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Idealog—in the ideas business

Designer type: Kris Sowersby

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Photograph by Matt Grace

One corner of the blogosphere fell into rapture late last year, as font geeks everywhere welcomed FF Meta Serif, a sweet complement to the ever-popular FF Meta typeface. Meta Serif also marked the arrival of its co-creator, 26-year-old Wellington font designer Kris Sowersby. Sowersby’s picked a demanding job—so what keeps him inspired through the arduous months of drawing alphabets? And what can he teach the music industry about piracy?

Why did you become interested in type?

It has its own appeal … it’s so simple, it’s black and white, positive and negative. And if you design a good typeface nobody will notice it—it just sits there and does its job.

It’s an interesting mix of aesthetics and numbers. There’s some formal design to it, and yet an aesthetic eye makes all the difference in a great typeface.

There are technical constraints that come into it too. Erik Spiekermann, who designed [the original] FF Meta, says 95 percent of a typeface is design and the rest is up to you. There isn’t much wiggle room. The alphabet is already designed, you just design how letters are presented.

Right, but every now and then a face has something completely wonky, like Goudy has its hyphen on an angle.

That’s the thing that you and I remember, but no one else. And it would be an accumulation of little details like that, say a slanted cross around the ‘e’ of Venetian perhaps. It all adds to the atmosphere.

There must be a huge amount of satisfaction in your work. It’s not a niche pursuit, but it is specialised.

Yeah, it’s not niche because the technology enables anybody to do it, but there are not many who do it well.

Do you need a perfectionist streak?

Yes! And you have to be able to endure hours of banal production work. I’d say 15 percent of it is exciting and creative, where you sit there and you draw, and you’re matching up the forms. And the rest is just boring production shit. It gets tedious putting all the accents in and spacing and kerning.

So how do you get through that?

Eyes on the prize. Without deadlines nothing would ever get done. And you just know that it’s worth it—if you’re going to put that amount of time into it, it’s going to have to be worth the result. You see some things people release that took ages, and they’ve wasted a whole lot of time creating something that’s really nasty.

But they don’t know it.

They don’t know it. You have to have someone else—like everyone needs an editor, someone who can help you be critical about it.

Is there a feedback loop in there as well?

Yes. For FF Meta Serif, Christian [Schwartz] and I did all the work on that and Erik [Spiekermann] really art-directed. His feedback was crucial because he knows what Meta is, obviously.

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Was it Christian who first got in touch with you?

Yes. I always speak to him on iChat. He said ‘Oh so do you want to do Meta Serif?’ and I just stared at him and thought ‘What the fuck, are you joking?’ He turned out to be quite serious.

How happy are you with the result?

Very, very happy.

You should be, it’s awesome.

Thanks! I learned so much about how to draw, and how to space, and about the correct production schedule from Christian. It was the process that I think I got the most out of. But I’m hanging out to use [Meta Serif], and I haven’t had a job yet where I can use it, which is the worst thing—you design these things and you don’t actually use them, other people use your tools.

Particularly if they don’t pay for them. I guess the music industry could learn a lot from you—fonts must be the most casually stolen property around.

Yeah! A font is like an MP3, it’s a small digital file. A lot of designers just pass these around like STDs. It’s like nobody really cares … at first I was shocked, but then I thought there’s nothing you can do about it. These people just aren’t going to pay for it.

I do get a bit pissed off about it, and I do worry about it. But piracy still happened back in the days of metal type as well. If someone released a design people would re-draw it and re-release it.

What would be the greatest phone call you could get tomorrow saying ‘Can you do this?’—aside from Idealog?

There are quite a few dream calls. One would be from the Dominion or the Sunday Star-Times saying ‘Oy, you’re a Kiwi designer, we’re a Kiwi newspaper, you should design some custom typefaces.’ That would just be tickety-boo. I like getting contacted by Kiwi firms, because it’s quite nice when they ring up and say we’ve got a job and you make typefaces, so maybe you can help us out. That’s pretty good.

How often does it happen?

In New Zealand, the only firm to have commissioned me, three typefaces thus far, is DNA Design. One was for the All Blacks, one was for the Moriori Trust and the other one was for Victoria University.

Most of the money is from offshore, and most of the sales from typefaces is offshore as well. The international market is just so beautiful. I get the breakdown of my royalty reports to see who’s buying. I’ve never even been to these places, I don’t even speak Swedish, they’re buying my font, this is great! 

Originally published in Idealog #14, page 18

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A great interview with a very talented type designer. We're going to be hearing a lot more about this guy.

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