Tobias Frere-Jones: It’s Always About the Type


Those who have been following the work of Tobias Frere-Jones know that he’s been busy doing research and lecturing. He’s also done plenty of writing too at his own blog. He even made time to weigh in on Apple’s new system font, San Francisco, for PRINT magazine’s Fall 2015 text issue. But if you’ve been waiting for him to release a new typeface, there’s good news: the wait is over.

Meet Mallory

Frere-Jones wanted to give something to the community, and to users, that would set a precedent. Like his past work, Mallory looks and is timeless, utilitarian and reliable. It’s able to do heavy lifting for a range of uses, and is intended to be, according to the designer, “an asset to users” and “durable.”


Frere-Jones’ online writing includes educational articles, such as a post about overshoot that explains the differences between logical and optical sizing, as well as vertical positioning. But all of the work, no matter what shape it takes, is geared towards type design, and Frere-Jones Type has been working on releasing Mallory for a long time.


Frere-Jones Type opened its doors in January 2015, and includes: Tobias Frere-Jones, founding partner and design director; Christine Bateup, partner and director of licensing & business planning; Graham Bradley, designer; and Tim Ripper, designer. A small staff size is ideal for Frere-Jones. He’s not interested in a company with 20–30 people since it wouldn’t allow him to put the greater part his time into drawing because there is other work in the day. And if there’s one thing Frere-Jones has been doing—in addition to his writing and research work, of course—it’s drawing. In fact, he began working on the Mallory typeface in February 2014, before the company was founded.

Images of the lowercase 'a' with previous designs going back to February 2014 rendered in darker lines, and the white line representing the Standard 'a' character's final form.

Images of the lowercase ‘a’ with previous designs going back to February 2014 rendered in darker lines, and the white line representing the Standard ‘a’ character’s final form.



Drawing Type, and So Much More

Looking through books in libraries, working with curators, and lecturing all factor into the research necessary to undertake type design.

“It’s all pointed to the same cause,” Frere-Jones says. “It’s always about the type.”

Most recently, he worked with assistant curator of American coins and currency Matthew Wittmann at the American Numismatic Society. Frere-Jones spent time “looking into letterforms (typographic or not) as security devices in banknotes.” That research went into a keynote presentation that Frere-Jones gave, entitled “In Letters We Trust,” for TypeCon2014: Capitolized.

But the research never ends, and it can be applied at any point in time, to any project in the works, or to an up-and-coming project.

“The visits to museums and collections become perpetual references, useful long after the fact. So Mallory draws on earlier visits with Stan Nelson at the Smithsonian Graphic Arts Collection, and visits to the Dwiggins Collection at the Boston Public Library, the C. H. Griffith archives at the University of Kentucky, and the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp.”


Frere-Jones considers history “a foundation to build on—to be built on—and not copied.” In this way, he uses the past in order to create something new, but also something connected to history. “The G—and the capitals generally—follow the model of Roman inscriptions, with letters that trend towards full squares and circles—H, N, O—and half-square forms—E, R, S—creating a back-and-forth rhythm between wide and narrow. Some designs like Futura and Gill hew very closely to that ancient model, and some like Frutiger hint at it quietly. I made character width one of the variables in the family, so the standard version has the more classical rhythm, and the MicroPlus turns towards a modern evenness.”

New Designs, New Challenges

Frere-Jones found designing the Mallory typeface to be “a lot of fun.” The fun comes from taking on something new—to stay fresh and tackle new challenges. He looks at each new design opportunity as something that should go beyond what he’s done in the past, “Each project has to have something in it that I’ve never done before.”

With Mallory, the goal was to create a typeface that works well with other typefaces. And that flexibility is intended to happen in print, on the web, and at large or small sizes with designs that Frere-Jones included in Mallory Complete, which includes Mallory Standard and Mallory MicroPlus. “That additional usability, it’s in there from the start.”

Mallory's MicroPlus version outlined in white, with the Standard version in the background in solid form. Note the taller x-height of the MicroPlus (white) version.

Mallory’s MicroPlus version outlined in white, with the Standard version in the background in solid form. Note the taller x-height of the MicroPlus (white) version.

Frere-Jones drew Mallory with 6 point or lower in mind, and used what he calls “engineering work” to make it function, especially when it comes to the MicroPlus versions. Looser spacing, a large x-height, and blunter shapes allow the forms to render well at small sizes. Although the MicroPlus versions have to be enabled as manual choices, when used, they’re great for captions, as well as setting large amounts of text at small sizes.

“The Standard versions are ideal from 8 point and up in print, and 16 pixels and up on screen,” Frere-Jones says. “The MicroPlus versions address the smallest sizes, being specially tuned for 4-10 point in print and 9-18 pixels on screen. The ideal ranges overlap deliberately, to accommodate (ever-present) variations in system rasterizers and screen hardware, as well as paper stock and press behavior.”

Frere-Jones began learning about functional principles and engineering-driven approaches twenty years ago while he was at Font Bureau, making fonts work well on screen as well as in newsprint, and other media that Frere-Jones labeled as “physically hostile” environments for typography. That past experience, coupled with the knowledge he’s built up over the years, has allowed Frere-Jones to appreciate and understand how typography works, no matter how high- or low-resolution the output will be. And in his opinion, a typeface can and should work well in both.

Global Typographic Needs

Mallory had to address what Frere-Jones calls “real needs” and when it comes to a global perspective, Frere-Jones admits that more typography and new typography needs to reach across multiple continents. “There is a need for more typefaces that cover other languages.”


Given these global needs, he’s been hard at work:

“I took this opportunity of starting over to rewrite our spec for language support, and expand it to include several major languages like Vietnamese, Azerbaijani and Yoruba (approx. 125 million speakers*) and often overlooked languages like Navajo and Cheyenne. We also looked at transliterations, which are used in academic contexts, but are becoming increasingly relevant in the news, where geographic names need to be rendered accurately. Most languages need letters beyond the simple A through Z. They might be simple marks over the letter, like the umlaut over a, o, u in German or the cedilla under c in French. Some languages require entirely new shapes, like the ‘thorn’ and ‘eth’ in Icelandic. With a couple of exceptions, my previous typefaces have focused on the Americas and Europe. Our new specification looks beyond that, to support as much as we practically can in the Latin alphabet.”

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Frere-Jones has had a lifelong love of letters, a fascination that began at an early age. “My typographic education started before I was aware of it: as a child I would stare at the signage in the London Underground, or hide in the school library and flip through decades-old issues of Life and National Geographic, and buy newspapers in Russian and Italian and Greek even though I couldn’t read any of it. So much of this early experience was connected to my family, our life in New York and our travels to London.”


Frere-Jones looks forward to designing condensed versions of Mallory, and he will get back to posting regularly at his blog where readers can learn about typographic principles, and see type in use. And of course, you can bet that he’ll keep drawing.

*Language and speaker statistics provided by Frere-Jones Type, and averaged from the UCLA Language Materials Project, SIL International Ethnologue database, Simon Ager Omniglot database, and Wikipedia.


PRFL15_1Learn more about Frere-Jones and deeper insights into type and text in PRINT magazine’s Fall 2015 text issue. In this fascinating issue, editorial director Debbie Millman and editor Zachary Petit explore text, a side of design that is rarely talked about—but inextricably linked.