Superior Type on the business of type design and how to stand out from the “flood of new fonts”
Superior Type is home to an eclectic catalogue of typefaces representative of founder Vojtěch Říha’s evolution as a typographer since starting the foundry during his studies in 2008. Having run the Prague-based company for over a decade since then, working on both retail and custom releases, we caught up with him to find out about the business side of type design, how long it takes to finish a typeface and more.
EM Hi Vojtěch, how are you?
VR Hi Elliott, I’m more than good at how crazy this year is.
EM What experiences led you to start your own type foundry in 2008?
VR While studying fonts and typography, it was immediately clear to me that I would have to create my own channel through which I would distribute my new fonts. In the meantime, I also tried to sell fonts through various resellers, but it wasn’t the best idea, so I tried to have something of my own as soon as possible. Ironically, however, we are currently moving ourselves as a type foundry into the role of a font distributor from other designers. Next year we will publish more fonts from young Czech creators. It could be said that the philosophy of our studio is the distribution of distinctive but precisely processed typefaces.
EM From a business perspective, what is the most challenging part of running a type foundry?
VR It’s a lot of things, but I think it’s quite challenging to be seen and be recognisable in the flood of new fonts and studios that are increasing daily. I think that it is quite important to perceive and recognise new trends, whether visual or technological, and to be able to react quickly to them. But never copy, always respond to new stimuli with your own approach. On a local scale (in the Czech Republic), it is also often quite difficult to constantly teach new clients about the creation of fonts, what it entails and why it is advantageous to have your own corporate font. Czech clients are not as educated in this as, for example, in Germany or the US. But I think we are succeeding in improving general awareness of the creation of fonts and typography, through the media and social networks.
Always respond to new stimuli with your own approach.
EM Do you know which type of clients are currently buying your typefaces?
VR Mostly they are start-up companies that are just starting to build their visual identity. Or already existing brands that are undergoing a new and comprehensive redesign. It is interesting that in the Czech Republic my fonts appear to a large extent in book publications or magazines.
EM Is it more satisfying to see your typefaces in printed or digital contexts?
VR I love all the outputs where my fonts are used, but with real things, it’s even nicer that you can really hold them in your hand, books, etc. On the other hand, digital space is also very cool. It’s like comparing letterpress and web pages. When you hold a small metal letter in your hand, it is otherwise a nice feeling like when you look at a well-made website with variable fonts.
EM Which of your typefaces are you most proud of?
VR I think of the last two fonts, Lenora and Raptor. Lenor’s handwriting lay in my drawer like a sketch for a long time. But thanks to the pandemic when my family and I were away from Prague in the countryside for a long time, I had a little more time and started working on unpublished fonts. I did a lot to combine crazy calligraphy with austere aesthetics. Raptor is another example. I had the skeleton of the font drawn sometime in 2010, originally it was supposed to be a font for one fashion brand, but in the end, it was not realised. As with Lenora, I started working on the font family during the pandemic. First, we released a beta version and, in the spring, a superfamily where each style has 1935 glyphs. Maybe it’s too crazy because I added a lot of old or unused characters there, for example, in Greek or Cyrillic, I just enjoyed drawing those characters. Sometimes it may be better not to look so much at decodeunicode.org)
If you design a new grotesk, then it is almost a rule that it will sell great.
EM Which typeface was the most difficult to finish?
VR Of the released ones, it’s about the size of the character set, so you could say Raptor. Just because that type family has a lot of characters, plus three variants of drawing, on the other hand, I enjoyed creating it, so the time could have been much longer. But I have one unpublished typeface, it’s actually a reminiscence from the Roman capital. I keep coming back to it and remaking it, and I still can’t finish it. But I want to publish the font next year. I think I’m on the right track.
EM How much do you consider how well a typeface will sell when you start designing it?
VR I think about it quite a bit, after all, creating fonts is my job. It’s just important to balance that aspect of creation based on some trend that can help the font sell. On the other hand, I never think about it at all costs. For example, I have a few projects, such as one Blackletter typeface, which is really cool (curves etc.) but generally due to its form, is almost unusable, very occasional, moreover, finishing such a font is quite time consuming, but I would like to finish it anyway. But I think that if you design a new grotesk, then it is almost a rule that it will sell great.
But it’s different with custom fonts.
EM How long, on average, does it take to develop a typeface?
VR It just depends on the size of the character set, the number of styles and the visual complexity of the font. If it is a retail font, you could say that it can be between the moon and infinity :) because there are a lot of fonts you are working on and suddenly you stop enjoying it, you need to take a break from one curve and start drawing others. So the development of such a retail font can really take time if you are not in a hurry for some reason. But it’s different with custom fonts. They are mostly for clients or graphic designers in a hurry. So some simple customisation of our existing font can take from a few weeks up to a month. But the development of a more complex family from scratch can take two to three months, depending on the complexity.
EM Is it difficult to convince clients of the value of a custom typeface?
VR I think sometimes the hardest part is explaining why a font, like a digital thing, has any value at all. You can’t see time and work at first glance. In addition, there are a lot of free fonts and the big companies are literally weedy. So they often find it illogical why they should pay for something they can actually download for free on the web. On the other hand, it is becoming more and more common that the people we communicate with have heard about us, know what we are doing and are at least basically instructed. But it also depends a lot on the graphic designer or the agency with whom we cooperate, how they can push the font into the visual style for a specific client.
EM Superior Objects looks like it was a really fun project – can you tell us why you decided to do it?
VR It was super fun. My longtime friend, who is a ceramic designer, and I thought about the possibilities of cooperation. The idea of ceramic letters began to develop in my head, but there is a cool added value of being based on the basic ceramic principle of rotation. So we took a whole 52 characters (capital letters and minuses) from my Vegan Sans font and rotated them around the left axis in 3D models. And then the development of moulds began so that everything could be produced as porcelain objects, finally, we did a workshop for several weeks in a row and we produced everything ourselves, casted from moulds, fired in a ceramic kiln and finally glazed. For me personally, it was quite pleasant to take a break from working on a computer and produce something real. The fun thing about it was that the resulting objects could often serve directly as a candlestick or a bowl. We presented the project in 2017-18 at the Prague Design Block and finally, we had an exhibition in Marseille and sold the whole collection. We would like to return to the project, we just need to have both more time, but we have enough interesting ideas on how to move the project forward.
EM Which genres of type design would you like to explore that you haven’t yet been able to?
VR As for the type of client, I would be quite interested in a fashion brand or cooperation with a sports brand. But if we were to talk directly about the type of font, in the visual sense, then I would like to redesign my old fonts, move them visually and in scope. It is almost a form of my own psychotherapy because some of my old fonts were created between 2008 and 2013 while still studying, and it would be fun for me to reformulate them into the current visual language.
EM Would you say there are certain parts of type design that can’t be taught, and only learnt through actually making typefaces?
VR I know this will sound almost transcendental, but I think it’s the overall perception of the curves as they are drawn. Sometimes you see a font, such as a new grotesk, and at first glance, it does not look bad, but when you start to focus directly on the curves in the font, as drawn, it is clear that the person has no perceived drawing of curves at all. I think that almost everything else can be learned quickly, but this is a long-term matter, a person who wants to make fonts must have the right feeling for modelling curves, or try to build and strengthen that feeling. With curves and typefaces, it’s similar to industrial design or architecture, you transform a millennial-proven form into a contemporary visual language.