Tobias Frere-Jones Interview

An Interview with Tobias Frere-Jones

Tobias Frere-Jones is an internationally recognized type designer; having designed well-known faces Interstate, Gotham, Whitney, Tungsten, and Retina, among others.

The first time I met Tobias was incredibly embarrassing, though I’m sure he doesn’t remember. He and I were the earliest attendees at the 2014 TypeCon Friday breakfast. It was my first foray into the type design world, and I was eager to get started. While filling a small plate with melon slices, I looked up and read the nametag of the man standing across from me: Tobias Frere-Jones.

I froze. I could have peppered him with questions–we were the only people there, after all. But I could barely breathe.

After his keynote, I waited in line to speak to him. It turned out to be even more embarrassing. I mispronounced neue. (I had only read it!) Tobias was patient in his explanations, and that’s how I’ve come to know him.

To learn more about Tobias and his work, see his website.

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What is a lesson you learned in your early type designs?

Patience is the foundation on which everything else is built. It’s the way that you’ll be able to sweat the timing of a curve, and go through round after round after round of drawing the first six letters—the first three caps and the first three lower case. Without patience you won’t be able to get past building that foundation, and everything above it will not be able to stand.

I’ve learned other things that are really useful: historical scholarship, drawing techniques, and technical skills. Those are all very valuable, but they come second to patience.


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You mentioned the first six letters. Can you elaborate on those?

Capital H O D, and Lower case N O P. We see the alphabet not as a string that begins with A and ends with Z, but as camps of like-minded shapes. In the capitals, there’s the camp of orthogonal things: the H, E, F, L, T, and I. Then the round things like the O, C, and S. Then the diagonal things like V, X, and so on.

These camps overlap each other, so there are some shapes that are part orthogonal and part diagonal, like the K. Part round and part orthogonal, like the P. Much of the behind-the-scenes work is negotiating a peace among all of these camps. The process takes one representative of the square camp, one that stands in the round camp, and one in between—this gives us the H, the O, and the D—and getting those to work with each other in weight, width, and spacing is one of the first tasks. What comes out of that negotiation will guide everything that comes after.

You’ve said that type design is about solving problems—where do you find these problems?

Tobias Frere-Jones at Typographics

Photo from Typographics’s Instagram


Some of them will come from clients. With Retina, for example, the problem was a purely technical one: it was about making text legible in the hostile environment of newsprint with very small sizes and with more content being stuffed onto the page.

Most of the briefs that will come from a client have a technical and a stylistic dimension to it. The work I did for Martha Stewart had a distinct stylistic dimension, where it had to fit a brand with a very particular personality. It had to be precise without being cold; it had to be approachable without being casual. All of this while stepping away from the other magazines that were trying very hard to be Martha Stewart. Beneath all that, there were concerns about how the letters were being printed.

Most projects will operate on two fronts like that: the technical and the stylistic.

If you could go back in time, what resources would you use while learning design? What should young designers be looking at?

I’d using online resources like type blogs and forums—Typophile was really useful while it was active.

I think the classic texts are still really valuable. Updike’s Printing Types is not exactly a quick read, but it’s a terrific foundation for understanding where all of this comes from. I would recommend Alexander Lawson’s Anatomy of a Typeface and Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit.

Things have changed so much in the last 20 years that it’s difficult to make any kind of comparison about what I would have done and what could be done now. What I could have done back then was to stay up late at night and draw stuff and take my best guess; then get on a train and go talk to the one person in the whole industry that I knew and see if I could get a meeting with him. And that’s what I did.

It’s a different kind of environment now, for the better. There are far more people doing this than at any point in history. And that brings its own challenges, this field is getting crowded now. There are more resources freely available, so young designers don’t have to wander around in the dark like I did—like so many others did—for I don’t know how many years. Too long.

Many creatives have very particular daily routines. What does an average day for you look like?

It begins with a small child coming into our room and waking us up—which is probably not a necessary part of the creative process, but that’s just how it goes.

For me, there is a lot of switching gears throughout my day. From planning out a project in a very broad long-term way, to planning something out with a very precise schedule over the next two weeks; from drawing something speculative, not knowing where it’s going to go, to producing something very precise that has a very exact target that someone has specified.

Then there are all the tasks of maintaining the business. It’s what supports and enables the design work. It might be talking with a retail customer, or working out a deal with a custom client, or fixing something on the website. There’s a lot of mechanical stuff that comes with running a business. I don’t know if I’ll ever really like it, but it’s certainly a necessary part. It’s worth acknowledging that the business side really does take a lot of time.

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