Sawdust, type designs for Wired UK

Maybe it’s the fact the most BUY BUY BUY time of year is upon us, maybe it’s because we’ve just celebrated and pored over the winner’s of this year’s Stack awards, maybe it’s because we’re feverishly getting to grips with the first issue-proper of the Eye on Design magazine, but at the moment, there’s a helluva lotta print chat going on. And it’s made us wonder: what is it about certain magazines that really speak to us? How do they really feel new, exciting, readable, and bold when there’s so damn many of them? For some, it could be their niche (cats, for instance, as with Puss Puss; or everyday object-based minutiae, like MacGuffin; or mental health, as we explored earlier this month.) For many, they sell on the quality of their photographic or illustrated output; and for many more, on the promise of sharp, inquisitive editorial approaches. But underpinning all of these—and often, the sly, unnoticed thing that sets a magazine apart from its contemporaries—is its typography.

As all designers but less print consumers know, typographic choices can make or break a magazine’s aesthetic. It’s something that London-based design studio Sawdust is keenly aware of. The studio specializes in bespoke typography and brand display typefaces, working for the likes of Wired, the New York Times, Creative Review, and Esquire. So why do these sort of publications come to them, rather than choosing from the vast array of existing typefaces there are in the world? “I think it’s really just a case of wanting to be a little bit more unique,” says Sawdust co-founder Rob Gonzalez. “There’s a wealth of typefaces you can buy off the shelf, but then anyone else could buy that same typeface. The idea of exclusivity is the appeal.”

Earlier this year the studio created a beautiful bespoke full alphabet display typeface for Wired UK, predominantly used for the sections within the magazine, though it also has the capacity be used for specials and the occasional alternative headline. “The design is created to work both as flat color and dimensional, in black and white,” Sawdust explains. Jonathan Quainton, Sawdust co-founder, adds that a lot of the type work the pair does for Wired “tends to be more structural and almost like sculptural pieces rather than flat typography. It sits with the idea of innovation, and works almost like photography does in a sense, so it complements the content.

“It comes back to giving them a unique edge over other tech-based magazines—having something bespoke is a bit of a statement.”

Perhaps the magazine that’s most revered for its typographic originality and its vast influence on print design is The Face, under Neville Brody’s art directorship from 1981 to 1986. Brody’s designs revolutionized the way magazines deal in letterforms, drawing on punk, Russian Constructivism, and general rule-breaking to reflect The Face’s broader aims of exploring youth culture with a wry edginess within the pages of a publication found on high-street news stands.

That enfant terrible approach to lettering and layout might have been born of the fact that Brody “always hated typography,” as he tells me. “When I was at college I really hated it. It’s taught as such a strict rule-based profession—very elitist, monastic almost. So it was by challenging that, and realizing typography was also about image-making: that was the breakthrough for me.”

That notion of type as image is something that elevated Brody’s publication design into new realms: suddenly the possibilities for creative expression through lettering were through the roof. It also enhanced the power of type to persuade, and become a tool of manipulation—a key to creating a spread that informs in the way it intends to. “When typography is part of the image and part of the expression, it made me understand that no communication is impartial,” says Brody. “It can claim to be objective but actually it’s fully subjective, so embracing the subjectivity of the design was what allowed us to be far more expressive.”

The Face, designed by Neville Brody

Just as the way letters are arranged on a page, or as an image, the font itself is of course a key tool in influencing the reader. “Every font itself has a number of levels of messaging, and there’s not only the textual content—the words being written—but also the choice of a typeface is usually influential on the way we think about words. The same word in a heavy, bold propaganda kind of typeface will feel completely different to if it’s in a kind of light serif italic,” says Brody. “Obviously typography carries an emotional thing as well as the words; so how something is said affects our emotional response. The next stage then is to think about what you can do to keep the reader on their toes—how can you create rhythm and balance and surprise and create more of a filmic journey through a magazine?”

That journey is about enhancing and creating a dynamic sense of flow, and in doing that, type is just as key as image selection or story placement. To take Brody’s work at The Face as an example, maybe that consistent dynamism is achieved by suddenly placing a large word on a page or on a double spread, or a double spread which is just white space with a small word on it, then suddenly an expanse of pure text. “Then within that you might be thinking about the size of your image and then how you crop that image and what kind of drama you’re bringing to that page,” says Brody. “Then you might have a story which is largely photographic with very little type support, and then with a shorter deeper reading piece you might suddenly drop your headlines to the base of the page, or a giant drop cap which fills a page, so you’re upsetting expectation. All of those things add to that journey—it’s just keeping the reader engaged at a level that maybe isn’t conscious.”

At The Face, the MO was, says Brody, “that you challenged everything. If something existed because it had a practical reason to exist and that reason was valid you would leave it, but if the reason for something to look the way it did was out of tradition or taste or culture, that was challengeable. The obvious example is you need to find something in a magazine, so you need a consecutive system: we use numbers out of default but it could be anything—it could be a shape which enlarges or it could be pages getting smaller, it could just be words arranged alphabetically.”

Looking back to the underground

Where The Face’s typographic approach was doggedly future-focused, Clay Hickson and Liana Jegers’ The Smudge looks to the past—notably the counterculture presses of the 1960s and 70s. For the pair’s Tan & Loose press output—a collection of beautifully eccentric printed pieces—type might look to art history, it might be hand drawn, it might be kept simple; but it all comes very much from the heart. “I never studied typography, I don’t have any background in it, so I feel like I never really know what I’m doing, but I do have certain tastes and eras of typography I’m interested in,” says Hickson. “There’s a lot of trial and error as far as type goes; I don’t have any system or approach to it. I just try and feel it out for each project.”

The Smudge button

Hickson’s passion, as far as type goes, is for the psychedelic-leaning typefaces of the ‘60s and ’70s–“there’s just a certain attitude to those fonts that I like”—and he sees in them a certain “soul that makes them feel more alive”. He cites Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser’s lettering designs as being particularly influential, both on his with on The Smudge and Tan & Loose’s other output. “I love a ton of the typefaces from the whole Push Pin thing,” says Hickson. “They really have all the qualities I’m looking for.”

“I never studied typography, I don’t have any background in it, so I feel like I never really know what I’m doing.”

It was Chwast’s 1972 Bottleneck typeface that most heavily informed the deliciously gloopy, irreverent masthead of The Smudge; a piece of design that feels like an instant nostalgia tug for something we’ve never really known. “I made up a ton of different logo ideas but I was having trouble capturing the attitude I was imagining the paper to have,” says Hickson, “sort of like a certain amount of irreverence. So I started by looking at designs like Bottleneck, then made it look a little wetter and smudgier, you know?”

The Smudge logo and masthead

Although The Smudge only launched earlier this year, that powerful typographic mark feels like it’s been around forever; and is an indelible and confident signifier of what the magazine is, who it’s trying to speak to, and what it’s trying to do. It acts as more than a masthead: it feels like a logo, too; as well as both a call-to-arms and a call-to-play. According to Hickson, the prominence of those two words was inspired, again, by ‘60s and ‘70s underground publications. “Generally they all have a really cool masthead, and I loved the idea of having a big masthead on the cover of every issue.”

Most of the publication’s body text is Souvenir, alongside a “handful” of other typefaces including a few designed by Herb Lubalin. “We kind of have a handful of fonts we pull from when we need a new header,” Hickson explains. “I’ve been collecting a ton of Letraset which has become my main passion—I love the quality you get from it trying to lay it out by hand and having that slight wonkiness. I found a lot of fonts through sheets of Letraset; it’s really satisfying and it levels the playing field for laying out type and frees you up to get loose and have fun.”

Keeping it Simple

While magazines like The Face—eyes firmly fixed on edgy, youthful, smashing up of tradition—have a certain expectation that typography will be erring on the wild side, not all publications need or want such a focus on experimentation. The Smudge, too, uses its typographic choices to further its counter cultural narrative; a clearly different goal from the majority of newsstand big guns who have more straightforward goals of brand recognition, legibility, and on-shelf eye catching.

Jason Smith is the founder of London-based type foundry Fontsmith, and cites among his design heroes The Face and Ray Gun–famed for their boldly outré lettering styles. “Things like that were so much about the attitude, and giving you a sense that you belonged was just as important to me as what you were actually reading,” he says. “They were disrupting: you’d been used to seeing your mum and dad’s Sunday Times Magazine or Radio Times; then The Face came along and felt much more like a reference point for how people my age in art college were living and saw the world. I realized that you could make things illegible and that would resonate emotionally, and help you understand the attitude of the magazine.

“Before that, words and typography were there to be read: now they became pieces of immediate communication. For me, Ray Gun wasn’t meant to be read, and I loved that you sort of had to make the effort to read stuff, which makes the article ten times more engaging.”

TypeNotes magazine

Earlier this year, Smith decided to try a new way of showing off his own foundry’s creations: he launched the magazine Type Notes (full disclosure—I’ve edited the first two issues.) And though his personal tastes lay in a renegade approach to editorial type, his own publication is naturally a more restrained affair, acting as a way of bringing his commercial typefaces to life through stories, naturally, about typography and graphic design in a broader sense.

Fontsmith brought in London-based design studio The Counter Press to design Type Notes, which faced the challenge of creating a magazine with only Fontsmith typefaces; a vast library but not necessarily one purpose-built for editorial uses. “It forces your hand; it makes you think in a different way,” says The Counter Press co-founder David Marshall. “It’s not like our choice was limited, as we had too many [typefaces] to choose from. The decisions were about how we edit it down and get that continuity. Everything has to be based on a fundamental underlying structure, so we imposed certain limitations on ourselves.

“We wanted those rules to create a familiar vernacular for the pages, and make sure the information was clean and simple. Type Notes is quite restrained in that way: the body copy largely appears on white so there’s a lot of contrast, and the columns are all widely spaced. So it’s quite traditional in a way, but then we used that rigid framework to bring the content to life in other ways by heroing introduction spreads or being playful in the way we’ve used images or bigger type elements to bring stories to life, and give articles their own voice within the magazine.”

The goal was to “not go crazy”, as Elizabeth Ellis, The Counter Press co-founder, explains. “We’re trying to take a similar approach to magazines like Eye, which have a really clean, beautiful structure that’s always the same but with different body copy or headline typeface. Sometimes you see designers forget the content, which looks original and interesting on a design blog, but can feel chaotic and messy, as well as being difficult to read if it’s in your hands.”

Of course, Type Notes is atypical in the magazine world as a publication that has the dual purpose of selling the typefaces it uses, as well as using the typefaces to “sell” readers the content. In that light, the more pared-back approach to typographic pairings, layouts, and aesthetic quirks makes sense. “It isn’t necessarily coming from the same place other magazines are,” says Ellis.

Aside from the more trade-focused remit of certain publications, an out-there lettering approach isn’t always the most interesting, or the most relevant; especially in newer magazines where a brand and vision needs to be established, and fast. Scarlet Evans is the designer of Ladybeard, a feminist magazine published roughly once a year, and soon to launch its third issue. Evans chose Avenir and Sofia Pro for the magazine (“We wanted kind of a Futura-esque typeface without the overuse”); and describes the design approach as “stripped back and almost undesigned.”

As a new publication set up by a group of women straight out of university, it was decided that typographically, things would be kept simple. “We went for two sans serif typefaces—pretty basic ones to be honest. We really wanted something that felt very approachable and friendly, as all the content is really heavy. Even in a lot of the illustration the magazine is very colorful, so we wanted to use typography along with that to make the content more digestible.”

So You Want to Make Type for Mags?

It goes without saying that for designers and art directors tackling a magazine project, the typographic possibilities are truly endless: font libraries are vast; and the tools for designing a bespoke typeface are becoming ever more accessible. Combine that with the old-school capacity for doing so by hand, or commissioning someone else to create a totally original lettering system, and there’s a seemingly infinite myriad of choices. 

“Though legibility and noticeability are both important, that doesn’t mean you design things that are devoid of personality.”

But it’s always a boon to design with restrictions, of course; and a requirement to do so with purpose. Smith advises noting practical, material restrictions in creating fonts for printed publications: “The things I would have in mind is ink spread and the production values of the publication,” he says, “so the biggest consideration is the weight of the font, and the contrast between thick and thin, and how that reacts to certain paper and whatever ink that’s being used. My view is that in print, go for an elegant serif with decent, normal proportions that don’t disrupt you; anything too heavy can block your eye from moving forward. And though legibility and noticeability are both important, that doesn’t mean you design things that are devoid of personality.”

Neville Brody, Arena Homme + covers

It’s an interesting point to consider—how a typeface can have “personality”–but there’s no doubting that it can. The complex placement of ligatures, X heights, white space, and all the rest can pack as much of an emotional punch as an illustration or a photograph, and as Brody says, “you can embed a lot of thought and ideas into the DNA of a typeface.” When the designer was tasked with art directing Arena Homme + in 2009, he created the fonts Popaganda and Buffalo. “It was just taking it into a raw, powerful place, and that allowed us to create a lot of variation but in a really unique space with a unique voice,” he says.

Neville Brody, Arena Homme + spread

In a winding sort of summary, there really are no hard and fast rules when it comes to type and magazines: we celebrate both legible and obtuse, willingly illegible typographic obfuscation. We admire the trained eyes of the likes of Brody and the “have-a-go” experimentation of The Smudge alike. What it boils down to is appropriateness, and flair; realizing that lettering styles and how type is used can be as much an indicator of the publication’s audience, politics, and goals as much as what’s actually written. Hickson puts it nicely: “I’d been looking at all those older papers and I loved that they were so experimental: the designers weren’t trained, they were just doing what felt right.”