Posted in Theory, Typeface

1/4 Exclusive interview with Fontsmith’s Phil Garnham


Here is the first in a series of 4 exclusive interviews with the über-talented Fontsmith team. We start with bass wielding, graphic loving, print obsessive Type Design Director Phil Garnham.

Name: Phil Garnham
Time at Fontsmith: 8 Years
Role in the studio: Type Design Director

Did you always want to design type and how did you get started?
I really liked the idea, but I never actually believed that I could make it my full-time career. As a kid, I used to spend a lot of time with crayon’s, copying other peoples drawings and letters. I clearly remember my first lettering book that showed me how to draw proper bubble lettering and go-faster stripes. It wasn’t until many moons later, at Middlesex University, under the guidance of Andy Gossett (ex-Total Design, now Studio Gossett), that I got an opportunity to get stuck in properly by designing two very simple alphabets. When I left university, I knew that I had very strong opinions about type, I found that type was something I could intricately handle and it’s tone, texture and placement really mattered to me. In 2002, I met Jason Smith by chance whilst I was working my portfolio on the internship circuit and we got along right from the off. I think he was intrigued by my peculiar ‘graphic design’ thinking approach to type and I wanted to learn more about his ‘crafted lettering’ approach. Jason set about teaching me how to draw letterforms on-screen, how to craft their relationships, how to space, kern, critique and sculpt typographic form into a visual voice. I became more confident in my new skills and so I began exploring typographic form with real conviction.

Which commercially available fonts from Fontsmith have you worked on?
My first commercial typeface was FS Clerkenwell which was a real push and pull creation between myself and Jason. With my initial ideas, it soon became clear that is was Jason’s job to pull me back into realms of legibility. I’ve never had any difficulty in injecting personality into type, but in the early years I found it hard to retain focus and that practical continuity required in a type’s design.

My first 100%, solo effort was FS Lola. At the time I wanted to create something that was beautifully crafted, something that had a fast-paced energy and rhythm but retained a graphic impact. I would like to think that it has turned into something of an understated modern classic. It is used so widely, but it’s not overtly obvious or imposing, Lola’s character changes so much depending on how he or she is applied.

In 2006-ish I put together a series of headline fonts in the form of FS Alvar, FS Kitty, FS Pele, FS Sinclair and then I jumped back into the world of formal serif type design with the FS Sally typeface. I think as a typeface Sally has so much to offer, it is quite underestimated and beautiful.

At Fontsmith, we have a very good team spirit, each of us sees things a little bit differently and that’s a great thing for us in terms of developing our work and injecting just that little bit more into each project. Our process can be quite collaborative, we all worked on our FS Rufus typeface at one time or other, I designed the curly ligatures. I also developed additional weights of FS Joey and FS Me, and helped to turn FS Albert into FS Albert ‘Pro’ with it’s Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.

What are your working on right now?
A typeface for the discerning millennial modernist. Top secret.

What is your greatest (type design) achievement to date and why?
Designing FS Conrad was a big thing for me. We were approached by the artist, Conrad Shawcross to investigate how a typeface could take on the aesthetic of an artwork. Conrad was in the process of creating a giant mechanical installation entitled ‘Chord’ and he wanted us to help bring a typographic continuity and visual harmony between the artwork and it’s promo material. I created a fine linear and modular alphabet which overlaps and entwines in the same nature as his sculpture. Despite it’s appearance FS Conrad is not a strictly rigid typeface. It has varying character widths, it is informed by real typographic proportions. It certainly isn‘t the most versatile of alphabets, you can only really use it at super large sizes and its character is very imposing, but that’s why I love it so much.

Can you give us an overview of the process you would usually take when creating a new typeface?
I initially set about understanding the intentions, the context and the mood. I like to make notes and spend a few days scribbling in my sketchbook before working on screen. It’s more instant and decisions can be made much more swiftly. I sketch a few of my thoughts on-screen, I draw in colour, or on-top of images. I design the personality by using short test words with a variety of formal character. When I get to a happy place, I push things onto Fontlab and start thinking more seriously about craft, balance, spacing and letter-relationships. The whole process is documented, we show each other where things are going and all offer our ideas and thoughts along the way.

What is your favourite part of that process?
The inner conversation. I literally just talk things through with myself whilst I’m drawing. I talk about the shapes and whether they fit the objective. Designing type for type’s sake is a pointless exercise, there should always be a brief, something to bounce your idea off. This constant private discussion helps me to push, pull, chop, slice and scribble. It helps to mould the visual tone of what’s before my eyes.

Do you find yourself drawing inspiration from any particular era, culture or movement, and how does that impact on your work?
I am influenced by graphic and visual fashions. I simply think that it’s impossible to not be. I like what I like but I’m also a very firm believer that the brief is everything. When we design new typefaces for our library, we discuss our ideas and put together an objective. We don’t create type for the sake of more type, we want to offer something new, unique and with focus. I do think that design movements and visual styles are important for us in the sense that they are visual markers that we can pitch our ideas in and around but I don’t think that I’m a subscriber to just one specific way of thinking. I would like to  think that the broad variety of my work and ours as a foundry is testament to that.

Outside of Fontsmith whose work and faces do you most admire?
In terms of typography, nobody can touch Emil Ruder, Wolfgang Weingart and Wim Crouwel. Their design philosophy – simple, direct and inventive, like graphic scientists. Type foundries that I admirer are Jean François PorchezJeremy Tankard / Fred Smeijers. Their types are carefully balanced with beauty, craft, function and flamboyant creativity. Those guys know how to deliver exciting ideas without sacrificing purpose.

Where is the coolest place you’ve seen your work applied?
It’s very difficult to say what the ‘coolest’ place or execution is. Peter&Paul have done some superb work for Jefferson Sheard Architects using FS Pele, and Vince Frost have done great things, again with FS Pele, for D&AD’s Ampersand booklet.I’m a huge print fan but seeing our television brand typefaces daily is pretty special. Our types are talking to millions of people in the UK everyday… now that’s pretty cool.

If you weren’t a type designer what would you be?
Bass Guitarist. Peter Hook style.

Thank you Phil for getting involved and we look forward to seeing your upcoming fonts as they are released. Seriously top bloke on all accounts.

Fontsmith is a leading London based type design studio founded in 1999 by Jason Smith. The studio consists of a team dedicated to designing and developing high quality typefaces for both independent release as well as bespoke fonts for international clients.

If you want to follow Phil on Twitter you can find him here




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