“I focus on typeface because it’s the smallest part of graphic design. It’s the base: the foundation of a book, a poster, or an identity,” explains Paris-based designer Sandrine Nugue, who has an intense academic history when it comes to type.
“Even if the reader doesn’t notice a typeface, they’ll feel it subconsciously. Typography is the color of words, so therefore it’s the color of sense.”
After studying graphic design in her hometown of Lyon, Nugue went on to study at École Estienne in Paris and then the École Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg, finally completing her academic career with a postdoctoral in typography and language at Amiens École Supérieure d’art et de Design. Ever since graduation, the young designer has been making one emphatic typographic statement after another, so much so that she was recently selected as one of Icon magazine’s “Ones to Watch in 2016.”
So what makes Nugue’s work so fascinating? Part of it lies in the way she infuses her alphabets with rich narratives and accessible meaning, the kind that you might unravel when looking at an extremely detailed illustration. “Just like an illustrator, I make drawings too, but with letters,” Nugue says. Her most celebrated and memorable typeface is Infini—a font that intends to distil and convey the story, history, and the aims of typography though its singular design.
“The project began in 2014 with an open call from the Centre National des Arts Plastiques,” recalls Nugue. “They wanted to commission a typeface that would be available to the public for free.” It’s rare that a government-supported art body funds a typeface in this way, and Nugue’s exceptional results suggest that other countries should follow suit.
When Nugue was selected, she developed Infini over the next few months until it was finalized in early 2015. She began the design by creating pictograms (“the origins of our alphabet,” she explains), stripping them back until she arrived at the characters that we now recognize as the alphabet. Nugue also drew on Greek epigraphic writing so that the font exuded a solid sense of; its chiseled shape feels ancient.
Offered in roman, italic, and bold, Infini is a classic that draws from the past, yet its modern ligatures also reinvent how letters join together. This juxtaposition of the old and the original is important to Nugue’s concept. “I wanted to convey my interest in writing and in typography’s slow evolution over time. I wanted to show that our writing system will possibly change and evolve in the next centuries, too.”
In that case “Infini” is the perfect name, evoking something unmoving and immortal but that’s changing and shapeshifting simultaneously. The letters were designed solely by Nugue, and she had kerning and programming help from Laurent Bourcellier and Mathieu Réguer. Writer and historian Sébastien Morlighem contributed an essay on the history of type for the 48-page specimen booklet, and a dedicated website designed by Marz & Chew allows users to discover the possibilities of the typeface.
“I also liked the name ‘Infini’ because a creative work is never really done, especially typefaces,” Nugue says. “Matthew Carter said that we never finish a typeface, we abandon it.”
Now that Infini is as finished as it ever will be, Nugue is always glad to see how designers use the font, which so far has mostly been for books, posters, visual identities, and signage.
The first typeface that Nugue released was Ganeau in 2013. Like Inifini, the forms allude to engraved letters, an aesthetic that has always appealed to the designer. “I’ve always loved letters in stone, the play of light and shadow, and how monumental something appears when its been carved into a surface.” She named the font after the sculptor and scenographer François Ganeau, who produced just one typeface during his lifetime, the strong, slightly theatrical Vendôme. With Ganeau, Nugue designed a family of three different triangular serifs, deciding to create classification system principally based on the serifs instead of type structure.
“Like a human family, every letter looks different, but they still have similarities and a visual relationship,” Nugue says, characteristically using metaphoric imagery to describe her typographic thinking. With influences as varied as graphic designer Pierre Di Sciullo, to philosopher and economist Otto Neurath, and dancer Pina Bausch, it’s almost a inevitable that Nugue’s designs are so unique, and that they’re both filled with energy yet also seem so elegantly poised.
“I design typefaces like images,” Nugue says. “I want people to have strong feelings when they read and look at what I’ve designed.”