Marbles: An Experimental Typeface


Mark Richardson, principal of UK design firm Superfried, joined the profession by a circuitous route: though he loved logos as a child, he ended up studying science at university, graduating with a degree in Environmental Chemistry. His typographic work, like the recent experimental typeface Marbles, has gotten a great deal of attention in the design press for its originality and offbeat beauty. Richardson pushes letterforms into all versions that come to mind, sometimes at the expense of legibility but never at the expense of beauty.


Marbles began as a project for a US client, presented as a set of 3D numbers with a slightly organic core. Though the proposal was ultimately rejected, Richardson felt the idea still had potential, so he started to develop a complete set of black and white 2D numerals. From there it branched out into color versions and then back to 3D forms that soon became very intricate with a resemblance to the internal swirling patterns of classic glass marbles.

We spoke to Richardson to learn more about his exploratory and multifaceted approach to type design.


Marbles typeface — 3D forms
marbles-retina-2 marbles-retina-4


Marbles typeface: Black and white 2D forms, simple version


Marbles typeface: Black and white 2D forms, complex version

The black and white 2D number sets have a spatial ambiguity, especially in the complex forms. In both sets, the characters are pushing at the edges of legibility and are most recognizable when seen next to each other for comparison. What was your design process for this part of the project?

Much to the horror of real typographers, I find the general requirement for legibility is my greatest restriction! Whenever I’m developing a new style, I’m usually trying to make it as challenging as I can. My aim is to create forms that are as distant as possible from the letterforms, whilst still conveying sufficient hints to the intended letter. As a consequence they often only work when used in context. So in this instance, the simplified forms are more legible—the option the client would potentially sign off—and the more experimental, intricate versions are where I would take it.

Were you influenced at all by M.C. Escher’s work from the 1930’s and 40’s?

It’s interesting you mention M.C. Escher as he is probably my favorite artist. The way he combined art with math and science via his genius with geometry struck a chord with me as a child. I do naturally lean towards minimal, symmetrical geometric forms and I am a big fan of optical illusions.


MC Escher 


Another thought on Marble’s 2D form is that it echoes Art Nouveau’s sinuous, organic forms, especially on the journal cover for The Design Jones. The Dream 3 cover for Secret 7″ has an organic feel too, reminiscent of a snake’s skeleton: the type is delicate, crisp, mysterious. But then you add flat color to the 2D type on the Euro 96 poster, and it suddenly has an entirely different feel, more like 60’s pop art, and the work of designers like Milton Glaser and Heinz Edelmann. And finally, when the forms are rendered as shiny 3D shapes they are another thing entirely. These three manifestations are very, very different from one another visually and in their emotive impact. Your thoughts?

With regards to the different looks and styles I am glad you said they look very different as that was my intention. With the Dream 3 cover project I wanted to convey a flowing, seemingly random path, just like a dream.


Dream 3 cover for Secret 7″

For the Euro 96 poster, I was interested to see what would happen if the paths were split where they intersect to form individual abstract shapes differentiated by color connecting to the European flags.


Euro 96 poster

Then for the sketch book cover—still a work in progress—I was inspired by Don’t Panic envelopes. It’s a London thing… Don’t Panic hands out these envelopes containing loads of club flyers. The outside of the envelopes features really cool artwork which is always black ink on brown paper. It’s a really effective style which I thought would work well for this.


Sketch book cover—work in progress

Lastly there was the 3D. I have recently started to experiment with C4D, mainly because I have found that some of my ideas become too complex for me to develop in Photoshop or to physically make. I delved into 3D software originally because I wanted to take things and re-render them in physical space, As soon as the name for the project emerged, I was intrigued to see what the forms would look like if they were actually constructed like marbles.


Do you think Marbles works better as flat letterforms or as the 3/D modeled shapes?

I think it would depend on how they were to be used. I have found that a lot of the value of my personal experiments is that they tend to be selected by clients as a reference point for live projects.

bxc76adxvdorzphulud6 (1)In the online workshop Letterform Design I with Dr Shelley Gruendler of Typecamp, she will guide you through the process of designing your own type. This class will help you to learn the details of typographic perception through basic letterform design. This workshop doesn’t just show you how a letterform is created, you will also get hands-on experience designing all of the lowercase letters of the alphabet. Learn more and register.