AllCaps on launching their type design practice, working collaboratively and the value of learning
AllCaps is a design practice dedicated to publishing typefaces, founded by Ondrej Bachor and Jan Novák, and supported by Sascha Bente, Malte Bentzen, Sylvan Lanz and many other collaborators. Starting out as a post-university initiative, the team made the decision to formalise their practice into a type foundry, releasing their first four typefaces at launch – Youth, Modern Gothic, Rhetorik Sans and Rhetorik Serif. We spoke to the AllCaps team about starting the foundry together, their approach to creating typefaces, and working together across multiple countries.
PT What led you to start the foundry together?
OB For me, it was definitely an opportunity to create a dialogue between other designers and us. The fonts in our catalogue are the result of our activities, research, education, workshops and collaborations, and this is how we can share them under one roof. Before we founded AllCaps, we would chat and share our sketches within the group, so bringing them to a wider audience was the next step. So far, this exchange has brought new collaborations that might not have been possible if we had kept our designs on a hard drive. It is very refreshing to see our work being used in different contexts that bring something back to our practice. In the future, I would like to continue to deepen this dialogue and keep making our practice more accessible.
PT Why did you choose the name AllCaps?
OB We deliberately looked for an easy-to-understand typographic term to bridge the gap between type design and other cultural fields. It happened spontaneously the night I wanted to listen to my Justin Bieber CD, but accidentally played Madvillain – All Caps. Since then, the name has kept coming at us from unexpected directions. In the end, we chose AllCaps because it carries a certain attitude, in headlines they are used to make words appear bolder, in writing they generally mean shouting/yelling and when used alternated they represent mockery. Among type designers, all caps have a slightly negative connotation due to their poor legibility in comparison to lowercase and their generic construction. AllCaps are the Joe Pesci of typography.
PT How do you work together on a project, across multiple countries?
OB Since most of our work is digital, distance is no longer an issue. Each of us is surrounded by an individual environment, which makes us perceive things in slightly different contexts. I think that’s a big healthy plus – especially when it comes to making decisions. I can’t imagine a situation where we’re all sitting in a big open office and losing touch with reality.
Each new type project brings its own micro-universe.
PT What have you learned since launching the practice?
OB I have a special relationship with learning, having worked as a teaching assistant at ECAL I had to cope with seeing countless ways of teaching type design. For me, it has been a combination of constant learning and unlearning. Each new type project brings its own micro-universe, and every time we try to learn as much as possible about it through research – unlearn it and find our own way of approaching it. Sometimes this means pausing the project for a longer period of time, going back or in extreme cases starting over. I like to work on several typefaces at the same time and learn from each other, which helps me to get some distance and to see my tendencies and bad habits.
PT How has studying at ECAL influenced your approach to typography?
MB We should maybe first mention not all of us have studied at ECAL. But for those of us who did, ECAL provided a space where we learned to work our asses off, becoming completely obsessed for a while, then graduating and returning to the real world again. We learned a lot of methods and techniques that could be applied to the design problems we wished to explore, so the programme didn’t dictate one specific way of doing things but gave space for students to develop their own interests. Even though we are different as designers at AllCaps, I guess we share an approach: similar aesthetics, way of living, taste in food, and listening to NTS radio? One thing that I learned is that sometimes type is enough. You don’t always need images, animations, illustrations etc. If you do a great typeface, it can really carry a project far.
PT What are your favourite parts of the type design process?
SB For me, it’s actually the first proofs you print to check the individually drawn letters in text – or context. It’s the moment when the idea you have in mind becomes a physical reality. You see the letter shapes interacting for the first time. Sounds a bit dramatic maybe but to me, these first printouts prove a concept, like stress tests with a following approval or disapproval of my previous effort and work. So even when I see a lot of mistakes in my first printed proofs, it somehow pushes me, because I get new ideas on how to improve the drawings.
PT And what are your least favourite parts?
SB One would suspect that it’s the technical part of typeface development but I actually quite enjoy that. What I really dislike is opening an older project and starting to rework it. Like updating a typeface design after years because you realise it urgently needs some reworking. Working in graphic design for many years, my workflow seems to be trained for short-term fast and furious projects, but type design is different. So one of my goals is to get used to long-term working phases somehow. Currently, I would always rather start a new project instead of urgently reworking old ones. But I guess I just have to pull myself together here.
Every typeface we use, read or design today refers to an original blueprint created without a computer.
PT You mention that hand-drawing shapes is an important part of your design process, why so? And are there any other skills in type design that you think are undervalued?
SB For me, there are two reasons why the hand still plays an important role in type design. I think, that designers have to realise that every typeface we use, read or design today refers to an original blueprint created without a computer. Every relevant font has a non-digital basis at some point. More or less contemporary display types might be an exception here. So the idea behind keeping hand-drawing an essential part of our design process is to escape the limited space of X- and Y-axis in a digital drawing environment. Observing historical sources helps to recognise curves drawn by analogue tools, shapes built upon geometry and sometimes even free hand-drawn contours which don’t follow any logic or tool. To me, the only way to comprehend an original idea of a typeface is to use my hands here instead of a mouse clicking BCPs.
The second reason is basically optical correction. Typefaces are drawn to be read by the human eye – let’s call it an organic receiver which is used to organic shapes. Sending imperfect organic signals is an advantage here because they are literally more legible. So in the end it doesn’t mean we are still drawing letters with ink and scanning them but using our hands to understand and comprehend the curve logics of typographic sources.
PT When designing your typefaces, did you have a clear intention in mind for each of them?
JN The short answer is yes. I believe that this is something we especially care about in AllCaps. We’re always developing and simultaneously testing the typefaces in our personal graphic design commissions. We share our fonts inside the team from the earliest stage of development, so each of us can test the typefaces in a project – it’s the best way to reveal possible issues, often overlooked during the design/proofing process.
When I’m starting my own typefaces, I always aim for a specific use or a client. It gives me a direct path and idea of what I want to achieve. Sometimes it’s a real commission (galleries, restaurant, hotel, magazine issue), sometimes it’s a made-up situation or a fictional client (futuristic transport system, made-up government). It helps me not to lose direction in the lengthy design process, but it can also be a limitation, since the typefaces can end up being too specific, high-profile.
PT Where does the team go for inspiration, inside and outside of design?
MB We have all somehow connected to or are part of work related to the cultural field, through friends or just general interests, that being architects, artists, other designers etc, I guess it’s just natural for us to find inspiration in what we surround ourselves with. The broader visual culture where art and design meets is commonplace for all of us.
That being said, inspiration can come unexpectedly: walking to our studio space seeing old signage on the street, or visiting a second-hand store running into logotypes from the past, or going through a record collection with letterings on the covers. Sometimes one letter is enough to spark some inspiration, sometimes even just an abstract shape can do the job.
On the other hand, type design is a rather specific design discipline and historical research definitely plays an important role in how we find inspiration. In that way, it’s maybe a bit harder than in other design disciplines to just step out of your ‘design practice’ and find inspiration elsewhere. At some point in the design process you need to weigh your work against what is already out there in the crowded type design jungle, and avoid taking a path that has already been explored.
Personally, I tend to stay away from blogs and Instagram for inspiration – as I often experience a loop of similar trends or design features reposted or redesigned. My suspicion is that a lot of social media users find their own inspiration on social media, but of course, there is also a lot of great content shared on those platforms as well, so it is a balance.
PT If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
MB I still think there are some aspects of type design that are not clear and if made more visible could broaden the understanding and value of the work, time and dedication behind the practice. Especially for people outside the field, possible clients and users. Working for multiple years on one type design project is slightly mad but also the reality we are in. I doubt many people have that in mind when using our typefaces.