Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and founding director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Frere-Jones, Tobias

Interview, Ellen Lupton with Tobias Frere-Jones, November 1, 1995. Unpublished.

How did you get involved in type design?

I went to RISD in their undergraduate program. I finished in 1992. It became difficult there for me, because I wanted to learn to design type, which was hardly the focus at RISD. We were taught to use type, how to think with type, but not how to design type. There’s no place really in this country where you can do that. Inge Druckery and Matthew Carter’s course at Yale is good, but it’s for grad students only, and it’s just one course.

When I was 16, there was a competition sponsored by the Type Shop in New York. It was open to 6- to 17-year olds. The assignment was to draw a typeface. I was aware that type existed, but I had never tried it myself. I went with the first idea in my head, and I won in the best-of-age category. I did it all with a rapidograph and a drawing board. The competition was in 1986. After that I had a couple of other ideas that I chased down through high school—I designed 8 or 9 “fonts” while I was in high school. One of them survived. It’s Armada, distributed by Font Bureau.

I was thrown out of French class for a day because I was in the back of the room drawing a lowercase k. It was then that I knew I should go to art school.

At RISD, I did an independent study with Kristof Lenk, where I studied old style serif typography. All I did in the semester was a lower case alphabet and a couple of capitals. It was redesigned as Hightower, which I did for AIGA.

After I did this independent study, it was the end of the fall semester and Christmas was coming up. I wanted to come up with something to give my brother. He had been a student at Brown and had his own band. He’d always wanted the right typeface for his band. I started doodling stuff on bar napkins. (I spent a lot of time at a bar near campus, where I worked on my ideas.) I thought it was funny, so I took it back to RISD and digitized it. I did the whole character set in two nights, over the weekend.

After Christmas vacation, I went to Holland to visit studios. A friend and I went to Berlin, where I introduced myself to Erik Spiekermann. I showed him my old style alphabet, and he immediately pointed out everything that was wrong with it—the lowercase a was out of its mind, and so on. But the bar napkins he loved. He brought out papers and contracts right then and there, so the typeface could be marketed and sold [through the Font Shop]. That was Dolores, designed in 1991.

So I went back to RISD. The faculty were pleased, but they didn’t know quite what to do, since they didn’t have anything to do with the design of this typeface.

I called up Matthew Carter and asked him if he needed summer help. He told me to call David Berlow [at the Font Bureau in Boston], who had just seen Dolores. I showed him a couple of ideas, including one that’s based on those tickets they give you at parking garages—thin cardboard tickets with red numbers printed on them. I went looking for the characters that went with the numbers but there weren’t any. So Berlow said if I drew the letters, he would publish them. This became Garage Gothic, published in 1992.

This was the summer between junior and senior year. For my degree project I did an essay and a series of experimental typefaces dealing with legibility, history, technology, etc. I drew bits of typefaces that answered some of the questions I was asking in the essay. Most of the work was in the writing. The project was not a grand unified theory, but rather a series of questions. Some of it was meant as a joke.

It was at that time that Neville Brody started putting out Fuse, in 1992. That was the sort of format or focus that I was looking for. So I did my thesis project in a similar form. A number of the faces I later did for Fuse originated in the thesis project. [Typefaces featured in Fuse include Reactor, 1993; Fibonacci, 1994; and Microphone, 1995.]

After I finished Garage Gothic, into my senior year, I was coming up here on weekends doing other work at Font Bureau. I finished some typefaces that Neville Brody had started. He did the basic concept, and I worked out the details across the other letters of the alphabet. This amused me to no end. Back in high school, when I was getting kicked out of French class, these were the kinds of faces I had been imitating. By the time I graduated, I had been working here for nine months. I came straight to work after graduating. So most of what I know I’ve picked up from working here [at the Font Bureau]—faces for retail, custom jobs, etc.

Your work covers a lot of bases. You created careful historical revivals and crazy display faces like Dolores.

I make a point of moving around among different kinds of typefaces. I think I learn more that way. It keeps me more interested in doing this. I do this because I find it very entertaining. The differences make it more entertaining.

What do you think about the field of typeface design today?

Currently, the field of typeface design is an enormous stinky mess. People can use computers to make their own typefaces. Now you can make your own foundry with a Mac and a copy of Fontographer. I’m seeing a lot of very exuberant but inexperienced folk jumping into this. That’s great, but…A lot of people feel that if they have the equipment, then they must be designers. They don’t have the experience or the thoughts in their head to really make typefaces.

There’s a whole class of typefaces that I just call Dumb. People take an existing digital typeface and do something to it and then call it their own typeface. These are not valuable products. A lot of attention is paid to it because it’s the flavor of the month. What I’m beginning to see is that because so much attention is being paid to this flashy stuff, the designers like myself who do put time into type design get a bad rap. We get lumped in with all the sloppy junk. In most areas of design, it’s the same problem. The tool that makes it all possible breeds a kind of impatience. It looks so finished so fast. It’s tempting to call it done.

If you’re impatient and want to design a typeface, it’s very easy to crack open an existing typeface, do an easy trick to it, and call it done. That’s not design.

What or who do you think is valuable and significant in contemporary typeface design?

The best designers are ultimately driven by a respect for—but not a slavish attachment to—history and the content of words. The best are Jonathan Hoefler, Matthew Carter, Erik van Blokland and Just van Russom. Some younger people—Lucas de Groot—are very promising. Jean Francois Porchez out of Paris. In addition to the requisite visual skills, which are always necessary but not always found, these designers bring something special to their work.

There are some obvious names you haven’t mentioned. What about Jonathan Barnbrook and Zuzana Licko?

Jonathan Barnbrook does some terrific stuff, although a lot of his work I haven’t come across. But I’m intrigued by what he’s done. I’m a little distracted in that case by a small trend that’s built around what he has done. Emigre put out his face Exocet. It consists of traditional forms with a medieval twist. This stuff has become a small trend. He’s the “spark” for this trend. It’s hard to talk about this work once it’s become a trend, because all the idiots have jumped in. But if I could look at it outside of that, I’d probably think it was great stuff.

As for Licko, I think she’s done some great stuff. But lately, I’m not sure why some of these typefaces were made. Such as Narly or Dogma. Is it meant as an anti-aesthetic? If it is, then it’s not pushed far enough. Soda: maybe I understand that one better. It would have to be put in the right hands to work, though. Just like Avant Garde [designed by Herb Lubalin]. The only place that typeface looked good was in the logo for Avant Garde magazine. The font is volatile in that respect.

I’m hoping that this taste for the dirty, the crunchy, the deliberately messy, the look-I-haven’t-taken-a-shower-in-three-weeks look will go away, and attention will return to those of us who are putting effort into typeface design.

The good thing is that people are more aware of type now, so when the dirty thing is over, we’ll be left with a much more sensitive public.

I saw an episode of Cheers where there was an unsigned letter from someone that had been run off on a laser printer. Characters on the show speculated that a specific person had written the letter, but a woman picked it up and said, “No, this isn’t his font.” That can only benefit the rest of us.