Manchester-based branding agency Only and DR-Foundry recently spent three days with students from the Graphic Design course at Sheffield Hallam University, challenging them to create their own modular typeface. We spoke to Matthew Tweddle, Creative Director at Only, and Daniel Reed, Founder of DR-Foundry and Senior Designer at Only, to find out more.
The Brand Identity: What was the idea behind the modular type workshop?
Matthew Tweddle: An understanding of typography is central to all kinds of graphic design and logo creation. And type often plays a leading role in much of the work that we produce for our clients.
We wanted to help students to develop the skills to be able to create their own fully functioning modular typeface. We have created bespoke typefaces for several of our clients and our Senior Designer, Daniel, also runs DR-Foundry. We knew we had the skills and experience to offer something of real value to the students.
“We wanted to help students to develop the skills to be able to create their own fully functioning modular typeface.”
TBI: How was the workshop structured over the course of the week?
Daniel Reed: The workshop was split over three days, beginning with an introduction to modular letterforms, where they came from, how they are created, and their usage within brand identities for wider context.
We felt it was important to start work by hand so the students didn’t feel restricted by the computer, and we could encourage them to work fast and freely in an environment they could easily experiment within. The students were given a series of short exercises to form their own simple letterforms, using laser-cut shapes and gridded paper. We assigned everyone a single letter to create as many variations as they could until the end of the day. Students were told to experiment with shape, height, width and weight. We gave crits throughout the day and helped out wherever we could. It was great to see so much variety and individualism so early into the workshop.
“We felt it was important to start work by hand so the students didn’t feel restricted by the computer.”
On the second day, students were assigned a seven-letter word and told to take their favourite glyph experiments from the first day to develop in their word. The session helped students to understand how to maintain visual consistency through multiple letterforms, without overwhelming.
Once the students had developed multiple variations, we invited them to share their thoughts and processes with the rest of the group and begin to think about naming their typeface, taking influence from the visual personality of the forms.
“Students were encouraged to be playful and to consider the use of language carefully.”
On the final day, the students were tasked with creating the remaining letters of their alphabet and invited to display their A-Z alongside a contextual poster that would include a short sentence expanding on the name of their typeface. Students were encouraged to be playful and to consider the use of language carefully.
The students took to this process really well, using humour, pop culture references and factual copy to make the most of their posters. We hung all the work in a pop-up exhibition which offered the students a chance to see what they had all created. The standard of work was very high and it was great to see their personalities come through so clearly.
“Bianca Voicu’s experimental letterforms... demonstrate how creative and abstract you can be using just simple modular shapes.”
TBI: Do you have any favourites?
DR: The standard across the board was really high, but we’ve included some of our favourites here. We particularly enjoyed Bianca Voicu’s (‘Groovinator’) experimental letterforms which capture a real sense of freedom and playfulness and demonstrate how creative and abstract you can be using just simple modular shapes. Sarah Graham (‘Bangers’) also created a fantastic modular typeface which looks like it would be at home on music records or posters. The fact that these typefaces were made in just a few days is really quite extraordinary!
TBI: You mentioned students shared their work with the group and participated in crits. How vital do you think it is to learn to talk about your work and give and receive constructive criticism before entering the industry?
MT: There will come a time in your career where you will be asked to justify your work. Talking about your work forces you to think more deeply about what you’re doing. Preparing a presentation helps you to identify any gaps or potential areas for improvement. We would encourage any designer to do this at any point in their career.
Within the studio, we’ve built a culture of no ego. All ideas are shared and discussed regardless of where they have come from. Getting into the habit of doing this at University will set students up well for life after education.
“The fact that these typefaces were made in just a few days is really quite extraordinary!”
TBI: What are the future plans for the workshop, if any?
MT: When you’ve been working in the industry for a number of years, you develop a feel for what works and what doesn’t. This can be a good thing, but it can also lead to a more predictable output. Working with young designers who feel unrestrained and are brimming with ideas is really exciting — you get all sorts of weird and wonderful things coming back. In this situation, our job is to simply help them put a bit of rigour around their thinking and to structure the results. It’s totally symbiotic and rewarding for both sides.
We’d like to take the workshop into other universities and would encourage other designers and agencies to do the same. I think these kinds of exercises that have a simple set of parameters and lots of scope for creative expression are really healthy for everyone to do.