Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes chat to Garrick Webster about the collaborative approach that's led to a library of award-winning typefaces.
When The Guardian went about its much-lauded redesign in 2004, one of the areas that art director Mark Porter wanted to develop was the newspaper's typography. Type would be used visually to support the paper's tone - measured, authoritative and modern. So, Porter turned to two of the best typographers of the current era, Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes. Until that point they had been independent agents who collaborated on projects whenever the need arose, but the following year the two joined forces as Commercial Type.
The Guardian redesign won a D&AD Black Pencil and is Schwartz and Barnes' best-known work here in the UK, but they've also created a range of typefaces that are used in some of the world's leading publications. They produced Austin for Harpers & Queen; Público, which was released commercially earlier this year, is the typeface of Lisbon's newspaper, Público; and Stag is an entire family that started as a collection of slab serifs created for the US edition of Esquire.
Despite forming Commercial Type, Christian Schwartz continues to be based in New York, while Paul Barnes calls London home. So when The Guardian work began, initially it was Barnes who was closest to the project. "Paul was more involved at the beginning stages than I was, but most of the information that I got was fairly cerebral," explains Schwartz. "They wanted a more continental kind of tone. And they wanted a quieter, more measured tone of voice. It was distinctions like that - it wasn't, 'We want a slab serif' or 'We want a sans serif' or 'We want humanist versus geometric.' It was all about getting a few steps ahead to what they wanted the reader to feel like when they were reading the paper: 'You guys figure out the rest, because that's your job.'"
Getting a certain feeling into a design or an illustration is tricky enough. But typographers - with the parameters of the letterforms and the requirement to be legible, even on cheap, grey pulp - have to really drill into something to get the right 'feel'. For Commercial Type, it's about a lot more than pure creativity. Typographic history has proven that the subtlest differences in forms can convey entirely different meanings and connotations. In the case of Guardian Egyptian, the very slight contrast between the width of the upright and horizontal parts of the letters was crucial.
Schwartz explains: "I think the low contrast of the Egyptian helps to create that measured tone of voice. It's not as energetic as a modern [typeface], or something with higher contrast would be. It doesn't have that almost stifling feeling that something with absolutely no contrast would have. Also, the forms themselves have a certain uniformity in proportion, so you get a very even texture and an even rhythm to the words."
The creative process begins with a lot of exploration. Schwartz and Barnes don't dismiss any idea out of hand, each drawing hypothetical forms then reviewing their work together. After many paths have been explored, they begin serious work on the typeface. It might be a less efficient way of working, but the variety of unused plans can be stored away and developed later on. Público, for instance, came out of work initially done for The Guardian's typefaces. Although not used there, after some more development the ideas provided the perfect solution for the Portuguese newspaper.
The distance between London and New York sometimes brings out the best in Commercial Type. "We can work together intensely on a project, but as we are apart we don't get overexposed to each other," explains Barnes. "We trust each others' opinions, so we take criticism well. Sometimes it's a close collaboration, such as in the case of Público and The Guardian; in others, like Stag, it's very much one person doing it - the other just says the odd word of encouragement, or offers a different direction."
Both Barnes and Schwartz are knowledgeable, serious, considered and meticulous designers, but their creative differences and individual backgrounds also constitute strengths for the company. Barnes studied typography at Reading University, on a course with a very academic approach. Since 1995, he has worked with Peter Saville doing design and identity work for various music and fashion outfits.
"I think he's the most visually literate person I've ever met," says Barnes of Saville. "He has such a broad range of reference points to call upon. His ability to combine things continues to amaze me - he can draw from something historical and mix it with something modern in order to create something new. He's a fantastic art director, as he sees things in my work that I hadn't fully appreciated. I've always found that when I work on typefaces, others' experiences can help to enrich them further."
Schwartz studied Communication Design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Whereas Barnes worked with Peter Saville, Schwartz was introduced to Erik Spiekermann and eventually went to work for him at Spiekermann's [then] company MetaDesign, in Berlin. Several years later, they jointly developed a typeface for Deutsche Bahn, the German railway, which won a gold medal from the German Design Council in 2007.
"The interesting thing with Erik is he almost never designs a typeface by himself," says Schwartz. "He's usually got someone who he's collaborating with, and yet there's a remarkable consistency in his style from one typeface to the next, in spite of the fact that he has a different collaborator for each one. He has a very systematic way of thinking, and knows how to communicate specific traits of a typeface that can make it work really well in corporate design, or signage, or whatever situation the typeface is intended for. But one of the biggest things I learned from Erik is how to communicate effectively with a collaborator."
Requiring extremely high levels of concentration and attention detail, typography always seems like a pursuit best enjoyed solo. However, the spirit of collaboration both partners have enjoyed in the past is part of Commercial Type's DNA today. The company employs both type and graphic designers, and also publishes fonts by or with other collaborators including Ross Milne (Canada), Kai Bernau (Netherlands) and Ilya Ruderman (Russia). The latter helped by extending the Austin typeface, developed mainly by Paul Barnes, into Cyrillic characters.
"I can tell you our secret to doing a really good job on the Cyrillic: it was to hire a type designer in Moscow," explains Schwartz. "I've also had Greek versions of a number of my typefaces done, and again, the trick to doing that is to hire a guy in Athens. Cyrillic is a much newer alphabet than its Latin counterpart, and it's at an earlier point in its process of evolution. There were specific things about the early modern transitional style of Austin that I didn't know about the equivalent period in Russian graphic design. So, Ilya Ruderman brought not only the ability to draw those shapes, and knowledge of their proportions - the nuts and bolts part - but he also brought his knowledge of what these forms mean to a Russian person."
Editorial typefaces form the main body of Commercial Type's work, but they do occasionally do custom fonts for corporate clients. For large companies, with tens of thousands of computers, it's expensive to license fonts: having one designed and owning the rights to it is more economically viable. Of course, if the client just wants their own personal version of Helvetica, this work can be pretty repetitive and dull.
However, much more interesting custom type projects come along too, such as creating a typeface for football kits. Barnes created lettering for all the Puma football kits used at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year: "I was interested in something that was less formal, so a script-like form seemed appropriate," he recalls. "The thing about football shirt numbers is that they have to be distinctive, yet also legible to the referee, the commentators and the audience. You also have a series of rules from FIFA and UEFA, about size and thickness. These rules are very strict, so you have to abide by them, otherwise [the organisations] reject the work. Obviously it's pleasing to see your designs in such a context - it's something that everyone can see and understand."
At a time when many designers feel overwhelmed by the range of fonts available - not to mention all the free typefaces online - Commercial Type continues with its considered, high quality work, adding new weights and variants to its font families and, as we go to press, looking at what the iPad will mean for typography with a major US magazine. "As a type designer I can either be terrified about the future, or I can be excited. I don't know that either one of those really affects what the future is going to be, it just affects my level of stress about it," admits Schwartz. "I've decided to be excited about the future, and just see what happens. We'll adapt."