Always Anthropomorphize Your Typeface + Other Advice

When you think about type design, what makes you tick? Is it the weight of a letterform, the personality of a descender, the graceful curve of a serif G? For Design Director Sarah Cohen, it’s so much more.

This month Trollbäck’s in-house type expert shares her opinions on all things type — from the joy of designing them to why custom typefaces are getting so popular in the industry.

1. You’ve built up quite a reputation here at Trollback for the way you talk about typography. What is it about type design that interests you as an art director and designer?

Type has always interested me because it’s the most basic way we communicate. It’s the root of how everybody talks to each other every day, whether it’s emails or text messages or little notes to each other. To be able to take that and then use it in a way that is more elevated, or more artful, or more intentional is really exciting to me.

2. Previously, you designed for places like The New York Times and Pentagram –– both of which focus on print design. Do you feel like they had an effect on your appreciation for type today?

Yes, definitely. I think all of the people who worked at those places –– specifically Pentagram, with their legacy of print, logo, and type design –– taught me a lot about appreciating type and knowing how to use type. Working with Paula Scher, she had very particular aesthetics when it comes to typesetting: Big, bold, and blocky with really tight leading and really tight kerning. That was a way of typesetting type that I didn’t know before then. And it’s something that I’ve carried with me through today.

3. What makes type design different from the other forms of design? What brings you joy when it comes to selecting serifs over sans serifs day in and day out?

It’s one of the most detail-oriented types of design, but what’s so cool about it is that it’s balanced out with these very high concepts. Most typefaces come out of a period of time, for very specific reasons, so they’re contextualized in that way. These very patient type designers will chisel and craft them on the tiniest little scale to get them perfectly right, just so that at the end, they evoke an entire era. How cool is that?

4. When it comes to selecting or designing a new font for a client, what are the criteria, questions, and variables you need to consider before making a selection?

It always comes down to the personality of the typeface. It’s not something that people think about on a day-to-day level at all, but I think everybody feels it.

It’s so interesting talking to non-designy people about type because most of the time they have all of these interesting opinions about a typeface: “Oh, it looks too kid-like,” or “It looks too confident,” or “It has too many ornaments on it.” They don’t know how to talk about it, but they can feel it. When you’re talking to a client who doesn’t know about type, get them talking about personality traits. What do you want it to evoke? How should it feel? Then you can use those humanlike characteristics to drive your decision-making.

5. What’s your advice for working with and presenting to clients who do not have the typographic vocabulary to discuss their needs? 

My tactic is to anthropomorphize typefaces. For example, I’ll describe a typeface as if it were somebody’s awkward uncle at the holiday party who’s a little tipsy. Or somebody’s really glamorous grandmother who just has this way about her, going out to dinner with her long gloves. When you give a typeface a personality, clients can be like, “Oh, yeah, I get that.” It gives them an image, and that can get people really excited.

6. What are some of your go-to type foundries?

There are so many, and they pop up all the time. Some of my favorite small foundries are Kilm Type Foundry, Pangram Pangram, ABC Dinamo is great – that’s who gave us our font for Rams.

7. What’s the benefit of forgoing foundries all together and designing a custom typeface?

I think it comes about for different reasons. It’s interesting, over the past couple of years, you see typefaces being designed for monetary reasons explicitly. Which I think is a new thing. That’s simply because the rights are just so expensive for large companies. They realize it’s cheaper and they want to make their own.

Then, working with companies like FX, we designed them a custom typeface because they were very particular, design-oriented people who didn’t see something they liked –– so we made one for them. The creative benefit there is that it becomes something that is completely ownable to that company or that brand, and that’s really special. When you go to their platform or their website or see their stuff on the street, they’re just undeniably recognized because it’s like… THAT company. And that’s awesome to me.

8. There is a myriad of details that make up good type design: kerning, padding, color, font size, etc. What are the most important elements to keep in mind when selecting or designing type for a creative project?

I have a short – well, increasingly longer – checklist I go through every time. For example, is your type all caps or sentence case? Next, you have ascenders and descenders, and those will heavily influence what your leading and type sizing are. Then there’s the rag of your copy block –– you always want the edges of your type to form a particular type of pattern. If they don’t, then that’s just poor typesetting. There’s also the relationship of that type to whatever else is on the page. Hierarchies. And this list will change depending on what the context is…

9. What do you think the future will bring for type design in terms of trends and technologies? 

There’s a lot more animation going on in the type world than ever before. It’s this very natural progression transforming something that was traditionally static into something that’s now going to be across the board moving. (Thanks, internet!) That’s why we’ve seen variable typefaces popping up in recent years and months. I don’t even know how these variable fonts are crafted, but I’m super excited to see how they start to be used and exploited by designers and brands in real life.