Brian Sooy interviewed by Joseph Fioramonti

Brian Sooy is the creative force behind the type foundry Altered Ego Fonts offering custom typeface design for commission and licensing. He is also the creative director of Aespire, a branding, marketing and design firm.

As both a Christian and graphic designer myself, it was quite a treat to speak with some who shared my passions and who has been so successful in them. What follows is some of our discussion.

Brian, What are some of the interests or life events that led you into the field of typography? How did these things affect your philosophy on type and affect your style?

“Believe it or not, it all started with a box of Speedball nibs (from a friend), and a 1941 copy of the Speedball Lettering Book (my father had in the basement). I was 12-14 years old, and became fascinated with copying the letterforms in the book. (The author showed what strokes to make, and in what order. I figured it couldn't be all that hard.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time studying calligraphy and hand lettering (there is a difference). It's difficult to say if these events affected my philosophy on type and/or my style. Styles change (aren't we all somewhat slaves to fashion, except for the folks at Pentagram). My philosophy isn't necessarily related strictly to type, but that design needs clarity, and type makes things readable, so keep it simple. I somewhat bumbled my way into design; I began my college degree studies in Engineering Graphic Design at Lorain County Community College. Too much math, but the graphic design part was interesting (drafting and mechanical drawing), so I looked into the creative possibilities, and pursued a BFA in design at Bowling Green State University.

They had a total of 5 design classes: corporate identity, typography (try drawing a typeface with ink, rapidographs and drawing curves), advertising design, and a couple of others. Plus art history and a full degree program in art.

Fortunately, I spent several years working as a delivery driver/paste up artist (doing key lines and mechanical art -- if you don't know what those are, ask your professor!). It allows me to say to students ‘when I was your age.’”

 

You’ve been quoted as stating that a love of calligraphy is at the heart of your type design. Describe how you view the relationship between calligraphy and type. How do you feel that type has affected calligraphy?

"If you choose to study the development of the written word you'll notice how it started with a writing tool, and that evolution in translating sounds and ideas culminated in the Latin letterforms.

One can understand how letterforms are constructed without understanding calligraphy; but calligraphy can help a designer envision how to create letterforms, because there are basic principles in calligraphy (stoke weight to counter weight, counter weight to letter space, letter space to word space, color, x-height (as a ratio of stroke weight to height, among others).

They are the rules that can then be broken (likewise, learn the three basic design principles of balance, contrast and unity, and then spend the rest of your life breaking them).

If you understand calligraphy, you can understand what good typography is, and how to make it. If you don't, you're simply a typesetter, and as a designer, computers have given us the privilege of being able to learn how to make good typography.”

 

Graphic Design is a very competitive field that you have been very successful in. What are some of the practices that you follow that you feel have led to your success

“Hmmm. That’s a tough one, there are so many! In no particular order, running my design firm like a business, and understanding how a business should be run. Knowing when to say no to projects that don’t fit our specialization. Thinking like an entrepreneur, valuing relationships, being a leader, not a follower, and listening closely.”

“You’ve been at this design thing for a while now. Surely you’ve come across a project or two that you were stumped by or that you found particularly challenging. Tell me about one such project. What were some of the more difficult challenges of the project?”

Most of the time if a project is difficult, challenging or stumps me/my firm, it’s because we have not defined it well to begin with, or not received clear direction from the client (because they don’t know what they want), and as a result, have not defined it well. Get the picture here?

When a client tells us what they are looking for, we always ask, "Is that what you really need or think you need?" and proceed from there.”

 

Tell me about the process you use to avoid these challenges.

“We have a process called the Clarity process.

Clarity makes clear your expectations and objectives, to form the context of strategy and design solutions that create change, and connect through design and tactical implementation with the audiences. Continuity assures success through metrics and continual re-alignment. We use a form of this on every project.”

Where do you draw your inspiration? Are there any particular artists you look to, websites, magazines, etc? Maybe you find inspiration from less conventional sources?

“Everything. Music, art, magazines, other designer's work, nature, industrial and product design, retail environments, musical instruments, technology, and the list goes on. I count as inspiration: Paul Rand, Tim Girvin, Tim Botts, Kit Hinrichs, Marty Neumeier.”

 

Design often involves collaboration and working closely with clients. How do you work effectively with the people you are paired up with for different projects?

“There are two things. Lead clients and manage client expectations. Do these well and the rest takes care of itself!

As the creative director of Sooy+Co., I generally have a clear idea of what our clients are looking for and can translate that to my design staff. From there, I am in and out lending strategic input, while the designers interface with the client on a day-to-day basis.”

 

What advice do you have for young aspiring graphic designers and typographers?

“Find a mentor! A mentor will provide wisdom from experience, guidance, perspective and someone to ask questions.

"Start slow. You're not as brilliant as you think. Accept advice and guidance from your peers and art directors. You might be very good at several things, but brilliant at one. Pick that one thing, and become the best at it."

 

When you begin a new typeface design, what are the very first steps you take and what kind of process typically proceeds from there? What are some of the tools that you use in the process?

"Of course, first is inspiration: whether it’s seeing a solution to a problem (eg, narrow columns need narrow type (Veritas), web sites that need icons (Eclectic Web) or another source of a solution. Sometimes it’s visual: an architectural motif, other letterforms, my handlettering (see attached samples, handlettering and Ledgerhand).

The process is slightly different for the specific typeface. Of course a handlettered style will involve ink, pen and paper, or marker, or another writing utensil, such as bamboo or ruling pen.

I use to draw the letterforms with tracing paper, and scan them, and then trace the outline, and tweak them as I go. But now, unless it’s handlettered, I start on screen (although being somewhat old-school, don’t recommend this for beginners. There is something to be said for pencil and paper and exploring the relationships of stem, stroke and counter by hand.

If it’s a more uniform style of letterform, then I start with the characters that have common shapes: n,m,h,i,o,p,b,p,d,q,v,w,y etc. I save the challenging ones for last: s,g,r,x. Same with the upper case letters (upper case, do you know where that term came from? It sounds so analog)."

 

Are there any particular letters or parts of letters that find more challenging to perfect than others? What kinds of things do you find most successful to overcome any challenges that come up?

"Definitely: g,s,x,o,Q,S,K. One of the biggest challenges is to make certain that your stem/stroke weights are optically equal. Using a circle shape the width of a vertical stroke helps with this on characters such as Z and S.

Who are some of your favorite typeface designers, historical and contemporary? What is it that attracts you to their work? Who are some other figures that have directly influenced your sense of design and your thoughts and philosophies about that practice?

I have been mostly influenced by contemporary type designers: Hermann Zapf, Matthew Carter, Luc[as] de Groot. I’m also influenced by calligraphers and lettering artists: Tim Girvin, Tim Botts, Hermann Zapf. Two dear friends who are type designers are Jim Parkinson and Doyald Young."

 

What are some of the things you did early in your career that you felt were the most important in establishing a successful career as a graphic designer? What steps are you taking now to continue to be successful with the challenges of a bleak economy and uncertainty about the future?

"Early in my career, I didn’t get too ambitious. I developed my leadership and relationship skills. I spent a few years learning from others, before I took on any real responsibility, developing my real world aesthetic sensibilities (as opposed to academic world).

I studied typography and design style and reference at every opportunity. Looking back, it was all about the tactical: concept, design style, type choice, technique, software. It was all very superficial.

Now it’s about process and strategy, and how these aspects of transformational thinking affects our client’s activities. Things I wish I would have understood very early on in my career.

For design to have meaning, to engage its audience, it needs to connect with people at the point that it has meaning in their lives.

To me, this is the heart and soul of design: to deeply move someone through what I've designed. If it's on purpose, hooray. If it's incidental, then I have to evaluate my choices in that light, and perhaps acknowledge that design happens... whether I choose it to or not.

 

I find a lot of graphic designers have a hard time going though every day life without making commentary about the design all around them. Has your knowledge of type made any aspects of life more challenging for you (for example movie credits, the cereal isle at the grocery store, or any other of the countless venues for bad typography)? Perhaps you have a good story about such a situation or ongoing experience?

"Read 'Death of the Apostrophe.' Yes, I admit, like many designers, I too suffer from being overly-critical at times, although I’ve mellowed with age, because in the big picture it’s not really that important. Not only with type, but with color, with execution, with style. Don’t get me started on the new pepsi logo, although I did blog about that too.

That’s part of the reason I started the blog Curious Obsessions. So I could offer some intelligent critique of design (good and bad).

I can pick out an ASCII apostrophe when it’s used improperly, upside-down letters on signs are totally distracting, poorly-drawn type annoys me and makes me feel sorry for those who are expected to read it.

There are many times when we work with a client who asks our opinion about their logo or typographic standards. If the type is out of date, or the logo poorly implemented, it makes it a challenge to answer.

For instance: if a designer doesn’t know how to extend a stroke on a character, such as the swash on an R, it can look distended or malformed. It’s disheartening when professionals don’t know when to ask an expert to do something correctly.

Life is the ongoing experience… Does my knowledge of design make it difficult for me to get through daily life? Don’t you see better solutions every day for things that you encounter? I always think there are ways to improve things I encounter, things I see…

I don’t limit it to design (after all why stop there?) I’m an entrepreneurial advisor to an incubator – I get to offer insights and advice to startup and established companies about what can be better, how they can structure their business, what to watch out for.

 

From speaking with you in the past and reading some of your articles, I know that your faith in Jesus Christ is a large part of your life and your work. Perhaps you could talk a little about how do you connect the aesthetics of your forms with the philosophy and theology of your faith. What kind of thought process goes into marrying the visual with the ideological

If anything, I’m always seeking the “ideal” in my design. This ideal is the most elegant, most appropriate solution for the criteria at the time. This is the philosophy that governs all my work, type or graphic design.

When it comes to type for a Bible, my goal has always been to create a typeface that doesn’t draw any attention to itself; to make the words on the page the main focus and of course to be highly readable.

Honoring God isn’t necessarily achieved through the individual forms themselves, but through the spirit of the typeface as a whole (much like how an artist’s worldview may not show through an individual work, but shows through the body of their work). The spirit of Veritas and Lucerna allows God’s Word be the main focus and easily accessible, but the letterforms themselves are also designed to be beautiful. The reason that they are designed as they are is to draw attention to the scriptures and not the letterforms themselves.

So what am I saying? Narrow columns require narrow type to maintain legibility and readability. (It’s easier for an individual to read if there are at least 5-6 words per line minimum). Narrow type requires a taller x-height, but also requires a balance between vertical strokes, counter spaces and horizontality to maintain horizontal eye movement.

My passion is for people to read and to know and to remember Scripture. If they’re going to spend time, significant time with a book, any book, but especially the Bible, then the type should have a welcoming quality, be readable, and make people fall in love with the typeface as they spend time with the book.


Visit Joseph Fioramanti at CTS Productions