)

    I see mentions of Japan sprinkled throughout this article and it looks like there’s some Japanese stuff on Neil’s websites. Did he live in Japan for a while?

    Oo, oo! I can name the font! Epic!

  8. I would like to see more of this kind of interviews. This made my day!
    Thank you to the both of you!

  9. Lauren
    Epic it is :)
    Interesting that you noted the Japanese link. I’ve only spoken to him briefly about it. Interestingly, he has friends just down the road from me. If I lived in Tokyo, that wouldn’t be such a surprise, but I live in a pretty sleepy part of Japan, so it’s an incredible coincidence. I look forward to meeting him the next time he comes to Japan. Perhaps he’ll tell us all more about the Japanese link.

    Manuel
    Great to see you here again. Many more interviews to come.

  10. Good interview and really amazing work. I love to see sketches like that. And I love Affair by Alejandro Paul is a really beautiful typeface. So much flow.
    :) Good Stuff!

  11. OK. So I’m blushing a bit. Thank you all for the kind words. I’ll try to answer a few of the questions posed…

    Famous designer….unfortunately, he’s a big name with a known style and I think it would be unfair to say whether or not his work has improved…For his design work, it is what it is and I have to admit to liking some of it, but it was his foray into type design that left with a terrible impression of his work.

  12. Pricing…that’s one of those strange questions that every designer I know will have an answer for but here’s my take. When I first started designing tpe it was fairly customary to charge roughly $19-20/weight and offering a discount on a full packages. That $19-20 would get a full character set and the basic diacritics that would get you by if you were in North or South America. What has happened with the advent of OpenType there is a greater demand to have a more ‘complete’ offering per weight, which would include small caps, old style figures, etc as well as an expanded character set that includes a more robust diacritic set that includes Central European glyphs.

    In the past, you’d pay for each of these offerings as a separate face…nowadays it’s all in one. The $30/weight charge basically covers all of these additions while keeping it fair for the most part.

  13. Feel Script….

    Alejandro has such a great sense of flow and is a master technician. This release of his will be another major hit. The treasure trove of glyph variants and ligatures really advances what Opentype can offer.

  14. Neil and Japan…

    When I was 16, I visited Japan through a Sister City Exchange Program. Quite frankly, the experience change my life—my perspective on the world and my place in it had forever changed. As odd as it sounds for a 6’4” white guy to say…I felt ‘at home’ for the first time in my life. Things felt ‘right’ and I was entranced by the culture, the people, the sights, the art…. That started my fascination and love for the country. Many many trips later, that fascination remains.

    Now that I am at an age where I can afford to travel, I try to return every year to year and a half. In Japan, I have an extended family with a second mother, father, brother and sisters…aunts and uncles….and some of the greatest friends. The town I am most familiar with is Mure-cho which is now part of Takamatsu-shi. It is quaint, but I call it home.

    I love visiting Japan and getting lost…I never worry. I know I’ll find a new experience, friend or new delicacy.

    John, I’ll let you know what our travel plans are for May ‘08. As close as we’ll be I’d love to say hi over a hot ume sotchu.

  15. Neil
    Thanks for taking the time to answer those questions so comprehensively. I know exactly what you mean, when you write about it feeling ‘at home’; I experienced that feeling on my first visit to Japan.

    You’ve twisted my arm with that final offer. And I’ll take you to the best Udon shop in Japan.

    And for those of you who have no idea where Shionoe-cho (my home is), you can see it here.

  16. Neil, thanks so much for answering all our questions here. Like Lauren said, it’s always so great to meet someone so down-to-earth and willing to share his knowledge and transcend the passion.

    Both you and John talk about Japan with so much praise and enthusiasm that I too would like to visit that country and to see it for myself ;-)
    I’ve taught web design and programming to many students from Japan, and the first thing that struck me about them is how humble and polite they are.

  17. Vivien, maybe we can visit John in Japan together. It sure is sounding like a fantastic country! I’ve always loved the calligraphy and sumi-e paintings. My husband’s grandparents were missionaries to Japan and his dad grew up there. They speak the language every once in a while and I find it so endearing when I hear their students (now here in the States they host many exchange students) call his grandpa Krause-sensai.

  18. Lauren, now that’s an idea (I wonder what John thinks about it? ;-)
    Distance-wise Japan is closer to us than Europe, over the Pacific. We should definitely keep in touch and let each other know when one plans on traveling there.

  19. John, just noticed you’ve edited your previous comment - checked out your house on the map. Why do you park your car so far from the house?!

  20. inspirationbit

    Why do you park your car so far from the house?!

    So that when viewed by satellite, they—in combination—resemble an exclamation mark ;)

  21. Long time no see iLT, finally on the long Japanese New Year break.

    I love seeing the different sketches and how everyone gets their ideas on paper. When ever I see a type designers sketching paper I can kind of step back and tell myself “Why am I being so technical from the beginning? It’s just ideas at this point.” This is something I have a problem with, not only when sketching letters, but also when tackling most other design projects.

    Neil
    If you ever stop by Tokyo for a few days on one of your trips, drop me an e-mail! Johno still has to make his way up here! Haha.

  22. Neil is a real talented guy with a constant search of a new idea. He has the ability to create very different styles in a good way, Happy new year to everybody and thanks for the nice words about my stuff!!

  23. Alejandro
    A pleasure to have you here. A happy and creative New Year to you too.

  24. Mmm hmm… that was the reaction I had to reading this interview. Like Neil himself says, or rather, quotes, “Good is good.” This interview — the questions and the well-thought-out responses — is good. I’m going to come back and read it a few more times, I think, just to squeeze all the goodness out of it. Thanks to both of you for making this.

  25. I too graduated from UGA and was a student of Ron Arnholm. He was one of the finest teachers I had while there, and it’s amazing how he instilled in his students a passion and enthusiasm for typography. (Funny that I still remember his famous quote, “That’s pretty good for government work.”.)
    Best wishes~
    Cathy

  26. Tracy Page

    Hi Neil! I studied with Arnholm at UGA also and he was such a huge influence on me and how I design. Reading how he has influenced you as well was a pleasure and made me feel an instant bond. Good luck with your work and I will definitely be checking out your fonts!

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