Local Characters: Fontsmith founder Jason Smith on collaboration through typography
For Jason Smith, the founder of Fontsmith, a love for lettering has grown since his student years. At the age of 21, Jason graduated from Reigate School of Art and following an internship at Monotype, he headed to London. With £50 a week in his back pocket from the Prince’s Trust, Jason settled into a studio space and began to bulk out his portfolio. At this time, Jason was “one of the youngest people creating lettering in London,” he explains. “And I was also doing it digitally which was kind of unheard of.” While at a job at Wagstaffs, designing packaging for brands such as Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, Jason was being regularly commissioned to create typefaces. He took a leap and set up Fontsmith, a forward-thinking type foundry with traditional attributes.
As a company, Fontsmith’s ethos has always been to retain a bespoke element in order to create typefaces with craftsmanship. Still a small company of just seven, they are not corporate, but have the ability to provide corporate work. Jason modestly names brands they have worked with over the years: an initial few projects with the Post Office which led to creating E4’s launching logo and typeface, “which led to Channel 4, Film4, BBC, then ITV and Sky News. It was going really well and all the while I was designing my own typefaces also”.
Since then, Fontsmith has gone from strength to strength. Jason is the creative director, alongside design director Phil Garnham, who Jason trained from a graduate. Their “push and pull” mentality is brought together by a group of talented type designers to make up their team. However, despite their successes, Jason noticed a flaw in the licensing system of typefaces which each foundry adopts. “It’s very complex, it’s too complex,” he elaborates.
If a brand wishes to use typeface for a campaign there are several layers to the legal proceedings, similar to licensing music for an advert. Fontsmith decided to simplify this laborious process, honestly declaring that it would be easier for them and the brand in question. The solution is Brandfont, a service Fontsmith offers to clients in three tiers, allowing fonts “to be used by brands of whatever size,” Jason says. “Brandfont allows everybody in a company’s supply chain to use the typeface, it doesn’t matter how many computers, page views, or people internally and externally use it. It additionally gives brands the option to rename a typeface, taking ownership, all for a one-off fee, with no moving of the goalposts.”
Since its inception Fontsmith has concentrated on creating a curated family of 40 typefaces. “Designing where we’ve seen a gap in our own library of fonts, these are typefaces that we’ve drawn and conceptualised, there is huge value in that,” Jason explains. The first tier is an off-the-shelf typeface – a client can browse Fontsmith’s library and choose a complete typeface to use straight away. The second adds a little customisation, as their designers will tailor a particular font to fit the brand. “We could change five letters, cut you a new weight and rename it. Usually a creative director would have to wait to hear back from a designer for weeks but with our work, we’ll say yes or no, it’s really easy.” The final option is to create a bespoke typeface, a service where Fontsmith’s designers are in their element, because a client can set a brief of initial ideas and “we’ll conceptualise it and draw something specific,” says Jason. Despite each tier’s different input and final branded output, the focus of Brandfont is the customer’s choice.
The use of typefaces in general will always be a collaborative service, from the initial design to how they are appropriated in the future. For this reason, It’s Nice That and Fontsmith collaborated with three creatives to showcase each of Brandfont’s tiers in motion. Anna Kulachek’s project on her hometown of Moscow represented the off-the-shelf option, using the typeface FS Dillon to depict her time in Moscow. Jason believes the success of Anna’s work is due to her “choosing a font that meant something, from there it worked with the concept”. Anna’s work led the pathway for conceptual uses of Fontsmith’s typefaces. “They’ve all got something that is expressive and meaningful. The whole idea of Local Characters is a great idea because it makes the project personal, it tells a story.”
The second Local Characters project with Astrid Starvo demonstrates the process in which the company works with brands to tailor their original work. “The visual concept was great but it needed our craftsmanship to make it gel, to balance these letters,” explains Jason. “It was very tricky to do, but these are the questions we are asked everyday. The final result and Astrid’s vision of how it could work in use worked fantastically well.”
Finally, Jimmy Turrell’s bespoke typeface saw both the designer and Fontsmith go above and beyond the brief. “Jimmy is just Jimmy!” says Jason. “He’s a brilliant bloke and that attitude of ‘I’ve done this but I don’t know if it is actually doable’ was exciting to work with. The result is so strange and so different but it really represents his idea.”
Jimmy Turrell’s FS Erskine typeface
Jimmy Turrell photographed in the Byker Wall
Each of the collaborations displays the creative talent involved in designing typography but also how it can be adapted to add personality from disparate backgrounds. “To get to work together and collaborate is what I absolutely love about my job, it is what I’ve loved since the age of 20,” says Jason. “I’ve worked on so many different brands, companies and stories that you get to understand and learn so much about different industries but mostly importantly, people.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.