Presenting Fable Type Foundry: the Singapore-based design consultancy try their hand at typography
Singapore’s award-winning design consultancy Fable are here to present their latest offering to their (already-abundant) selection of services: typefaces. Creating both retail and bespoke typefaces for print and digital, the offerings is an eclectic mix that reflects the creed and personality of the team. From the flowing dynamism of Genie to the contemporary functionality of sans serif Tenet. With plenty of stories to share, we caught up with Founder Jiahui Tan, who recalls the studio’s initial foray into type design whilst providing a sweeping tour of the typefaces available.
PT Hey Jiahui! How are you and the Fable team?
JT Hey guys! We just got back from London not too long ago. It has been years since a studio trip happened (due to COVID) so we are more than happy to be jet-lagged and had lots of fun with the London weather (we were hitting 40 degrees Celsius in Singapore). Work wise we are quite busy with a slew of projects as usual. Too busy to document for now!
PT Sounds super! When did you first decide to create your own typefaces alongside your client projects?
JT We had been contemplating creating typefaces for a long time. We were actually scouring for typefaces for a branding project all across the internet and our client asked us – “why don’t you just make one for us and we will pay you for that? You said a nice typeface is like our own handwriting, right?” That client just topped up money – no questions asked. That really gave us some confidence we needed and we went ahead with it. Shortly after, a few more branding projects had clients asking for custom typefaces for them as well – which really pleasantly surprised us actually.
I am sorry to say I don’t have any favourites.
PT How did you learn to create typefaces to a retail and commercial standard?
JT I think most designers in Singapore have somewhat of at least a typography module in school, so we are not starting from absolute zero. Personally, for starters, I bought many books from all over the place like St. Bride Foundation and also re-digested Robert Bringhurst’s work a few times. However, while I am a book person, I have to say reading type design books contributed nothing to my type creation journey except for the knowledge and academia part.
Having imposter syndrome, I then pursued a postgrad in type design which was pretty intense and gave me a good knowledge base. However, I would not say it gave me everything I needed because I am someone who simply cannot pay attention in class. To be honest, I was watching Euro 2021 and Copa America during class to keep myself awake during the unearthly hours. Oops..
Most importantly, I made many great friends that I can get feedback from and keep in touch till today.
PT Which has been your favourite typeface to create so far?
JT I am sorry to say I don’t have any favourites. I love and hate all my kids!
Many people love to talk – the rest of us just show up and work.
PT And which one have you found the most challenging?
JT The most challenging typeface so far would be Tenet due to it being our first variable family just for the amount of time and effort from pre to post-production. But looking back, it made us better and readier. Consistency is key. I know I have many football analogies so just bear with me. Like watching football and commenting versus actually playing football, the real game is to get down to sketching and actually creating the letters. Go play the game and stop scrolling/commenting on social media. I hate intellectual contempt be it towards type or just in general. Many people love to talk – the rest of us just show up and work.
PT What is the type design scene and culture like in Singapore? Are there many foundries and companies doing retail and bespoke fonts?
JT I would say interest is definitely burgeoning over the past few years (this is not to say it was not there before). There are more people definitely choosing to dedicate time and effort to type design and time and effort are two of the few things that form the commitment of a type designer. I can’t speak for every designer but I do think they, myself included, are attempting to challenge their own narrowness. There is a nice spectrum going on – from the more experimental ones to the tedious but workhorse families. It is definitely a great time to do it in Singapore. It also helps that our neighbouring countries also are growing in their type scene and culture which is extremely heartening to see. I hope there can be more exchange and healthy discourse as we build on this progression. For bespoke fonts, I would say there is definitely room for growth. Clients need to be willing to pay for it (since it takes quite a lot of time and effort) and also trust the creative to do it as well. If we want something to grow beyond the creative bubble (in this case towards the other facets of the paying market), we have to also educate the clients about the value of things. Many still take the convenient (and stingy) route of “let’s just choose a free Google font.” It takes time, but the only way is up.
PT Can you tell us about Tenet? What was the process behind it?
JT I shall not tell you how long it took because it took years in total! A fun fact was that Tenet began as a project for me to learn Tamil (I am not even kidding). My wife (who also runs the company and was on a multi-language project) at that time was very frustrated with her presentation slides as the multi-language glyphs (Latin, Chinese, Tamil) kept crashing. I was trying to create a one-weight sans serif (now the regular weight of Tenet) and she said we should do a three-language multi-script typeface. No, she does not design so yes it was easy to make me do it.
Anyway, I did try to do it in Chinese and really did learn Tamil (to the best of my ability) and we actually have early working versions of it in three languages. We actually finished the Tamil version in one weight and I also consulted quite a few Indian type / non-type design friends. The thing is the Chinese script can go up to beyond ten thousand glyphs per weight and we finished about the main few hundred glyphs and COVID hit full force and yup we dropped the idea. The process was intense and for the record, I have forgotten every single Tamil glyph and character I learnt. Bummer!
I then reverted to the original plan and decided to continue to expand that family into the full family that we released last year. We have been using it for quite a few client projects actually. Hearteningly, people do send us from time to time when they see Tenet in action.
I am a firm believer in exploration.
PT When looking for typefaces for client projects, what do you prioritise?
JT I am a firm believer in exploration. Many times I see ‘blanding’ happening to a project because a typeface is already pre-selected in the head before even giving others a try. Exploration is important and fun – you might meet a rare Pokémon in the colourful corals. If you dive straight for that fish, you might miss many beautiful things around you. Have fun.
PT How do other typefaces inform your own?
JT I think there are two general streams nowadays albeit them overlapping from time to time. One is the pedagogy-centric side of things and two is the experimental (and quite trendy) part of things. We are not too bothered by either. Being overly pedagogical can be a prison. Being too trendy makes one easily passé. Moderation is key. In plain words – we do what we like.
That said, we are immensely inspired by a few foundries and individuals that we respect and keep in touch with for feedback and also the occasional help. Type design should be a collaborative process, not a siloed journey.
I think fear is an inevitable necessity that propels people to compete and create better work.
PT How many typefaces are you planning to release?
JT We are redesigning one or two of them and might drag till next year just because we are not Marvel Avengers Endgame and the world is not waiting for their re-release. So perhaps just the custom typefaces for branding projects after Andean. Also, we are redesigning Everytimes (our first attempt at a serif three-four years ago) and adding on an italic. We are renaming that too. It is such a lame name!
PT And to finish off, what advice would you give to someone making their first typeface from scratch?
JT I get younger designers writing to me saying they have imposter syndrome about being a type designer and asking for advice. I always tell them I have a bigger imposter syndrome and (1) they should not try to compete with me on that (2) if we can channel our fears to creation it will be like converting potential to kinetic energy. I think in this social media age we live in, people are afraid to do or share work due to fear of judgement or failure. It is terrifying yet gratifying. I think fear is an inevitable necessity that propels people to compete and create better work. I am a firm believer in not listening to everyone. We are living in an age of over-information. Do not mistake opinion or rants for wisdom and intellect. Never be highbrow. Sooner than later you will become a profound disappointment to your early critics.
“People will laugh at you for having to start over. Meanwhile, they haven’t even started.” – Mike Tyson
I have always believed in one thing – the only way to get better is to begin.