Wayne Thompson is a type designer, letterer and the founder of the Australian Type Foundry. He lives just north from Sydney in Newcastle. Wayne has been incredibly supportive of Lettering Hub, so much so that we collaborated in designing the logo.
We drove up for a visit and checked out his neighbourhood, local beach and had a browse through his studio.
How did you get into lettering?
It was mainly because I was a designer working at ad agencies, and I could never find the font that I wanted to use for any projects. This was in the late 1990s, early 2000s. The font menus that you had available then weren’t the same as they are now. They might have had 20 or 30 fonts to choose from. And they’re all the common ones, like Garamond and Goudy. I found myself producing stuff that just looked the same all the time. But to try and get around that, I’d just make something up. Sometimes, that would get accepted by the client and then as the whole Internet age started to come around, clients would start to say, “That’s great. Can we have the font that you used in the logo so that we can use it on all of our stuff?” And I go, “It isn’t a font.” And they go, “What do you mean?” I say, “Well, I drew them.” And they go, “But I told them there was a font.” I said, “Why’d you tell them there was a font?” It just started happening over and over and over again. So I started thinking, “Okay, well I’ll try to make some of those fonts.” I started to look into how to make fonts and I looked into the software that had been made and then it occurred to me that I could do a website. I guess because there seemed to be a need, so I just started making them.
Did you have other jobs before getting into graphic design?
In my early days after Uni, I was a professional photographer for a short time and I was a professional sign writer for a while. And I was a journalist for a very short time. I did all sorts of other stuff. One of my first jobs was taking pictures of cars in car yards, so they could put them in the weekend paper car ads. That was one of my Sydney jobs. I used to have to go to all the car yards along Parramatta Road or Victoria Road, I can’t remember. And these salesmen would all just sigh because they had to move thousands of cars around so I could photograph them and it was just an inconvenience for them. So my whole day was spent dealing with these salesmen who just didn’t want me there.
How did you decide to do your own thing?
It turns out that I wasn’t particularly good as a designer. As a general designer, we did all sorts of stuff that was somewhat formulaic. You know what it’s like working in an agency. You get assigned to just one or two clients. One of ours was a government land agency, they sold blocks of land. I found that the formats were pre- set and I was just repurposing stuff all the time. Through the years, I got quite frustrated because I didn’t have the creative control that I wanted. I’m just not the personality type where I’m particularly good at being an employee. I question everything, ‘why do I have to do it like that?’ So as the years went by, I slowly realised that I wanted more control and that was the intent of becoming self-employed as a type designer.
Is it working out the way you imagined?
It is very much so, yeah. But it wasn’t a big plan, it just worked out. Someone asked me just recently if I had always been into typography and I was, even as a kid. I just didn’t really know it at the time. When I was about 10 or 12 years old, I had an uncle who was a graphic artist. This is pre computer, pre Internet, pre everything. My uncle developed lung cancer and died. And my dad, as part of the family, had to go into his art studio and clean it all out. So he just came home one day with a whole bunch of art stuff. There were boxes of pens and pencils and books and art studio related material. And he said to me and my brothers, “Rather than throw this stuff out, do you boys want any of it?” And one of the items was a Letraset catalog. So I was like, “Oh my god, this is the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen.” And so I started to try and draw them and copy them. I didn’t know at that time that it was possible to be even a graphic designer or have a career. I just knew that I really liked fonts. And it wasn’t until all these years later that I started to think back and go, “Actually, I always was into letters.”
So, having decided I wanted to be self-employed, I started to learn how to make digital fonts. I bought my first font making software, it was on floppy disks and I paid about 30 bucks for it. It wasn’t all that good, but it got me started. I used that software to make my first two or three fonts. And I started to send them overseas to foreign companies. An American one called ITC Fonts did (it’s now under the banner of Monotype at fonts.com). They contracted one or two of my fonts. And I earned a dribble of royalties, maybe a few hundred bucks a year. But I thought to myself, “If I had a hundred fonts, there might be some income there.” So I started to make all these fonts outside of my normal working hours, in my spare time, with the view to trying to open up a website at some point in the future, and that eventually happened. I worked with a guy who knew how to make websites and he helped me make a basic website with a shopping cart he built himself. I designed the first website myself and it was a hideous looking thing that I would never, ever show to anyone nowadays. There’s probably an image of it out there in Internet land somewhere, it’s awful. But I sold a few fonts, so that was the starting point of Australian Type Foundry.
How many fonts do you have now?
For sale? I don’t actually know. It’s probably around 50 or 60. Some of them are families of 10 or 12 fonts. With each family, I started with the regular weight and expanded outwards to make other weights and italics.
Does it take the same amount of time to expand them as to come up with them?
Probably not. Getting the design of the first one right is important, because it’s the foundation for the rest of the weights. But I’ve also learned lots of things over the years, for instance, to make an italic you can’t just take the regular and lean it over. It’s a starting point, it gives you an idea how an italic will look. But italics should be true-drawn. And also, my first set of fonts were display fonts. They were crazy things that were really unreadable. One of the very first ones I did was based on my brother’s really quirky handwriting with weird ampersands and a funny little double-decker lowercase ‘A’ and this crazy ‘P’. And I really liked it, but what I learned is that you can’t just take letters you like and turn it into a font, because the legibility is a huge problem. All the quirks that I thought made it cool handwriting, make it the worst kind of font that there is. As soon as you type it, all those quirks are really obvious. The word “banana” for instance has that quirky ‘a’ which appears three times in the same word. And if it’s wacky, straight away you’re going to go, “Argh.” – it’s just awful. Nowadays, we would use contextual alternates code, so you can build a font that has four or five different versions of the same character which interchange so that it more accurately imitates the inconsistencies of handwriting. You might have heard of Bickham Script Pro, perhaps? It used to be part of the Mac system software, and it had a great range of Opentype features. In the last five years or so, I’ve been able to make fonts that have all that extra functionality in-built.
And then you just recently got into hand-lettering?
Last probably three years or so; 2012 I started doing that. I had always been a sketchbook-y person, but that was just because I like to draw stuff. My type foundry was more digital type and my tended to be more, “can you make me a digital font that does this or this or this?” and the hand lettering stuff wasn’t really part of my core business at first. But I really wanted to start to move my work in that direction and start to look for clients in that direction because it’s really interesting work. So to try and do that, I just started to be more active in drawing, so that I improved.
Do people often ask you the same questions about typography?
People ask me often “What’s your favourite font?” There’s a genre of stuff that I really like. I’m really into ultra-modern sans serifs, like Gotham for instance. Anything in that genre that’s really clean and modern. Frutiger is another of my absolute favourites. The stuff that I don’t like so much is the traditional serif. A lot of type designers want to do a revival of some obscure specimen of Garamond or something. And it’s all about trying to capture the printing quirks of the day in this new digital version and being true to its history and all of that stuff. That’s great, but I don’t want to do it. Sure, it’s important to be aware of type history. I just don’t find it all that engaging. I prefer to look forward. I want to try to find a way that I can do some typeface, a piece of typography that’s different to the way that anyone has done before.
How did your workshops come along?
Well in 2012, I went to a thing called TypeCamp and there was a Canadian lady by the name of Shelly Greundler, who runs these camps all over the world. They’re mostly in the States but she also had done one or two in Europe and one in India, I think. And she came to Australia to do one and there was only about 10 or 12 people attending. It was four intensive days of typography, process, instruction and drawing and stuff. It was fantastic and afterwards, when I came home, I thought maybe I could run lettering classes of my own. And it’s just been a happy accident because also at that same time, this whole workshop culture started to really gear up. Now you look around and there are workshops everywhere. People were always asking me about lettering principles and techniques. So I thought there’s obviously a market to run workshops. I ran my first one as an experiment here in Newcastle, I don’t think I even advertised it. I just told a bunch of my ex-students about it (I was also a type teacher) and they told their friends. I had 20 places in this class and I think it was like 30 bucks a head or something. It sold out in a couple of hours. Then the venue contacted me and said, “It sold out. Can you maybe put on another one?” Okay. So I did, it sold out too and then the third class sold out as well. I think I ended up running four classes in a row and they all sold out. It was clear there was a demand for handlettering classes. From there, I tried one in Sydney and it worked really well. And then I tried one in Melbourne through a chance conversation with one of the design schools down there.
I have a theory about the hand lettering workshops and why they are so popular. I think that . . . what do we call you? Digital natives. Guys of your generation are digital natives. Since the moment you were born you’ve been on screen, that doesn’t apply to me. When I first started working, there weren’t computers in the workplace; it just started happening in the first few years that I was working. So I feel at home on a sketchbook with a pen, but I think there’s a whole generation of you guys that feel less at home with a pen or pencil in your hand. I think there’s this cultural movement towards rediscovering handmade things because it’s more foreign to people of that generation. So I think that’s why there is this whole movement towards the crafted, the handmade. Not just in designing fonts but the rise of knitting and yarn bombing and all that stuff… handmade signage, signpainting, letterpress. So I think my classes haven’t been popular because I’m so good at it, although I clearly am (laughing). I think I just happened to have done it at a good time. I mean that’s my theory anyway.
Do you have any side projects?
That font you saw on my studio wall. That’s one of them. I started that in 2010. I entered samples of it in the typism book, there’s a sample of it. It got published as a font sample. And I put it into this German magazine called Slanted.
A couple of years ago, there was the Canberra Centenary Type Design Contest. I’m a type designer, I needed to enter this. I came up with this thing that was really quite quirky and I was quite happy with my own work, but didn’t win. So that typeface, I only designed I think two thirds of the alphabet or just the criteria that was required. So it’s sitting there as a side project, ready for me to finish. And the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking I should finish that Canberra one and publish it.
What’s your inspiration? What do you get inspired by?
I get inspired by the work of other people. I just find I’m constantly coming across really cool type and my immediate feeling is, “I want to be able to do that.” So I try to find out how to do it. That’s literally what it is. That’s where my inspiration comes from.
But I think getting involved in other creative disciplines is really important to ‘cross pollinate’ your inspiration, in that sense. I really like life drawing, for instance, and I’m obsessed with soccer. I think that there are some similarities between sport and design, in particular soccer. It can be a very creative sport and you have to be able to think about things in a particularly creative way. One thing I like about soccer is that you don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest to be successful. I mean the little short guys can beat you because they can run faster and turn quicker. But the big tall guys have an advantage because they can hit the ball. The big heavy guys have an advantage when they barge you off the ball. But the little guys also have their advantage because they can get to the ball quicker. You know what I mean? So it doesn’t really matter whether you’re tall or short or male or female.
To get back to the point, I just think it’s important to be open to doing other creative things. And allowing them to inform the stuff you do, if that makes sense. I’m also really into music and I play in a couple of local bands. The last thing I would want to do is to be constantly doing lettering or typography all day, every day, day in and day out. Sometimes you need to get yourself out of that headspace. Often I’ll draw something and think, “there’s something wrong with it, but I can’t work out what it is.” So I’ve learned to put it aside and come back to it the next day or the next week. As soon as you look at it again, while your brain has been elsewhere playing soccer or playing music, it comes back with a fresh perspective. It took me years to work that out. Now if a student said to me, “How do you get better in things?” One of the things I’d say is not practice, even though that’s important. I’d say, “Learn to put your work aside. And then look at it again with fresh eyes a bit later on.” I just think that’s really important. I also like teaching because there hasn’t been a student yet that I haven’t learned something from in return. One example was a student who was using a keyboard shortcut that I’d never heard of and I said, “How did you get that?” And she said it was the one that, in Photoshop, enlarges your brush, up and down. And I usually have to go into the brush’s palette. Had I not been there teaching that student, I still wouldn’t know. And now I use it all the time.
Are there lettering artists that you think are worth looking at?
I taught some Brisbane workshops with a fellow from the Gold Coast, by the name of Matt Vergotis. He does a lot of identity based work. His typography is really, really slick. He has a really nice sense of expression in his typography that I really like. But there are so many names, you’d have to just look at who I’m following on Instagram, but there are dozens and dozens and dozens on there. And they all have their own style. I have a whole bunch of hand lettering things that I want to try and explore. There’s a style of hand lettering that I’m not much good at, but I want to get better at, like expressive black letter stuff. I don’t know if I mentioned Luca Barcellona. He is Italian and he’s just a fantastic, expressive calligrapher. He lives in Milan. I’ve never met him. He’s been here to Australia a couple of times, but I haven’t been to his classes. He runs workshops all over the place. He does calligraphy that has somehow combined really traditional blackletter with a fantastic modern expressive edge. And I look at it and I’ve tried dozens of times and I just can’t do it. So that’s one of my ambitions, is to get better at expressive blackletter.
Did you learn from anyone, particularly? Do you have any mentors?
You touched on something there that’s of particular interest to me and it’s because the answer is no. For me, typographically, there were no mentors, there just weren’t. It’s a little bit different now. When I started wanting to learn type design, I started to look around. There are no schools anywhere in Australia; none of the Universities in Australia offer type design, with the exception of Monash, where it’s one unit as part of a wider degree program. If you want to design type it’s almost impossible to study it in Australia. It would be great to operate Australia’s first stand-alone course in typeface design. I don’t know if there is enough demand here because even overseas there are only a few places you can go to do it. There’s the University of Reading in England, and there’s the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in the Netherlands. I think there’s also one in Paris, but really if you want to learn about how to design typefaces, you have to go overseas. And more and more Australians are starting to do that, like Dave Foster for instance and Troy Leinster from Brisbane. They both did a one-year course, full-time purely in designing typefaces. So that would be a dream for me.
Getting back to your question about mentoring: everything I know about type design, I’ve just had to learn and teach myself and it’s been frankly a really long and hard road, really hard. You get to these impasses, where you’re trying to work out how to solve some technical problem. Your font won’t display on the screen the way you want it to. So I spent countless hours in online forums trying to find answers to technical questions I didn’t understand, emailing people that I’ve never met before and hoping that they’ll be kind enough to email me back. I spent ages looking for books online and ordering them from obscure overseas bookstores and waiting six weeks to get them. That’s why I teach now, because I look at the young people of today who want to learn about typography and I can see myself 25 years ago and I think somebody should be mentoring these people and making it easier for them so they can progress more quickly and we can all benefit in the long run. So that’s the reason. I would like to be a mentor to someone who wanted to learn type design. Because I didn’t have that opportunity.
What advice would you give people that want to learn?
Well, I’ve taught a lot of design students in many different institutions. And I hope this doesn’t sound too judgmental, but I find generally there are two kinds of students. There is the kind that expects you to teach them everything without them having to do any of the work, and there’s the other kind that truly understand, that truly get it. They say to themselves, “I understand that the teacher will give me advice and direction and show me the way, but I have to do the learning myself.” A really cheesy metaphor would be a lighthouse. A lighthouse keeper can shine the light and show you where to go, but you have to get there yourself, if that makes sense. That’s cheesy. So don’t use that. But I find that there are a lot of students that just seem to have this notion that, “I’ve come to this course, so you have to teach me.” There’s a quote I really like and it’s from Paul Rand. “The fundamental skill is talent. Talent is a rare commodity. It’s all intuition. And you can’t teach intuition.” You have to have some visual aesthetic and a teacher can build on that and show you good techniques and principles and ways of doing it. But really, as a student, you have to do the hard yards yourself. So to get back to your question, what I try to say to students is, “I’m happy to show you all the theory and techniques, but you’re the one that has to do the practice.” In my classes people often say things like, “I can’t do it, I’m not very good at lettering.” And I feel like shaking them and saying, “That’s why you’re here.”
All images were taken by Lettering Hub or Wayne Thompson himself and are published with permission.