My Fonts (2010, October). Jonathan Barnbrook interview, October 2010

My Fonts sent out an email newsletter containing an interesting interview with Jonathan Barnbrook. I’ve picked out a few bits which are useful to my thinking.

Was it letterforms that got you interested in becoming a graphic designer in the first place?
Yes, because they created the tone of voice for everything in my life when I was young. The first ones I noticed were for the music bands I liked, I wasn’t really conscious of it but in the band logo the letterforms absolutely represented the viewpoint and ideology of the band. I used to copy them painstakingly on all my school books. I remember using the letterforms then for other things like a letterhead, and thinking: “I can create a whole universe for myself, that is the way I want it to be.” That is still the attraction of letterforms for me today

“Tone of voice” is key to what I’m looking at, because when you’re speaking with text, that is essentially what the underlying communication is – tone of voice. Having your own “universe” is also a very strong idea. The tone of voice is an extension of you – your tone of voice. Emulating it with type is a good challenge.

I agree that bands tend to have very strong identities reflected in their music. With something as fluid as musical style, it must be very difficult to design a logo which can stand the test of time with the band’s career. Sure, they could change it, but there always seems to be a universal message communicating the band’s identity.

releasing a typeface is like when a band releases an album. It describes your emotional state of mind at that moment. Full of layers of meaning, echoes of creative influences, vessels for ideologies that are prevalent or that you are interested in.

I’m beginning to enjoy that graphic design ideology isn’t just about graphic design – after working for two years, it was starting to feel like that’s all it was. Principles can be applied to many disciplines – and there is much to be learnt from other disciplines. For example, this quote from the lead singer of Placebo:

Never take guitar lessons. What you do is develop your own style through mistakes. If you don’t know what the rules are, then there are no rules in the first place. You’ll find you’re doing some crazy chord which, if you were taking a course, you wouldn’t attempt until three years into it. I really believe that if you want to develop your own personal style, you should just make it up as you go along.

Link (seeking a direct reference to the article, if anyone knows the page numbers for this Altpress interview from August 1999, that would be fab!)

This can easily be applied to design (or many other creative endeavours). Obviously, we all learn design somehow, and we all look at books about layout etc, but there’s something refreshing about throwing all that knowledge out of the window and trying something completely new. Often, with typefaces, I play it safe. This is partly a result of working with the web for so long – where you’re limited anyway – and partly a comfort zone issue of knowing which fonts are readable. I’m getting to the point now where I hate Verdana. We use it a lot. It used to look great, but with the advent of the “big text” trend, it just looks dull and I’m having to adapt.

But there is more to it than that: A typeface can be a ‘collage’, a ‘synthesis’ of a time, a place, or something you want to say. It’s the opposite of the historical research, because you construct using different letterforms from different sources which somehow fit together and make something new. My first two fonts Prototype and Bastardwere some very early advanced experiments in this. More recentlyPriori from Emigre does the same thing. It doesn’t adhere to one historical model but it’s a historically based font for our time.

There’s a lot a typeface can say. I think it’s then the context within which it’s used that affects how it is said.

N.Design Studio

La, N. (2010). N.Design Studio. Retrieved November 3, 2010, from

I like this idea that a typeface doesn’t have to be consistent, if it fits together. There’s an example of this on N-Design Studio’s website, where Nick La has used multiple typefaces for the titles. Instead of looking disjointed, it works, emphasising something key to graphic design – typography. It shows he’s considerate of it, instead of just using one of the standard fonts.

Yes, I’m becoming a bit of a Barnbrook-typography fangirl. I started reading the Barnbrook Bible and had to buy it. Mostly, he’s got me thinking, which is the whole point of this exercise anyway!