Here is our second in series of 4 exclusive interviews with the superstar type designers at London based Fontsmith. In this interview we chat with the man of the moment, Latin American funk & disco synth obsessive Fernando Mello, who’s latest font FS Pimlico has recently been released.
Name: Fernando Mello
Time at Fontsmith: 3 years
Role in the studio: Senior type designer
Did you always want to design type and how did you get started?
I have a mixed creative background which travels through illustration, architecture and graphic design. During my childhood I was always into drawing, colouring and reading every kind of comic book, and when a teenager I was myself for years creating characters and graphic novels. When university time came, I tried architecture, for being related to drawing and apparently offering a more promising future. Although becoming an architect years later, I never really liked to design buildings and structures, it was boring, impersonal, not very creative to me, although I enjoy the history of architecture and looking at nice buildings or interiors. The good thing about it was that in this university I had my first contacts with typography as we had some graphic design assignments for the architecture course. I was very lucky to work later on with my former university teacher Vicente Gil, top-notch brazilian graphic designer and great type appreciator, and I can blame him and his peerless work for putting me on the road of learning type properly. In 2006 I decided to come to the UK to study on the MA in Typeface Design from the University of Reading, a course that changed my life and taught me a lot about type. After that, I moved to London and met Jason and Phil. The connection to their work and way of being was natural.
Which commercially available fonts from Fontsmith have you worked on?
My first job in Fontsmith was to create together with Jason a legible, unconventional but corporate font for a new video-on-demand service, which became the typeface FS Joey. I also developed together with Jason FS Jack, another corporate font which Jason had been designing for years in his spare time. Both of us are Gill-Kayo fans, I remember we had good fun designing the exaggerated poster weight. Moreover, I did some small work on new weights for FS Me, FS Albert Pro and FS Rufus, and worked on many custom fonts for clients such as Lurpak and Sky News. For the last two years I’ve been developing FS Pimlico in between jobs on my own, a special project where the guys gave me total freedom and support to experiment with my own ideas.
What are you working on right now?
I’m involved in a few custom font jobs and I’ve also been working on some Cyrillic and Greek extensions for some of our library fonts. I had contact with both of these scripts while studying in Reading, but now it is being the first time I have to work with them in a professional project, which is very exciting. I am passionate about type in general so studying different scripts and designing non-Latin typefaces is something that also interests me.
What is your greatest (type design) achievement to date and why?
I tend to think all of the fonts I have created have their specialty and significance to me. It is impossible not to mention the joint Latin-Tamil work I created in Reading, which has kickstarted my type career through recognition prizes in Latin America, Europe and Japan. FS Pimlico was also a very special moment to me because I could put a lot of energy in developing something highly personal, well-humoured, very related to the way I live my life but which also translates my concerns for a typeface to be very usable. It was an experience that will always be in that font and I will hardly forget (that is one of the nice things about fonts, we die, they live forever!). The process of designing FS Joey was also something which I consider very important, since it was the first time I was involved in a real, difficult brief of designing a very unique corporate typeface for a client.
Can you give us an overview of the process you would usually take when creating a new typeface?
Usually I start by analysing the brief thoroughly and then doing some visual research for references. The next step is to sketch ideas by hand. I quickly draw a few letters experimenting with basic features, but that is normally done very roughly, nothing very elaborate like old school type designers would do. After that point the experimentation continues through designing a few key glyphs in Fontlab (well, sometimes Illustrator), a stage where I can get much more precision through the Bezier tool. Then it takes some time, weeks or even months, for the design of basic letters to get consolidated, and it is after this stage that I start to extend the character set and create punctuation, diacritics, etc. A final stage comprises refining spacing, kerning, curves and shapes in general, and then testing the font in many different ways.
What is your favourite part of that process?
I think obviously the creative part is one of the best, when you start experimenting and ideas start to get materialised. But in my opinion, the very best part it is the final stage when you are refining the design, doing tests and putting it to work nicely. Reviewing and retouching the letters several times, seeing them working together again and again at the final stage, and imagining what people will think of them or how they will use them at the moment the font goes out to the world, is something very joyful and hard to describe.
Do you find yourself drawing inspiration from any particular era, culture or movement, and how does that impact on your work?
As it happens with music, I try to face graphic design placing it in a historical timeline and analyze it as a whole. I can love Müller-Brockmann grid-based solutions in the same manner I can love Victor Moscoso’s album covers. Although there are lots of things that interest me and lots that don’t, I try to be at least aware of everything which is happening culturally in the contemporary world–and that can be applied to design, music or technology. But I must confess that I was raised in the early 80s disco/synthpop era, and maybe because of that, I became a dedicated collector of old funk & disco vinyls, retro toys, books, dry-transfer sheets, Letraset catalogues, analogue synthesizers, early drum machines and sequencers, and anything else which may suggest a link to the 70s/80s. It may well be a personal preference but I just think those times were very important and full of breakthroughs, for both graphic design and music. This personal nostalgia thing obviously had a huge impact on FS Pimlico, but the typeface’s main idea is to bring back some kind of feeling related to the experimentation with type which guys like Lubalin, Carnase and Di Spigna were doing with fonts and logotypes in New York during the 70s. I believe during those days, when phototypesetting and early digital systems had started to make things a bit easier, designers in a way had some sudden kind of broader or less restrictive conceptual freedom if compared to contemporary designers confined to Illustrator/InDesign/Photoshop environments and easy-to-use commands, and that’s what interests me. That was my inspiration for FS Pimlico, which is a very personal project. However, I also wanted to make it a very usable and versatile family, so I tried to put some kind of overall contemporary feel to it, since I personally think there is not much point of creating something vintage or retro just for the sake of nostalgia. Type design must be tied to a brief, to a purpose, this is what dictates how the font will or should look like, so I believe it is a good thing for a type designer to be flexible and open-minded, and not to be always tied to a certain style.
Outside of Fontsmith whose work and faces do you most admire?
I am a great appreciator of fonts which work well but have something unique, weird, ownable. Like Eric Gill said, “letters are things, not pictures of things”, and we type designers deal with well established standard shapes when creating letters, in the same manner illustrators deal with standard forms and features for things they draw, like let’s say, an elephant or a tree. The thing about type is that we have to design a bunch of standard shapes in a way that they work together, but if that was the only thing to be achieved, we wouldn’t need more fonts in the world. Like we need new shoes, new cars, new shirts, I believe that yes, we will always need new and fresh fonts, that kind of necessity is the human reason for design to exist. To me the most interesting fonts play with these standard shapes in their very own, intelligent way, it doesn’t matter if they are display or text fonts. I am a big fan of Martin Majoor’s Scala Serif, Chauncey Griffith’s Bell Gothic and W.A. Dwiggins Electra, they are all full of ‘weird’, very personal and uncommon details, but do their job in an impressive and efficient way. Going back in time, I greatly admire the work of Nicholas Jenson and Claude Garamond, I think the roman typeface Jenson created in the 1400s will always be the great standard, the most perfect or default model for how each of our Latin letters look like in essence. Oh, yes, and I cannot avoid to mention I love Cooper Black. Speaking of more contemporary stuff, there are too many nice fonts, but if I would have to pick five, I would choose Ratio by Mark Caneso, Klavika by Eric Olson, Caput by Natascha Dell & Kai Oetzbach, Motet by Sarah Solskolne and Maiola by Veronika Burian – these are five original and beautiful fonts that I admire every time I look at them.
Where is the coolest place you’ve seen your work applied?
I really enjoy the fonts we designed for the running ticker strip for the Sky News HD TV channel. They were created to substitute Helvetica Bold in that context. The design took into consideration the fact that the letters had to work well in caps text setting and that the text would be moving on-screen. Everything was designed taking that into account, including the spacing of the letters, and this was something interesting to experiment with. The typeface results are quite simple, legible, it has more open terminals and more generous counters than Helvetica Bold, and that makes it fresh and easier to read on TV screens.
If you weren’t a type designer what would you be?
I wish I could be a synthesizer genius such as Herbie Hancock. Or maybe, a great controversial comic book illustrator like Robert Crumb!
Thanks to Fernando for taking the time to talk with us. FS Pimlico is available to view / buy from here
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.