Taking Type Off the Page: Andrew Byrom

Andrew Byrom

Andrew Byrom, an experimental type designer and professor at Cal State Long Beach knows no boundaries when it comes to letterforms. He is self-professed “obsessed” with type design, which started years ago when he made his very first type forms out of bendy straws. To hear more about his process, check out his TEDxUCLA talk, where I picked up one principle he stated briefly, which I will hold close as I move forward in my design career:

Once you come up with a system, (your project) designs itself, if the system works.

To me, this statement says so much about how critical the planning phases are in design, and how you can ease what may have been inevitable speed bumps in the process, if you develop a working system.

We had the opportunity to have a chat with Andrew, as part of our 31 days of Creative Inspiration, and were so pleased with how insightful he was. If you want to learn more about his career, purchase his book, or reach out to him personally, take a look at his website, www.andrewbyrom.com.

  • Design Sellout:

    You have extensive experience working with type. Would you say that using more obvious fonts, such as Helvetica or Baskerville is a copout?

  • Andrew Byrom:

    I won’t say that using those typefaces is a ‘cop out’ – but I would never use Helvetica or Baskerville myself.

    Even though my own type designs are experimental in nature, I am also drawn to clean and simple typefaces. The typefaces I use most are DIN and Akzidenz Grotesk. I like DIN because it is cold and sterile, and I use Akzidenz Grotesk because it is beautiful yet banal (a close relation of Helvetica, but with a little more style).

  • DS:

    I spoke with one of your former students. Don’t worry, he had only nice things to say about you. What is one thing you hope your students take away after dedicating months to instructing them?

  • AB:

    Be a happy designer. Find the joy in it.

    Start over whenever you have a better idea – no matter how late in the process it comes to you…

    The design process needn’t be ‘fun’. The design process is hell.

    My own work comes out over many weeks of painful experimentation and thought. I get satisfaction when things work and are finished, not usually during the process. It’s perhaps the same as running a marathon; a great feeling to cross the finish line, but only after a period of torture.

    Accept this process and learn to love it.

  • DS:

    Do you believe that a formal education in design is critical to success?

  • AB:

    Yes. There are obvious exceptions, but I have found designers who have had time at school to explore, fail, and experiment are usually in a better position. Their eyes and minds have been opened. As a design educator I guess this answer is perhaps an obvious one?

  • DS:

    Do you feel that ability to create great design is innate, or can creativity be learned by anyone who applies themselves?

  • AB:

    It certainly didn’t come easily to me when I started studying graphic design 20+ years ago. I was passionate but not a natural. I couldn’t see – or make beautiful designs – but perhaps this worked in my favor? I went the long way around. Worked hard to understand things. I could always draw from childhood, but this was something different.

  • AB:

    Are those your sons on your contact page? They’re darling. It looks like you’re instilling creativity in them at a very young age. Did your parents, or anyone else, contribute to your own creativity from childhood on?

  • AB:

    My father was a shipbuilder in a ship yard in the North of England, as was his father, and his father before him. I left school, at 16 and went into the local shipyard too. In some ways it was the making of me. After a few years, I realized I could do more that weld and rivet steel.

    My Father was a little upset and confused when I told him I was leaving the shipyard to go to art school! He didn’t know exactly what that meant … and I think he still doesn’t totally understand my profession. That’s OK though. It is an odd field and I have heard similar stories from so many graphic designers about their own families.

  • DS:

    If your children so desire to follow in your footsteps and become designers, what would you share with them about the industry, that you might not share with a student?

  • AB:

    I have three boys. One wanted to be a scientist. One a soldier. One a dancer.

    If one of my boys ever did want to be a designer I’d advice they find collaborators / clients who they like, and who like them. Don’t work for assholes. Don’t work for people who probably think you are an asshole. Make friends and build trust with people who can be creative along with you.

  • DS:

    Do you ever have clients who they feel your suggested approach is too experimental or non-traditional, and if so, how do you cope with that?

  • AB:

    This happens less and less these days as clients come to me now after already knowing what I’m about. They already like my work and want an unusual / experimental approach.

  • DS:

    What’s your app of choice when taking illustrations to actual working typefaces?

  • AB:

    I don’t have one. Its what ever is right for the project. Sometimes I draw blueprints by hand to get the idea flushed out or to explain things to a collaborator. Sometimes, if I now the way it’s going – I go straight to Adobe Illustrator or Fontographer. But more often, the initial process involves creating  physical objects… folding, glueing, making things.
    I’m a big believer in prototyping and so being able to draw – whether on paper or on screen – streamlines this process immensely.

  • DS:

    How do you feel about free typefaces; are they free because they lack the integrity of commercial fonts, or is it just easier for budding type designers to distribute their work?

  • AB:

    I really don’t have an enlightening opinion on this. I stopped selling my own designs as digital “fonts” about ten years ago. I realized it was not a money-making process and that I wanted to be the one who applied the ideas on my fonts to my own projects. One of my early designs ‘Bloodclot’ is still available to buy online somewhere. I get occasional checks every year or so for around $20! Its not a good business plan for me!

  • DS:

    I commonly hear of individuals who have careers in another field, but aspire to become graphic designers. What would be your advice to them?

  • AB:

    Bring your expertise of other fields into graphic design. Be the graphic designer who’s work looks likes its done by a mechanic or a hairdresser. I’d like to see that!

  • DS:

    What is your favorite project you’ve worked on, in your entire career?

  • DS:

    This one is easy…

    I co-curated and designed an exhibition on the philosophy of Charles and Ray Eames a few years ago for the Getty’s ‘Pacific Standard Time’ initiative – called ‘Eames Words’.

    I got the chance to work with my hero and good friend Deborah Sussman. We had no budget, and very little time, but produced something very special that got rave reviews.

    Here’s a website dedicated to that project… www.eameswords.com

    Deborah Sussman died this past August and I’m heartbroken thinking of her as I write this. Working with Deborah was like being in a design fantasy world, where everything seemed possible and good ideas triumphed over constraints. She changed the way I look at life and at the world around me – opening my eyes to a vivid, vibrant, and joyous Los Angeles.

  • AB:

    Do you have anything up your sleeve that you can share with us? Upcoming projects, lectures, announcements?

  • DS:

    I’ve recently started two self initiated projects working in ceramics. I’m excited by this new (at least for me) material and process.

    I’m also working on an exhibition and a book that are very cool, but I’m not allowed to talk about them!

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