November 21, 2014

Typefaces designed to enable communication: Nicole Dotin of Process Type Foundry

Elena—the typeface (above)—captured my attention. It was designed by Nicole Dotin, co-founder and partner of Process Type Foundry in Golden Valley, Minnesota. With her husband, Eric Olson, their studio originated on this intent: to make typefaces they desire to use, hoping others would too. Here, Nicole gives her opinions on making typefaces.

On being a typeface designer:

How did you arrive at what you do as a typeface designer? 
Was there an initial encounter of typography that played a role in your path toward becoming a typeface designer?

It was a case of finding myself more and more interested in design, then typography, then finally typeface design. Sometimes you find your interests through the culmination of small moments rather than a single blast. However, attending the University of Reading’s MA Typeface Design program was an important step for me. It gave me the time to focus on learning to design a typeface, and without that, I would have either never started, or it would have taken a very long time to arrive at the same place.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start and establish yourself as a typeface designer? And why were these activities/steps important?

I can’t say I feel established, and even if I did, I’m not sure I would admit it. Once you feel established, where is there left to go?

Getting semantic here: Do you mind being called a font designer, typographer, or a letterer?

There is a tendency in the design world to use terms related to type design, typography, and lettering, interchangeably. For example, type designers are often called typographers when those are two distinct practices (a type designer makes type, a typographer uses type). However, if professionals are going to communicate with one another, a common language is paramount. It’s not fussy or pretentious to use the correct terms; it’s being a good communicator who acknowledges the differences between related but distinct practices.

What is typeface design’s purpose 
or obligation in our society, the world?

To enable communication and reflect culture.

Who, even what, are your typeface design-related influences?

I appreciate designers—like Gerard Unger, Zuzana Licko, or William Addison Dwiggins—who create well-designed typefaces with a modern outlook. My perception of modern is that they address their era’s cultural and technological environment rather than looking wholly to the past. But further—and I’d add designers like Roger Excoffon or Imre Reiner—they march to the beat of their own drummer.

How important is it for you to follow your instincts?

I don’t separate out the idea of ‘instincts’ as special knowledge separate from my normal body of knowledge. So, they are no more or less important than other ways I make decisions.

How do you arrive at the idea of a typeface you want to realize?

Typefaces can start from just a spark or even a whim and develop from there. I started my typeface Pique (above) by trying to redraw an ‘a’ from a piece of lettering I found. Although Pique looks nothing like that ‘a’, it was the spark.

What is your process of designing a typeface, 
from notion to availability?

I tend to take my time designing a typeface—because I want to give it everything possible—so the journey is usually a long one. And, at the end, it’s hard to remember all the steps I took to arrive at the final product. It all becomes an indistinguishable blur where only the highlights remain.

Similar to a lot of other elements of visual culture, it feels 
like a typeface is birthed every moment. What is your take on the proliferation of fonts?
I have mixed feelings. I’m happy there is so much public interest in typography and type design. Some widespread recognition of our craft is heartening. However, it often feels like a very shallow interest. On a lot of levels, this is fine for the reader or casual user of type; they get to choose their interest level. I don’t think it’s as acceptable for designers dipping their toes in type design or journalists writing about the field. There’s a lot of sloppy work out there that does a disservice to users, readers, and consumers of type. On the positive side, there are a lot of great, well-crafted typefaces to use these days.

What typefaces do you judge as beautiful, even timeless?

This is a strange idea, to single out only beauty to judge a typeface. Typefaces are tools, and a beautiful axe that can’t cut down a tree is worthless.

I’m an admirer of your typeface Elena. Must ask: 
How did you arrive at the name?

Most typefaces have a work-in-progress name. Elena, for example, was called Cardigan after the street (above) I lived on at the time. At one point, my partner Eric experimented with a serif typeface he gave the working name Elena (my middle name). When I designed my own serif typeface, I reclaimed my name and called it Elena.

Whether in a bookstore, physically or online, 
do you judge a book by its cover design?

Somewhat. It gives me some sense of what the publisher and author want me to know about the book before I read it, in design language. But other than that, no.

On your Website, there’s mention of a “rural studio experiment.” Can you elaborate what this is, how and why it was done?

There was a period of time when Eric and I where in-between houses, because we sold ours in preparation for moving to England so I could attend school. The opportunity presented itself to live and work about two hours outside the Twin Cities. Since we can choose to live wherever we want, we’re always curious about what might suit us best. So, we moved to a cabin on a quiet lake (above) where the loons were our closest neighbors. This was just when social media was starting up and we didn’t yet have a constant tether to the outside world. It was springtime, then summer, and it was as idyllic as you could imagine. The experiment ended, however, when we moved to England in the fall.

How would you describe your business’ work culture? 
And why is it important?

The core of our studio is two people, so it’s pretty laid back. However, we take our work fairly seriously and that permeates everything we do. What we decide to work on, we give 100% percent, and if we can’t do that, we simply don’t do it.

What is your workspace like? How does it contribute to doing the quality of work you want to do?

Since my business partner and I are married, we have a detached studio that sits about ten feet from our house. I don’t know that it has a big effect on our work, but it has a huge effect on our life. Our commute is about 30 seconds, and the time we save not driving to work helps us keep our lives balanced.

How do you get the word out about what you 
and Process Type Foundry do?

We use the normal channels and also rely quite heavily on word-of-mouth. More importantly, we try to make typefaces that are worthy of people’s attention.

How do you attract custom work and clients?

We work on custom projects when it seems like a good fit for our talents and the client’s goals. But, at this point, we let the clients seek us out.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates to business?

We worry less about growth, and more about sustainability. We don’t have a natural interest in business and what would come of business growth, but we love what having a business has enabled us to do and be. So, we keep the business healthy but have little interest in the idea of business growth.

On creativity, design, working:

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?

Very directly. My partner is not only my partner in business, but in life as well. This allows us to cut to the chase on issues pretty quickly. And when all else fails, we usually try to lighten the mood with a joke, usually at the other’s expense.

What part of your work is particularly trying, 
and how do you deal with it?

Dealing with professional designers who use our typefaces but decide not to pay for them. We want to get paid for our work like any other designer.

What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas 
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?

Tools are very personal, but my toolset is pretty basic … a little email, some pen and paper, a shared calendar. Most organization and collaboration software is too complex for our studio’s needs. Plus, most issues can be easily handled by a quick face-to-face conversation.

How do you stay creative? 
What are some of your sources of motivation/inspiration?

When my mind is bored, I tackle a new challenge usually instinctively. That’s the great thing about running a business, everyday brings a new challenge.

What is your definition of bad design?

A thing that has no purpose, no reason for being. A thing that fails to meet the needs of its reader or user. A thing that adds nothing to the conversation.

If you were asked, “Nicole, I want to make a type foundry?” What’s your response?

I might try to talk you out of it.

Any other aspects of your work that would be interesting to creative practitioners and aspiring product/business makers?


How does the city of Golden Valley, Minnesota, 
contribute to your work? And what makes it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?

The Twin Cities has a well-established creative culture, including a thriving design scene. We’ve gotten a lot of support from local designers and agencies that have purchased our typefaces and from institutions, like the Walker Art Center or the now-defunct Design Institute, that helped promote our work in some way. Plus, there are actually other typeface designers living here, a rarity. It’s a great city to be a typeface designer.

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All images courtesy of Nicole Dotin.

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Related: Looking at Letters and Designing Them: Laura Meseguer, Type Designer—my Interview.

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