Mark Simonson is a gifted artist who specialises in type design and making fonts. He has also created some hand lettering pieces throughout his career and is this months ‘Lettering Legend’. Mark spent quite some time working as a magazine art director and it wasn’t until a little later into his life that he started making fonts. Despite this, Mark has still managed to build an incredible reputation for his outstanding work within the world of lettering and type. He has proved that with the right skills and some hard work a person can make a significant impact within design at any point in their career.
Mark grew up with an interest in letters, and always displayed a passion for art. Similarly to many others, he was unaware that it was possible to make a career out of lettering. Luckily as he reached his college years he discovered otherwise and worked at honing his lettering skills. Now, after developing a successful career in type design Mark has seen his fonts used in so many ways and so many places. His Proxima Nova font in particular has been used on some distinguished projects.
More recently Mark has reignited a passion for hand lettering work too, and some examples of his latest work which are not currently viewable on his website upon publication of this interview can be seen below.
When Mark creates a new font he often shares parts of his process, which is not only inspiring but can provide helpful insight if you are a budding type designer. Mark’s honesty around his work and the way he inspires makes him truly deserving of the title ‘Lettering Legend’.
Learn about transitioning from hand lettering to font design, the importance of licensing your work, the process of making a font look hand drawn and more in the interview with Mark below.
If you need a refresher or aren’t too sure what a ‘Lettering Legend’ is or how to qualify, please feel free to read the introductory article. If you would like to read previous ‘Lettering Legend’ interviews visit ‘Resources’.
If you were to create and name a font after yourself assuming you haven’t already in the past, what style would you give it and how do you think it would look?
“I don’t really like the idea of naming a font after myself. I know people do sometimes, and that’s fine. I think it works best when someone has a well-known name as a designer or artist already. It can maybe help to promote the font. If I think about it, if I did name a font after myself, maybe it would be a style that has some special significance to me or with my past. But, as soon as I wrote that I realized, that’s what I always do anyway. So, I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t do it. Plus, picking a name is very tricky. You don’t want to limit yourself to some preconceived idea. Maybe the name doesn’t look good set in the font.”
Do you think it’s easy for hand lettering artists to transition into font design, or are there different fundamentals to consider?
“It’s tricky. The two disciplines are obviously related. You’re drawing letters. But a piece of lettering and font are very different things. Lettering is more free-form. You’re not constrained by the horizontal row of characters with fixed relationships to each other. With lettering, you’re drawing the words yourself, and you can do whatever works for those particular words. When you make a font, you’re making a tool that draws words automatically. It has to be created in a systematic way so that it looks right no matter what combination of letters is needed. For a lettering artist, this can feel very constraining. It’s a different mindset.”
Many of your fonts have been used all over the web, in magazines, on book covers, signs and a number of other places. When creating a font do you have a specific idea in mind of how you would like that font to be used once complete, and does that guide your design?
“It’s too easy to fall into the trap of creating a font that is interesting or beautiful but that nobody wants or needs. At the same time it’s very difficult to know what people might want. So what I do is try to make fonts that I would want to use myself if they existed. It helps that I worked for many years as an art director and graphic designer, so I have experience as a font user. There seem to be enough other people out there who share my taste in type, so it seems to work for me most of the time. Better than trying to second guess what people want. That’s never worked for me.”
Licensing and the importance of it is something that can be overlooked by designers and artists. Have you had any negative experiences in this area and what tips can you share for those creating their first font or lettering licenses?
“When you dream of becoming a type designer, you only think about the design part, as if that’s all there was to it. But, as someone who makes a living designing typefaces, in particular for the retail font market, the design part accounts for zero income for me. In fact, I’m in the licensing business. I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have something to license, but that is how I make my living, from selling licenses, not from designing typefaces, at least not directly.
If you do commissioned fonts, it’s more direct, but even then the usual way to handle it is through a license agreement. When I was doing more lettering assignments, I priced it like an illustration or design job. I don’t think I ever did a licensing arrangement with a piece of lettering. Then again, I never did that well, business-wise, as a lettering artist. Maybe that’s why.”
A great deal of fonts rely on vectoring for smooth edges, your ‘Metallophile Sp8’ font has a very hand crafted look and feel. What is the process involved with creating a font that looks hand drawn? Does the process rely heavily more on drawing designs out on paper?
“In that case, I made high-res scans of vintage metal type samples and then traced them manually on the computer. I wanted to see if I could capture the look of sans serif metal type, printed letterpress. The digital versions that existed at the time were cold and geometric, too perfectly drawn. The warmth that came from the process of ink pressed into paper, even with a geometric design, were lost. I tried to capture that with Metallophile Sp8, and I think it works.”
Is it best to be comfortable at lots of different styles of lettering or develop your own style?
“I like working in a range of styles, but there are definitely some styles I’m more drawn to. I think that’s what ends up defining your style. I don’t think it works to consciously try to develop a style. I think it’s something that emerges organically from your experience and taste.”
What advice or tips would you give those first starting out at lettering?
“That’s a tough one. I was most active as a lettering artist in the mid 2000s, but I never did that well financially with it. So my advice might not be worth much. Instead, my type design career really took off and as a result I don’t do a lot of lettering jobs anymore. During the same time, the field of lettering seems to have exploded. Back when I was more active in it, not that many people were doing it. Now, it seems like everybody wants to do lettering. I think it’s great and there are so many talented people whose work just blows me away. I think the key now, with so many people in it, is to find a way to stand out from the crowd. So many people are aping Jessica Hische and Dana Tanamachi. But they didn’t get to be so successful by copying others. You can only get so far with that approach. It limits you. Instead, it was by doing something no one else was doing. How you do that, well, that’s the trick.”
More from Mark Simonson
Article header image with thanks and belonging to Mark Simonson.