#12 Rick Banks on starting a type foundry
In this first episode of 2019 I had a chat with graphic designer Rick Banks about running his Face37 design studio and starting the type foundry F37.
You can listen to the episode or read the entire interview below. Subscribe to the MbF podcast on Anchor or your favourite podcast app.
Glenn: How about we start off by just telling us why we’re, why are we talking today?
Rick: This month, we’ve just launched a refresh of our font foundry’s website. The original website won a yellow pencil in 2017, but it was in need of a refresh. I’ve done a lot since 2017, so it needs to be more professional and showcase the commercial jobs I’ve been doing over the last two years in a much better and clearer way. On top of that, the actual F37 catalog needed to work harder online too. Whether that’s putting it in different languages, having a PDF specimen online. I had that request a lot.
Glenn: I think it’s always nice to go back to the time that kind of set you off into this path. Like what first got you into typography? Obviously, you’re a designer, so you would have dealt with typefaces in your daily work, but I think a lot of us toy with the idea of creating your own typeface, but then never go ahead with it.
Rick: Yeah, so looking back I’ve always been into typography. I loved football shirt lettering when I was a kid. I think every graphic designer as well collected the fashion tags when they were little kids. Yeah, I was always drawn to letter form. I remember my housemate at uni, Robert Holmkvist, he really pushed me into the nerdy side of type. When I graduated I had a portfolio that was quite type based. Then I landed a job at SEA Design, who were again very type led, and I’ve not looked back since. Typography has always been with me, and it was at my second job, at a company called This Is Real Art, that I started playing around with typefaces. I think my first typeface I designed was a geometric typeface called Form. It was awful, looking back, but I just did it for fun at the time.
As a middle weight designer, I had no knowledge of drawing fonts, or whatever, and I just started opening up Illustrator and drawing letter forms at night and at the weekends. Form was based on a Armin Hofmann poster, and it was constructed of circles, so it was quite easy to do. It wasn’t hard to draw at all. I then bought FontLab at the time, the software to produce fonts. I don’t use that anymore, but I started just copy and pasting the glyphs in. That didn’t work so I bought a book called Learn FontLab Fast. It was a really good handy book, just to get introduced to producing fonts through FontLab. I learned a lot through that little typeface. I also bought the book, Designing Type by Karen Cheng, which was great. They were awesome books at the time. I think this was around 2007, 2008.
The font was super crude, I’d never ever own up to it nowadays. It was a learning curve, it’s all about just having a go.
Just don’t be afraid, just have a go, and learn along the way. I didn’t do the old traditional route of going to Reading and getting a type design degree, I just learnt on the job really. After that, I did a few more amateur fonts. Very, very geometric and easy to draw ones, but it was an easier way to get into drawing type. Then I went onto draw more intricate fonts like Bella.
Glenn: You briefly mentioned your process. Was this before the days of YouTube tutorials, and is that why you got those books? Or did you just prefer to read about it in a book, rather than find tutorials?
Rick: They weren’t any YouTube tutorials at the time, definitely not. It wasn’t as popular as it is now. Not that many people had FontLab. I think a lot of designers have Glyphs now. I see students all the time having Glyphs on their computer. I think uni’s can buy it because it’s super cheap. I remember when FontLab was just too expensive . Then Glyphs came in, and there are great tutorials online, so you can learn that way.
Glenn: How does the process vary these days to when you were using Glyphs? Is it a much more straightforward to get into?
Rick: Yeah, it’s, the reason why FontLab’s not the industry standard now, it’s just Glyphs, it’s so user friendly. It’s simple things, like it has the same shortcuts as Illustrator. It’s basics…FontLab was so hard to get head your head around being brought up in InDesign and Illustrator. It’s just very more user friendly, and it’s more powerful.
Glenn: Had you already set up F37 at that point to launch that, or did you release the typeface just by itself?
Rick: No, I didn’t do it for any other reason than just passion at the time. I drew Bella, I didn’t think anything of it. I emailed Hype for Type just saying, “Do you want to sell it,” and they did. I didn’t realise how successful it would be. It’s still my most popular bestselling font, which is staggering considering it was my first professional release. Yeah, I didn’t even think of launching a foundry then, because I was still heavily into my branding, and my graphic design, and I was freelancing in London. I did another font called Ginger, and again that’s the second bestselling font I’ve done. After that, I think, I can’t remember when I did Ginger. I think it was 2013. I thought about it for a number of years after that, but it was when my wife first became pregnant, I made the decision of setting up a foundry.
It meant that I could leave London from my tiny one bed flat, and work from home up in Manchester, I’d see my son a lot more than I would in London freelancing. I actually set it up with my business partner, Alex, who owns Hype for Type. We got chatting, and we set it up together. It’s a great combination, because he deals with all the boring stuff, like licensing, and legal, FAQs, and customer feedback. It means that I can just concentrate on the creative. When we did launch, I wanted to make a massive impact and put us on the map a bit. That’s why I came up with the TypeTester, which won a yellow pencil, it basically mimics Illustrator inside a web browser using the very latest code, which is impressively developed by my friend, Tom Duncalf.
Glenn: Yeah, I remember first seeing that site, and it just then spreading across every social network and seen all over the place. It was definitely really different from a lot of type foundry websites at the time. I think that’s what helped it be so popular.
Rick: Yeah. I wanted it to be very user friendly. Most of the font foundries are so clunky to test, and I just wanted it to be like you’re in Illustrator, like you would as a graphic designer testing out a font.
Glenn: Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. You’re in a really lucky position then to have a partner who kind of takes care of the parts that you don’t enjoy doing, and I guess the other way around, or does Alex also design typefaces then?
Rick: No, he’s purely just the admin side, and I’m the creative. As I say, it’s a really good relationship, because I don’t want to get bogged down in all the boring stuff.
Glenn: You mentioned that you distributed your first couple of typefaces through Hype for Type.
Do you use any other platforms to distribute your fonts, or are you focused on just using your own website to really get them to people?
Rick: We’re just focusing on selling through F37. Obviously Alex is Hype for Type, but I don’t want to sell it through anyone else. I want to keep it quite restricted.
Glenn: Is there a good reason for that?
Rick: The best reason is you can track who’s using it. If you put it on multiple platforms, one, I think your brand gets a bit diluted, but, two, it’s easy to track down where the misuse is as well. If someone’s not bought a license, you can see…we’ve got spreadsheets that we can check.
Do you think it's easier these days to run a type foundry because you can maybe reach that audience yourself?
Rick:I do think it’s easier than ever. We’re seeing more graphic designers starting to go into type. There’s always been the classic Neville Brodys, and the Barnbrooks, but I think we’re seeing it more and more. Because, as I said, Glyphs is more affordable, and when you team that up with Instagram, your work can just explode. If anyone’s thinking of doing it, the world is your oyster really, just go for it. On the negative side, you’re right, there are so many foundries now, and it’s hard to keep up with them all and stand out.
Is Instagram the main channel that you use to promote your work and your fonts, or are there any other networks that you use?
Rick: I’m on Twitter, but I don’t really talk about my fonts on that platform. Instagram’s the main one, and I’m trying to post every day, but it’s so hard to keep up with that on top of work. I design and produce little specimen booklets, and I send them out to creatives, and you can buy them on the website as well. Yeah, Instagram is crucial in this day and age.
The best promotion is word of mouth. I think type designers all need to brand their fonts better too. Well, I think my font [names] are more memorable. I like to have a theme around them, and name them in a more memorable way. Rather than Helvetica Next, or another Neue, or another Grotesque. I mean there’s so many now. You need to standout from the crowd, so that’s why I name my fonts memorable, personal or funny names.
Glenn: Yeah, I think your naming has been pretty good. That’s not an easy job. I mean again, there’s just so much, so many typefaces and so many names already out there.
Rick: That’s another thing you have to watch out, that you don’t get in any legal trouble naming fonts as well.
Glenn: Speaking of standing out from the crowd, over the past year or two, there have been so many articles writing about this sort of simplifying of branding across the board of like major tech companies, from Google, to Pinterest, Spotify, Airbnb. They’re all going back to geometric, or humanist Sans-Serifs. Do you think we need more Sans-Serifs on the market? Like how many variations can we still get into until we just reach an end?
Rick: I think you could say that about anything creative. I mean does the world need more films? Does it need more books? Do we need another painting? I think, yes, we do. Life would be boring if we just stop creating. On your point about Geometric Sans. Everyone’s talking about, “Oh, it all looks the same.” I mean, that famous JPEG on social media that’s done the rounds…. one, it’s missing out the symbols, which tricks the viewer. Two, you could say that about any font.
If you search Helvetica and logos, you’d see American Airlines, you’d see Lufthansa. The idea of using a Sans-Serif with a beautiful symbol is nothing new. It’s just because we’ve seen a few big startups, like Airbnb, and Spotify, use a Geometric Sans, everyone’s up in arms. I don’t see it. If they didn’t have the accompanying symbols, I’d maybe agree, but I think it’s fine.
Glenn: I still see a lot of difference between them. These four examples at least, they’re all still unique. I guess that’s kind of where these little nuances, where you’re still going to be able to experiment in the future and try and come up with something different.
I suppose that’s maybe also what makes your job interesting, there’s maybe more room for custom typography, where it has that little difference in character from just using a Helvetica, or a Gotham, or something that’s been widely used.
F37's custom font, Nibble, for Cow & Gate
Rick: The other JPEG that's doing the rounds on social media, is the one with all the fashion labels. I don't know if you've seen it, where everyone's ditching their heritage and going for another Sans-Serif, but a slightly condensed one rather than a geometric one. That's another trend, and I don't know where I sit on that.
Glenn: Because they were all beautiful logos. Was it Yves Saint Laurent or Comme des Garçon, I can't remember who else?
Rick: There's Burberry.
Glenn: Burberry, yeah. They went back to just a plain serif, yeah. I really liked those logos, but I guess there's probably some good reason that they came up with for doing it. I've not read anything.
Rick: Yeah. Exactly. A part of me loves that they're going more modern, it can work at a small size, work digitally, and work with collaborations. Then there's another side of me that thinks, "Oh, there's, they all look the same. There's no personality. There's no character." That's what leads me onto your question about commissioning custom type work. I think I try to always design my type with an idea in it.
Glenn: Like with the British Heart Foundation for example.
Rick: Exactly. You can see the idea very, very clearly, and I think clients are realising how strong a bespoke asset, like a font, is for their brand. I mean you can take away the British Heart Foundation's logo, the color, the photography, and you'll able, you'll still be able to recognise the brand just by the custom font.
Rick: That’s on the design side of things, even on the commercial side of things, it can often be cheaper as well than licensing a font. For example, IBM were spending a million [dollars] a year on licensing Helvetica. They’ve just commissioned a beautiful bespoke typeface.
Rick: Plex, exactly, yeah. For anyone looking, for studios, or companies looking to commission type, I’d start the conversation early with a client, see if they’ve got the budget, and then just get some ballpark figures. You could go to the big corporates, like Monotype, but they’ll be probably ludicrously expensive.
I’d probably stick to the independents. I’d also supply the foundry with a strict brief. The amount of times I get an email going, “How much for a bespoke font?” There’s so many variables. I mean, how many weights? Do they want uppercase, a lowercase? How many languages do they want to support? Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Greek, Russian? All these questions have massive impact on cost.
Glenn: I think price can definitely be a hurdle. Like I’ve never commissioned a custom font, so I wouldn’t even know how to offer it to my clients, because I wouldn’t even be able to tell them, “Okay, we’ll definitely need a budget of at least X amount,” to even get them on the side of, “Yeah, well, this sounds like something that we should be doing.”
I think that’s always, getting the client to understand why first of all, and explaining to them what a great idea can be, and then running around and getting offers, and then realising, “Oh, shit. Okay, well, we don’t really have that budget.”
Rick: Yeah, I know. It’s tough. I think you just need to start those conversations super early, because it is into the thousands. It’s not a cheap thing. Often as well, clients want IP buyout.
Glenn: Of course, yeah.
Rick: Then now you’re into some serious expensive territory. So yeah, it’s about starting those conversations early I think, to see if they can afford it.
Wahaca bespoke F37 font, brand designed by Without Studio
F37 bespoke font for British Health Foundation, brand designed by Wolff Olins.
F37 bespoke font for British Health Foundation, brand designed by Wolff Olins.
Glenn: Anyone who’s maybe thinking about setting up a foundry, or at least, a person has already been experimenting with typography for a little bit and creating a font, but is considering making this next step.
If you would be able to, if you were starting F37 now, knowing what you know, what would you have done differently?
Rick: It’s a tricky question. I don’t generally like looking back and going, “What if?” Or…
Glenn: Let’s look at it in a positive light then, and say, what tip would you have for someone who is thinking about setting up? What’s like the thing that you didn’t expect to learn when you started F37?
Rick: The biggest thing I’ve learned is all the licensing and all the legal stuff. It is seriously complex, and that’s why for graphic designers, it’s so confusing seeing all these different licenses and all these different costs.
I originally wanted to set F37 up with a really obvious, “Right, these are ballpark figures,” but the variables involved, again like the custom briefs, are just insane. It could be for a whole brand identity. It could just be for a book needing a publishing license. It could just be for server licenses. I’d probably brush up on all the legal side of things.
Glenn: That’s probably the trickiest part that I never thought about.
Rick: Yeah. It is super complex.
Glenn: Well, you’re lucky to have Alex.
Rick: Exactly, yeah. He’s got 15 years of knowledge of and that’s why I brought him onboard because he set up Hype for Type. He had knowledge of dealing with all these big brands and their licensing issues. What else? Setting up an actual shop as well. Now, that is difficult. The backend of the foundry now is so complex.
Glenn: Is it all custom, or do you guys run on a shop software?
Rick: We run on Shopify, but it’s heavily customised. For example, if you click on an OTF file, if you want a desktop license, it will automatically discount the web font. That’s another variant that you have to upload. Just thinking about it makes my brain melt a bit. I think that’s probably been the toughest thing.
Glenn: Well, the new website turned out great.
Rick: Oh, cheers. Yeah.
Glenn: It’s been worth all the effort.
Rick: Yeah. I hope so.
Glenn: I was trying to remember earlier what was the first typeface that I ever bought, because obviously when you're a student you kind of all share typefaces around, which you probably shouldn't be doing. Then when you get to work, they're all like company typefaces, so I never had to worry about it. Then when I started freelancing, I went, "Okay, I'm going to have to like buy my font licenses now." I think the first one I bought was FF Netto, for an architecture job.
Can you remember the first typeface you bought?
Rick: It’s a real boring one. It’s Helvetica Neue 75 Bold. Influenced by The Designers Republic when I was 16. I remember borrowing my mum’s credit card and buying it.
Tell people where they can find out more about you and your work.
Rick: Face37.com shows all my graphic design work, which I still do. I split up my life doing 50% graphic design, and then 50% type design. My wife, since having my son, Bobby, she works with me on, from Monday to Wednesday. She mixes up her time doing graphic design with Face37, or social posts for F37 foundry. Which is on f37foundry.com, so, yeah, you can check out all my fonts there and all my custom fonts on the brand spanking new website.
Glenn: Awesome. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me today, Rick.
Rick: No worries. Thanks, Glenn.