Tobias Frere-Jones on being a type giant and his new font

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Published:  December 10, 2015
Tara Watson

An orchestrator of groundbreaking typography, Tobias Frere-Jones is recognised as one of the world’s leading type designers, and has created some of the most popular typefaces in use today, including Gotham, Interstate, Poynter Oldstyle, Whitney, Surveyor, Tungsten and Retina.

Frere-Jones has designed more than 800 fonts, including for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, and the Whitney Museum.


After parting ways with business partner Jonathan Hoefler earlier this year, the designer has launched his own type design business Frere-Jones Type and has just released his first type design in two years, Mallory.

desktop spoke with the type designer about his type launch and his time breaking into the field.

Where did your passion for drawing type originally come from?

For me, type design is a happy intersection of painting and writing. I had done both as a teenager and was reluctant to choose one over the other for a career. Type design combines the interest I have in languages with the pleasure I get from drawing. I come from a family of writers and that’s how I came to respect both the author and the reader.

How does one start and then thrive in the type design business?

There are a lot more opportunities today to start a career in type design, compared to my own early days. Thankfully, the professional environment I found myself in doesn’t exist anymore, and has been replaced with something much more accessible and supportive.

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Mallory Type Specimen

As far as thriving in the type design business, I think there are many skills that are useful, whether it’s historical scholarship, calligraphic ability or programming skills, but I think the most essential skill to have is patience.

What is Frere-Jones Type approach to type design? Is there any distinct style or voice you try to consistently emulate?

It is, more than anything else, to be thorough: in the definition of the brief, in the research, in the drawing and in the production of the entire family. I also try to avoid any projects that feel too similar to something I’ve already done. I find that the most appealing project is the one that is the most different from the last one I finished.

Having created some of the most popular typefaces in use today, what does the process entail when designing a new font from conception to creation?

I start by thinking about the overall result, whether that’s technical in nature like fitting more words on a page; or greater clarity on screen; or projecting a certain personality. I then work back from that abstract target to find the shapes that will produce the best result. So I don’t start by drawing shapes, I start by thinking about what those shapes ought to be doing.

Mallory Text Specimen

Mallory Text Specimen

When naming a typeface, does it come organically or is it methodic process?

With my new font Mallory, it was a rare case where finding the name was easier, as Mallory is a very personal typeface and that is one of my middle names. Normally, however, the naming process is quite difficult, and I try both organic, intuitive approaches and more methodical and exhaustive ones, because I don’t know in advance which one will work best.

Ideally, the name should contain letters that are particularly telling about a typeface’s personality and the strategy that informs that design, but the name should also have a kind of emotional resonance with the design. And both those together make for a very small needle to thread.

Your typeface Gotham has been hailed as defining a generation, while it was originally designed for GQ Magazine it was later tied to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. When designing Gotham, was it possible to foresee design use and intention?

You never know in advance which typefaces will catch on. I make a point of not chasing any trend, and of instead focusing on finding the most effective answer to the brief in front of me. Fretting over what will happen in the marketplace isn’t worth it, and only serves as a distraction. I do believe, though, that clearly conceived and well executed designs will always have a place in the market.

Mallory In Use- Bakery

Mallory In Use – Bakery

Tell me about your new retail font Mallory. What was your inspiration there?

Mallory began as an experiment in mapping my own family history onto typographic history, deriving a design that has the same heritage that I do, being half-English and half-American myself.

How did you attempt to tie in both English and American type traditions?

Starting with the idea of mapping my own family history, Mallory became a kind of alternation between a careful restraint (in the British tradition) and a warm informality (in the American tradition).

This balance or combination is most visible between the upper and lower case, such as the circular emphasis inside the letters like the cap C, G and O, and the more fluid shapes of the lower case a, or n. Edward Johnston and Eric Gill became my reference points for this kind of English austerity, and WA Dwiggins became the examplar of the more causal and energetic American attitude.

How did your knowledge of type history and technology inform your ‘MicroPlus’ version of Mallory?

Over the past two decades I’ve had the opportunity to study the techniques as well as the philosophies of many historical designers. And in projects for newspaper text and for operating system fonts I’ve come to understand what will succeed or fail under difficult conditions.

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Mallory In Use- Pho

I noticed that these two challenges of print and screen share parallel themes. So I staged an experiment to see if the strategies from centuries ago would yield a benefit in this entirely new medium of the screen. I found that my hunch was right, and this old technique was still very relevant and useful.

With this in mind, I made an alternate version of the Mallory design, which is called the MicroPlus series. The MicroPlus fonts have looser spacing and larger internal shapes and wider proportions overall which are the trends that succeed both at very small sizes in print and at a text size on screen.

What’s next for Frere-Jones Type?

We have many new retail families planned, both new designs and older designs that haven’t been released on the retail market yet, such as Retina and Exchange. We’ll also continue doing custom type design work, which I enjoy because it gives me an opportunity to solve problems I hadn’t thought of before myself.


See more of Tobias Frere-Jones’ work here.

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