What does Matt Willey know about type? Not much he’d have me believe. “I’m not a type designer,” he says, “I’m a graphic designer who enjoys pissing about with type.” Yet the use of custom typography has played a defining role in his magazine making, from early days arranging letterpressed letterforms for literary title Zembla, to drawing the distinctive, stenciled masthead for Port, the gentleman’s quarterly he co-founded with publisher Dan Crowe. “I like type,” says Willey, “I enjoy playing around with it, and I have fairly strong instincts about how it works.
“When I worked on Plastique I had rubber stamps made of a typeface called Rhode. It was partly for budget reasons (lack of) but also because it forced me to do layouts using letters as individual images for headlines. Every time you inked up and stamped a letter you got a slightly different version of it. Those spreads would never have ended up looking that way had I been working with a digital typeface.”
This week Willey released MFred Rounded, an all-cap face in regular and heavy weights that’s been in the works on and off for almost six years. Its original incarnation appeared in issue five of Elephant, before finding different forms in Port and Wired, then later released on general sale for charity as part of Paul Harpin’s Buy Fonts Save Lives. Selling his fonts is a relatively new thing for Willey, and he’s still not completely sure how he feels about the process.
“I was a little uncomfortable about it initially. I use typefaces in a certain way and draw them with that in mind, so it can be a little jarring when you see it being used completely differently. But it’s also interesting, and more often than not it’s just fun. Because I design my typefaces with such a specific purpose in mind, I sometimes wonder if they end up being rather difficult for other people to use.”
To ensure ease of use on the first release of MFred, Willey collaborated with renowned typographer Henrik Kubel. “I’ve worked very closely with Henrik on The Independent and The New York Times Magazine typefaces,” says Willey, “big complicated typographic projects. Henrik is a true type designer, exceptionally accomplished technically, but in my view more interesting than most by virtue of also being a very talented graphic designer.
“There is a clear and obvious distinction between what he does and the playing with type that I do. I’m a little self-conscious about that—I’ve never pretended to be a type designer of that sort. I would never call myself a type designer, but playing with type in the way that I do has felt like a fairly natural extension of being a magazine designer.”
By that Willey means there are parallels between the two disciplines, and that, as someone who manipulates type all day, he’s developed a faculty for one via the other. “Drawing type is very concentrated on character shapes,” he says, “and, in my case, slowly figuring out how characters relate to each other and building something that makes some sort of sense—it’s specific. Layout is concerned with the combinations of things; the headline, the dek, the image, the white space, the page size, and so on—moving things around until something begins to work. In that sense they’re similar I guess; they both involve playing, trying things, and seeing what works.”
Recently Willey’s type experiments have graced the pages of numerous New York Times Magazine special issues, none more notable than High Life, in which a “hyper-exaggerated version” of his own NSW01 was put to use. The stretched typeface often impeded the legibility of headlines, but beautifully evoked the essence of the issue’s theme. “I am, of course, concerned with how things read,” says Willey, “but I also think it’s okay, sometimes, to make people work a little bit in order to read a headline.
“Headlines often don’t carry that much information, or aren’t as crucial in the same way that the dek is. In those instances I’m far more interested in how the headline works as a design element within a layout, and I think it’s okay for pure concentration on legibility to make way for how something looks and feels—type as an almost ornamental element.
“I often like things in typefaces that are, technically speaking, incorrect. I admire technical perfection in typefaces, but it’s not something I’m interested in. It can get in the way of something looking interesting.”
For that reason most of Willey’s type design is a little unorthodox; all-cap headlines with numerous alternate characters, each with a very specific creative origin. MFred Rounded is no exception. “I’ve only ever drawn type with my own purposes in mind; almost always the very specific end goal of a headline in a magazine. All-caps suits me—I like the way the headlines lock up—but it also suits the kind of typefaces I like drawing, which would almost certainly be exposed by the rigor needed to make a coherent upper and lower case family. It would perhaps also expose my severe limitations as a type designer.”