Typecache Interview #02: Paul Barnes

August 28, 2012

Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz founded Commercial Type in 2007 in the United States. It has since become one of the most successful independent type foundries. Their collections and various custom faces have been widely seen in many publications; Guardian, Bloomberg Businessweek, New York Times, Creative Review, Esquire, Wallpaper … the list continues to grow. Their foundry page is one of the most viewed pages all the time on Typecache’s list. We were fortunate enough to spend a few moments with Paul Barnes talking about his design and how Commerical Type approaches their work.

Paul Barnes (right) and Christian Schwartz (left) / Photo by
Vincent Chan

Can you tell us a bit about your childhood experiences with typography?

I think like most graphic designers and type designers I was interested in the usual creative endeavors; drawing, painting and trying to be creative. I don’t think I was aware that it was a career path until my teenage years. In the style driven eighties I discovered music and through this record sleeves, graphic design and eventually typography. I guess I was lucky that my choice of music was Joy Division and New Order, which lead me to Peter Saville.

I was inquisitive enough to find what had inspired him, and began exploring the history of graphic design. I was lucky that my father worked at a polytechnic [university] that had incredible a design library, and that my mother had an interest in calligraphy. Through my father I met Roger Smith, a design teacher, who pointed me in the direction of Reading University.

Peter Saville’s artwork

After studying at Reading University you went on to work with Roger Black and then Peter Saville. That’s quite impressive! Now you’re a type designer. How did you transition? What made you focus on type?

I’m not sure I would label myself a type designer. My career began in magazine design and art direction, then moved into graphic design. Typography was a big part of that course, and I became a typographic consultant advising corporations and publications on type usage.

During my time working with Roger Black in the early nineties I was exposed to the work of Font Bureau and Jonathan Hoefler. I learnt, somewhat haphazardly, to make what might be loosely called “fonts”. These projects were just for personal interest, not to resell or use professionally.

I became more involved with type design after consulting at the Guardian where I began to work with Christian. Up to that point it had just been an interest, not necessarily part of my professional career.

Meeting and working with Christian has focused the type design part of my career. Collaboration is not necessarily that common in the business, but for us its been very fruitful and for myself a real learning experience.

Once Christian and I decided that we would start Commercial Type things progressed naturally. At the beginning, we never knew how much time it would take. Since we formed, most of my time has to be spent working for Commercial Type, whether it be type design, or operating behind-the-scenes. Despite all of the hard work, it’s enjoyable most of the time.

I think mixing art direction, graphic design, typography and type design has been beneficial to the others areas of my work. The approach I take with each informs the other. When we (Commercial Type) work for clients, my background helps me better understand what the client wants.

The Guardian family is used for The Guardian

What was your approach to designing the identity of Commercial Type? How does the foundry balance the website and other projects with type design?

We knew we wanted a clean and simple design style, that would be consistent in everything we do. Christian and I decided that we didn’t want to design the website, specimens, or the adverts ourselves. So, we collaborated with some very talented designers (Rumors for the website, and Abi Huynh for the specimens and adverts). We didn’t want to make anything overtly fussy. We wanted the website to be easy to navigate and show the type as well as possible. The only thing we really designed was the logo. The solution was simple because it had to be based on one of our typefaces, (Dala Floda seemed the right fit).

Commercial Type’s Identity

Most of your work can be accessed through the Commercial Type site. What is your strategy to bring customers to there?

I don’t think we have an all encompassing strategy. We believe that we make and sell interesting, good and useful typefaces, which we hope people will want to use. The problem is making people aware of the company and the typefaces. We have done that through many different channels, through advertising, through, social media, through giving talks, through writing articles, through interviews. Last year Christian and I went on an Australian Tour through the Australian Graphic Design Association. With our latest release, Marian, we have tried something a little different. We created a pop-up show in New York with product designer Dino Sanchez. Additionally, a book was published Marian, Une collection de revivals by Ypsilon Editeur in Paris.

Exhibition “Thieves Like Us” in New York in October 2011 /
Photo by Paúl Rivera

Both Christian and I realise that we have to build a diverse library. [One] that has work-horse typefaces like Stag, Graphik and Guardian, along with more esoteric and unusual things like Marian and Dala Floda. That is the reason why we release other designers work, like Kai Bernau’s Lyon or Berton Hasebe’s Platform. These great designs enrich the library and are things we wouldn’t have come up with ourselves.

We hired another talented designer recently, Vin Chan. He’s working on some really interesting designs which we hope to release in the next year or so.

Dala Floda (for more details see here)

What kind of media or companies would you like to work with?

We like working for a diverse range of companies, because of the different challenges. We have made typefaces for magazines, newspapers, corporations, design firms, sports firms; all have been fascinating in different ways. I think it would be boring if it was just large corporations, or just fashion magazines.

I’ve found some of your lettering work online. You have never commercially published a script face. Do you have plans to release one?

I think its one thing to make lettering. It’s another to turn it into a typeface. It takes real skill to make it convincing, and I am not sure if I’m the one to do that. So, I haven’t really tried to.

Love designed by Paul Barnes | 2003

You recently collaborated with the Korean foundry Sandoll. What were the difficulties in matching a latin alphabet with Hangeul? Do you have plans to collaborate with any other overseas foundries?

The collaboration with Sandoll really came out of the blue. They had tested a number of Latin typefaces as potential matches for their Sandoll Gothic Neo and felt that Guardian Sans was the best fit. Sandoll made some minor modifications in-house to make the match a bit closer, but we were lucky in that it seemed to be a very natural match in terms of proportions, curves, and terminals without having to change much at all. Apparently they were happy with how the process went, because they’ve just chosen Lyon as the Latin component of another Hangeul typeface. We hope to see more projects like this in the future, because we like the idea of our typefaces being in front of audiences who might not otherwise see them.

Sandoll Gothic Neo1

In an interview with eye, Christian mentioned “With every new client who wants us to draw something custom, the first part of our process is to try to talk them out of it. Just to make sure that they’re doing it for the right reason, that they need something and there isn’t something that exists already that could suit their needs perfectly. Because it’s a waste of somebody’s time and their money if we’re just recreating something for them that already exists. Life’s too short for that.”
What has been your experience when suggesting existing typefaces?

I think if something exists that is correct for a client you let them know and let them decide if its right for them. We enjoy making typefaces, but we don’t feel making one every time someone wants us to is the best solution.

Regarding font variations and multiple languages, you have been working with other type designers, such as, Kai Bernau, Ross Milne, and Ilya Ruderman. Describe the process of working with them?

We’ve been very lucky to work with a talented set of designers outside of Commercial Type. Each collaboration is different, of course. Additions to an existing family are fairly easy to art direct, whereas shepherding an original design like Lyon through to release is a bit more involved. There are a lot of long conversations about what the typeface is trying to accomplish as a tool for graphic designers and how best to get it there while keeping the main concepts intact. When working with someone like Ilya Ruderman on adding language support to an existing family, we try to meet halfway in the sense that we know Austin inside and out and he knows Cyrillic inside and out. We trust him to make things look ‘correct’ as Cyrillic forms. [Then] we help him make them look ‘correct’ in the context of Austin or Stag.

Austin Cyrillic Medium

What do you like most about your job? Least?

It’s always enjoyable to make things and to collaborate with people, especially at Commercial Type. We try and do the best we can. Additionally, it’s rewarding to see the typefaces being used, often in new and surprising ways. It’s great to hear people appreciate your work. These positives far outweigh the negatives.

Can you share with us your latest work or ongoing projects?

At Commercial Type we have just released Atlas Grotesk by Kai Bernau and Susana Carvalho of Atelier Carvalho Bernau (Christian also worked on it). It’s a really interesting European sans, but with the proportions of an American Gothic. Kai and Susana also drew a monospaced version I really like.

We have also spent a lot of time expanding Guardian Sans, with some very useful condensed widths which we are very happy about. Publico has also been enlarged with a version, Banner, for really really large sizes. It’s been interesting to take something that was very European and apply some of the visual language of late 60’s and 70’s American designers.

The latest thing that I did was the letter numbers for the England Football Shirt, with Umbro and their design director, Rob Warner. It was a interesting experience and certainly a different challenge from the normal work I do, balancing between the rules of UEFA and the needs of the client.

New Umbro England football kit

Thank you for your time Paul!

Interviewed by Taro Yumiba and Akira1975 / edited by James Chae