C-Word Talk:
Meet the Fontsmith

An encounter with Jason Smith

By Graham Sturt
Creative Director at VBAT

Jason Smith

Please give a short introduction about yourself.
My name is Jason Smith and I’ve always drawn letters. Since I grew up, however, I designed fonts and logotypes and have a nice little business in London called Fontsmith. I now have a team of typeface designers from all over the world gathered together in our very nice Clerkenwell studio. Fontsmith designs and produces new types for the creative industry as well as special commissions for a variety of clients. All our work is focused on making brand new typefaces that reflect and identify with our creative audience.

How did you become a type based designer?
I was a rubbish academic at school. I never did homework and failed most of my exams. I was good at colouring in and doodling though! This is why I managed to get into art college at 16 years old. The course was Calligraphy, Lettering and Sign writing. During my time as a student I did a work placement with David Quay and then Monotype. I found something I really loved and then focused entirely on typography for the next three years.

I visited as many type designers as I could and drew as many pieces of hand lettering I could. I loved it. I’ve never looked back.

Was it letter forms that got you interested in becoming a designer in the first place?
I always had a calligraphy set somewhere but I guess most of us got one of those for Christmas as a kid. My passion was painting and crafting and being very detailed in my artwork. Letter forms were a challenge, but I guess I really wanted to be a graphic designer. I honestly believe because I didn’t study graphic design that this has helped me in my work. It taught me respect for other designers who’s work I simply am not able to do. Working with my clients has always been a reward that I value most. I love learning from others and adding my expertise to their work.

How do you design your fonts — do you do a lot of sketching on napkins, or do you keep a sketchbook? Or is it straight to the computer?
Sketchbook, sketchbook, sketchbook! I used to draw and then digitise my letters. Now I’ll maybe draw one or two properly. More often I will doodle and colour in. Sometimes I don’t need to draw at all. I will write down and describe what I want, then go straight on to a computer. But doodling and colouring in is still tops!

Tell us about Fontsmith.
Fontsmith is a leading and established boutique type foundry known for creating fonts that are distinctively human and full of character. Founded in 1997, Fontsmith today represents a truly international team of designers working from a London studio.
The Fontsmith library includes an extensive collection of typefaces — elegant and traditional, contemporary and quirky — suitable for a range of applications. In addition the team design and create bespoke typefaces for global brands, as well as design and advertising agencies.

What are the differences, if any, between design in the UK and here in The Netherlands?
This is only my opinion, but British design is the best in the world. We export our creativity worldwide and historically we created the best advertising and design around. Not only that, but our product designers, our architects, our film directors and musicians are world renowned… In my opinion more than any other nation.

Dutch design in my experience is very much based on an analytic approach.

Dutch type designers analyse grids and measurements — they make a design system. Dutch designers work methodically and grids are highly visible. The Netherlands have produced some of the best graphic designers but the work to me feels less emotive and much more functional. I hope I’m still welcome… : )

Jason Smith preparing his presentation to VBAT creatives

Describe how you work professionally. Do you prefer to work alone or in collaboration?
My particular strengths are the initial design concepts and coming up with styles that I believe my clients require. I have always had a very good eye for balance and shape and my craft skills are honed whether it be pencil, ink or digital. My technical skills, especially OpenType scripting and patience for kerning tables, is somewhat to be desired. I have surrounded myself with a team of very talented people. Fontsmith is a company full of individuals with strengths that vary slightly from one to another, but the designer heart is still there. In this way I collaborate all the time. Creatively I like to work alone on my own ideas but then share them and involve others.

Who do you consider to be your peers, in both the graphic and the broader design worlds?
Type design peers and friends are Jeremy Tankard, Lucas de Groot, Jean Francois Porchez. Erik Spiekermann, and David Quay are from the old school and are greatly admired by me for their contributions.

What’s your favourite typeface and why?
I don’t have one. I like so many for different reasons. However FS Albert is special to me because it was my first real success. Other people clearly like it so that makes it special.

FS Albert

What is the first typeface you designed?
The first typeface I designed was a student project. I was 17 at the time and drew it all by hand and inked it in on drawing film. Many years later I digitised it. It is now known as FS Rome. Caps only, classic Roman alphabet. It sells about 30 copies a year.

FS Rome

Where do you find inspiration?
From the shapes of cars and buildings. From colours and from words. I find that the older I get the more I realise how instinctive I am. It doesn’t take me ages to conclude that what I am designing is the right thing for the market. I guess people pay me to be instinctive, that’s the point. I should have a wealth of inspiration and knowledge. I think inspiration itself simply comes from a conversation with my colleagues or clients.

What advice would you give to a designer approaching designing a custom typeface for the first time?
Create a mood board with lots of visuals, try and create a vibe, match a colour and photographs. Look through as many design books and find shapes that you like. Then start sketching — shapes, serifs, letters… Draw an ‘a’ and ‘n’, a ‘g’, a ‘b and a ‘k’. These are your fun letters. Enjoy it, nothing you do will be wrong. The skills of a type designer, really come when you craft your letters, but you need to start somewhere, so don’t be afraid.

You work closely with designers and agencies to create and realise custom typefaces at various points in our creative process. Describe for us the process you go through at Fontsmith, from start to finish, to create a completely bespoke typeface.
A typical brand new typeface design for a brand or organisation typically involves several meetings to establish a brief. Who is the end user, who and what is their demographic? What are the key brand words or phrase? Once I have an idea of what the bigger design brief is I can understand what is required for the client. I usually like to give say three to five varying designs. All set using ‘hamburgefonstiv’. We just want to get a flavour of the possibilities. Things usually go back and forth a few times so everyone is in agreement on the rough design. Then we craft the chosen route and add the main body of characters, constantly changing and tweaking until everything works together along with the spacing and weight of the letters. This is the skilled bit. It is all about balance and getting something that pleases the eye, perfectly adjusted to work harmoniously with all the other letters.
This is now our Beta version that we hand over to the client for feedback, to make sure its fit for purpose. Then we make the other weights and produce italics. That’s the longest bit of the process. We package up the files and do the format conversions for Mac, Windows and Web etc.

You have designed and distributed many typefaces through Fontsmith.
What would you say are the best and the most difficult aspects of self publishing?
Unfortunately I have become half designer, half business man. I hardly get any time anymore to do the fun stuff. I do love both sides to running Fontsmith, but it’s not for everyone. The font industry is changing and there will be less and less truly original designs to be had because type design as a full time job is becoming rare. We are a team of 7 and there are only a handful of companies designing type with a team that size.

Fontsmith Stationary

Are you often surprised, amused or annoyed about where some of your typefaces end up?
Never.

Where do you find the names for your typefaces?
I think we all find it easy to describe people. For example the typeface FS Ingrid is cold, hard edged, unemotional and practical. Ingrid was named after my ex wife!

Type design used to be quite an obscure profession that wasn’t taught in many art schools. Now there are more and more schools world-wide that offer a degree in type design. Is that a good thing? Will there ever be too many type designers?
I really don’t know. I just try and create value and integrity in what we do. Anyone can make a font… doesn’t mean it is any good or indeed original.

When you’re not designing typefaces or logos, what other types of design work or art are you working on?
I love painting and got back into oils last year but, once again, having the time to sit and doodle and colour in is rare. My passion is my kids and travelling and having adventures.

What new type projects do you have in store?
We have about five new type designs coming out in the next 6 months. As well as new bespoke fonts for a big airline rebrand and another major television channel. We are also rethinking our website.

And finally, London or Amsterdam? ; )
New York!

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written by Graham Sturt
Creative Director at VBAT

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