If You Can’t Set Type Well, You Can’t Design
An Interview with Interactive Designer Brijan Powell
This week, TypeThursday founder Thomas Jockin speaks with Twitter provocateur and Interactive Designer Brijan Powell on the importance of typography to be a competent designer.
Thomas Jockin: Brijan, it’s great to chat with you. My first interaction with you I recall was some banter back and forth over Twitter. Later, I saw some of your work for Van Holtz Co., a front-end developer in Portland, Oregon. I was very impressed by your sense of typography, and as TypeThursday is the place for people who love type, I asked you to join me in this conversation. So welcome!
Brijan Powell: Hola. Como estas… wait… we’re speaking english now. Hey Thomas! Thanks for taking the time to talk and for the kind words. I’m excited to answer questions and have some fun talking type. Eric was a good sport to let me just go at it for him on his online portfolio.
TJ: Let’s start with your background. Your Behance states you’ve been practicing design since 2007 at Struck Design. What’s your *journey* into design?
BP: I was living in fantasyland, you know, doing nothing. Suckling at the teat of my parent money, essentially being a bum. I saw this software called Flash and that it animated things. I really wanted to do some motion design and didn’t really know Flash was mainly for web. Anyhow, my brother was working at a little place designing web templates for realtors and got me a job doing the same. That was … 1999–2000? Somewhere in there. From there I went out to Southern California and started working in the Action Sports industry for brands like Dye Paintball, Fox Racing, Vans, and a few others. I came back to Salt Lake City and started my agency life with Struck in about 2006.
TJ: Ah the good old days of Flash. Currently you run your own studio, Feint Studio, correct?
BP: Oh man. Flash was fun. And creative! Seems like people were far more willing to take risks then. After spending about 10 years in the agency world I wanted to do my own thing. I felt the apprenticeship phase of my career was basically nearing its end and wanted to try my hand at my own studio. It’s small. It’s just me right now but the plan is to let it grow while having as much fun as possible.
TJ: What are you doing at Feint Studio? Is it predominantly UX work?
BP: The bread and butter is interactive. I also do branding, print, apparel, and have done some environmental design as well. The idea is to not limit myself or the type of work that comes into the studio. I will always love interactive because I’ve been doing it for nearly two decades now, but it’s really awesome to have the ability to do more than just web and apps.
TJ: How has typography contributed to the work you do? On the initial reaction to your thoughts, type would be the material that crosses over all medium you work in. Is that fair to say?
Type is communication with words. Design is for communication.
Typography is Essential in Design
BP: It’s fair to say this Thomas. If you can’t set type and set it well, you can’t design. It is the fundamental element and the differentiator between a designer who is just having a go, and a designer who practices with a focus on mastery. To me type is design.
TJ: That’s a strong statement. Why do you believe understanding of type is such a differentiator of good and faulty design?
BP: Type is communication with words. Design is for communication. I’ve heard so many people say design isn’t art. If design isn’t art — which is visual communication — then that leaves me with the assumption that design is the written form of communication. So I’m back to my claim that type is design. Look how smart I am guys … and I didn’t even graduate high school.
TJ: That pithy tone of yours stands out on Twitter. You have been known to put Interactive Design on blast for under-performing. What’s motivating you to be so outspoken?
BP: I really do love interactive and designing for it. Flashback to the Flash days and you saw incredible use of type and some incredible, creative ideas. It’s slowly coming back, but I think designers in digital really need to stop focusing on what start-up or giant tech company to work for and start focusing on mastery of the craft. I think it’s really fair to say that interactive and digital product is the laughing stock of the design world and I’d like that to change.
TJ: I’d like to expand on this statement a bit more. To summarize your point; Interactive and (Digital) Product designers are too focused on appeasing employers rather than having the internal integrity of craft. Fundamental to that integrity of craft is type. Is my summary fair?
BP: What I’m saying and I’ll say it bluntly. (Digital) Product designers aren’t very good designers. I don’t see a level of quality in that area of design that you see elsewhere. I don’t know if money in tech draws amateur talent or if agencies just wouldn’t ever hire them. I really don’t know. What I do know is they aren’t producing work that makes me excited. And tech — when you see it in sci fi movies — is really exciting. I want to see people step it up and make me be like… well shit… I eat my words. *Slowly removes foot from mouth*
I get it, a lot of software requires legibility. That doesn’t mean it has to be boring.
How Can Designers Improve Their Typography
TJ: I appreciate the forthrightness. Let’s be productive with our criticism. What can (Digital) Product designers do to improve their typography mastery?
BP: Stop being complacent, conservative, dependant, impatient, conformist, grandiose, and inflexible. Be confident, open-minded, flexible, independent, patient, humble and willing to learn. Stop following the crowd. Have some fun. Be irreverent in a field filled with so many people bowing down to the unproved so-called ‘best practices’. Just be willing to break the rules. I get it, a lot of software requires legibility. That doesn’t mean it has to be boring.
TJ: Can you give an example of unproven “best practices”? I can point to some in type design but I’m sure there are specific examples in Interactive or (Digital) Product design. Would “night mode” count as one of those examples? I’ve noticed a lot of UI now include such a mode.
I prefer the visceral to the virtual.
BP: Now we’re getting too nerdy. I use my phone as a phone. I have maybe three apps on it besides the ones I’m forced to have. I’m old school. I actually go to the bank and deposit checks. I want to interact with people. I think this is my main issue with digital product in the first place. I prefer the visceral to the virtual. If we still set type in lead I’d probably prefer that to the computer. I know that’s not the world we live in, but I like working with my hands. As for best practices… I just don’t believe in them. If you come up with something new that blows the old way out of the water, why wouldn’t you do that instead? Why not constantly trash against the rules and do something different?
TJ: If I would to play devil’s advocate, I would reply if “best practices” shows something works well, why rework it? What would be your reply be to such an objection?
BP: Jim Lovell, a US astronaut on the Apollo 13 mission, was asked the question about why return to the moon when America had already won the space race. He replied, “Imagine if Christopher Columbus had come back from the New World and no one returned in his footsteps.” We can do something and know how to do it well, but there are SO many new things waiting to be discovered.
TJ: Brijan, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Where can readers follow you online?
Once you’ve gone bold, it never gets old
We get it — presenting isn’t everyone’s bag, yet so many of our Type Crit presenters (including Nikita!) keep returning to TypeThursday with new letterforms. Could be the free beer…or maybe there’s just a magic to watching an entire room of type geeks rooting for you and your work. Be bold! Submit your work to a TypeThursday near you.
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