I’m reading Ian Wharton’sSpark for the Fire” and some of it was feeling familiar. I thought I’d write about why I chose to design a typeface for my Master’s project. People were surprised. I’m a web designer, not a type designer. I have no desire to enter the world of type design. So why did I do it?

Why I did an MA in the first place, might be a better place to start.

I always thought I would go back into education at some point, but had imagined it would be years into the future when I had “time and money”. I began my MA two years after graduating my BA. It was a full time year-long degree that ran September 2010 to September 2011. I did it at the same time as working, essentially, a full time job. I was in the office four days a week, in Portsmouth one, and the entire of the rest of my time was spent working on the degree. Not what I’d imagined at all.

The decision to do an MA at that time occurred within a 3 hour window. I seem to mull these things over and then as soon as the realisation hits that it’s a possibility, I make them happen.

Delayed Train + Dead Phone = Time to Think

I’d attended Portsmouth Uni’s degree show and was on a train back when it stopped. For three hours. My phone battery was almost dead and I had nothing on me but a moleskine and a pen. That forced time outside of normal life, freshly inspired by the wonderful work at the show, was all it took for me to figure out that right then was the right time to do my MA.

I was hungering for a freedom that a job doesn’t always allow (unless you’re really lucky), a little tired of regular work and really wanting to push myself forward. I got home (at 12:30, I’d left Portsmouth at 8!), checked everything out and had my application submitted within a few days. Was accepted within a few weeks.

Half the time I spent on the train figuring it out was calculating costs and coming up with convincing arguments for my boss. The other half was spent deciding what I wanted to get from the degree, and what I could do with it. I knew I didn’t necessarily need the degree to further my “career”, so if I was to spend the time and money I wanted to make sure it was worthwhile for me.

I knew the degree would be a fantastic opportunity to connect with other people, to have a lot more resources at my fingertips, and most importantly to question things. That’s what I loved about university, as much as it could be, it was an open zone for creativity.

By the time I got home I already knew what subject I was going to explore, and that wasn’t what I’d expected either.

What Do I Suck At?

My initial gut reaction was to do something with web. I could have done something really awesome with web. And then I stopped and thought about it.

Here I was, paying upwards of £3k to do a degree. A full time degree no less, at the same time as a full time job. Essentially putting myself through a hell of a lot for a year. And I was going to play it safe?

Fuck that”, I thought. “What do I suck at?

I sucked at typography. I sucked at understanding why one font was better than another. I sucked at arguably the most important thing on a website: the text.

Years of relying on say, five fonts, had boxed me into a corner. If I took on a small print project, or had any graphical work to do for a website I would often feel lost when it came to fonts. Sure, I knew what looked nice and I could sort of make it work, but there was a lot I didn’t know (still don’t).

When I actually started the degree, coming up with my project proposal made me realise that just playing with type and typography wouldn’t be enough. If I wanted to get to the bottom of what made a typeface tick, I would have to make one myself.

And that’s what I did. To really question it, I looked at neutrality and how we perceive type. I love that. I love that type can have a personality. When it’s neutral and informative, we don’t even really see it. If we can access the information that’s in those letters, and do it easily, it’s well designed.

There was tons of things that designing a typeface brought to my attention. Typographic grids, for example, something I had somehow remained oblivious to until that point (no idea how). How we see shapes was another, the tricks the eyes play. Why an “o” isn’t a perfect circle is very interesting. Two years after finishing I’m still coming back to bits of research and learning more about them.

What is Success?

On a less creative, more logical level I’d resigned myself to the idea of “just make sure you pass”.  I was under a lot of pressure time-wise, and to top it off a couple of rather big personal things occurred that year. Even the external examiner thought I was crazy.

When I decided to do something so far from my comfort zone, I really believed that in terms of the “traditionally recognised achievement” all I would get was a pass. And in a way I didn’t care. I suffer from the same kind of perfectionism that seems rife in our industry, and it took a lot of letting go for me to be ok with doing it that way. But it was worth it. I could have got a “pass” and still been as happy with what I had learnt and achieved. I pushed boundaries, I tried something different and it was just a bonus that it worked out so well.

Staring at Trees

Taking the leap of quitting my job had similar feelings attached to it. I’m not really sure what I’m doing at the moment and that’s okay. I love the freelance clients that I have, and I’m still keeping my ear to the ground job-wise. All the in between has been full of art, reading, staring at trees in the park, falling asleep at “lunch time” and waking up hours later (now in the dark!). And that’s OKAY. Everything still gets done. I gave myself this time out to do things like that. To reconnect with creativity.

I’m still learning to let go of the perfectionist when needs be. Because even though it’s an important trait to have in your arsenal, I’m starting to realise that maybe it just needs to be quiet at the beginnings of things to let the creativity really flow. And it also needs to let me post my ramblings otherwise nothing I do will ever be seen by anyone!

TL:DR Do something that scares you. Explore. Play.