Jacob Wise on legibility, expressive typography and referencing in graphic design
Look out for the Ones to Watch eye in this article to find out more about Jacob
It’s often tempting to admire a creative’s portfolio for the breadth of output and media it contains. When it comes to designers, we speak of (and often expect to see) publications, websites, identities, typefaces, posters, moving image, AR and VR – the list goes on. But the strength of Ones to Watch 2019 Jacob Wise’s portfolio is that he does (pretty much) one thing really, really well. Jacob is a typographer through and through. And that’s not to say he couldn’t do all those other things; he just chooses not to most of the time.
“With the creative industry becoming more cut-throat and competitive, I think the value of becoming a professional in a niche area should not be overlooked”
Born in London to parents who are both designers , it was during his final year at Kingston School of Art that Jacob decided to hone his practice. His decision to “delve into typography” was taken both out of love for the tradition and as a backlash to the ever-growing uniformity of design courses. “The term ‘multidisciplinary creative’ was bandied around art school a great deal whilst I was there. I don’t have an issue with it as I think anyone creative is inherently able to understand other creative disciplines, but I do see the danger in design courses becoming too homogeneous,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Obviously it’s good to have that sense of freedom but with the creative industry becoming more cut-throat and competitive, I think the value of becoming a professional within a niche area should not be overlooked.”
Accompanied by a childhood snap, Jacob tells us what it was like to grow up in such a creative household: “My parents are very creative so of course that rubbed off on me and my brother when growing up, but we never felt like we were pushed in a particular direction. I always knew I wanted to do something creative in life from a young age but it wasn’t really until I was introduced to graphic design that I was able to really focus my interests. My parents are no strangers to offering constructive critique but they are incredibly supportive of the work I do and I hope to think I make them proud!”
Since graduating in 2017, becoming a professional in a niche area is exactly what Jacob’s been working on. What started as an internship in September of that year at revered Munich-based design studio Bureau Borsche turned into a job, one which he stills holds today. “I’ve lost track of what I’ve worked on,” he explains of his time there. “It’s great because everyone dips in and out of projects – you’re always doing bits and bobs from day-to-day which is fast-paced but refreshing. Since my primary focus is typography, I naturally end up working on much of the type, lettering and logo design for clients,” he adds.
What’s it like living in Munich? There’s good and bad, Jacob explains. “Pros: Swimming in the Isar river is a real joy in the summer months. The same can’t be said for London – good luck swimming in the Thames without catching dysentery.” The cons, on the other hand, include “commuting to work during Oktoberfest, which is a right pain in the arse”. And for anyone planning a trip to the Bavarian capital, the designer recommends Asams Church, which “I often take people to when they visit. Its interior has outrageously exaggerated baroque embellishments which adorn every inch of the place. It’s got some serious bombast.”
Despite volunteering to dedicate his time specifically to typography, it’s clearly an area in which Jacob has innate, natural ability. Not limited to one aesthetic, his letterings are as sophisticated as they are expressive. Although accomplished as a technical designer, in the years since he acquired a spare copy of InDesign aged 14, his process has developed into something intuitive and instinctive. “I’m spending far longer refining bézier curves and on the precision of my typography than I was a couple of years back,” he remarks, but no matter how complex the type, he’s resolute about one thing: “I always start by sketching.”
This initial expression takes place in sketchbooks and on paper , as “the computer really saps my confidence in bold mark making” he says. “For me, the sketching should be quick and rough as it’s only the composition and angles that are of interest – details always come last.” For example, the sketch for Jacob’s custom lettering 2019 was produced in a matter of seconds. It’s an approach which injects Jacob’s letterings with a fluidity and energy only possible through this form of organic creation. Once a basic composition has been decided on, he then spends a few hours refining and re-draws the curves and contrasts of the shape in Illustrator.
Hardcore Soul – Never Sleep Books No1. Lettering for an upcoming photography book by Ewen Spencer, organised by Gabber Eleganza
Entire typefaces start out the same way with rough sketches, before a “lengthy process of digitisation”. Jacob’s most recent typeface is titled Skrappa, a release which also marked the launch of his type foundry Wise Type. A bold and condensed typeface, it’s robust yet retains a certain elegance thanks to Jacob’s use of ligatures and a tall x-height. Skrappa was initially inspired by Ken Garland’s letterings for his 1964 manifesto First Things First , a seminal book which went on to shape how many designers approached their work. Presented as a uniform block of text, each letter of each word of Garland’s title sits neatly squared off along a baseline, a regularity only punctured by ascenders or descenders. Skrappa is much the same, borrowing this architecturally Brutalist style, rendered even more consistent by the uniformity digital type tools offer designers like Jacob today.
Written in 1963 and published a year later, Ken Garland’s First Things First called for a humanist approach to design. Its manifesto was backed by over 400 other designers and even attracted the attention of left-wing activist and politician Tony Benn, who published it in its entirety in The Guardian. It criticised the design industry which the signatories felt had become lazy, acting in reaction to the rich and affluent Britain of the time. Although challenging, it’s considered by many a momentous text which shaped the design industry as we know it today. Garland writes on his website: “The manifesto was published in January 1964. Inexplicably, to me, reverberations are still being felt.”
Referencing plays a major role in Jacob’s process, as he tells us: “If I hadn’t fallen into graphic design then it definitely would have been history. I believe I have quite an obsessive nature so when I discover something of historic interest, I really like to indulge.” While Jacob’s nods to the past are born from a genuine fascination with history, allowing him to incorporate his interests from outside the design world into his practice, it’s a process which has also helped inform his views on contemporary design. “I think it’s massively important to know and understand what has preceded within the context of design. That is how graphic design perpetuates,” he says, understanding that “you can be inspired by particular visual styles from the past but you should obviously refrain from blatant regurgitation – homage rather than pillage.” It’s in this space that Skrappa exists, as a tribute to a typographic bygone era.
While Skrappa demonstrates the pragmatic side of Jacob’s portfolio, much of it is more inclined to be fluid and evocative. “Similar in approach to the art nouveau but within the context of the present,” as he describes it. His experimental letterforms bend and curl themselves around pages, breaking free from the constraints of what they should look like to communicate on a level beyond simply what word they depict. It’s here that they cross the ever-more-crossed line to become less functional and more conceptual. “I absolutely believe in typography being able to function as pure ornament,” he says. “Of course this isn’t by any means a new way of thinking in regard to typography but it is inherently fascinating to discover the boundary of what defines functionality.”
“I think it’s massively important to know and understand what has preceded within the context of design. That is how graphic design perpetuates”
Whites 018, Reckonwrong: Paris Is Melting. Art directed by Alex McCullough
Take Jacob’s recent work for London-based record label Whities 018, art directed by Alex McCullough. Featuring a single daffodil against a centred purple circle and black background, every one of Jacob’s letters snakes and collapses back in on itself in some way or another. “For us,” Jacob explains, “legibility was secondary to its function as an artefact of graphic interest. We revelled in the fact that it was borderline illegible which played directly into the bizarre and curious nature of Reckonwrong’s music.”
It’s a conversation which, although having been waged for a long time as Jacob points out, continues to produce exciting results. In much of Jacob’s work, it’s less that letters cease to function and more that they find a new role: image. Whether inspired by medieval times, or created completely intuitively, Jacob’s work continues to surprise. So what’s next for the typographer? “In Spring I’ll be leaving Bureau Borsche and moving to Rotterdam to focus full-time on typography and freelance projects, which is an exciting next step for me. I’d then like to start work on a more accessible and timeless typeface of multiple weights. Up to now, I’ve only really had a hand at display fonts so would be nice to focus my effort and time into creating something more ambitious.”
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