Already collaborating as the London-based design and creative direction studio Spencer Fenton, Haakon Spencer and Matthew Fenton have continued their relationship by founding British Standard Type, a digital foundry exploring the “creative potential of new type technologies.” As ECAL Type Design alumni, drawing typefaces is part of their design DNA; a practice that will take shape as both retail and custom fonts as their new venture evolves.
The Brand Identity: Alongside your work at Spencer Fenton, why did you decide to launch a type foundry?
British Standard Type: We both studied type design in Switzerland before starting Spencer Fenton, so it has always been our ambition. From the beginning, we have been incorporating type design into our projects, and over time we have been commissioned for more type only projects. Having an understanding of how we plan to use the typeface in design influences how we draw it.
We always wanted to have a constantly evolving business; we don’t see BST as a foundry only; it’s a space to experiment. We have a strong collaborative network through Spencer Fenton and wanted to start working on more experimental cross-disciplinary projects untethered from the restrictions of a single project. We’ve always been interested in pursuing and nurturing our own creative output, so this is a continuation of that mindset.
TBI: How did you land on the name British Standard Type?
BST: The name borrows from the BSI (British Standards Institute) in the UK, which sets the national standards in manufacturing. We liked that it feels administrative, regulatory as, paradoxically, we’d like to challenge the conventions within type design and set a new standard. We are both British; there’s a natural, cultural influence on our work derived from the British tradition of type design. Although physically we are based in London, we draw typefaces for a global audience and collaborate with people worldwide.
“We don’t see BST as a foundry only; it’s a space to experiment.”
TBI: “Established to explore the creative potential of new type technologies.” Can you give us an insight into what that means?
BST: The requirements on type are constantly evolving, and technology has always radically influenced the design of typefaces; the technology of a time formally impacts the typefaces of an era. We’re now living in a new reality; typefaces are no longer only static formal objects; they are information objects that can be influenced by data to take on characteristics of their environment. Adapting to this new reality is both necessary and exciting. We like to evolve and surprise through experiments with type design and technology, creating unpredictable outcomes, which we believe keeps things interesting. We plan to add an open-ended section to the site sharing these experiments soon.
TBI: How do you convince a client of the value of a custom typeface?
BST: Spencer Fenton has a type-led approach to design, and the clients we work with have an opinion on typefaces and understand what they like and don’t like. We emphasise the power of a custom typeface as a unique, ownable central asset. We don’t consider identities as fixed; we acknowledge that they will evolve and adapt with time. A typeface is a tool through which we can provide consistency whilst remaining dynamic and flexible. More recently, clients approach us for a custom typeface that we then use to create their visual identity.
“We like to evolve and surprise through experiments with type design and technology.”
TBI: What can we expect from your retail type catalogue?
BST: True to the British Standard, we see our first release in the vein of a British humanist. A humanist typeface with an Italian reverse contrast partner. This has been cooking for a long time and started as a glimmer in our eyes whilst studying type design. We’re considering releasing these two styles as standard and non-standard releases.
TBI: Do the process and timescale differ between designing custom and retail typefaces?
BST: The timescale can differ significantly, but generally, custom projects are faster. This affects our work process; with custom projects, we will often draw one weight with a basic Latin character set and then update and release new weights as the project develops and grows. For a magazine, we may draw a headline and then a text version and monospaced later; this way, the typeface grows and evolves with the magazine as a dynamic asset.
The process also varies with a custom project, either working with the internal team at Nike or an individual artist like Elizabeth Price; they create a world they would like to explore. They provide a framework of context and application, and you collaborate to create within it.
With a release, we finalise the entire family working across multiple weights and styles simultaneously with feedback back influencing both new weights and the original drawing, everything is a little in flux.
With the typeface we draw for retail, there’s a conversation between history and contemporary design and that exploration takes time.
“We see our first release in the vein of a British humanist.”
TBI: How experimental is the process of designing a new typeface? Do you usually go in with a plan or outcome in mind?
BST: We start with an idea of an area we would like to explore, which is usually quite broad and often stems from not finding a typeface that offers what we want. The design definitely shifts over time; throughout the process, we pass the typeface between us, bringing different perspectives and influences, so there’s a healthy period of creative experimentation.
There are also unforeseen technical parameters that affect the form; we’re currently finishing a typeface with a reverse contrast partner. We realised the construction of the original forms wouldn’t work as a reverse contrast, so we had to experiment and update.
The same is true with variable fonts; you’re working with parameters that create unexpected results. There’s a lot of trial and error, adjusting and reacting to these changes, making sure it’s formally beautiful and technically possible.
TBI: How does a custom typeface typically compare to a retail typeface in terms of cost?
BST: The cost to commission a custom typeface is higher than to purchase a retail typeface. How we cost custom typefaces depends on whether they would like a bespoke version of an existing typeface, a design from our archive or something completely new. It also depends on the level of exclusivity they require and how the typeface will be used. There’s also studio opinion; we have been fortunate to work with people we like. So if you’re doing something great that aligns with what we believe in, then we take that into account.
With retail typefaces, more often than not, the cost to draw them is higher because there are less defined boundaries, and the process is inherently more subjective. The cost is lower to purchase but the return accumulates over time.
“The typeface is conceptually finished before it’s actually finished.”
TBI: If there isn’t a deadline, how do you know when a typeface is finished?
BST: Knowing when things are finished is a common creative dilemma. There are periods where you’re unsure of where you are in the process and the feeling it will never end. However, ultimately you reach a point where the creative exploration is finalised – then a process of refining and mastering occurs where you work the defined idea through to completion. So the typeface is conceptually finished before it’s actually finished.
At this point, it’s important to make sure you don’t move onto another typeface. This process often opens up new territories that we want to explore, and it’s often tempting to move onto the exciting part of conceptualising a new typeface rather than the production and finalisation of the current one. A sign of this is the proliferation in typefaces with hundreds of stylistic alternates trying to create five typefaces in one; in our minds, this doesn’t always make the typeface stronger.