Jacob Wise tells us about his railway-inspired sans serif WT Saltburn

Born from Jacob’s want to take on something more ambitious, the project features over 850 glyphs, supports 114 Latin languages and is available in nine weights as well as a variable counterpart.

14 June 2021


Over a relatively short career to date, typographer Jacob Wise has already a made a name for himself designing expressive typefaces that have started to shift the design canon. His letterings have appeared everywhere from on Versace shoes to The Face and myriad other books and albums, and typefaces like Monarch Nova have become the go-to for any in-the-know graphic designer. So far though, Wise Type (Jacob’s foundry) has released solely display typefaces. That was until the reveal of his most recent project: WT Saltburn.

A clear and simple sans serif, WT Saltburn has “quite a few unique quirks across its character-set yet nothing too overpowering to compromise legibility,” which means the typeface retains “just enough character and nuance to keep the eye engaged,” Jacob tells us. These attributes were born from a personal goal of Jacob’s to create a functional sans serif in order to diversify Wise Type’s catalogue but also so that he could undertake “something a little more ambitious in scale and timeframe.” The project first began in early 2020 and the full family – which includes over 850 glyphs, supports 114 Latin languages and is available in nine weights as well as a variable counterpart – was officially released at the end of April 2021.

Looking back on his initial drafts for the basic set, Jacob tells us it was clear he was “trying to explore a space between the upright rigidity of neo-grotesques and the more organic approach of humanist sans serifs.” As things progressed though, he noticed his reference points stemmed more and more from type designed for transport, in particular railway identities, and that revelation “helped me form a rationale and guide my efforts in a somewhat less manic fashion.”

While amassing these references, Jacob realised there were several distinct similarities between the notable visual identities of major European railway systems. First and foremost, “there was the obvious visual link between various ‘double arrow’ symbols used by different national railway networks,” such as British Rail, the Dutch NS and the Swiss federal railways (SBB). While this of course sheds light on the design trends of the time these famous identities were designed, “on reflection, I noticed a drop of irony and humour within this: that by employing a neutral style for a national network, you inevitably missed out on the unique and diverse character that a given nation may have.” Continuing to work on what would become WT Saltburn, Jacob began to imagine his in-progress typeface as an extension of this “railway style… designed for a speculative network of its own.”


Jacob Wise: WT Saltburn (Copyright © Jacob Wise, 2021)

The typeface takes its name from Saltburn-on-Sea, where Jacob’s dad grew up. The town owes much of its existence to the introduction of the Stockton & Darlington Railway which was the world’s first public railway and connected the small town in 1861. “On top of that, it’s got a superb funicular railway which dons its cliffs,” Jacob adds. So not only is the typeface’s name a tribute to his dad’s youth but a fitting nod to a seaside town where “rails are aplenty”.

With the context of railways guiding his design decision, Jacob determined how WT Saltburn needed to function well within info-heavy situations, such as timetables, but equally as well in larger sizes on signage. “Initially I had designed the typeface with a combination of closed and open counters, closer in appearance to your typical grotesque types,” he explains. “Yet after some feedback from peers, it became clear that sharper, more humanist open counters made more sense within the context I’d established.” He also wanted to utilise variable functions so the typeface weight and italic axis could be customised, and this also informed certain aspects of the design “to ensure it could morph smoothly between its parameters.” Continuing the speculative nature of the project, Jacob added an extensive range of pictograms, symbols, arrows and figures – “all the bells and whistles you could dream of for a speculative railway of your own!”

To complete the project, Jacob visited Miniworld Rotterdam which houses a miniature model of Rotterdam to create the typeface specimen. “Since I had developed the typeface for my own speculative railway, it felt only logical that I should attempt to create a network livery of my own,” he explains. “As you can imagine, a full-scale train was out of the question but a miniature locomotive would do the trick.” He applied custom water transfers to a miniature train he got his hands on and visited Miniworld with photographer Lorena van Bunningen. “It was the perfect excuse to break routine and have a bit of fun exploring something completely different,” he says, adding that “during shooting, I was shocked to discover that Miniworld had actually built a section of Saltburn-by-the-Sea’s cliff-front within their steadily growing ‘British Isles’ section. What are the odds?!”

With WT Saltburn finally out there in the world, Jacob is returning to school having been given a place on the Type & Media master’s programme at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, beginning this September. Having been largely self-taught until now, and having realised over the past few years how much he enjoys type design, Jacob feels that “now’s the right time to take a step back and return to education to try and absorb all the knowledge my flaccid brain can hold before I get too ahead of myself!” It’ll mean pausing his practice with Wise Type for the most part but it’s something he’s “determined to do to help me develop as well as affording me the space and time to funnel my efforts,” he concludes.

GalleryJacob Wise: WT Saltburn (Copyright © Jacob Wise, 2021)

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Jacob Wise: WT Saltburn (Copyright © Jacob Wise, 2021)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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