The ongoing journey of German foundry TypeMates, with Lisa Fischbach, Nils Thomsen and Jakob Runge
Whether working on bespoke logos or an extensive typeface family, Germany-based foundry TypeMates bring passion and an eye for high-quality type to everything they do. In a similar fashion – since joining forces in 2015 – they have certainly refined the art of remote working, with Lisa Fischbach, Nils Thomsen and Jakob Runge working from three separate cities. In our interview, the trio explain how they run a foundry together, alongside their new website and continuous development as a team.
PT How would you say the foundry itself has changed since it first began?
TM We started as a collaboration of two type designers – as of now, TypeMates has expanded to six people working together. From the foundry perspective, we changed from silent designers to a more service-oriented team. We grew with the clients and their needs changed our general offering.
PT How did you three – Jakob, Lisa and Nils – first meet? Why do you think you work well together?
TM We all got to know each other because of our former teacher Albert-Jan Pool (the guy behind the legendary FF DIN). Nils and Jakob were each thinking about starting a foundry independently, then Nils asked to found one together. From time to time, Lisa joined and helped out with some projects. It was just about time to integrate her into the foundry management team. While we are all connected through our passion for type, in a way we are all different: Jakob is very organised and scheduled, while Lisa is always straight and direct, and Nils loves to question things, again and again, to make things complicated or sometimes better. Somehow, with this variety, we complement each other very well!
The attitude of being a ‘typographic mate’ to clients, no aloof studio, fared well in the past and is still valid today.
PT Where did the name TypeMates come from?
TM We, Jakob and Nils, did not know each other very well while thinking about founding a company together, as we had not been friends or colleagues before. The name should be simple; show that we work straightforward; and are not complicated. This always brought us back to the initial idea: we are just mates, that people can ask anything about typefaces: TypeMates. The attitude of being a ‘typographic mate’ to clients, no aloof studio, fared well in the past and is still valid today.
PT As you’re all located in different cities, are there any hurdles when collaborating?
TM We just do not know what it would have been like in the same office. We are all independent type designers who have joint forces and love to organise our own rotas. This is both a blessing and a curse. We developed strategies over time to grow together as a virtual team and at the same time have each person enjoy their self-organised work environment. But that balance is not always easy. For example, internally handing over projects can be tricky for us. Details sometimes get lost in communication or will be solved differently when another becomes responsible for it. At times this needs more back and forth than we are used to, or miscommunication is noticed a bit later than if we were to work at the same place together. However, in general, as type design is based on long-term projects, we do not need a daily creative ping pong that design and brand agencies play to reach the best results.
PT What does a typical day for you look like?
TM Open the laptop, check the emails, type in Slack! Work in font software, have a telephone call, fine-tune letters. Cook for the children. Open the laptop again.
PT Can you tell us why you chose to update the site? Why now?
TM The main reason: it was about time (after seven years). But perhaps more importantly, our library has grown from around 10 font families to almost 50 during that time. This means we wanted to focus on the scope and the variety of our library. We also added more and more typefaces from external designers, who we wanted to give more attention to as individuals.
PT How does it reflect the current era of Typemates?
TM As we mentioned before, we are (more) grown up now and have developed into an established foundry, well-known, and fully booked. We started with passion and now lead a foundry where five people can make a living from type design. In our online presence and shop, we want to stay this stable and be ready for the future. Furthermore, we have created a lot of bespoke typefaces in the past – to make them more visible and show our competence to work at larger scales, we also updated the visuals of our custom cases for the new website.
PT What areas of the website were you most keen to focus on? What did you want to change? And keep the same?
TM The most visible change is the overall new design. We fully trusted our designer Paul Eslage to give the website a bright and clear look. When it came to functionality, our main focus was the font overview page, we added clear visible filters to give a taste of the variety of our font library.
We wanted to be able to implement variable fonts into our offer, structure the licences clearer and give the font pages, designers and custom projects more presence.
In the past, we had a mobile-first approach with a centred layout. Turns out, almost 85% of our users use their desktop to browse fonts. Therefore, the new layout is more complex, multi-columned and asymmetric – for example, in the omnipresent double image module with a small and a large image in interplay.
Our library has grown from around 10 font families to almost 50.
PT What challenges are involved in creating a fully-functioning website for a type foundry?
TM Making the licensing model simple but still understandable for the user within the checkout process. It was crazy to set up a buying page for Halvar, for example.
The font family includes three families and 81 font styles in total, with an additional superfamily variable font. This sounds complicated enough, but now you need to add six licences, including up to ten more selection possibilities. And all should be combinable.
PT We noticed that you changed the primary typeface of the website, why was this? And what is the new typeface?
TM While releasing our first website in 2016 we simply did not have a text typeface that worked well. So we decided to design it with typefaces of other type designers that we wanted to honour. Now we have grown over the years, we have plenty of nice text faces. We chose Halvar, because this font family is crafted by all three founders, Lisa, Jakob and Nils.
PT We love the re-release of your Netto typeface. What did you change, and why did you opt to update and expand the accompanying pictograms?
TM Daniel Utz, the designer of Netto and its icons, is really into simplifying things and focusing on communication beyond words. With several pictogram projects, he was excited to extend the Netto icons with an enormous set of topics and symbols. Further, he adapted them from light to black in stroke width, to ultimately match letters and icons. The regular Netto typeface had to be fine-tuned in the weights of special characters like scaled superscripts, and now it is available as a variable font for the very first time.
PT How does the process of creating a commercial typeface differ from that of creating a custom typeface, such as FC Bayern Sans?
TM Usually, it’s faster to create a custom typeface than to create a commercial one. For one, you are closer to the starting idea for the typeface than what will be given to you by a client. As the brand identity plays into the style of the typeface, the initial brief is very clear early on.
Secondly, the self-organisation works better as you need to get the client on board through presentations, and clear structured arguments. Those two points are sometimes more variable than if you create a typeface for the market, as the identity can be more ambiguous.
Usually, it’s faster to create a custom typeface than to create a commercial one.
PT What are your favourite parts of the type design process?
TM Each of us has a different favourite part. For Jakob the starting point and the finishing line is what creates the most delight: The time when you outline the basic idea with a compact basic character set and diversify it into different options. And when everything comes full circle at the finish line, is refined and optimised to the maximum.
For Lisa the favourite is right in between where Jakob struggles: the point where the design idea gets its ‘now-it-works-moment,’ and then is transferred through the whole character set. By then implementing it to other glyphs, the concept is tested in each form, and it’s the best feeling to see it through and adjust to suit the entire range of forms.
PT And what are your least favourite parts?
TM For Lisa placing the accents, it is always the part I underestimate in every aspect, time, precision and technical effort to set everything consistent through weights and glyphs.
For others the work in between the idea and the finalising is the most demanding part – Jakob is challenged to create the quantity of special characters, diacritics and glyph variants.
PT Are there any upcoming releases that you can reveal?
TM As type design is something on the long run, of course, we know what some of our next year’s releases will be – we and our external mates, just need to get all the glyphs perfectly tuned.
Our next release, a sharp slab serif will be from a new external designer, Tom.
Then we have a collaboration with Albert-Jan Pool and another designer, Julia, creating a superfamily of historical street signs and a modern Didone. Of course, we have our own designs in the pipeline: Nils is into a simple, technical sans with quirks, and Jakob is exploring a soft and spiky serif typeface that interpolates from headline to micro sizes. Lisa is planning an all-applicable sans, but is still in the finding phase, which means it can go pretty much anywhere.
PT How do you decide on which new typefaces to release? Do you think about their commercial potential, or is the decision purely creative?
TM For most of our releases, we are looking for ideas that are unseen, something that adds something new to the crowd of fonts out there. We only insist on a functionality and logic in general for the font family, no matter how thrilling curious or universally normal it is.
For sure, plain sans serif will touch more use cases, but if a typefaces really sells is not very predictable. So we focus on what could be interesting, and are lucky to have some profitable typefaces to keep the business running already.
PT Do you have any further changes planned for TypeMates? What can we expect in the future?
TM Now that we have a licensing model and technical experience for variable fonts, we will definitely experiment with this technology even further. Also, we will keep an eye on colour fonts and their market process.
And to be honest, now – after developing the website for the last year and redefining a lot of the foundry’s key aspects – we are looking forward to focusing on our core business: taking care of our retail fonts, developing new custom solutions and shaping tons of letters with ease.
During May 2023 only, TypeMates are offering 50% off across all of their fonts.