Foundry Milieu Grotesque on the “fun, fast and then painful” practice of creating typeface systems
by Tobias van Schneider
Typeface foundries and designers are the backbone of the design industry. So it's about time we invited one of our favorite foundries on DESK to talk about their work.
As accessible as the design industry is becoming, there are still areas that remain mysterious to most designers. Typeface design is one of them.
Thankfully, designers are beginning to appreciate how valuable and necessary quality typefaces are to our work. But most of us wouldn't know where to begin creating a typeface, much less an entire typeface family.
If you've visited DESK or Semplice.com before, you know I'm a big fan of the Maison Neue typeface. So it only made sense that I finally talk to its creator, the Portugal-based Milieu Grotesque.
Here we talk with Timo Gaessner, founder of Milieu Grotesque, about how he got into typeface design, how other designers can experiment with type design on their own, and the importance of proper distribution and marketing to a type foundry.
“It seems like every graphic designer has added 'designing my own typeface' to their bucket list nowadays.”
Hey Timo, let's get to it. When did you decide to start your own type foundry and why?
Well, long story short: In my early years as a teen, I was more interested in design in general. I ended up doing an apprenticeship as a sign maker in the early 90s. That was right before all became digital, so I was taught the manual labor of cutting type out of vinyl. My interest grew, so a couple of years later, I went on studying at the Rietveld Academie – in particular to visit the class of type designer, Gerard Unger.
The idea of starting my own foundry grew on me after being frustrated about how my earlier typefaces were being distributed and marketed. Our typefaces were part of a medium-sized distributor which sported an inappropriate and not-so-forward- thinking graphic design language. Clearly, they weren’t much interested in our typefaces.
Also, back in the early 2000s, there seemed to be so much room to improve. Absolutely unlike today, there were only very few interesting foundries with a modern approach around at that time.
And how do you see the industry today? Do you feel like people value the work of type foundries these days? Are designers just looking for free fonts still, or do people finally value what typefaces are worth?
Undoubtedly, anything type related became super popular lately — it seems like every graphic designer has added “designing my own typeface” to their bucket list nowadays (LOL) — so yes, according to our observations, the awareness toward well-executed typefaces has grown. It appears more and more designers understand typefaces to be a valuable factor worth being considered and paid for accordingly.
Just a couple of years back, the amount of independent type designers and foundries was rather small. The industry was somehow charmingly low key and very subject-oriented. Sadly, these days it seems like a lot of attitude and aggressive marketing has taken over, a development similar to what happened to graphic design just roughly two decades ago.
Typeface design seems like an extremely meticulous, painstaking job. Is that accurate? Would you say it's fun, or more like a labor of love?
Designing a typeface is fun and rather fast. What makes it so painful is to develop your idea further into a system, to make a family of fonts that can be applied and used by others. I love my job, though I wish I could spend fewer hours in front of the computer.
Does the rising popularity of variable fonts make your job easier or more difficult? It’s certainly easier for the end user, but I wonder if it means a lot more work for the type designer.
Yes, making an entire font family variable makes the job definitely more difficult. It is also more limiting in terms of design. We are still reluctant to fully commit to this technology as it still needs to prove itself on a wider scale, with less specific applications.
Also (according to our experience) the endless options that a variable font offers is, for the regular user, rather overwhelming. I personally prefer the orientation of the single styles a type designer foresees and which is therefore a crucial part of our designs.
Say I’m interested in getting into typeface design but I have no idea where to start. The only type designers I know are extremely specialized and experienced, or work at impressive type foundries that seem way above my reach. Where should I begin?
From personal experience, learning typeface design is a non-linear process that takes years, even decades, and that you will have to figure out yourself by trial and error. It's rather overwhelming in the beginning, and all these optical rules are certainly confusing.
Starting with experiments with just a couple of glyphs or a short word is a good idea. The internet is an endless source of information and once you get to a more refined level, start tackling specific subjects. Depending on what kind of typefaces you end up doing, you will figure out the rules yourself.
My team is a huge fan of your Maison Neue typeface; we’ve been using it for probably 10 years. It’s an absolutely beautiful typeface and even though I’ve tried to replace it a few times (designers do what designers do), I keep coming back to it. What was the inspiration behind this typeface? How did it come to be?
Thank you for your kind words, Tobias. It's the greatest compliment for us to see our typefaces stand the test of time.
Maison Neue is an evolution of my earlier typeface Maison, which started as an experiment by simply constructing the glyphs using repetitive, modular shapes. It's an effective method to achieve fast results, similar to the early modernist architecture principles from which I drew inspiration. Maison Neue is an evolution of this concept, focusing on more modern, up-to-date aspects of the same idea.
Your typefaces are one-time purchases meaning licenses are perpetual, unlike plenty of other foundries that charge annual fees for font licenses. Why did you decide to do a one-time purchase?
Besides us really disliking the recent trend of nerve-wracking subscription models of any kind, our pricing system is primarily set to support our little team and enable us to run our foundry the way we think it should be run. Font licensing in general is rather difficult to grasp, especially if you only occasionally purchase them. Hence, we developed our pricing system to be clear, straightforward and easy to understand — the same way our license agreements are written as well.
I’m also curious what you think are good and bad distribution models for typefaces. I see some type foundries have a large enough audience to self-distribute, yet others rely on type houses or aggregators like fonts.com. How do you view these platforms and where do you see the future taking us?
Whether to self-distribute or joining an existing foundry, that totally depends on the aim. Naturally, running a type foundry is not the same as designing typefaces, though I personally would never recommend considering any of the large distributors as you will only end up as one of too many.
If I would look for a distributor today, I would look into smaller, specialized foundries with the right approach and spirit, where my typeface will have enough space to be a worthy addition. After all, considering the right foundry is a crucial aspect to the success.
Your website is one of the most unique type foundry sites I’ve seen. How important is branding and marketing to a type foundry? Do you invest a lot of time and money into it, or is word of mouth among the design community more valuable?
Branding and marketing is, like in many other business, a huge part of the game these days. Unfortunately, in some cases, it seemed to have gotten out of hand and became more important than the product itself.
With all the buzz going on lately, we decided to step back and keep focusing on the basics — having a well-executed website and further developing a small but comprehensive library — all of which is keeping us busy enough anyway. This is only possible due to the fact that we are rather established these days, and we can rely on our products gaining attention and interest.
You’ve seen your typefaces used everywhere and by everyone, from fashion brands to album covers. Any wishlist for one of your typefaces? On a rocket to space? On a favorite musician’s album?
Haha yes, it’s always great when people we admire use our typefaces. A rocket to space hasn’t happened yet and we surely wouldn’t mind, but really any well-done use makes us happy, regardless its size or status.
Are you working on any new typefaces at the moment? Any teasers or previews you can give us?
Yes, always! Since a couple of years already I am focusing on a new version of our Boutique family, a sans serif based on a Didon skeleton, with lots of contrast. Developing this concept further, I am looking into the masters of the late 18th / early 19th century who were casting type and printing books in a very progressive and modern manner, to be made available to a larger audience. Surprisingly, there are lots of similarities to be found to the modernists, in thinking and approach.
The update is a total overhaul and will include a serifed and italic addition, including a large number of new styles with optical variations. Boutique v2.0 will be available in Autumn 2021.
Thank you, Timo, for taking the time to talk with us and share your insights! For those curious about typeface design, be sure to check out the links Timo shared above, and visit milieugrotesque.com to see the foundry's full library of typefaces.