Graphic designer Tom Baber adopts a hands-on approach to typography


An eye for layout and typography is a trait that runs in graduate Tom Baber’s family: “My mum was a graphic designer,” he tells It’s Nice That. “When her friends had babies she would paint their names in bright coloured letters with chunky serifs and animals climbing all over them, I always thought they were really cool.”

This influence, from such an early age and so close to home, has filtered into Tom’s life since. From drawing graffiti shapes with friends at school, a fondness for font solidified. “I liked constructing the letterforms and choosing colours, graphic design seemed like a subject where you could do that kind of thing all day long,” he says.

It was also Tom’s mum who introduced him to his future university, London College of Communication. “My mum made me look round LCC. I’d never heard of it but I got really excited looking round all the printing workshops, I’d never seen that kind of thing before, on that scale anyway.”

A common theme in Tom’s portfolio is a tangible quality throughout each project. A contributing factor to this delicate approach is that he avoids working on the computer constantly, a rarity for contemporary graphic design portfolios. “I like really simple design,” he elaborates. “I have a slight tendency to obsess over little details and my friends often tell me to hurry up and get on with it.” However, projects steeped in research and references is a key reason why Tom’s work is refreshing. “I enjoy working with my hands and usually start projects by doodling or flicking through design books and type specimens.”

Tom’s conscious decision to step away from the computer screen, coupled with the “magical” facilities at LCC, has created a portfolio of printed ephemera where typography is king. “I used to do a lot of calligraphy and crazy hand-painted lettering with shades and drop shadows, really decorative stuff,” he explains. “Now I do a lot more print and typography, it seemed like quite a natural progression.”

A consideration for typography, selecting fonts for optimum use, is a skill Tom has learnt from his tutors: “Paul McNeil – one of my tutors – said to me: ‘you can’t reinvent the alphabet, only dress it in different ways’. I like the idea of dressing up letters to suit different occasions,” says Tom. “You wouldn’t wear a football kit to a wedding… it’s the same kind of thing with type. It’s really noticeable when it’s done wrong.”

As a result, Tom’s projects play on the strength of an apt typeface, and often, typography is the only visual element in his projects. This is seen in the overlaying of one typeface repeatedly in a hot pink, and Tom’s book, New Faces: Typographic design in the twenty-first century”, where a bold sans serif is brazenly printed on to cloth binding.

In one particular project, For Hire, Tom showcases his flair for curating typefaces and printing in one swoop. The 3D block of a typeface harks back to old letterpress printing, a tradition he was able to make use of at LCC. “The technicians there taught me about traditional typesetting. I think working with type physically rather than on a screen is really valuable,” the graduate explains. “It taught me to design a lot slower and spend more time on details that I would overlook when working on the computer.” For example, paying consideration towards hand setting metal type is far more time consuming than laying it out on InDesign. “I’m very grateful for things the technicians taught me, they really shaped the way I approach design.”

However, throughout the years of a bachelors degree students, particularly those studying graphic design, are encouraged to experiment with many alternative outlets within the medium. A portfolio like Tom’s, one that focuses on a certain part thoroughly, resulted in some concerns. “I used to worry that my portfolio was too type heavy,” he says. Yet, a sandwich year interning at Apple’s design studio in California allowed the designer to feel comfortable about his specialised subject. “I saw designers like Jessica Svendson and Philip Cronerud working with type a lot, they made me realise that it’s okay to specialise in something if that’s what you want to do. After that I stopped caring.”

Thankfully Tom indulged in his typographic interest when he returned for his final year at university, creating Elephant Grotesk, his own typeface designed for his thesis, and his favourite project to date. “Inspired by Twelve Line Bold, a typeface from the London College of Communication letterpress printing workshop,” Tom’s digitised version expanded the “initial character set,” building on “existing forms to create a more accessible and useable version of the typeface”. Created after conducting research at St.Brides Library, “nerding out over old type specimens,” its name references the location of LCC “and the rich history the area has in the printing industry”.

Looking through Tom’s portfolio it is easy to spot his growth as a designer and his understanding for type, but most of all personality in sticking to your gut and running with your personal interests.

Supported by A/D/O

Founded by MINI, A/D/O is a creative space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn dedicated to exploring new boundaries in design. At its heart is the Design Academy, which offers a range of programming to professional designers, intended to provoke and invigorate their creative practice.

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Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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