“Sometimes we save designers’ bacon!”: A discussion with Paul Barnes on the type industry today
It’s Nice That’s guest editor Richard Turley sits down with designer Paul Barnes for a discussion on the ever developing outputs of the type design industry.
This article is published as part of Us vs Them, a guest edit of It’s Nice That commissioned and curated by creative director Richard Turley. To read further articles from Richard’s takeover head here.
Paul Barnes is the founding partner, alongside Christian Schwartz, of the London and New York-based type foundry Commercial Type. Since the 1990s, Paul’s practice – which specialises in lettering, typography, type design and publication design – has come to life across a variety of commercial and cultural outputs. To name just a few, Paul (in partnership with Christian) designed the Guardian Egyptian type family, developed the type for England’s 2012 Euros kit, created a typeface for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and, more recently, worked with cycling brand Rapha on its typeface, Frame.
Even if the name is unfamiliar, it’s highly likely you will have seen Paul’s work before – whether you’ve realised it or not. In the words of Richard Turley, who conducted this interview with the designer as part of his guest edit of It’s Nice That: “He’s the secret weapon to a bunch of high profile graphic designers.”
What was your first design-related job?
In an architect's office. I thought it was going to be creative. Instead they put me in a corner and had me working out the area of plots. I don’t think they had any real interest in this, I just don’t think they knew what to do with this annoying kid who was obsessed with the Bauhaus and Modernism.
What does your day look like?
I work somewhere between six in the morning and ten at night. Then, sometimes, I wake in a panic and work in the small hours. Not sure I’m always that productive though. I like to be in bed, reading, by ten. I like to be up by six.
What do you find most interesting in the type industry right now?
I like the more fluid side of the business. For so long the industry would only release things when they were truly “finished”, but now we seem to have entered a period when designers are happy to put things out, whether fully formed or not.
I really like the fluidness of something like Futurefonts, where people seem to be a little bit less precious. It also allows designers to test out ideas without having to go to the full distance and add everything that’s expected these days. Maybe, also, people are less worried about someone stealing the idea? I've always thought the industry is a bit like an ocean, with the quick trends on the surface, and then these slow eternal currents underneath. And then, from time to time, something comes up from the deep and becomes the swell.
One change I've noticed over the last few years is it becoming something of a flex for young (usually male) designers to make their own fonts. Do you have any thoughts on seeing your vocation jumped upon by a bunch of amateurs? Or is that just another version of swell on the surface?
I think anyone can or should make a font if they really want to. I guess the question should be “why do you want to do it?” If it's to learn how to do it, or it's because you have an idea to express, then this seems a good thing.
I think the expectation is that the “professionals” bristle with annoyance at the “amateur”, but I don’t think it's clear cut at all. Lots of newcomers to the profession aren’t constrained by the industry and what is supposedly right or wrong. They bring a refreshing energy, and much of what they do isn’t meant to be permanent. New directions appear to make type interesting. The swell is important.
But do you actually like these fonts? Is there anything interesting to you, from a “professional type designers” point of view?
It's a bit of a mix; sometimes you really like a complete typeface and sometimes it's just a character or a detail. It's like music – you might not like the intro, but you love the chorus, or you can’t stand the vocals, but love the tune. And sometimes it's just perfect. But I think also you can separate between “I like this typeface and would use it”, and “I love this typeface but would never imagine using it”.
For the 2012 Euros you worked on a new England shirt, how did that project come into the world?
I had a friend at Umbro, Rob Warner, who I worked with previously at Puma. He’s one of those people who have been involved in so many of the iconic and legendary shirts in football over the years. I think he said to me that they wanted a shirt (after the South African World Cup) that was joyful and colourful. But it had to be white.
As Umbro is a Manchester company, I introduced him to Peter Saville, and then Peter asked me to help him out. The little coloured St George crosses came from a conversation about how tailors on Saville Row left little personal touches such as cross stitches in the lining, and we just thought these crosses were a little like that. It gave the shirt a playful colourful quality, but was still to all intents and purposes a white shirt.
Which foundry are you most jealous of? Or typeface, or piece of work?
I love James Edmondson’s work and his foundry OhNo. I am not necessarily jealous of him, but I love the completeness of his vision and his voice in the world. I am just not capable of doing these kinds of fonts.
Tell me about your best and worst clients and the types of problems you are asked to solve.
Clients? Lots of different approaches. Some need guiding. Some don’t. Some want an idea. Some want to give you an idea. It's navigating it that makes it successful. Mark Porter [the editorial designer] is a dream client in many ways; he just says a few things and lets you get on with it. Then he looks at what you have done and says that’s the one. He can see the wood from the trees. And if it isn’t working he lets you know and you start again.
Often clients aren’t looking for a new typeface. They are looking for something that will make life cheaper and easier away from a current licensing deal, but they want the same or nearly the same as they have. Often type is just a small modification: “Lets make the dots round” “Let's make the dots square”. Then it's suddenly “ownable” and “unique”.
I guess sometimes we are tailors. Sometimes more. Sometimes we save designers bacon!
Within this article we’re showcasing a range of projects of yours. Does this sort of promotion work? (I’m asking as someone with half a foot in the advertising industry and I’m pretty sure adverts don’t work as much as repetition.)
I guess it depends what you are trying to achieve; I think it's pretty hard to promote something new and get instant results, it's just planting seeds in people's minds that you hope will grow. But I think we have always been of the mind that a lot of promotions are all about the brand and getting people to be aware of you as a foundry, and then getting them to take the time to look at the website and browse. So even if you are trying to sell the new thing, they may well leave having purchased Druk…
But like all promotions; you need a promotion to promote the promotion. Gone are the days when you had just physical specimens, now it's the type in the real world and then it reappears on social media… Our Commercial Classics campaign is another one.
What's the kindest act you've been shown in your career?
A few years ago, Richard Hollis took me to lunch and gave me a stack of Gerstner+Kutter and Gerstner, Gredinger and Kutter annual reports. The artefacts of Modernism used to mean a great deal to me, but as I get older I am not so bothered, but the G+K and GGK annual reports still are a real joy.
Would you say age has mellowed you?
l guess so. As I've gotten older I think it's become less experimental and probably less interesting. Or maybe as you learn more you feel smaller in the creative space, and it's perhaps best to not make such a song and dance about your latest genius idea. Over lockdown I spent a lot of time looking over the hundreds of incomplete faces I've made thinking maybe I should finish some of them. And then you spend a day with them and realise why they didn’t get finished. I am so lucky to have Christian to kick me up the arse from time to time. And for people who seem to like what we do, like you.
Us vs Them with Richard Turley
This story along with many others are part of a guest edit of It’s Nice That by Richard Turley. To read further pieces from Richard’s curation click on the link below.
Become an Extra Nice Supporter
This story, and the entire of Richard Turley’s guest edit series were made possible by Extra Nice and our supporters. To become a member and unlock an inspiring new way to explore It’s Nice That, and get your hands on some exclusive perks, head below.
About the Author
Richard Turley is a graphic designer and creative director. He started his career at the Guardian Newspaper in London. In 2010 he moved to New York to be the creative director of Businessweek magazine before moving to MTV (2014) and then Wieden + Kennedy (2016) where he led the re-brand of Formula One. He is the co-creator of the NY newspaper Civilization and the editorial/design director of Interview magazine. He co-founded the creative studio, Food, in 2021.