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The typeface archives of Jesse Ragan and Ben Kiel were bursting with ideas, and the two designers wanted those concepts to flourish. They wanted to use over a decade of work to fill voids in the type design world.
“We had done a lot of client work, custom type, lettering jobs and we had been sitting on a backlog of client pitch ideas where either the project never happened or the direction changed or they were just sketches,” Kiel says. “We were trying to figure out the best way to bring that stuff to market, but we wanted to have independent, direct control in how we sold things and did business.”
The two tested their working relationship—Kiel is located in St. Louis, while Ragan works in Brooklyn—by bringing their typeface Cortado to market. With the single type a success, the new type foundry XYZ Type would continue, allowing both to focus on designing typefaces for retail sale at xyztype.com while giving them complete control over their product.
In the crowded world of typeface design, especially with so many young designers dabbling in the space, Kiel says they believe their experience working both freelance and in large type foundries gives them familiarity to know what the market needs and then create a distinctive product to fit those needs.
“Our experiences working with branding agencies have yielded a lot of ideas that can fulfill a specific need in the market,” Ragan says. “We see what they are asking for and what is lacking.”
Kiel says that while XYZ Type offers a fresh perspective on a type foundry, it comes backed with “seasoned eyes.”
“A lot of people doing type foundries are newer to it,” he says. “People are making high-quality typefaces all the time, but what sets us apart is how you approach the design problem of why you need to make a new typeface. Jesse’s Aglet Slab came out of a direct experience with a branding agency looking for something and never finding it. Instead of waiting for someone to say ‘let’s make something new,’ we know what people are asking and looking for and we are going to make it.”
So far, XYZ Type—an obvious nod to the end of the alphabet meant to imply attention to detail—offers the previously released Cortado along with Aglet Slab and Export. But more are on the way, including Grep, a screen-optimized sans serif typeface geared toward branding, and Aglet Sans, a companion to Aglet Slab. The new typefaces from XYZ Type come equipped with OpenType features, alternate characters and sets of symbols to math every font style.
Kiel says the XYZ Type aesthetic focuses in on making type that proves “useful, interesting and unique.” If something already exists, the two move toward something that can’t be found. “Picking a typeface is really about picking what tone you want to set your message in,” Kiel says. “Designers are looking to find something that expresses the idea of a message and we are trying to make things to find new voices.”
Still, the two have a distinct tone in that voice. “Ben designs things I would never think to do and I design things he wouldn’t think of,” Ragan says. “That helps us offer diversity. I think that can be an asset in giving us a distinctive voice.”
The differing perspectives also help the two collaborate and provide direction on new projects. And the fact they don’t work in the same office comes as a bonus, they say. With Ragan working alongside graphic designers in New York, he finds inspiration there. Kiel enjoys working in the same studio as someone focused on letterpress work in St. Louis. Working with those outside of typeface helps keep them focused on designs that appeal to the “world outside of us.” When the two collaborate—not every project gets seen by the other every day—that provides certain freshness. The two shared the workload on Cortado, but ever since they have settled on the process of one taking the lead on a design with the other offering critique and insight.
“There are moments in the design process you hit a wall and you have gotten so deep you lose perspective and don’t know the best direction,” Ragan says. “I was trying to find the best lowercase a and lowercase g and I had six different options of how they could come together and I was able to get (Ben’s) sense of which of the six combos worked together.”
As type design requires continual adaptation by designers needing to create for the flexible medium of a screen and build in responsiveness, XYZ Type embraces the changes. “Designing things for us that work really well on screen and print are really important,” Kiel says. Whether a font goes slightly narrower for a phone and slightly wider for a desktop, branding projects still have business cards and letterhead that require both digital and print outcomes. That means projects may have a set of fonts that slightly differ for digital and print, but still in full compliment to each other. And all along the way, it must have an “organic, handmade feeling.”
Export, for example, has a feel that it was cut out of rubber and Cortado evokes painting with a brush with a series of alternate and special characters to give a further handmade quality. Even still, there is complex programming going on under the hood to ensure that organic aesthetic works in a practical sense to retain that feel at all times. “Trying to get that quality into digital form is a fun challenge for me,” Ragan says.
Ragan and Kiel now face those challenges together, dipping back into years of experience to create new type design to fill emerging typeface needs. And they get to control the outcomes along the way.