New York-born, Dublin-based Max Phillips is the proprietor of the Signal Type Foundry & Drawing Office, which specialises in type design, lettering and branding. A former novelist and toy designer, he now makes useful, attractive things for clients like An Post, Arnotts, Bewley’s, Christie’s, FAO Schwarz and Trinity College Dublin and collaborates with studios and agencies in Ireland and abroad.
We interviewed Max, ahead of our upcoming highly popular and incredibly high-rated workshop ‘No, Not Like That’, Learning Lettering with Max Phillips. Leap into his career journey, discover his favourite typefaces and hear his tips and advice.
- What led you to follow a career in design?
A lifelong fascination with books, and with the way things are shaped, particularly letters. Also, I was an art student working toward a degree in painting and I was a terrible painter.
- What made you decide to focus on type design and lettering?
Aside from the fact that I’ve always loved type and letters, there’s the fact that there are thousands of good graphic designers out there, but a relatively small number of good lettering artists and type designers. I had a ‘fairly’ generalist design career up to 2008, but when the downturn came, it made both spiritual and economic sense to concentrate on a less crowded part of the field.
- Very often in our sector, people confuse ‘knowing’ typography with ‘mastering’ lettering. What skills make the difference between mastering typography and drawing letters?
Many of us underestimate the amount of specialist skill decent lettering requires, and the amount of time it takes to acquire that skill. People think they’ll be able to sort of fake it, which is what I thought starting out, and they usually can’t. Even if you’re just modifying characters set in a professionally designed typeface, you have to know what you’re doing or you can make a mess.
I’d say the difference between typography and type design or lettering is the difference between arranging and making. Typography is choosing and arranging elements that are mostly made by other people. Lettering and type design are about making elements for other people to choose and arrange.
- What was your first lettering job?
I was about 16 years old and an actor friend of mine needed a poster for a community theatre production he was in. There were some pretty women in the cast and I was hoping if I did the poster I’d get invited to the cast party. This would have been around 1975. I got invited to the party. It didn’t do me much good. But I did have a good time drawing the letters.
- Tell us more about your design journey before you came to Dublin.
I started off in New York designing annual reports in the early 80s, which was probably the heyday of the lavish, high-design corporate annual report. Eventually, I did more and more branding work and hired myself to draw more and more logotypes. This was pre-digital and I was never much good with a Rapidograph pen, so I’d sometimes hire a draftsman to ink my tight pencils on mylar if I couldn’t get them clean enough. If there was no budget for that, I’d just go over and over them myself until they were presentable, and sometimes sharpen up the corners with tiny bits of Letraset I’d slice from the sheet with an X-Acto knife. It was a great relief when Adobe Illustrator came out. These days I don’t cut my fingers so much.
- What do you miss about working in New York? Is Ireland very different?
New York’s a huge design market, with a lot of pressure to specialize. Ireland’s comparatively small and collegial, and because there are fewer players we get more chances to do different things. And the design community here is a proper community. I do miss the New York budgets, though.
- What was your aspiration for founding Signal Type Foundry?
I was hoping to feed my kids. They eat a lot.
- Outside of working on your own type design, what type of clients do you work with?
Most of my clients are other design studios and ad agencies, who usually have a draft logotype or an idea for a branding typeface that they’ve sold to a client, and now they want a specialist to draw it up properly, or to edit what they’ve drawn. I sometimes wind up co-designing the work with them, if they’re open to that. Some clients just hire me to start with a clean slate and design from their brief, and then they’re the ones to give me notes, instead of the other way round. It all depends on how a particular client wants to work on a particular job.
But I work for a broad range of clients, here and in the US. I just finished up an accessible, high-legibility typeface for an Irish semistate body—still under NDA—as well as a winged-horse emblem for Poetry magazine in the US to celebrate their 110th year of publication. There’s a pretty good mix of big and small, and I love that.
- What are the latest trends in typography and what’s your take on them?
There are more trends than I can count, and they vary from industry to industry and from one part of the world to the other, but the dominant one in the European and American corporate world seems to be the endless use of large-scale medium-weight sanses, especially grotesks, paired with large areas of flat color, either saturated jewel tones or dusty pastels. And there’s a lot of gorgeous work being done in this mode, but it can get a bit samey, and I’m expecting the pendulum to swing back toward seriffed faces and a more varied and generous typographic palette. People keep hiring me to draw sans serifs, but as far as Signal’s retail library goes, for the next few years, I’m trying to focus on serifs. Since I love books, that’s probably where my heart is, anyway.
- Your favourite Irish typefaces…?
Type design’s still a fairly new field in Ireland, frankly, but there are a few very gifted young practitioners out there making more and more good work. I’m especially fond of Spenser by Bobby Tannam. I don’t think it’s commercially available, but you can see it used beautifully on the NCAD website.
- The three must-have qualities for a brand designer?
You need a lot more than three qualities, but if you want to do good work for your clients, you have to be able to listen carefully and you have to be able to talk back constructively. They’re both important because neither you nor your client knows as much as you think you do, and you’ll need to help keep each other on track. Aside from the ability to listen and the ability to push back when needed, I guess it’s a feeling for how words and images work together to create personality because that’s what brands are: personalities.
I should add that talking back doesn’t help you keep the lights on, and in the bigger and more prosperous agencies, it really isn’t allowed. And the work sometimes shows it.
- Finally, any words of advice for aspiring type designers, apart from taking your upcoming workshop with us?
Any designer can benefit from trying their hand at drawing letters, but if you actually want to make a career of it, be obsessed with letters or there’s no point. Be prepared to study and practice all the time or there’s no point. Type design and lettering are two supersaturated fields, and if you’re not willing to push yourself, the work will go to people who want it more than you do. But if you can manage to do what’s needed, I can’t imagine a more satisfying job.
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