An interview with Nicole Dotin of Process Type Foundry

Tim Brown, Typekit’s Type Manager, interviews Nicole Dotin, typeface designer and partner at Process Type Foundry, on being a generalist, the wild web of web fonts, the future of type design, and more.

Tim Brown: Hi Nicole. Introduce yourself!

Nicole Dotin: Well, I’m a typeface designer and part owner of the Process Type Foundry. Although I started designing type in 2006 after attending the University of Reading, I’m only now finishing my first typeface which is set to be released this year. Before that, I taught typography and web design at the university level, I’ve worked as a web and graphic designer, and I even designed and sewed clothing for dogs (really!).

TB: A woman of many talents. Why do you wake up each morning and work on type, rather than something else? What is it about type that holds your interest?

ND: Of course, I love words and language, and as a designer I’m drawn to shaping their form. But at heart, I identify more with being a generalist than a specialist. I’m really lucky to have fallen into running a business that combines a subject I’m passionate about with a role where I get to do and be a lot of different things during the day. So, my interest in type is as relevant to keeping me engaged in the profession as is feeding my generalist tendencies. Maybe the acquisition of all my varied skills makes slightly more sense now!

TB: I think we can all appreciate balance in our work lives. And the “generalist” approach is quite familiar among web folks. Designers and developers come from many different backgrounds, bringing much varied expertise to their work. If a Jill-of-all-trades wants to hone her typographic skills, where would you suggest she start?

ND: It’s really difficult to recommend a single or typical starting point because we’re all unique, with our own interests and learning styles. A small part of my dissertation research at Reading was to examine the paths contemporary type designers took to educate themselves in their field. Did they learn on the job? were they self-taught? did they go to university? etc. Although quite a few of them started out as graphic designers, often at university, they all made their way to type design in different ways and ended up practicing professionally. The best starting point is often the one you choose for yourself.

TB: Let’s talk about these beautiful type specimens at processtypefoundry.com. When you have a new typeface to announce, how do you decide which aspects to promote?

ND: Specimens are funny things because they balance two competing objectives. On the one hand, they’re very practical and try to show, in a relatively compact space, the range of weights, style variants, and special features of a family. This is pretty dry information, all and all. On the other hand, they’re pieces of marketing and have to show the face at its best, capture the imagination, and create desire.

So, when we choose which aspects of a face to promote, the practical side is extremely easy to satisfy — if the typeface has small caps, show the small caps. Creating desire, however, is obviously more complicated. Our approach has never been calculated in this respect, though. Certain elements get featured over others because they’re what made us excited about the typeface in the first place. You won’t get the hard sell at the Process Type Foundry because if we have to convince you, it’s most likely not the right choice of typeface for you to begin with.

TB: One of my favorite aspects of your web font specimens is the note on “Recommended Use” for each weight of every typeface. Tell me about that.

ND: We don’t normally give use recommendations for our fonts because designers are really good at figuring those out on their own. Web fonts are a special case, though. Fonts for print and the web both go through processes that make the final rendering or output of the font different. For example, printing a typeface on coated versus uncoated paper will give a different result — type on uncoated paper is a little softer around the edges than on coated. Same idea on the web: look at a website in both Firefox and Safari on a Mac simultaneously and you’ll notice the weight of the type appears slightly different between the two.

But in print, the environment is more controlled and better understood. You typically aren’t printing a single piece on both rough and smooth paper at the same time hoping they’ll match. The web, on the other hand, is kind of a mess when it comes to rendering type between all the different ways browsers and operating systems treat fonts, combined with the construction of the font itself to even the CSS used. Knowing the fonts will end up in a relatively harsh rendering environment, we want potential customers to have realistic expectations of how the fonts will perform, so we provide information on how we think they can best use them.

We sit down with each style in the family and determine the size where the rendering is stable. Sometimes, a font looks great spec’d at 12 pixels, but grim at 13, 14, and 15. If it looks good again at 16 and up, then that becomes the lowest recommended size. Of course, fonts still have use-limitations that have nothing to do with being on the web but become even more important to pay attention to in the web’s rougher rendering environment. A thin weight of a typeface, for example, set at a small size knocked out white on black is a challenge for print, but it’s even worse on the web. So, for some of our typefaces, particularly display fonts like Anchor or weights at the extremities like Capucine Black, the recommendations are partly about rendering but also about dispensing helpful typographic guidelines.

TB: The prospect of designing type for this young, rough, unpredictable medium, and working with web designers to get the best out of typefaces, seems both exhilarating and daunting. What’s your take on the future of web fonts?

ND: I must admit, the path to better typography in the digital realm isn’t entirely clear to me. What I am confident about, however, is that it will only get better if every stakeholder does his or her part to make it so. Even fonts designed specifically for screen environments, like Verdana and Georgia, still look unpleasant on certain OS and browser combinations. In my mind, these fonts are at about the height of the type design industry’s current capabilities designing for the screen. While their counters won’t fill in, their stem shapes will remain intact, and legibility will be high, they still won’t create a luscious reading experience in lesser rendering environments. So, the problem has to be attacked from all fronts — from the type designer, to web designers, browser makers, software developers, OS designers, creators of font production tools — everyone and anyone who has the desire and skill to improve our reading experience on screen.

For the type designer’s part, this presents an interesting challenge and conundrum. Typefaces can have long lives. Futura and Times New Roman are both roughly 80 years old, the Garamond model is hundreds of years old, and Helvetica is over 50 years old. Even a newer typeface like Proxima Sans (reworked to become Proxima Nova) was conceived in the very early 1990s. It’s almost 20 years old! So, how do you respond to the screen environment of today, knowing that in the future, all those constraints and limitations you designed around will most likely be completely irrelevant? Or, do you spend your valuable time making a technology-specific design knowing it probably has a short shelf life? These are tricky waters to navigate but add the pressure of designing a culturally relevant, useful, lasting typeface design into the mix? That is a more daunting prospect than tackling the screen by itself.

Nicole Dotin is typeface designer and partner of the Process Type Foundry.