In case you hadn’t noticed - (Really?) - there’s a bit of a vintage font fad happening. I asked Patrick Santamaria, from design graphics studio and lifestyle brand, Babekuhl and digital agency BBL, and Lee Roberts, creative director of M&C Saatchi’s design studio, Bright Red Orange, what they thought about font fads, typography’s role in advertising in particular and the art of typography in general.
“I don’t pay attention to fads.” Lee was dismissive of the current craze.
“I missed the whole vintage thing and suddenly it was everywhere. Seen it 700 thousand times. Try to avoid it.” Pat was just not that into it either. “Any trend will date. Getting caught with yesterday’s trend presenting your brand is bad for business.”
Lee and Pat come from opposite ends of the typography business spectrum. Lee began his career working up type and setting galleys for recruitment advertising. It was in an era when you sent out to type houses and got finished type back. He worked beside typesetters and learned the craft of phototypesetting in a design company, where he said he was ‘taught the appreciation of typography’. “Then I was at Saatchi & Saatchi, when it was the place full of people who could bore each other to tears talking about serifs. If you get an appreciation like that, you always have the appreciation. It’s integral.”
Pat co-founded Babekuhl in 2004, his first year out of college. Both of his businesses are boutique businesses. He has the freedom that clients come to him because of his creativity, but that is recent. He has had to build up his reputation the hard way, as director of a little agency with smaller clients and big demands.
Pat and Lee share a passion for typography. Not the stuff that you pick from a custom alphabet and add a drop shadow plus a letter press effect. “It’s not what I do,” Pat stresses, “It’s the easy way out. I approach type as graphics. My favourite work is making letters from scratch.”
Lee is ignited by what Pat does and surprised to find it in a young man who is two seconds into his thirtieth year. “Pat is doing what people used to be able to do, because they had to. Nobody does it anymore because they don’t really know how. Before computers, everyone drew type.”
“I want to do something unique and don’t want to be put in a category,” says Pat. “The way the internet is now, trends get built up and broken down so fast. I find inspiration in my own sources and my own life, not typography blogs. They produce and spit out trends carelessly.”
“In an agency like Saatchi,” explains Lee, “we rarely get the freedom to create a new typography or logo. It’s one of the constraints of working in a major corporation for major corporations.”
Pat works within the boundaries too, for companies like Smith’s, Jacob’s Creek, Ford and Chivas Regal. But he also gets to create the brand identity for many businesses from scratch. “Graphic identity can’t change who a company is, but it can certainly change consumers; impression of who it is. It also affects how the company sees itself. When you think about jumping on the bandwagon of a rampant trend you have to stop and consider – uniqueness is the most powerful communicative tool you can have as a brand. Why would you willingly give that up?”
Lee wishes that type could still be drawn by hand but respects that it cannot. “The difficulty with handwritten is that to convey the freedom you have to accept errors. Standard fonts behave predictably.”
Pat is hoping that the work he is developing will change cannot to can. He is creating graphics (that he makes into alphabets) and turning them into innovative fonts. “It’s quite technical, taking into account things like spacing. The next stage for us is to translate the typefaces I’ve created into design programs, like Illustrator, and see how other designers use that set of graphics in the real world.”
He likes the art form aspect of typography. “Anyone can find a computer tool. There are so many, producing almost any effect. And thousands of pre-made fonts and icons. I like to start with a pen and paper. It makes it all about the idea. It takes you away from the computer where you can do anything, and you focus on what you see in your head. Then I use technology to compose and finesse those ideas. But mostly, I really like the physicality of taking an image and turning it into a physical object. What’s always in the back of my mind is, ‘this would make a great installation, that would make a great car’. I can see how it would be placed in a real situation and dreaming up applications is one of my thrills.”
Lee is also enjoying the possibilities that are opening up. “You can cheat things – lose bits of serifs, trim type, condense it, distort it. The thing you can’t lose is to appreciate the components of an advertisement. It’s not just picture and plonk. Never will be. There’s no such thing as wrong design. Someone will like it, whatever you do. But it is really hard to make great design that does its job in advertising.”
It doesn’t matter what the brand, who the designer or how the design was made. One rule stands firm in advertising typography. Its job is to make the words work harder. The words are not there to make the type look pretty. Lee and Pat - from a big and a small agency, different histories, different ways of going about things and different resources - agree about that too.
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