Process Ten: Commercial Type
Posted: April 29, 2014
As part of our city profile on New York in Process Journal Edition Ten, we speak with Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes of the esteemed type foundry, Commercial Type.
Commercial Type is a joint venture between Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz, who have collaborated since 2004 on various typeface projects, most notably the award-winning Guardian Egyptian. The company publishes retail fonts developed by Barnes and Schwartz, their staff, and outside collaborators, and also represents the two when they work together on type-design projects. Following the redesign of The Guardian (a project headed by Mark Porter), the Commercial Type team was awarded the coveted Black Pencil by D&AD. The team was also nominated for the Design Museum’s Designer of the Year prize.
We last spoke (in print) in our interview about Graphik in Process Edition Four (2011). Can you tell us a little about what you have been up to since then?
Most of our time and energy has gone into custom typeface projects, and we’ve had a really interesting variety of things to work on: newspapers, magazines, and a handful of corporate projects. A few highlights have been Helsingin Sanomat, Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, Bon Appétit, names and numbers for England’s national football team shirts, a set of two typefaces on the same set of widths for a newspaper group in Sweden that required some very clever tricks, and a series of projects for Bloomberg Businessweek.
We seem to be pretty firmly established in our niche as one of the favorite custom type foundries for publication designers to work with. This may not be a good thing, since it’s not nearly as lucrative a specialty as it used to be, but we still really enjoy it. Financially it’s sustainable enough for now, but budgets have been steadily shrinking, and the future for custom type for these sorts of clients looks unclear.
Our business of selling font licenses to the general public has grown over this time, but we’re still figuring out how to balance work with deadlines set by our clients with our own release schedule. It’s easy to let things slip when we set our own deadlines. One case in point: I’ve been working on new width for the Graphik family since we last spoke, and they still aren’t ready for release. Maybe I’ll finally finish them in 2014.
Commercial Type was first founded in 2004. How has your work as a type designer changed since then? More specifically, has the development of digital and web-based type altered the way you practise your craft?
The typefaces we drew for Helsingin Sanomat, the main quality daily newspaper in Finland, felt like the end of an era, in a way. The print product was still the main use for the typefaces, but we had to prepare versions for use on the paper’s website and in its mobile apps for delivery at the same time. I think this may be the last time we work for a news organisation that thinks of its printed edition as its primary product.
I gave a lecture entitled ‘Webfonts Are Just Fonts” at the Ampersand conferences in Brighton and New York on web typography this year, and this reflects our attitude on how the craft of type design is changing in the face of webfonts and fonts for apps on mobile devices. Licensing models and font formats are more complicated now, which affects us as a company but not really as type designers.
The fundamentals of typography, and of designing typefaces for the constraints of different reading environments, haven’t changed at all. The issues of the screen aren’t all that different to the issues of road signage or of newsprint. We use the same bag of tricks to compensate for blurry reproduction with poor ability to replicate fine details regardless of the medium.