Marie Boulanger’s type design practice balances hypersensitivity and analytical thinking
From a book on the relationship between letterforms and gender stereotypes, to a typeface that confronts the taboos of female anatomy, Marie Boulanger’s reactive work tackles social issues head on.
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 24 May 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
“I have felt drawn to languages, alphabets and scripts my whole life but I never realised there was a career where I could explore them creatively,” begins French-British type designer, Marie Boulanger. After a short period of studying linguistics at University College London, which she quickly realised was not the right fit for her, she went on to complete a BA in Graphic Design at École Estienne in Paris. “This is when things started making a little bit more sense,” she recalls. “After thinking I wanted to work with words, I realised it was actually about the letters.” This revelation would inspire her to pursue a new path, but not immediately. She took some time out to make sure the next steps she had in mind were the right ones, working in other jobs such as non-fiction and art book publishing, until one day, while designing a cover for a book on type, she had a “just do it” moment. Marie promptly handed in her notice and applied to an MA in Type Design at ECV Paris.
“During the MA, everything felt so much more meaningful,” she says. “I spent a few months at Abmo Paris, a wonderful independent branding agency who taught me a lot about making letters for clients, and with whom I still work from time to time.” This period acted as assurance for Marie that pursuing a career in type design was the right move, but whether she should seek out foundries, agencies or self-employment, she was still unsure. Never one to be risk-averse, she decided to “spend every last penny of my savings” to be a speaker at TypeCon in Minneapolis in 2019. The gamble paid off and she ended up meeting “several people who changed the course of my professional life and allowed me to start working on freelance projects, typefaces, and even to teach at university.” Off the back of this, she had several near successes, one with a big Paris-based agency that headhunted her, and another with an exciting company in London, but neither ended up materialising. “Then the pandemic hit and all job offers disappeared, so I had to start networking as much as I could and put myself out there,” she explains. “Amazingly, things worked out, and I actually started creating logos and letters for several agencies and clients, did some teaching at Kingston University, and released a typeface last month.”
At the end of April, Marie announced the release of her first full-fledged typeface, Faubourg Display. The jump from “making a set of capitals for a school project” to “drawing hundreds of glyphs in several weights well enough so that other people can use it and rely on it” was a special moment for Marie and, in her eyes at least, was the point at which she became an official type designer. “I cried the first time someone bought it,” she says.
Alongside Faubourg, Marie has a whole host of impressive type designs that are equally as expressive and thoughtful, such as Vulva Black, a typeface that uses negative space as a metaphor for the current and historic invisibilisation of women, and features the shape of a vulva in the “M”, “V”, “W”, “X” and “Y” to address taboos around the female anatomy. Although, sometimes, the driving force behind a typeface is simply Marie’s own love of it – as was the case with Euphorie, which was born from sketches made for a client who ended up taking a different route. Even prior to this, the foundations of this typeface had been in the back of her mind for some time, and Marie resolved to make sure it saw the light of day.
More recently, Marie has been promoting the planned launch of her first book, XX, XY Sex, Letters and Stereotypes, which is based on her MA thesis that she presented at TypeCon back in 2019. The concept was inspired by the realisation that, at the time, there was no research whatsoever about what makes a typeface masculine or feminine, despite Marie frequently hearing from co-workers that certain typefaces felt gendered. “I realised it was up to me to do the research and see what I could find,” she recalls. “A lot of the research that was happening regarding the design industry and gender stereotypes was mostly to do with representation and equality, and I knew I had an opportunity to completely flip that and start the research using the letters themselves as a starting point.”
Speaking on key takeaways from the book, Marie explains that we “use letters as projections of ourselves, sometimes quite literally as they have weights, legs, spines and eyes”. She goes on to say that we continue to ascribe human qualities to them, including gender stereotypes, and that if we intend to progress with these matters on a larger scale – in society in general – then we should attempt to progress on a micro-scale as well and seek to make better design choices. The second half of the book presents possible ways of moving forward and solving these problems. As always, Marie’s impressive balance of self-admitted “hypersensitivity” and analytical thinking has given her the tools to not just shine a light on unaddressed issues, but also to think ahead, and show us how we can overcome them.
Marie Boulanger: 36 Days of Type (Copyright © Marie Boulanger, 2021)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.