Jimmy Turrell and Fontsmith, FS Erskine

Name: FS Erskine

Designers: Jimmy Turrell and Krista Radoeva 

Foundry: Fontsmith

Release Date: April 2018

Back Story: FS Erskine is a bold, playful, deliciously tactile typeface developed as a partnership between London foundry Fontsmith with It’s Nice That and illustrator and graphic artist Jimmy Turrell. The idea was to create a typeface inspired by a place important to Turrell, and he opted for the Byker Wall, a council estate in Newcastle, North East England. Built between 1969 and 1982, the estate was a colorful riposte to the stark, grey Brutalist style favored at the time. As such, FS Erskine takes this idea of adding something a little radical and applies it to the world of fonts, with each character in the set accompanied by a brightly hued shape. Turrell wanted to create a font that acts as building blocks for a broader structure that recalls the Tom Collins House, “probably the most famous part of the Byker Wall.”

Working with It’s Nice That, Turrell developed visual references inspired by the architecture of the Byker Wall, before being developed into a character set by Krista Radoeva. 

How did it get made? “Jimmy came over to the studio and showed us his work and told us a bit about Newcastle and what he was inspired by,” says Radoeva. “We gave him a simple skeleton for the letters and he went and completely transformed them into his style, cutting up and pasting into this sort of weird aesthetic that he has.

“At first it was very difficult to imagine how with his style—very cut-out, with photocopying and layers and textures and colors—that could work as a typeface. He wanted to make a point that he doesn’t like a clean, digital aesthetic, so we did our best to try and avoid that and bring as much character as possible into the font, while still making it a functional, digital typeface.”

Why’s it called FS Erskine? The Byker Wall development was designed by architect Ralph Erskine, so it seemed fitting the typeface should be named after him.

What are its distinguishing characteristics? The typeface is all capitals and has at least five different designs for each letterform, which are randomized. The characters form the first layer and can be used on their own or with the second layer of geometric shapes overlaid. “Adding texture to the characters makes them look like they were cut or torn from paper, rather than digitally drawn, and gives them a handmade feel,” says Fontsmith. Designers can choose any colors they wish from their usual word processing or design software, though Fontsmith and Turrell chose to stick to the primary colors for the images presented here, in a tribute to the colors of the Byker Wall.

“Digitizing these super weird shapes was quite difficult, especially in terms of making them work as a typeface,” says Radoeva. The final font has around 1,000 glyphs, as all the letters have different variations, each one with five to nine alternative shapes, and each letter with a different texture. “It was a challenging but great project to work on,” says Radoeva. “I rarely get told ‘just do what you want,’ with no constraints. We learned that a lot more things are possible, even in a digital font.”

Each purchase of FS Erskine comes with a limited edition poster designed by Turell.

What should I use it for? “It’s a very specific typeface,” says Radoeva. She recommends using it alone as a display font, or alongside illustration. “Often it’s hard to match type with illustration, so it would work well with a really expressive image, thanks to the texture and shapes,” she says.

What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? “I think because it is already very expressive it should go with something clear and simple,” says Radoeva. “Maybe something narrow like FS Dillon or Din.

In the interest of full disclosure, I edit the Fontsmith magazine, TypeNotes