Hot Type’s Marko Hrastovec on taking clues from the past to make typefaces for the here and now
After more than four years of development and bespoke client commissions, Marko Hrastovec’s Hot Type has gone public – launching in the latter stages of 2021 with a refined collection of three typefaces – Punta, Stroy Grotesk and Stroy Mono. Based in Croatia, their mission is to add a fresh and original edge to historical models and cultural legacies discovered through in-depth research; blending the old with the new to create typefaces that balance flavour with form.
EM Hi Marko, how’s the new year been going for you so far?
MH Hi! We’ve been busy preparing the next Hot Type release that is going to be Hot Sans, a simple utilitarian design we already use on hottype.co. It’s something like a club sandwich, everybody has one, and it never seems to get old. Last month we moved studios into a new shared creative space with a couple of friends and have plans there for exhibitions, events and generally socialising if anybody remembers that one. Maybe we’ll even make a pop-up pizza event there too.
EM How did you get into type design, and why did you decide to start Hot Type?
MH Looking back, there’s a clear thread passing through all life phases that explains my connection to letters. I’d even say it dates back to when it was still unconscious. You already know the story, I guess it’s very similar to many of us dealing with type. Early on it was redrawing sports clubs logos, later getting into graffiti, then as you get older you become intrigued to try to figure out how to make a living out of it. Naturally enrolling into design school and from there it’s fairly straightforward – there I met Nikola Djurek (Typotheque), master of his craft and a mentor who passed on to me his passion and knowledge about typography and type design. I never looked back, and a strong work ethic led me to the Type & Media programme, which gave me confidence in my skills and the right connections to pursue a career in type design. After a couple of years working with Typotheque, Bold Monday and with my own clients, I felt I’d accumulated enough experience and started rolling out the blueprint for what would become Hot Type. Even though Hot Type has been active since 2017, it was mostly client work and me slowly but steadily preparing fonts for the inaugural launch. In late 2021, the stars finally aligned and we kicked it off.
The Hot Type way of doing things is taking clues in the past and making something contemporary and relevant out of it.
EM How do you typically start the design of a new typeface? Do you usually begin with a plan or outcome in mind?
MH It really depends, but I like to think the Hot Type way of doing things is taking clues in the past and making something contemporary and relevant out of it. Building on top of an idea that was already there made by someone 50, 100 or 500 years ago, but obviously back then there was no technology we have today. That's where interesting stuff happens to me. How to push ideas further, be it from a technology point of view, or reinterpreting shapes in a way that fits the needs of a contemporary designer. Back to your question, sometimes it’s literally a single character that sparks the idea, sometimes it’s a piece of lettering, other times it’s a full typeface that can be used as a source material. Recently, I like to have fun and mash-up different sources and constructions when appropriate, it almost necessarily produces interesting unconventional results, plus it makes for a good background story. When you’re in the commercial type business it’s impossible not to think about the outcome, but I try to explore without a plan and have fun at least while drawing A-z.
EM How do you know when a typeface is finished?
MH I would say the main portion of decision making happens quite early – either when drawing a basic set or planning out the design space. In my head typefaces are quite often done after completing A-z and numbers for a given family, but obviously, it still takes a lot of tedious work and time to be done-done. Once most of the creative portion of the work is done, which is fun, exciting (sometimes frustrating, but always pleasing in the end) and makes for 20%, there goes the other 80% which is more technical in nature. There's a fairly common testing and production process that has to be done in order for typefaces to be finished and released. That’s the routine, you don’t really get super excited about it, but it requires commitment and full focus in order to produce a top-quality product. You don’t wanna see customers reporting back your fonts are missing an obvious kerning pair.
EM Which of your typefaces was the most difficult to finish?
MH Punta was definitely the one that had quite a journey until I gave it its final shape. First I was inspired by a revival typeface I made during my studies, then I made some more research on how sharp the actual punches cut by Garamond were, which led to more crisp terminations and serifs. At some point, the proportions also changed to suit bigger type settings. The italics, on the other hand, don’t follow any historical model, they are completely new, inspired by a piece of lettering from a book cover I found. To round it off, the whole design carries a strong stone carving vibe, like a sharp chisel cutting through stone. You can read the full story about all that on our website.
Personally, I love working with restrictions. But, you have to pick your battles wisely.
EM Do the process and timescale differ between retail and commissioned typefaces?
MH For sure. Retail stuff is something that represents creative output and allows for more time exploring, experimenting, trying out different options and ideas in a usually extended period of time. Most prolific type designers/foundries juggle between many ideas at once, all in different stages of design. It’s important to find and maintain a healthy mix of creative and tech work to stay sane. Or have a good team that takes care of it. Commissions on the other hand usually come with a specific brief or idea and predefined time frame, so it’s quite different in that sense. Personally, I love working with restrictions. But, you have to pick your battles wisely. Sometimes you’re stoked on the outcome, other times it leaves you frustrated. The goal is to have more of the first one I guess!
EM How do you convince a client of the value of a custom typeface?
MH References and the quality of the work should do the convincing. People or organisations who approach us or show interest in a custom type service are most of the time well educated on the matter and aware of the value of such work and ownership. Some negotiation is always healthy though, until both sides agree on the deal. Client convincing is done by the agency or the studio that is approaching us for the service. Ideally, as a foundry, you don’t spend your energy convincing as it implies the other side isn’t aware of the value. It could be the first sign of a potentially unhealthy business relationship and the last thing you want is the bumpy road ahead.
EM How did you find the process and experience of creating a custom typeface for Nike?
MH I was approached by Nemanja Jehlicka, then global AD at Nike, now Design Director at Jordan, with a very specific idea of creating a Nike Air typeface as part of the rebranding process of the Nike Air platform. He already started drawing some shapes beforehand and then I helped with further exploring potential routes, until landing on a final design. We had the privilege to see beta versions applied on footwear quite early in the process, so we learned from that and iterated to make it perfect in terms of stroke thickness, spacing, rounded corners and specific ligatures that create logo-like lockups instantly. Later on, they started using the font more extensively and recently rolled out that typeface evolved into the brand's leading typeface for innovation platform FIT ADV.
EM From a business perspective, what is the most challenging part of running a type foundry?
MH I would say starting out. Now that infrastructure is in its place, it’s easier to focus on work and marketing the business. Quite important is also finding the right collaborators to do specific work I either don’t have the knowledge of or the time to do it.
EM What kind of jobs do those collaborators help with?
MH Font tech-oriented expertise is always welcome for instance. You wouldn’t believe how bizarre things occur in font editor apps along the way, so a font tech person is always on a speed dial. Digital designer to handle the shop interface, someone who understands well how user journeys work. Translator/editor, lawyer and accountant to name a few others. Also having more experienced colleagues and their advice is something I find crucial along the way. Not all the time it's necessary to learn from your own mistakes.
I’m into things that shouldn’t work together but they do and maybe you can’t tell why.
EM Do you consider how well a typeface will sell when you start designing it?
MH From other people's experiences, it’s clear that a simple, all-round sans serif will naturally sell well. But, for me, it’s important to not fall into that trap and make exclusively vanilla designs. Our next release will be exactly this, but Hot Type will keep on adding diverse genres to the library. We’re equally into utilitarian stuff as well as shapes that spark emotion, blow your socks off, make you wanna buy it for your lover who is a lawyer. That being said, I think good stuff will always find its customers, no matter the style.
EM When creating an ‘all-round sans serif,’ as you called it, do you try and set it apart from others, or is that not possible considering how many there are already?
MH With this specific one we wanted to strip down as much flavour as possible, but for sure there are certain characters that give away our foundry signature. But, it’s not all about positive shapes, sometimes it’s the way negative spaces work around them that's crucial for design to work. The more catchy details you remove, the more of the rudimental stuff becomes obvious, so it’s important to nail every letter combination to look balanced. I think the end result is just enough overall warmth while you can sneak it in pretty much every project.
EM Which genres of typography would you like to explore that you haven’t yet?
MH Personally, it’s less about genres per se, and more about intriguing shapes, rhythm, quirk, pleasant weirdness. I’m into things that shouldn’t work together but they do and maybe you can’t tell why. I prefer to leave classification to Fontstand and similar services, and keep a ‘that shit’s good’ release criteria. At this point in time, I think type that is not easily labelled is having its moment.
EM Your website mentions you also offer consulting and research – what are some examples of what you do in these areas?
MH It’s something that is part of the Hot Type design process anyway, so why not offer it to our partners who might need a hand with nerdy tech or historic material. I’m not a fan of ignoring the facts, sources and pretending shapes and ideas just appeared out of nowhere. A lot of stuff has been done throughout history, and sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right reference to open up new possibilities. If you take something from somewhere, inform yourself about it, inform the process, give credit and final work will only benefit from it. Kind of going against the trend of copycat hyperproduction where everything is just like the previous thing. Sometimes it’s also advice on picking the right type for the project, placing it in time-space context, redrawing those rusty beziers on the existing logo, and sometimes such a gig turns into a custom type project because it really makes sense to do it.
EM What would you like to do more of in 2022?
MH With the Hot Type website being launched now, we’re looking forward to seeing people use our fonts and show us what they designed with them. That's the ultimate goal, to reach wider audiences through our retail library, get to know people who use our fonts and invest back into the creation of more stuff, be it digital fonts or something completely different, but still very much Hot. We’re always in business for exciting new projects, so I’ll use this opportunity to encourage discussing potential teaming up.