Anna Mills on the “human” quality of her typography
The graphic designer talks us through some of her techniques for designing type, including the “ping-pong match between paper and computer,” AKA the “input-output dance.”
- Elfie Thomas
- 17 December 2021
Anna Mills grew up in “a strange upside-down house on a hill in Reading.” She speaks affectionately about her early life in this house which her parents inundated with creative materials for Anna and her brother to freely experiment with. A pencil was thrust into her hand as soon as she was capable of holding one. As a pretty much born-and-raised graphic designer, it is revealing to hear Anna speak about her family tradition of birthday card-making. She interprets these birthday cards as “some early experience in tackling a brief.” Each family member with their different tastes and private jokes represented for Anna a “very specific audience” to adapt to. So from an early age, Anna would carefully tweak “tone, layout, colour, paper stock,” to get a design just right for each birthday brief.
Considering Anna’s determined approach to birthday card-making as a child, it feels like a very natural progression that she would go on to study graphic design. After finishing her studies at Bristol’s UWE, she now lives and works in Bristol and, since her uni days, has been developing an extremely pleasing collection of animated letters and words. Typography is Anna’s favourite thing to work on and it shows. Sinuous letters shimmy across her posters in a style that often recalls Matisse’s satisfying organic shapes, one of her major influences. But Anna’s typography moves on from the old master’s style and offers something joyfully new. She loves to animate words and letters, making them dance and hop in space. But even when she experiments with static type, she manages to imbue words with a wriggling sense of momentum. The secret behind this lively quality begins to make sense when Anna describes the way she works. Her approach feels similar to the way an artist might begin sketching a portrait. All her experiments with words and letters go into a file named “character studies.” She feels that each letter has its own “personality” and it is this “‘human’ quality” of her typography that “really lends itself to being animated – I want to see them jump off the page!” she adds.
Something that stands out about Anna’s work is her interest in developing designs that look like they haven’t gone through any digital processes. When she sees designs “in a sort of flat, pixel, clickable, editable landscape,” it “makes me long to see something that looks solid and unchangeable,” she explains. Although the finished appearance of her animations seem effortless, her processes are elaborate. Anna dubs her way of working humorously as a “ping pong match between paper and computer.” With her first serve of the match, she makes her initial sketch – ping. She returns the serve with a scan and a careful edit on Photoshop – pong. Then follows a focused rally between analogue and digital, repeating the cycle until she’s happy with the result. This “input-output dance,” although fiddly, is a vital ritual in her practice and helps her to execute animations which “look less like a gif and more like you’re witnessing a poster come alive.”
This sense of a poster coming “alive” is really felt in Anna’s branding project for Everpress’s Type in Focus collection, “Outside the Lines”. As the animation begins we are presented with a static sans serif typeface which is then compellingly “undressed” to reveal a collection of dancing lettering in Anna’s playful style. She loves working on projects that give her the space to work fluidly and move away from “uniformity.” She was in her element on her project An A-Z of Type Terms: Proper and Improper when she designed “a type term for every letter of the alphabet.” But she has also shown her eloquence in communicating very abstract concepts for design briefs. When she did a project for Google Design’s article Why Google Needs UXEs, she was delighted by the challenge to “visually represent a profession that’s quite hard to define anyway.” It is impressive to see how Anna represents really quite technical ideas in a visually interesting way, whilst still retaining her signature, light-hearted style.
As we close the interview Anna admits feeling nostalgic for “how my brain felt at uni.” She misses the “meatiness of the projects” and being in a “big class with everybody’s ideas bouncing off the walls.” She’s thinking of doing a master’s just as soon as she’s decided what subject she wants to focus on… We can’t wait to see how this next big plan feeds into her work.
Anna Mills: Anything Can B a B (Copyright © Anna Mills, 2020)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.