Starting Your Own Type Foundry
We talk to Jesse Ragan and Ben Kiel about starting their new type foundry XYZ Type.
Ben and Jesse both have distinguished careers working in house with the likes House Industries, Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Having found complementary skills in each other, they have now decided to take the leap and strike out on their own. We discuss their new venture, their considerations before taking the plunge and the skills it takes to start a new foundry.
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Ulrik Hogrebe: Hi Jesse and Ben. And congratulations on your new foundry XYZ Type. Why don’t you start by just telling us a bit about yourselves?
Ben Kiel: I became interested in typeface design through my experience with letterpress printing as an undergraduate. After graduating from the MA Typeface Design program at the University of Reading, I worked at House Industries for six years. That’s actually how I first met Jesse, when he was doing some work for us at House.
After that, my family moved to Saint Louis and that’s when I started working independently. I teach at Washington University in Saint Louis as an adjunct in the Communication Design program, and do a yearly workshop for Type@Cooper in NYC. I’m lucky to share studio space with a friend and mentor, Ken Botnick, who is a letterpress printer, so I’m surrounded by printing equipment daily. Oh and in my spare time I try to ride my bike when not chasing (or being chased) by my two daughters..
Jesse Ragan: I’m Jesse — the other half of XYZ Type. I am also a type designer with most of my client work in custom lettering and typefaces for branding agencies.
I currently work in a shared office in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for fifteen years. In the past year that we have been gearing up to start XYZ Type, Ben and I have been spending a lot of time on Skype. So Skype is really starting to feel like a second office as well. I also taught for years at Type@Cooper, which I co-founded back in 2010. Currently though, I am taking a break from teaching, while focusing on XYZ Type.
Both of us have typefaces in the works that are historical revivals or reinterpretations, which explore ways of bringing an analog aesthetic into digital form.
The Launch of XYZ Type
Ulrik Hogrebe: Let’s talk a bit about XYZ Type then. Do you think of your selves as having a certain style or an aesthetic? Or is there a certain type of work that you consider particularly well suited to you guys as a foundry?
JR: Well, I think the two of us have different, but complementary aesthetics. The voice of the foundry is unified mostly by “what we want to make.” For one thing, we’re both drawn to designs that have a strong historical foundation, and the challenge of bringing a modern voice into something old. Both of us have typefaces in the works that are historical revivals or reinterpretations, which explore ways of bringing an analog aesthetic into digital form.
BK: We’re also interested in how that historical knowledge can play out in digital media — how can we take advantage of the flexible, unfixed nature of the screen in typeface design. This isn’t particularly new, but the technology is changing to the point where there are more interesting possibilities — I’m thinking of variable fonts here. But ultimately we want to be a foundry that doesn’t favor one medium over another.
Ulrik Hogrebe: I am always interested in what kind of skills people bring to a new foundry and what it takes to launch one. In that vein, what do each of you bring to the table?
JR: Well, aside from being an excellent type designer, Ben has a lot of experience working as a type director, commissioning and reviewing work from other designers. And he’s on the front lines of font development, so he knows way more about technical stuff than I do. He is even helping to develop the spec for FontParts, which will be under the hood of the next version of Robofont — which is the main software we use. That stuff is way over my head.
BK: Jesse has an incredible eye for detail and is tenacious about getting details right. He keeps us focused on making things that are holistic in their use—like a full set of UI arrows in Aglet. As a fantastic typeface designer, I really benefit from his eyes on my work. In addition, he’s an excellent copywriter, so he takes the lead on a lot of that work for the foundry.
Finally, he has a really good sense of the direction that branding as an industry is moving, so he serves as a good check on what might be a good release or project for us to work on.
Being typeface designers, we can be very picky about how everything gets done, so starting our own independent foundry also gives us more creative control throughout the process.
Striking out on their own
Ulrik Hogrebe: So there is really a mix there: technical knowledge, craftsmanship, some copywriting or I guess marketing skills — and of course, having the ability to keep your finger on the pulse.
So I guess I am curious as to why you decided to strike out on your own? Why now?
BK: We really have enjoyed working together over the years. Before we partnered, we worked on a custom design for Aldo Shoes (through MP Creative) that became the retail font Cortado. In working on that project, we realized that our various strengths complemented each other really well. We had a various array of client and unfinished typefaces that could be combined into a library and eventually we decided to make our partnership formal in the form of the foundry.
JR: Being typeface designers, we can be very picky about how everything gets done, so starting our own independent foundry also gives us more creative control throughout the process.
BK: Yes, having our own foundry also means that we can take what we’ve learned from working in the industry and for other foundries and do things the way we’d like to see them done.
JR: Oh, and you asked “why now?” Because we finally had some fonts done and ready to sell!
Launching new typefaces
Ulrik Hogrebe: Cool. Actually, let’s talk a bit about those typefaces. I really like the mix of typefaces that you have up now. I feel the mix has a lot of personality. There is Cortado, which is ‘handwritten’ but also technically really expansive, Aglet which is more utilitarian — and then Export, which is quirky and has a lot of humor. Were those three a deliberate choice to release first?
JR: You know, we went through many versions of what our initial lineup should be at the time we launched the foundry. But, at the end of the day, we just settled on the things that were ready to go. We have so many more new typefaces that are getting near completion, so it can be tough to prioritize which to work on. Right now we have a couple of client commissions for customization of upcoming releases, so we’ll need to fast-track their development. That may be a big factor in what we release next.
BK: But as a side benefit, it does show a certain range that we do want to explore — though I’m not sure I want to do another script typeface for a while! But hopefully we managed to show diversity and range through the three families.
Ulrik Hogrebe: And what about the future? What is in the works currently?
JR: Both Ben and I are focusing our energies on two upcoming releases. We launched with my typeface Aglet Slab, and it always seemed fitting to have an Aglet Sans to go along with it. So I’ve been exploring how to build it on the same DNA as Aglet Slab — but with its own voice and character. It’s a lot more than just chopping off the serifs. But that one is getting close to completion, and will probably be our next release.
BK: And I’m working on Grep, the typeface that you can see on our site as the UI typeface. It’s a design that’s tailored for UI design and reading on screen. Its tagline is “Cheerfully Bland”, though kidding aside, it’s a design I really love and find really useful. I started it a couple of years ago as a client pitch, and I’m looking forward to finally getting it done this summer.
Ulrik Hogrebe: That’s super exciting! So you have been open for a couple of months now. What differences have you found from working at a large foundry?
BK: Yes, we launched on May 1st 2017. It’s been an exciting for both of us to see the feedback that we’ve gotten. The biggest difference for us has been the marketing side of things — that is new territory for the both of us, and we’re thankful for Topos Graphics’s guidance with it. We’ve really had a great time working with the branding system that Topos designed for us. That’s the piece that I don’t think either of us had realized would be as much work as it has been. That said, it’s been fun exploring that side of running a foundry.
Ulrik Hogrebe: Nice! So rounding out here at the end, what is the dream project for XYZ? Where would you really like to leave a mark, so to speak?
JR: So far we’ve been preoccupied with getting the retail library ready, but we’ve also been putting out proposals for a few custom commissions. We would love to tackle a larger corporate branding project, especially if we can work with a branding agency that’s ready to get bit adventurous and explore new ideas together.
BK: A dream custom commission for me would be a bike company — for instance Colonago, a company that has a history and uses type on all its products, but could take things further. For retail, a dream would be both to make something that designers find useful, that becomes a bit ubiquitous, but is weird enough to excite.
Ulrik Hogrebe: Thanks both — Super excited to see how everything goes! Best of luck and hope to see your faces (type joke) at conferences and out in the world!
Check out XYZ Type and their new typefaces here: xyztype.com
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