Getting to know Margot Lévêque and her personality-driven typefaces
The French graphic designer talks to us about the typeface that changed her life and the advantages of taking your time.
It’s a well-known truism in graphic design that typography lends words a tone of voice, a sense of personality. Margot Lévêque goes one step further. “I design my typefaces as characters,” says the 27-year-old creative. “That’s why all my typefaces have a first name. They all remind me of a moment in my life and I personify them. I love to imagine Marya, Romie, Kalice and Joseph sitting around a table and talking to each other.”
Over the past few years, Margot and her typefaces have garnered a host of passionate supporters in high places not just in the design world, but also in fashion, tech and pop culture. She has worked with global brands, from Hermès to Spotify; with leading cultural institutions, such as the Aperture Foundation; and with some of the most highly regarded talents in graphic design, from Ines Cox to Actual Source to Studio Nari. Her type work has graced the cover of Vogue Singapore and been used in an Ariana Grande video. For anyone who has followed her development, Margot’s rise over the past five years has been both meteoric and totally unsurprising.
Yet it’s worth pausing to reflect on the fact that Margot was not born to graphic design – far from it, in fact. “My mother sells clothes, my father is an oyster farmer, my sister has a restaurant,” she says. “So hopefully it’s comforting to some people to know that, when I started graphic design, I knew nothing about it!” Indeed, her career journey is a testament to the fact that there is no one single route into the design industry and that a meandering path can be every bit as fruitful as a direct one.
When she left school, having spent her childhood in Normandy, Margot went to study biology in the city of Rennes, in the west of France. This was, she admits, not out of a profound passion for science, but more because she was “lost and didn’t know what to do with [her] life”. She soon found that she disliked both the city and the course she was enrolled on, not to mention the wet weather the region is infamous for. It was on the spur of the moment that she decided to move to Paris and study marketing and communication – it was, she says, “like a new life!”
While she was on this course in Paris, she began to understand where her interests and talents intersected. “The thing I liked doing most during these classes was not market research, but the visuals,” Margot recalls. She remembers doing a lot of group projects and presentations, and she was always the one tasked with making the decks look good. It was like a light pinging on. “From that moment on, my whole life has been focused on what I can now call a passion: graphic design.”
Yet the really big milestone in the Margot Lévêque story comes with the arrival of Romie, the typeface she developed between 2018 and 2019, whilst she was studying for her master’s at the École de Communication Visuelle in Paris. “I saw the before and after of this font,” she says, referring to the transformation in her life that it brought about. “That year, 2019, was the year I started to receive more than 20 emails a day, asking for information, for interviews, for work. It was completely new for me, and it was pretty crazy.”
GalleryMargot Lévêque: Romie ligatures in use for the band Yumi Zouma, with creative direction by Lorenzo Fanton (Copyright © Margot Lévêque, 2021)
Romie is a serif typeface based on calligraphy and with a heavy dose of 1960s swagger and style to it. Yet it is also contemporary and highly versatile, as you can tell from any selection of the projects that have employed it. For instance, Romie was chosen as the main typeface for The New Black Vanguard, a book edited by the art and fashion critic Antwaun Sargent, and at the same time it found its way into Made Thought’s branding work for the online personal-shopping service Lookiero. It was used by Ines Cox in her flags for the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and by Actual Source in its eighth issue of Shoplifters.
Asked what piece of work she is still most proud of today, Margot responds without hesitation: “Romie, of course. It was this project that gave me all the visibility and opportunities I have today.” She fully believes this is a story that others can also feel motivated by. “Sometimes, all it takes is one significant project to turn things around,” she notes. “I was lucky. I got this early on, while I was still in school. It opened all the doors for me and today I am proud of that.”
Margot’s work post-Romie has been split between client projects (such as logo designs for the fashion brand Lesjour and the freelance motion graphics designer Georgie Yana) and typefaces, which she says she works on as more of a “personal project”. It’s in her type-design work that she feels free to express herself without a fixed brief. “I feel free in my choices, I decide everything from beginning to end,” she explains. “It’s my escape! I work a lot with my instincts.”
Throughout Margot’s personal work, certain patterns recur. One is just the sheer depth of research that goes into her projects. There aren’t many better examples of this than the publication Mysterium Conjunctionis, which she produced for her diploma. The book takes an in-depth look at the collar – that’s right, the part of a garment that wraps around the wearer’s neck – and its long and winding history. Margot spent 12 months working on this, including six months on intense research. “I even took sewing classes!” she remarks. When quizzed on why she did this, she responds: “For me, this is the most important part of my process. Research and sketches – that’s the moment when the decisions are made.”
As this project also demonstrates, Margot treats history and heritage with a sense of reverence, particularly when it comes to type. Three of her typefaces – Romie, Marya and Kalice – all of them serifs (“I haven’t felt the desire to start a sans serif, maybe that will come later,” she muses), display an awareness of historical references, without actually feeling old-fashioned or dated.
“I’m in love with historical typefaces,” Margot says. “It’s important to stay connected with what was done decades ago.” In her mind, this leads to more successful work than if all of a designer’s references are from the recent past. “You have a much better chance of making an impact with references that come from decades ago. If you’re inspired by contemporary design, you have more chances to lose people, because it’ll probably feel like déjà vu!”
It’s one of the many reasons Margot is slightly wary of social media. She is prolific on Instagram, but a lot of what she shares with her community falls into the category of advice and support for fellow creatives. She says she receives between 10 and 20 private messages every day on the platform and sees a lot of similarities between the questions they’re asking and the advice they’re looking for. “Using Stories is a way for me to save time and answer everyone,” she explains. “I spend a lot of time every day answering everyone because I like it. But sometimes I have to find a way to save time!”
Outside of this, however, Margot is concerned by the way that social media forces a certain level of haste and productivity on creatives. “Social media can sometimes seem like a whirlwind in which you have to produce as quickly as possible,” she says. “But I believe that the more we take our time, the better things get.”
She has learnt this particularly through working with Dinamo, the Swiss type foundry set up by Johannes Breyer and Fabian Harb. She is currently working on Marya in collaboration with Dinamo and hopes to release it next year. “Dinamo has taught me a lot about type design and how a foundry works,” she says. “They’ve taught me again and again to take my time. It’s a very bad sign if a typeface is out and sold in less than six months.” Those kind of time frames are, perhaps, unique to type design, but it’s a healthy reminder that the rapacious appetite of social media shouldn’t necessarily dictate your creative production.
Even when it comes to her work for clients, Margot has developed a process that requires taking time and allowing things to flow more naturally. “After a call, very often clients send me their references and inspiration,” she says. “Then, I do nothing! I take two days and take a step back. The brain, on the other hand, works by itself!” When she finally does sit down to begin the work, her mind has already cultivated a few inchoate ideas. “Therefore, I optimise my creative time,” she says.
Alongside working with Dinamo on Marya, Margot is also working on a new display typeface called Ninna, which will be released later this year, and on a new and improved version of her best-known face, Romie – as she puts it, a “2.0 version”. It’s going to be quite the year for her and her typefaces, as she adds a further character to the cast sitting round her imaginary table and gives another of them a spruce-up as well. And that’s before we even factor in the client work, which she will undoubtedly continue to release (but about which she, of course, has to remain a bit more tight-lipped).
Margot is also mindful of the success she’s enjoying, which shows itself in gratitude but also pride. Looking back on the success that Romie brought in 2019, she remembers: “For the first time, I told myself that I was going to be able to live a decent life as a freelancer without spending ten years in an agency before. The dream!” That dream has continued throughout the intervening 18 months. “Every year, I wonder what’s going to happen to me that’s even crazier than the year before,” she says. “And every year I have more and more incredible projects. Honestly, I’m proud and super happy. And I don’t want to hide it! I get up in the morning, I feel happy and so grateful for my life right now.”