By Tobias van Schneider Published December 8, 2020
Every piece of Ayaka B. Ito's portfolio is considered. No subhead is overlooked, no hover state left to chance. Every color complements its individual project. Every piece of text is carefully kerned.
It's the best representation of how the New York based-designer and illustrator works: with diligence and attention to detail, owning every element of everything she does. So much so, she'll often create her own typefaces for projects, just to ensure originality and full control over the piece.
In this way, a decided elegance emerges in her work, no matter the client or project. And while much of that comes down to taste, style and expertise, we learn in this interview that for Ito, it's also thanks to endless studying and practice.
I think many of us associate “elegance” with softness, refinement or even traditional femininity. But I think work that is edgy, bold or dark can be elegant too. How do you define elegance?
I agree! Elegance can be represented through any means, and it doesn't have to be associated with femininity or softness. The design can be big and bold or full of glitter — to me, creating something "elegant" is about carving out a beautiful space for the design to live in and allowing it to feel effortlessly elevated.
You’ve shaped your identity through your elegant projects and typefaces. It’d be easy to call this your “style” but I think it goes deeper than that – to the clients you choose and turn down, the projects you accept and your attention to detail, for example. Would you say this has happened naturally for you?
Looking back, I've always enjoyed making intricate and detailed crafts growing up, whether it was origami, sewing, drawing, or making jewelry with tiny beads. I grew up as a single child, so I spent most of my time working on long craft projects that helped me develop immense patience and improve my attention to detail.
In terms of my "style," it's something I've actively worked on over the years. I don't think I've ever imagined myself becoming a graphic or type designer with my current repertoire of projects, to be honest.
Whatever I enjoy and am passionate about, I've made it my habit to learn everything about the subject matter. One day I'll be obsessed with traditional Disney animation drawings, and another day, I'm enamored by 30s Japanese lettering. I save every cent I can to allow myself to buy every book about typography, fashion, and arts that help build my foundation.
I also enjoy surrounding myself with people that inspire and push me. I cherish and curate every object we have in our home. Surrounding myself with as many things as possible that are meaningful, I believe, has taken shape into the body of work I currently have.
And this is the same with my career path. Whatever it took, I pursued working at two fantastic design studios in NYC — RoAndCo and NR2154 — where I had the opportunity to work with many high-end fashion, art and lifestyle clients that have also shaped my style of work.
It has taken 15 years since I left Japan to shape these things, and I'm eternally grateful for every person I've met that has helped build my path.
What role does typography play in your work? It seems to be a dominant one in the projects I’ve seen lately. You even go the extra difficult path of creating your own typefaces for clients. Why?
I always hope to go the extra mile of creating something truly unique for every client. Let's say for a book project, I love designing not just the book cover and layout but also the typeface with which I set the content. My dream projects have been those where I can make everything you see on a page as original as possible.
Just as much as my handwriting or yours will be naturally different from anyone else's, I've learned that if I hand-draw logomarks or make lettering and typefaces, it helps me create something original naturally.
With an increasing number of graphic designers in the industry and design services becoming readily available, creating custom type has become my way of pursuing my own authenticity.
"I always go overboard for every project, finding insurmountable references and making tons of internal explorations."
What decisions go into your choice of a specific typeface for a project? Obviously some of it just “feels right” but are there any choices, conscious or subconscious, that you consider?
Whether I create a new typeface for a project or find the perfect existing one from another foundry, I always start by asking myself the following questions:
What purpose should the typeface serve? Is it for headlines only or also body copy?
What medium will it be used on, digital or print?
Who are the client and the audience?
What concept or aesthetic am I trying to achieve?
Every typeface is designed for a specific purpose, so it's essential to pair the project with the right typeface from a practical perspective.
That all said, at the end of my exploration, I usually make my final decision based on intuition. If I love the typeface, I know I can get my clients excited about it.
The perfect typeface also will depend on the copy that you're writing. I wish I were a better copywriter, honestly. I can't stress enough how important good writing is. Good writing elevates the typeface and visa-versa.
I’ve worked with you before and I know you not only create gorgeous work, but you’re incredibly fast. Of course, a lot of this comes down to expertise and years of practicing your craft. But that truth aside: How do you achieve greatness on a deadline?
Oh boy, flattered you think so! Quite frankly, I always go overboard for every project, finding insurmountable references to making tons of internal explorations.
After years of consistently doing so, you start to build a repertoire of ways to explore ideas quickly, and eventually, you become more efficient with your process.
I wish I could keep my explorations to 2-3 ideas internally for every branding project. I think it comes from a fear of missing out. I need to exhaust every idea in my head to know that what I'm presenting to my clients is the best one.
I’d say for most traditional designers, typeface design feels like one of the most “inaccessible” areas of design. The expertise and level of craft aren’t something you learn in design school. How did you get into typeface design?
I understand! I never learned type design or even touched calligraphy in school. I studied new media design & imaging at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was truly an amazing experience where they taught you skills from 3D, animation, Flash, and Actionscript 2.0 (yup), but never traditional graphic design.
At my first job at Big Spaceship, I had great mentors Dan Mall and Jarrod Riddle, who had a deep understanding of type, which inspired me to learn more. I started by taking after-work typography courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Without knowing much, the class I took was a 10-week session with the legendary Ed Benguiat to learn how to kern… Helvetica. It was so hard and so intense, but so incredibly helpful. I took his class twice.
Thanks to NYC having fantastic resources, I also took many calligraphy classes at the Society of Scribes. I wanted to start from the basics, learn how to draw type, and understand the history of Latin alphabets. Hands down, my favorite class was learning Spencerian Script with Michael Sull!
I started learning more about customizing type digitally through working on many logomarks at RoAndCo in 2012. When I was at NR2154, I was lucky to have great mentors again, Jacob Wildschiødtz and Elina Asanti who helped elevate my taste. We always pushed every project to build on bespoke visual elements. I made custom lettering and type design for books and magazines. After working on Free, a Japanese fashion magazine with a four-year run, I wanted to learn more about designing typefaces, because the font we used for the body copy was the only element on the page that I didn’t have full control over.
I took two months off from work to pursue Type@Cooper’s Condensed program to dip my toes in the typeface-making world. The program gives you an introduction to calligraphy, history, drawing letters and essential font creating skills, but I also learned that five weeks was just not enough. Luckily there was a spot open for the one-year extended program, so I continued studying while working full-time at NR2154.
I've been lucky to have projects where I could immediately include custom typefaces, so that's how I started making type design more of a focus in my work.
For those interested in getting into type design, here are a few of my favorite resources to start from: