“We’ve essentially bridged the technical point where the needs of type design outstretch the ability for one person to do everything themself…Large character sets aren’t just English, web fonts need hinting, and super families are huge tasks.”—Ben Kiel

Ben Kiel: Typefounding & XYZ Type / St. Louis MO + Ken Barber: House Industries / Baltimore MD

“we’ve essentially bridged the technical point where the needs of type design outstretch the ability for one person to do everything themself…large character sets aren’t just english, web fonts need hinting, and super families are huge tasks.”—ben kiel

How has type design historically been a collaborative process?
Ken: Looking at the history of metal type, persons credited with creating typefaces were rarely the only ones who contributed to their manufacture. Usually the designer would conceive of the aesthetic blueprint, while a punchcutter carved the steel punches used to make molds from which the type was cast. It was uncommon for the designer to be personally involved in the cutting and casting; others were responsible for physically producing the actual type. It’s a rather new phenomenon for the process of typeface design to be a solo effort. Even today, I prefer working with others because the collaborative process allows greater potential to find better solutions.

Ben: Yeah, I think there has been a shift, but actually that shift is reversing. There is a time and a place in the typeface design industry where you can still do that—you can design a typeface sitting in your room and not talk to anyone. Once software became affordable, the means of production and distribution became accessible to all. But at least in the type industry, I think the trend is different now. It’s one thing to do a poster font that requires only a particular set of characters by yourself. However, if you are doing a superfamily, or a large type family, there are all sorts of things to cover. We’ve essentially bridged the technical point where the needs of type design outstretch the ability for one person to do everything themself. I’m thinking of an example like Tal Leming, and his recent Balto typeface. He drew the entire thing. He kerned everything. But he didn’t do the hinting. And I think that’s going to be the case more often. There’s always going to be some collaborative help as type projects become more demanding. Large character sets aren’t just English, web fonts need hinting, and super families are huge tasks. At a certain point, type designers will have to choose where they are going to spend their time. Someone like me can do the technical stuff, although it’s something that I’m trying to transition out of. There are people who spend their time just working on the design. For example, Kris Sowersby from Klim Type Foundry, does most of the drawing and kerning, but I do his typeface production. I master his fonts because he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to do the very slow, nit-picky, technical work. But I do. So yeah, it’s possible to sit alone in a room and do everything. But I also think designers have to really think about what it is they want to do, as the amount of work keeps increasing.

House Catalog 59

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House Catalog 59

courtesy of ©house industries. all rights reserved.

It’s the same with graphic design. Before the computer, we had specialized workers. Graphic designers functioned more as orchestra leaders. After the computer, people were doing all of their photo-manipulations, typesetting, and prepress work themselves. It was a business model that was set up upon hope: a designer designs something and hopes it has success. They keep overhead low by doing as much work themselves, in order to retain as much profit as they can. So designers had to learn all of these skills, but I think that we are at the point again where people are realizing that they can’t do it all, despite being told they had to. It’s incredibly difficult to do everything.

What is the collaborative process at House Industries?
Ken: House projects, whether they’re commissioned or self-directed, invariably involve input from everyone in the office. While it’s generally understood who’s going to execute each particular element of a new job, there is still plenty of cross-collaboration involved. In my experience, this is what makes House unique in comparison to conventional design companies, which are normally commissioned to develop communication for others. Although such studios share a collaborative process to some degree, House differs in that we dictate our own projects and create our own products, resulting in an extraordinarily personal attachment to our work.

As far as design duties are concerned, I take care of the lettering, while brush and ink illustrations are left to Chris. Adam is responsible for all of the digital animation, as well as event coordination. Print and online design is carried out by Bondé and Jess, with art direction from Andy. Rich deals with the nuts and bolts of studio management along with copy writing and client communication, while Lu is in charge of shipping. In addition to the six people at our Yorklyn, DE studio, we also have a number of folks who work remotely: David handles screen printing, Jason hints fonts, and Lori is our bookkeeper (not to mention honorary den mother).

I feel very fortunate to be able to work with such uncommonly talented people, who just so happen to be my friends. Sure, we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but at the end of the day, we all want the best result. This mutual respect allows us to work well together. Even during apparent conflicts, there exists an appreciation for the perspective each person brings.

We may not be the most efficient designers, but this working dynamic allows us to consistently learn from one another. In fact, it’s very similar to what happens during team-teaching. As opposed to arguably slower, step-by-step personal development, progressing as a collective provides for exponential growth—something that wouldn’t be possible by working alone.

Ben: It also really depends on the project. We work with a lot of external freelancers at House, especially external digitizers. The way that works is, we give the original character set to a digitizer, tell them what we need, and work together on creating alternate character sets. They send us proofs in the form of a PDF that we then mark up and send back with poor sketches over top and written PDF sticky notes. We go through as many rounds of that as it takes. We have a logical process, which is we do control characters first. Once we are happy with them, we fill in the rest of the alphabet, then numerals, punctuation, and all of the backend characters. I’m currently doing this process remotely with House. But House also has digitizers from Australia, Germany, France, and a couple in the US. It’s really an international, remote collaborative group. The collaborative process mainly happens through email and sometimes by phone. A lot of type projects work that way. It can take anywhere from a couple of months to a year and a half. At House, we don’t always have hard deadlines for our external collaborators, because we want to work with people who we respect and are doing good work. It usually turns out that those folks are juggling several client projects, so it’s unrealistic for House to ask people to drop everything that they are doing to work on our work when we know that they have to do a juggling act. So a month of solid working time can be stretched across several months.

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How does the House Industries studio facilitate collaboration?
Ken: House Industries co-founder Rich Roat likes to describe the studio as having an indispensable, “rollover factor.” The somewhat small size of House HQ allows us to roll our chairs over to each other’s desks to offer instant feedback on projects. And, despite working out-of-office a couple days a week, we are regularly messaging one another and exchanging files. Most importantly, we leave personal agendas at the door, focusing on the ultimate goal, rather than letting egos get in the way.

Is working in a physical studio together more productive, or does working remotely accomplish the same task?
Ben: There is a very strong culture of collaborative effort at House. Collaboration can be harder when people work externally, because they aren’t in the same physical space. As Ken said, at House, the “rollover factor” is really important. Everyone is used to being able to get instant feedback on their work; that’s just not the same over email, time-zones, and iChat.

That said, I would say a lot of typeface design is a remote, collaborative process. A good example is the work that I did with Jesse Ragan on Carlstedt Script for Aldo Shoes. Carlstedt Script is a custom typeface inspired by a specimen of hand lettering by Cecilia Carlstedt. Cecilia drew out a bunch of characters as a starting point for the typeface design. Then Jesse and I spent a lot of time talking on the phone and exchanging emails and instant messages to transform the lettering samples into a functional typeface. We split up the character set: Jesse did the lowercase, and I did the capitals. Then we swapped. There was a back-and-forth process going on for a while and that’s how our collaboration functioned. We exchanged files through Dropbox. For typeface design, you can’t just divvy up parts of a character set indefinitely. But it makes sense for designers to take a segment of the project at a time, then hand it over to the other person to rework and make edits.

In this method of collaboration, did you and Jesse set up initial parameters for x-heights, stroke weights, axises, etc.?
Ben: Not for that particular project, we didn’t. At first, we worked out individual characters and tested small words. The two of us went back and forth on that together. Initially, we did physically collaborate at The Pencil Factory, in Brooklyn. Together, we worked out the preliminary issues with control characters. We were also referencing lettering from Cecilia, so we had something to base our work off of.

I think that collaborating over email and Dropbox would have faded if we were in the same office. It would have also been easier to talk in person. There is a great benefit to working right there, in person, with someone. It’s like friction. It’s easier to walk over to someone’s desk, than it is to write an email. The iterative process can also happen much quicker in person. You can make it farther, sooner. I also think collaboration works best when there is a lot of communication. When there’s not a lot of communication, collaboration becomes frustrating.

How does a collaborative typeface design team claim authorship on a typeface?
Ben: In terms of authorship at House, there were projects that some of us could say we headed, mainly in terms of emphasis and time spent. But even when there is a main person working on a family, the others are always giving feedback and offering help. For instance, the Eames collection was drawn primarily by Erik van Blokland, but both Ken and I helped, along with Andy’s art direction. Ken helped to finesse the outlines in the fonts, giving feedback to Erik. We both looked at an uncounted number of proofs and gave feedback. Erik took our ideas and sent back his own alternate suggestions. Ken drew the Cover Numerals and I drew the Frames typefaces that are part of the collection. Bondé made suggestions and asked for certain things to be in the fonts as she worked on the catalogue. In the end, Erik is the primary author of the collection, but there was a team of people helping him in his work.

There are certain projects that I have had more authorship over. I have seen the Worthe and Lucky Times families through start to finish. But even those were a really collaborative effort, with Ken looking at everything, giving his valued input, and sometimes drawing options for different ways of handling things.

As Art Director, how does Andy mix into the collaborative process?
Ken: Andy’s true talent as House Industries Art Director lies in the clear vision he has for each project. Yet, while he’s generally confident in how he sees a product taking shape, he always welcomes input—there’s a genuine interest in what other folks have to say. In my experience, Andy’s a rare case.

Are most type foundries informal?
Ken: I think it’s fair to say that most small-scale graphic design companies tend to foster a fairly casual work environment, and boutique type studios like House Industries aren’t all that different. In fact, Andy jokingly describes our slow yet steady working pace as “semi-retired.”

Although we might be relatively lax in our daily operations, we try to maintain a certain momentum concerning commissioned jobs, as well as with in-house work. Our point isn’t to crank out stuff for the sake of it, but rather to create work with a sense of pride and craftsmanship. That’s really the guiding principle at House.

Are most typeface design studios trending towards smaller, interdisciplinary forms of collaboration?
Ken: The evidence does seem to suggest that. In regard to collaborative typeface design, individual and small-scale ventures appear to be popping up with increasing frequency these days. And artists are taking advantage of all the conveniences that digital type production and web-based delivery mechanisms have to offer. Commercial Type, Underware, and Type Together are just a few examples of type studios which have co-workers located in different countries.

The era of large type houses and conglomerates is gone. New models, through which independent artists can promote and sell their wares, like Village, have taken their place. Some online vendors offer a simple platform to market fonts, while more creative solutions include independent designers banding together to share advertising and distribution costs.

As for interdisciplinary collaboration, many design firms are offering specialized services such as typeface and web design, in addition to more traditional ones. As Ben pointed out, designers have learned that mastering varied disciplines isn’t necessary, and instead are teaming up with other talented folks in order to offer an array of services to prospective clients.

What is your experience with team-teaching typography?
Ken: My experience with team-teaching began in 1999, when Ellen Lupton invited Andy Cruz and me to be instructors at MICA. We treated our course with the same relaxed attitude as projects at House. Assignments were loosely structured and students were subjected to long group critiques emphasizing concept and aesthetics (like the ones I endured during my years at Tyler School of Art). When Andy bowed out a few years later, my new partner, Tal Leming, and I introduced more technical instruction, began conducting shorter crits in smaller groups, and eventually provided students with a syllabus (imagine that!). After Tal left House in 2005 to start Type Supply, Ben picked up the co-teaching reins.

Initially, Andy and I modeled the class after our experiences at school, where the focus was on conceptual aspects and design as problem solving. Although students were encouraged to create lettering, we didn’t tailor exercises to the subject. That changed when Tal and I started teaching together; the emphasis switched to making letters and covering specific topics, such as history and production. Some foundational assignments also required students to work with various writing instruments, including a broad-edged pen. This taught students to observe the system revealed by the consistent use of a tool, while introducing ideas such as color, spacing, contrast, and proportion. I still feel strongly that a hands-on approach to letter-making gives students a clearer understanding of basic principles that can be grasped in a very immediate way.

Naturally, there are some challenges for students who are accustomed to the one-teacher paradigm, especially in situations when co-instructors hold seemingly opposing viewpoints. However, this method teaches students how to absorb input from varying sources, synthesizing those ideas while developing a distinctive voice. Although some students require a little more handholding than others, team-teaching can positively influence a budding designer’s personal process.

This is similar to the way the House Industries studio operates. There are always different points of view being expressed. Part of becoming an effective designer means acquiring the ability to process and filter different angles of visions. To my mind, it would be a disservice to tell students exactly what to do. An instructor, much like an art director, is tasked with helping young designers through problem solving. Of course, students also need a hand in recognizing their strengths and honing instincts. My responsibility as a teacher is not to create copies of Ken Barber; my job is to guide students as they find their own identity within the field of graphic design.

Another point that students need to learn is that it is not necessary to do everything well. Students are often told that proficiency in typography, CSS, photography, as well as a host of other talents, is essential. I’m not convinced that’s true. There is plenty of room for specialization; typeface design is just one example. The collaborative teaching approach demonstrates to students firsthand that one designer may be more experienced in a particular area as compared to someone else. While my co-teachers have usually been typeface designers, each always possessed a strength that I lacked to a certain degree. For example, Ben is a strong graphic designer, Tal is a whiz at programming, and I have a knack when it comes to hand-lettering. We always tried to play to our respective strengths when presenting material to students, taking turns leading specific assignments.

And, despite Ben’s move to St. Louis, we still discuss teaching strategies from time to time. Most recently, he modified one of the workshops that I originally developed at MICA for his students at University of Washington. I’m excited to see how his students respond.

Ben: It took us two or three semesters to figure out the best way to collaborate on teaching. Ken really likes to teach to his strengths. He enjoys having assignments structured tightly. I’m a little looser than that—I’m not as worried. But Ken taught me the value of having a tighter curriculum. When writing assignments collaboratively, it was like, “What do you want to do?” And, “What makes sense?” We tweaked projects to our strengths. For instance, I think the modular typeface assignment played well to my strengths. But we would collaborate on the parameters of the projects and update them from year to year.

I currently teach Type I and II at Washington University, in St. Louis and I team-teach a section of that with the person who taught me Type I, Sarah Birdsall! That is so much fun to team-teach, because Sarah comes from a strict Basel school methodology of typography, and though I used to be more in that vein, due to my time at House Industry, I am less so these days. So it is fun to have the two of us arguing about things in front of the students. We intentionally give each other a hard time, and it shows students that designers tend to have a certain set of unbreakable assumptions, so they can start to pick up that one needs to question those assumptions and know that it’s ok to disagree on aesthetic points. In a way, we are more of an acting collaboration. I think that’s a very honest term for team-teaching, because there is a lot of performing that’s involved. We go back and forth all class. It’s more of an Italian family argument than an actual argument. It boils down to aesthetic preferences than trying to convince each other of anything. And I think that kind of joviality is a good teaching dynamic to have.