17 Jun 2019
Neil Summerour is a type designer and lettering artist, he’s the founder of the Positype font foundry and Swash & Kern lettering studio. Summerour lectures, leads workshops, draws letters, makes typefaces, and lives happily ever after over and over again. Neil has won the Type Directors Club Certificate of Typographic Excellence six times and was the 2012 recipient of the People’s Choice Award in the Morisawa Type Design competition for his Japanese typeface, Tegaki. He currently serves as Chair for the Society of Typographic Aficionados (SOTA).
Neil will be speaking at the second #tptalks session on Thursday 20 June 2019 at Le Tank. Registration will open on 11 June 2019!
The outcome of your collaboration with Martina Flor has been the recently published Decorata. How was that four-handed work? Are you planning to share new projects together?
Neil Summerour I adore Martina. She is single-single-handedly one of the most motivated and talented people in our industry right now. It has been exciting collaborating with her. Decorata was our first of several planned releases. The next typeface will be released in late May and the next will come out in September. If schedules and workflow play out well, we may have one more before the end of the year.
That said, it has been fascintating finding our common path in the workflow. We think about letters in very similar ways and our greatly appreciate the share trust in abilities and the solutions we produce.
Could you reveal us any surprises or novelties that TypeCon will bring this summer?
Hmmmmmmm. I have to think about this one ;-) We have some new board members and with that comes a new shared personality. There are some surprises planned, but I cannot talk about it yet.
I was so incensed and insulted by his approach and view of the type world, that I literally went home (…) and began drawing my first typeface.
Do you remember when did you decide to conduct your career to the letter world? What made you choose that?
My first foray into type was for a project for 1996 Olympics and the Olympic Centennial Park in Atlanta. I was a neophyte then, I really didn’t realize that might efforts then would unfold into a profession later in life. Jump ahead 4 years to 2000 and I was attending a talk from a guest speaker, a trendy graphic designer in 90s that had produced fonts. I was so incensed and insulted by his approach and view of the type world, that I literally went home that evening and began drawing my first typeface.
I had no one when I started learning the craft in 2000.
When you started, who were the teachers or professionals who had the greatest impact upon you?
I had no one when I started learning the craft in 2000. There were no schools or certificate programs at the time. I relied on my instruction, primarily from two professors: Ron Arnholm, a type designer that taught typography at the University of Georgia, and calligrapher and lettering artist Ken Williams, director of the graphic design department. I attribute Ken primarily for influencing my sensitivities to letterforms given the number of calligraphy classes I took with him. In terms of the actual typeface production. It was the early 00’s… I started with Fontographer. Anyone who used Fontographer back then knows and understands what I am implying by just saying Fontographer. It was a slow process. Ha!
What drives you to make new typefaces?
The basic desire to create something beautiful and useful. I believe each typeface I create, iteratively, allows me to improve and innovate in order to produce the next one. I tend to allow my visceral reactions generated by what I would want to use as a graphic designer, influence what I imagine and sketch as a type designer.
My work is as equally important to my client’s and (…) I am able to choose the projects that interest me and know that I can contribute something unique to it.
What is your ratio of self-initiated typefaces vs. typeface commissions? Which do you tend to be more passionate about making?
That passion is equally shared, to be honest. I try to keep the ratio of retail to commissions around 60:40. My work is as equally important to my client’s and I love that I am able to choose the projects that interest me and know that I can contribute something unique to it. Each workflow is different and influences both types of projects.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I take my youngest daughter to school in the mornings and then return to my home studio. I will make a coffee or espresso and then sit down for lettering warm up exercises. This process is as meditative for me as it is practical and allows my my mind and hands to loosen up. I will then answer emails, plan my time intervals for that day’s workflow and begin. I like to spend 9–10 hours in the studio each day and have tried to teach myself to stay away on the weekends.
What is your favourite way to start your day? What is the first thing you do when you sit down at your desk?
Espresso. Sumi brush pen. Sketchbook. Silence. This is the best :-)
Do you prefer a permanent/dedicated workspace, or do you like to keep mobile (i.e. cafes, outdoors etc)
Because I have to balance all of the duties of an independent foundry, my workflow remains rather regimented. There are periods of investigation and sketching. Time for email and business correspondence. And time to create. That time to create behaves in very specific ways, and the ability to be carefree and mobile, just doesn’t work for me. I have designed workstation that allows me to work efficiently while not impeding the expressiveness I like to infuse in my work. So, it’s fair to say I am a studio-body.
Favourite kind of music to listen to while working? (or absolute silence)
I listen to very specific things depending on what I am doing!
– Silence: brushwork and pencilwork. The sounds created when implement hits the paper is therapeutic and informative, so I listen to it.
– Samba: if I am working on anything with a serif.
– Hip-hop: sans serif.
– Specifically Chopin for scripts.
– Techno or trance: kerning.
The creative user needs to see how we as type designers see the typeface working in an environment (…) I try inform the creative user what is in my typefaces.
As a user of type, are you always on the lookout for new typefaces? What are some things that grab your eye the most when you are searching? (e.g. marketing copy, in-use specimens, OpenType features, glyph set, language support etc).
I enjoy seeing unique but useable typefaces designed to be used. It’s what I enjoy producing, so I tend to appreciate it more. I think a successful typeface must embody all of the things you mentioned and demonstrate it well. The creative user needs to see how we as type designers see the typeface working in an environment. Marketing materials should spend more time inspiring and enticing and less time teaching. I try inform the creative user what is in my typefaces and I appreciate when I see other type designers and foundries showcase it. Especially for independent type foundries, this is the one of the ways we can demonstrate the worth behind our work.
Spend less time trying to be an influencer and more time being a creator…
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone wanting to become a designer / type designer / art director?
Yes. You don’t know it all. You never will. Now or in the future. Take your time and learn and experiment as much as you can. Learn from others older than you and younger. Build a collection of experiences that can influence and inspire your future work. Don’t rush it. Spend less time trying to be an influencer and more time being a creator… that focus will feed the former and allow you to create more lasting, informed work for yourself and your clients.
Thank you very much!
– Interview by Gina Serret.