July 16, 2020

Pink Squid Interviews: Paul Barnes, Font Designer

We all know that words have the potential to inspire, comfort, empower or exaggerate. But when reading anything, the meaning of words is only half the story. What they look like also conveys something meaningful to the reader. 

Typography and typesetting is often a forgotten or underappreciated aspect of communication and brand development. That’s why, as part of our conversations with people from the world of employer branding and beyond, I spoke with graphic designer and typographer Paul Barnes, partner at Commercial Type. To find out more about the process of developing fonts, and typography’s impact on branding.

What’s the importance of type in communication?

Type is a central part of communication; in our civilisation, typefaces have almost completely replaced handwriting. And your choice of typeface also has ramifications. These can be tiny, but they can also be large. 

Choosing an illegible typeface for say signage or important notices, such on drug packaging could lead to all sorts of issues. So it’s not just the choice of script, but also the design of the document.

Fonts and letters, for better or worse, can also express a time and place and its culture. 

Futura, which is a geometric face from the 1920s, has a strong cultural association with the zeitgeist of its time. Place it next to a modernist piece of architecture from this time or a painting by say Mondrian, and it seems almost perfectly in sync. 

But of course this can be negative. Blackletter for example, has strong associations with National Socialism; it can have sinister overtones. When we see far right propaganda it is often in this form of letter, even though blackletter lived long before the Nazis. The first printed books were in blackletter to mimic the monks calligraphy.

How did your background as a graphic designer evolve into focusing on typography and fonts, and eventually setting up your own type foundry?

I’ve always been interested in letters. My grandfather worked in newspapers, and my mother was an amateur calligrapher, so it was always around me. And then when I thought about what to do at university, I discovered that one place actually did a course in Typography.  And I thought I might actually be able to make a career in graphic design, but with a specialisation in Typography. 

When I graduated in 1992 the whole world of graphic design was changing with desktop publishing. It really liberated typography and fonts from being a specialist industry. 

I moved to the United States and worked in the magazine industry which had really been revolutionised by this movement. Magazines used to be limited in their typographical palette, and then suddenly they had computers with thousands of fonts. It moved my specialisation from the outer edges of graphic design to the centre. 

I came back to the UK in the mid 1990s, and started out on my own. Designing books, making identities, consulting with design firms amongst other things. I also became a long-term collaborator with Peter Saville, who had been one of the main influences on me as a teenager. He had designed all the famous New Order and Joy Division records. I still had a lot of clients who were magazines and newspapers who I consulted with; from Harper’s Bazaar, the Observer, through to Wallpaper*. I was even a contributing editor at GQ on typography!

In 2003 I was appointed the typographic consultant to the Guardian, when they were making major changes by switching to a new format, from Broadsheet to Berliner. Through this I recommended that they commission some fonts for their exclusive use. I then collaborated with a young type designer in New York, Christian Schwartz, on what would become the Guardian faces.

After that project, we had the idea of setting up our own type foundry, Commercial Type. Neither of us knew if it would be a success, but it gradually gained momentum, and went from being a side project to the main project in our lives.

What’s the typical design cycle for a font? How long do they take to develop?

At Commercial Type, we make two kinds of fonts; ones for clients specifically, and ones for retail. The first ones are where they meet the clients specific needs and criteria. The others are where we have an idea and develop it, so we essentially become the clients. Fonts can take anywhere from a few months, to several years. It depends on how extensive they are. 

We’re now making fonts for major corporations, and they need not just latin, but multiple language support. So for example Greek, Cyrillic and Arabic. They want fonts to allow seamless communication between multiple offices around the globe, but these take months which quickly turn into years.

What’s the process for designing a typeface?

Usually when you start with a new font you start with certain letters; H O n o for example. These establish the DNA of the design; the proportions, the weight and the contrast. Then you add other characters; A B D E F G I M N R S T U V a b d e f g i m n r s t u v which further defines your design. 

It’s only when you are happy with these that you design the rest of the alphabet, other weights and widths, italics, and then the hundreds if not
thousands of glyphs.

You’ve done everything from numbers on football shirts to the Guardian and National Trust fonts. What challenges do those different projects bring? 

I think what you are trying to do is solve a series of aesthetic and functional problems. 

In a newspaper, one of the strongest, if not the strongest, visual identifiers of the paper is its typography. So the fonts became the key part of the Guardian’s change with the new format and website redesign. If you saw an advert for the Guardian you knew it was the Guardian just from the typeface! 

It had to express their qualities; progressive and modern. Yet at the same time, it has to be easily legible and then fulfill the criteria of fitting as many words as possible within the space of a page. 

A typeface for the Daily Telegraph will have different aesthetic qualities; it will be traditional and conservative, yet will still need to fulfil the other functional criteria. If you switched the typefaces for the Daily Telegraph with the Guardian they would feel completely wrong. 

The faces for the National Trust had to represent something else; it has to feel contemporary, yet at the same time fit with the wide portfolio they possess. So from an Iron Age Chalk Horse, to a pumping house in Cornwall, through to the faux French Neo-Renaissance Waddesdon Manor. But then it has to be legible in the guidebooks. 

Football numbers and letters are something different again; they have to fit into the theme of the collection and be recognisable quickly. At the same time they have to follow the rules of FIFA and UEFA.

Brands spend a lot of time on photographic styles and colours. What’s the role of fonts when developing a brand?  

The font I think is part of the architectural structure of a brand. It’s what the other things can hang onto. In some identities, the fonts are almost more noticeable than the photography or colours. Even if the typography is simple it’s still a vital part of the structure on which the other elements can be built around. 

People are more visually sophisticated now than they’ve ever been, we all know what these kinds of little codes and cues mean. You go into a restaurant, they hand you a menu, and you instantly know whether this is French bistro food or this is Mexican food. This is going to be cheap or this is going to be expensive.

Typography can often play on those codes, and that’s the power of typography for brands.