31.08.19

An interview with Kris Sowersby

We sit down with the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the award for design and typography.

Congratulations on your award! How did you feel when you got the call?

I was having breakfast when the call came through from the Arts Foundation. It felt amazing — it was shocking and amazing because it’s not a world that I consider myself a part of.

You have previously used an analogy of food and cooking to describe typography. Tell me about that?

At this point, drawing the font is the easiest part of my job. I can do it without really paying attention, because I’ve spent so many years doing it. And it’s no different to any other art or craft, where somebody can make something well without really thinking. So, it’s something I’ve been doing over-and-over for ages.

What I’ve tried to do over the last several years is to think about what exactly it is that I’m doing, to understand the deeper meaning, concepts and philosophies behind it. In the graphic and type design world, it’s shorthand to say that a typeface is a tool. And I’m not entirely sure about that — it’s been said so often that it becomes accepted. But I don’t accept it, and I’ve been trying to think what a typeface exactly is. A basic definition of a tool is something that is used to perform a task, so it’s a very broad definition. A knife is a tool, a spatula is a tool, a car jack is a tool, all that sort of stuff. A tool can leave a mark, but the tool itself isn’t present in the final product, you use the tool to make the thing.

A typeface is a thing, so it’s closer to a material. I think it’s closer to, say, bricks or wood or something that a builder would use to build a house or the ingredients a chef would use to make a meal. It doesn’t exist in isolation. But a lot of the talk around typefaces is as if they exist by themselves. It’s a bit like paint existing by itself, paint is pretty useless until it is used. I think typefaces are more like a material to be used by designers.

Another consideration for context is that we are never really taught about typefaces, but we're taught to read. We’re teaching our daughter to read at the moment. And what surprises me is how quickly she’s grasped uppercase and lowercase. So she can see a lowercase “a" or an uppercase “A”, and she knows that they’re both an “a”. And despite the style, whether it’s sans or serif or handwritten, or quite distorted — she'll still recognise it as an “a”. So very quickly she gets this idea of maybe an ‘archetype’ of a letter. It’s the same as when you understand what a tree or a car is. We can see a tree as a very simplified icon or as a detailed picture in real life. But there’s no single archetypal tree. And so we are taught to read and recognise letters, and after a while you don’t recognise the shape of them because they’ve become functionally invisible. Does that make sense? Because reading is quite functional and it happens so quickly that you often don’t notice the shape of the letters, but you notice the words. So, you are kind of acting in this visible invisible space.

So maybe some people will notice all the different shapes of the trees and the different types of trees and whether it’s a native tree or not, and maybe there will be people that will notice the typeface and others that won’t, right?

Definitely. If you're keyed into the shape of trees, if you're an arborist, you're going to notice trees at a different level to the rest of us. We are going to look at it and think tree, but they'll look at it and understand where it comes from, what it will look like when it matures, whether it’s diseased and all that stuff.

How do you think fonts impact people daily?

Having just said fonts are invisible, I do think typefaces have an atmosphere. You know, like Arial has a very perfunctory, staid atmosphere. It’s boring but it works. And I think there are two levels for a typeface. There is the aesthetic value of it — how it looks and how it’s spaced, how dark or light it is, and whether it’s detailed or whatever. Then there’s the functional aspect of it — is it too big or small, is it badly typeset, or badly rendered, is it pixelated. These aesthetic and functional aspects of a typeface are always interacting for the viewer.

Do you categorise typefaces in different spaces e.g. that’s a functional one, that one’s great for a graphic?

Yes. A lot of designers and typographers will definitely choose a typeface based on where and how it’s going to be used. So, a typeface that’s good for typesetting newspapers for small sizes, for example, would be a specific category. There is a long history of typefaces being specifically designed for newspapers, Times New Roman was designed specifically to work under those conditions and it worked really well. When you blow it up large, it’s a bit awkward.

But say you want to roll out a brand for a large telecommunication company. You want a typeface that can work across the spectrum: at large sizes on billboards, small sizes for terms and conditions, in apps and on screens for websites, on TV, at various sizes and under all these conditions. All the media that it will be used in has to be considered.

Most typefaces can’t do everything. That’s why I think typefaces, like Helvetica, are good all-rounders for all these environments. They only do a few things really well, but they do most things okay. A lot of people choose typefaces specifically for what they need them for, whether they’re appropriate functionally and aesthetically.

And so, you’ve been doing this since you left design school?

I went to Whanganui School of Design. In my seventh form I had to make a decision about tertiary education, and I had a chat with my teacher, Mo. He said I could go down the art or design path and thought I could do either. But he said there’s probably more financial stability in design. He added that I could always practice art in my spare time if I needed too. And that is more or less why I made the decision — design seemed a bit more stable, so I’ll followed that path. Also, one of my boarding house tutors was a student at the School of Design. One day he took me in and showed me all the projects they were doing. They had these awesome computers and all these cool things, and I thought, yeah this seems great! And that’s why I chose the Whanganui School of Design.

At design school we were introduced to all the disciplines of graphic design and I was particularly captivated by typography. I eventually realised that I could design my own typefaces, and I got hooked. I started to teach myself how to do it and learn the history. There was a typeface design class there, but I ended up being a de facto teacher in the class, which was funny, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing!

Typography seemed to be the most elemental unit of graphic design. If you strip everything else out, you’ve got language and words and you’ve gotta put them down somewhere. It’s black and white. I’m terrible with colour and I’m a mediocre designer anyway. But I’m quite good at typeface design, so that helps.

So, you found your niche?

Yeah, and I was really passionate about it. I still am. I remember an after function for a conference at the design school. There was some advertising big wig there and I shuffled up and said, “I’m really into typefaces have you got any advice?”, and he cut me short and said I was wasting my time, that there’s no money in fonts and walked away. His dismissal annoyed me, but it made me more determined to do it.

It’s amazing how many people mention a negative interaction like this, which didn’t discourage them but spurred them to keep going. What have been some other pivotal moments for you?

The main one was when I left design school and got a job. There were no design jobs so I ended up working at a sign writer’s in Nelson doing vinyl signwriting. I was fizzing at the bung and thought I was a good designer — I’m here at the coalface and people will be into it. But nobody gave a shit about design, they just wanted a sign. It was quite a massive realisation that the wider world doesn’t really care about design.

So, I moved back to Wellington. There were no design jobs, so my friend, Gus, and I tried to start a design business, with no money or clients. It was called The Letterheads Limited and we cold-called for work, struggled along and made ends meet. We realised there wasn’t enough money for both of us, so Gus got a real job and I kept going. At about that time I released my first retail typeface called Feijoa. I released it through an outfit called Village in New York. It’s a type co-op. It’s really good and run by Chester and Tracey Jenkins, my good mates to this day.

I remember getting my first quarterly royalty cheque for $900. I was so proud when that cheque turned up. I was like, oh, my God, this is real, this is legitimate, I can make money from designing typefaces. It was a pivotal moment because up until that point I had lots of half-finished typefaces and a few people using them, and I wasn’t sure if it was a thing. Because there’s no defined path to becoming a typeface designer, especially not in New Zealand. From there it grew and I started releasing more typefaces and eventually transitioned to running a type foundry full time and stopped doing graphic design.

Another amazing pivotal moment was a few years ago when my wife Jess was in between jobs and offered to help out with Klim. She started off doing a bit of customer support, then after a few weeks she sat me down and said, “Okay, I had a little scratch around through emails and through the business”, and she started asking me some hard questions. Like, “What’s your strategy for releasing a typeface?” I replied, “I don’t have one”. She asked, “What’s are the business’s values?” And I said, “I don’t know, I don’t have anything explicit”. Then she asked, “How often do you email your customers?” And I said, “Never”, and she exclaimed, “For God’s sake! There’s so much potential here!”. And from that point, she came on full time and worked on marketing, sales and strategy. She took an equal partnership role in the business and we hired staff and contractors and created a proper business plan. We partnered with Alt Group and started doing proper campaigns around the typeface releases. Jess made me realise Klim is bigger than me. Now it’s a business and we have a strategy and underlying principles which we have stuck to. We’re trying to give back as well, to the design community and to the local community — we’re members of the One Percent Collective. We’re trying to make the business have a higher purpose. It’s worked out really well. It’s been hard, but it’s been really good.

It’s always been a business. But it was presented as just me, which we're changing. Klim has grown and matured. We have redesigned the whole website (soon to launch) and we have a proper About Page with profiles of all the people that we work with. The core of it though, is me designing typefaces and Jess running the business and campaigns, marketing and strategy.

How often do you release a typeface?

We release about two or three a year on average. Some are retail, anyone can buy them. Others are custom, specifically designed for a client. A custom job will take an average of five months. Some of my retail typefaces, like the one we released last year, Heldane, took about ten years, on-and-off. At any given time, I’ve got about 40 typefaces on the go at various stages of completion. Some are rubbish and some will go on to be developed and released. Some will languish and become raw material for other typefaces. It’s never a process of sitting down and doing one single typeface from beginning to end. It’s constant, there are multiple production streams at any one time. Because it’s such a long and involved process, doing a single one from end-to-end would burn me out. I describe my working method as a marathon of binges. So, I’ll binge on a typeface for maybe a week or so and exhaust it, then drop it and move on to another one. I keep repeating that process until one of them is finished.

Do you have some that are deadline-driven?

Yes. Client work is all milestone-driven. Fonts have quite a long life. They fall in and out of fashion, but in general, you can get a good 20 years out of a typeface. And so, with that in mind, I try to design it to be as complete and useful as it can be. I can’t make one really quickly because I need to keep coming back with fresh eyes. I need to be quite a ruthless editor and to be very clear about its concept, and what it is and what it wants to be. I’ll go into the drawing process thinking I want to make a certain thing, but at a certain point a typeface will become its own thing and take its own direction. I’ve found that if I try to impose myself on it too much it becomes compromised. At a certain point a typeface wants to be a very specific thing and you’re helping guide it toward that.

Does someone look over your typefaces for you?

Not really, it’s all me. I’ll give the typeface to designer friends at various stages, and their feedback helps shape the process. But in general, it’s all self-directed. At a certain point I really wanted an external mentor or some guidance. Someone to say no, don’t do that, do this. But there wasn’t much of that around, so I guess I learned to be self-directed.

Your work on National and National 2 and your related exhibition exploring New Zealand having an identity that merges into a typeface. What made you start thinking about that?

I made National because when I was a practising graphic designer a magazine called The National Grid came out. It was a slightly fringe design publication, it wasn’t a trade magazine, it was really interesting. But it was typeset in Helvetica and Times New Roman. And it struck me that this extremely local magazine — with very specific New Zealand stories — was all typeset in old typefaces from other countries. Wouldn’t it be good to have something that we use ourselves, a local typeface, local materials for local designers? And there have been some over the years, but nothing that was easily available and nothing that could be used at a professional level. So, I started making National and it was drawn to be the stylistic opposite of Helvetica. I released it and it became very successful. It’s one of our biggest sellers. That was my second retail typeface and that was ten or so years ago now.

How long did it take to get to the point where you had a sustainable business?

I think it would have been two or three years. For a few years it was essentially minimum wage after everything was taken out. Then it climbed up and now there’s enough to tuck away and to invest back into the business. It’s been a total surprise. It turns out to be a very good way to earn money. Because you do one lot of work on a typeface, sort of like music, I suppose, and then it continues to sell and you get royalties — or the full amount — depending on if you sell it yourself or through somebody else. And it’s digital so it doesn’t wear out and there is very little maintenance. We do spend a fair bit of time doing customer support, but this is mostly inquiries, quotes and questions, not problems.

My work is distributed around the globe now, with around 80% of our sales outside of New Zealand. It’s embedded into physical products, digital products, and I try to imagine how many people every day read my fonts.

Have you had younger people inspired by what you do? And is there a growing interest in typography?

I don’t know, I have been doing some informal mentoring. I was at the Alliance Graphique Internationale, which is an international club of designers, their conference in Mexico last year and a young designer came up and said, “Thanks for your blog”. She was from Argentina and was working in Mexico at the time. She said: “When I was a student we were really into typography and our class used to read your blog. Thank you because it’s been really useful and helpful”. And I was blown away. She lives in Argentina and she is reading it! I know the blog gets well-trafficked and well-read. I try to be very explicit about my process, why and how I made a typeface, and other thoughts as well. It was so lovely to hear that it was useful to someone.

Yes, I’ve seen on your website all the processes around your fonts.

And that is why I write it. Because these are the things I wanted to read when I was a young designer, and back then it was quite hard to get hold of. I always wanted to know why and how. It’s building towards an idea I’ve got for a practical guide to typeface design. And I want to make it as simple and jargon-free as possible. I pretty much want to write it for me 15 years ago, the thing that I needed, which is actually quite hard to articulate.

Maybe this would be where you could use the Arts Foundation Laureate money?

I’m thinking about it. Yeah, this would be a good thing to put it towards. It has to be done properly. I want something that can be useful. If you wanted to make a typeface, what you should be looking at, and how to think about it from a pragmatic, structural and systematic point-of-view.

That sounds like a next pivotal moment for your career. Are there any goals you have?

I’ve recently finished a typeface that I keep calling my deathbed typeface. When I’m lying on my deathbed I think I’ll still be innately satisfied with it. I’m so satisfied that I don’t really care if it sells or not. It’s aesthetically and functionally and conceptually complete. And it’s the typeface that I’ve been working towards for about 15 years now. Up until now I’ve never been good enough to do it, and it has crystallised over the last few years. This is it; this is the one that is supremely satisfying for me as a piece of work, which I’ve never said or felt before. I’ve never thought that before about one of my own typefaces. As I said earlier, I am usually sick of them by the time I finish. But this feels extremely relaxed, and it’s a relief too. So, I guess, I’ve reached that goal and it feels good!

Lastly, we’re asking all the Laureates what is art to you? And why does it matter?

I’m not from the art world. But I do read a lot about the art world and try to see a lot of art and exhibitions and New Zealand work as much as possible. To me, art is professional resource. I use art thinking and the ideas of other artists as a resource for my work and my own way of thinking.

But also, more widely I think it’s a reflection of the times we live in. And it’s a way of saying or exploring or exposing things in society, small things, large things, through a very personal lens. It’s another language in and of itself. The best thing about art is attaining a conceptual and asthenic resonance. Some works can be conceptually sound, but aesthetically rubbish. Others can be vice versa, like a very beautiful work, but there is nothing there — it’s vacuous. When you’ve got both aesthetic and concept, it’s quite sublime and it’s lovely. I like the philosophical aspect of art, how the artist articulates their thinking, and how it changes my own thinking.

Kris Sowersby 2
Kris Sowersby, 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the award for design and typography