Nolan Paparelli on the process and principles behind his typographically-driven practice
Having any distinction within the crowded world of typography can be a challenge. Munich-based designer Nolan Paparelli, however, prefers to take time with his output; aiming to craft typefaces that add to the conversation and feel relevant alongside collaborations with the likes of Swiss Typefaces and Think Work Observe. We caught up with him to take a deep dive into his practice.
EM Hey Nolan, how’s 2021 been for you so far?
NP Hey Elliott, so far so good! A lot of exciting projects are coming up in 2021!
EM After graduating from ECAL in Switzerland, how did you find yourself in Munich?
NP Long story short: while doing an internship at HERBURG WEILAND after graduating, I was invited to a risotto dinner where I met my now girlfriend through common friends. Following my internship, I went back to Switzerland briefly and after some time, we decided to live together, which led me back to Munich.
EM How do you balance your type design work with editorial, visual identity and web output?
NP At the moment, I’m mainly focusing on type design. But whenever possible, I like to balance graphic and type design more or less equally, allowing both fields to overlap and inform each other. For instance, I’m currently redesigning the corporate identity of Edition Taube, a publishing house specialised in artists’ books from Munich / Zurich and for this project we decided to use Kunst Grotesk, which is a typeface developed in collaboration with Piero Di Biase from Think Work Observe. Being on both sides, I can easily finetune the typeface in order to fit better for the corporate identity and vice versa. If the logo needs a special design of a letter or symbol, this could be implemented in the typeface itself. In this way, it often feels more personal and like a complete circle when you can use your own typefaces in your projects. So through my practice, I particularly like this versatility and that fields of work intertwine and generate unique outcomes.
...a sort of typographic ping pong between two designers.
EM What has the process of collaborating with Piero Di Biase on Kunst Grotesk been like?
NP It’s been a long process of back and forth, a sort of typographic ping pong between two designers. We initiated our collaboration in early 2019 after Piero showed me some first sketches of the typeface. At the beginning, the project was a bit blurry and there were various ideas that needed to be experimented with. We started collecting some references such as Folio, Permanent or MT Grotesque and Piero had drafted a Regular only. My first task was to expand it to a Bold, and later on to a Black version. During the process, we also developed the italics and planned together the font family spectrum. Overall, it has been a true collaboration and a constant discussion on the design of the typeface, in which each of us could suggest ideas and talk about it in a very open and transparent way. He would work on it, then pass me the files and I will consider what he did, try some other things and then we would discuss it again and so forth. I believe Piero’s studio name ‘Think Work Observe’ embodies well our creative process on Kunst Grotesk. At the end, we came up with this idea of a neo-grotesque typeface which draws inspiration from both historical and contemporary roots, conceived to reach a good balance between retro and modern feeling. The font family will start with four weights from Regular to Black with corresponding italics and will be released during 2021.
EM What’s the most challenging stage of the type design process?
NP I would say the conceptual phase. Today everyone can design their own typeface but it’s completely another thing to create something relevant that adds something to the typographic landscape. Even though I think that type design is an infinite field with endless forms and possibilities, a lot of fonts in my opinion copy each other and/or lack concept. It’s always a struggle to find the original idea and to design something different and outstanding but there will always be a place for new fonts and new ideas, even more now with the technological advancements and everything that comes with it. So for me, the most challenging part in the process is the conceptualisation of the typeface; researching and refining the typeface’s identity, experimenting with shapes, proportions, weights, etc. and trying to figure out what is the strength of the typeface and which purposes does it serve. There are many questions to answer.
I think that basic knowledge and skills in typography are very important.
EM At the very beginning, how did you learn to draw type?
NP During my studies at ECAL, under the supervision of great typography teachers. This is where I learned the basics; the theory of form and counter form, manual drawing, optical rules, grid systems, etc. Graphic design and type design education also intertwine. A lot of students were very intrigued by typography there. It often felt like a soothing meditation, sitting around the lightbox, drawing and refining curves by hand, focusing on curve tension while drawing an ‘a.’ I still find today this calming effect when doing type design. ECAL is a very unique place and thanks to its Swiss heritage, type design and typography are very emphasised there.
EM Do you think knowing how to draw typefaces should be a more fundamental part of graphic design education?
NP I don’t think so, even though type design has been heavily democratised in the last decades. This might be culturally-biased because of my background but I think that basic knowledge and skills in typography are very important within a proper graphic design education. On the other hand, it should not get too advanced either as type design is a very specialised, niche field. It’s not the taste of everyone. So the basics should be taught at design schools and the students have the opportunity to dive deeper into type later on if they wish to. That’s something that was very good at ECAL in the bachelor of graphic design; everyone had typography classes, some didn’t care much while some others really got into it and still do it now.
I’ve recently joined Nizar Kazan in his venture called WELTKERN®.
EM Your website mentions an ‘upcoming ambitious platform’ launching during March 2021. Can you reveal anything about that?
NP Yes, I’ve recently joined Nizar Kazan in his venture called WELTKERN®, a new candy store for designers and design aficionados alike. As being both Swiss, we feel a strong connection to our motherland and the name ‘heart of the world’ (translated from German) transmits this idea of patriotism and pride in a beautiful way. Although we want to promote Swiss design, we don’t want to be limited by this and WELTKERN® will be open to a worldwide audience. The platform will be divided into three parts: shop, journal and foundry. The shop will offer a fine selection of books, objects and merchandising with a focus on quality over quantity. The journal will include editorial content, essays and news related to design and typography at large. Last but not least, the foundry will officially release two fonts from us: Lausanne and Everett! Two contemporary Swiss neo-grotesque typefaces which already proved to be successful even if unreleased will inaugurate our font catalogue and set the tone. The foundry will of course expand in the future with more fonts and styles in order to diversify the catalogue and offer more choice to designers. WELTKERN® is a pretty big project and the site will offer also much more content and features which we can’t wait to finally share! As we say in French: l’union fait la force!
EM How do you know when a typeface is finished? Is it ever truly finished?
NP Of course it’s endless! Like everything, it’s a cycle. But in my opinion, it’s also the task of the type designers to know when the typeface is finished, i.e. when it can be published. There’s a more flexible way of seeing the fonts as end products nowadays with our digital tools; a lot of designers and foundries release early bird BETA versions, with future updates, language extension, etc. But still, when you release something out there, you want to be sure of your shot. Hence for me, knowing when a typeface is finished is really instinctive, it’s a gut feeling. Did I spend enough time on it? Is the drawing good enough? Is it qualitative, is it relevant? The typeface should feel good, you should be able to sense that it’s complete, well thought, balanced and again, it should add something to the field.
EM What challenges do you face in the process of creating a serif typeface such as Ghost, that aren’t present in a sans serif?
NP Well, obviously the serifs (laughs)! The challenge with a serif typeface is that its structure is more complex and in general there are much more design parameters to balance between each other. For instance, there are so many different forms of serifs, apexes, terminals, italics, angles etc. And on top of that, you need to understand the stroke modulation (broad nib, pointed pen or mixed) in order to figure out the contrast and where the weight goes. Quite complex! Speaking of Ghost, I’m currently testing a lot of shapes and alternates for key characters such as ‘a,’ ‘f’ or ‘y.’ By doing so, I understand the identity of the typeface better, which kind of design features I want to include and in a way it helps me to refine it further, to its essential form. For me, it’s important to try a lot of possibilities before getting fixed on a specific idea. I’m also developing a skeleton version of Ghost with its Italic, which technically is quite a challenge in itself.
EM What determines the price you charge for a typeface?
NP I try to understand what is common practice and position myself through other competitors. As I follow many designers, foundries and publishers, I can quickly get a picture of the range of prices and pricing models that are being used for various styles of fonts. For instance, take three foundries with very different backgrounds and socio-cultural contexts and compare them, this way you can understand better where you want to stand. That being said, I also take into account my own preferences when it comes to purchasing fonts, and I feel like nowadays people tend to support more independent and smaller type labels instead of the big font corporations. It would be completely unrealistic to set a price based on your working time on the font as the process of type design is often extremely long. But it’s interesting to compare the investment made for the typeface design and the sales it can generate over the years, if not a lifetime. Generally I feel that low prices tend to undermine the font quality and make the fonts look less ‘serious.’ On the other hand, too expensive fonts can quickly get reluctant for designers and smaller studios which often don’t have an enormous type budget. So again it’s a matter of balancing the price in order to find the nice spot.
I would say that a lot of Swiss gems from Optimo and Lineto are generally underrated.
EM Lastly, what typeface do you think is the most underrated?
NP It’s hard to say but if I could name some examples, I would say that a lot of Swiss gems from Optimo and Lineto are generally underrated. A lot of designers find it too pricey but the overall quality and conceptual strength on both foundries is truly outstanding in my opinion. I have the feeling that amazing grotesques like Plain or Theinhardt from François Rappo are not used that often, and it’s kind of the same story for the newest releases from Lineto; Bradford, Medium, etc. Or maybe they are used in very specific ‘Swiss’ contexts. Or I don’t see them on my radar.
EM How about overrated?
NP Again, it’s difficult to answer. It really goes with the trends. A lot of people were using Aperçu some years ago, then it was Favorit, Circular and now, I don’t know. The space is getting so crowded, we’re kind of getting lost. Favorit got trendy because of its tricks and that so many people used it but maybe also because of Dinamo’s context in itself. It’s very hard to balance designing something unique and ordinary at the same time. Even though a typeface will always be linked to its historical, social and geographical context and tools, I increasingly think that typefaces, in general, should be timeless and not be bound to any trends. If you look at earlier models, say Helvetica or Univers, they’re not really going out of fashion. They’re really timeless!