Letter Play: Max Phillips – Signal Type Foundry

Posted 7 months ago in Design

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Max Phillips runs Signal, a type foundry and drawing office specialising in type design, lettering, and typographic branding. A former creative director at FAO Schwarz, Phillips aligns the variables in his creative life with us.

Tell me a little about your design journey before you came to Dublin

I grew up just outside New York City in a house full of art and design books, and I’ve been drawing letters since my early teens. My mom had a stack of old Photo-Lettering Inc. catalogues. She used to get lettering ideas for her craft projects. I didn’t know what a type designer was, but I knew those books were cool. When I was in high school, I started making posters for school plays, because I was hoping that would get me next to some of the drama department girls. That worked about as well as you’d expect. But I liked doing the posters, and when I left college I went to work in New York as a graphic designer.

Most of my career has been in branding and print design, with some web and UI work on the side. These days I’m more and more focused on lettering for a range of clients and on type design, both for retail licensing and on commission.

What led you here?

A homesick Irish wife. It’s also great for our boys, who are very close to their Irish cousins.

How would you describe the Dublin design scene? How are their type and typography skills?

The design community here really is a community. It’s small and close-knit, but I’ve found it really welcoming. For a city of its size, Dublin produces a remarkable amount of strong design. And because it has a number of first-rate schools, there’s also a lot of great talent coming up, young people full of ideas, many with a real interest in the craft. I’ve been trying to mentor a couple of them in type design, and they’ve been trying to mentor me in not being such an old fart.

How did Signal Type Foundry come about? How’s it going?

About 10 years ago, I was the creative director at FAO Schwarz, the big American toy store where Tom Hanks danced on the piano in Big. When the downturn hit, the company was sold and everyone was laid off. No one was answering my emails, no one was answering my calls, and we’d just had our first child. Kirsten, my wife said, ‘As long as you have some time on your hands, why don’t you finish up that typeface design you’ve been working since I’ve known you?’ It was called Spinoza. I published it with FontFont, it won some awards, and I began thinking I might make a living at this.

There seems to be a resurgence in typography and the appreciation of great type. Any insights on how or why that’s come about?

I think digital DIY tools have a lot to do with it. Everyone’s got a SoundCloud, and sometimes it seems everyone’s got a typeface in progress, because for a few hundred euro you can have the means of production and distribution, the whole end-to-end process, in your own hands. And you can share work in progress easily on Instagram. Most of it’s not very good, of course, but some of it’s terrific, and all this WIP (work in progress) flying around inspires people to have a go themselves. And that draws new talent into the field.


The 3 Rules of Great Typography, what would you write…

A journalist once asked David Frost to list the ten rules of good conversation. He said, “If you don’t know what they are, how do you know there are ten of them?” Learning to use letters well is a lifelong process, and while there are books full of rules, and you need to know them, it’s not about the rules. The only two you can never break are: respect the letters and respect the people reading them. I don’t mean you’ve got to be careful and prissy, although I’m personally a pretty careful designer. Respect means studying thoroughly and engaging deeply, and taking the details seriously.


Your type heroes and why…

There are too many to list. But the late Hermann Zapf is the one who meant the most to me. Along with Palatino, Melior, and over a hundred other typefaces, he produced a number of books of typographic and calligraphic design, like Manuale Typographicum, Typographic Variations, and Pen and Graver, mostly printed letterpress at the old Stempel printing works. When I was in my twenties and finally had a little disposable income for fine press books, I bought my own copies, and the purity and regard for craft I see in them are always in the back of my mind, whatever I’m doing. He’s the guy who got me into this business. I blame him.

And I can’t not mention Zuzana Licko, probably the most consistently inventive type designer who ever lived, and one who best personifies that old Jasper Johns credo about process. Johns wrote, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” Licko took that sort of journey with type. Both these designers are out of fashion now, but they’re masters, and they gave me a model of strict, dedicated professional practice to aspire to.

It’s pronounced LITCH-ko, by the way. You’re welcome.


As well as your own type work, you collaborate with individuals and agencies to craft their work collaboratively. What makes for the perfect partnership, any guidelines for people looking to strike mutually beneficial supportive creative collaborations?

More and more Irish studios and agencies are seeing that lettering and type design is a specialist skill, like photography. You can try to do in-house, but the result won’t really be right. And there are things type designers know about optical correction, the way curves work, and making things read at small sizes that are very pertinent to icon and symbol design, not just type. Some studios routinely send me pdfs of their logos and wordmarks in progress for my comments. Usually they wind up hiring me to refine and finish their drafts, but sometimes there’s no budget, and that’s fine. They go back and do it themselves. My notes are free, and it all works out in the end. And sometimes people want a custom typeface, and I help them get their ideas to work as type.

The collaborations are great, because when you’re working together with another designer, you have access to other ways of thinking and looking, and together you can make things neither of you could make on your own. I usually come away from those collaborations knowing more than I did before.

Sometimes I’m called in to do a final polish on something that’s almost finished, and sometimes people want to collaborate on the basic design, and sometimes people want to brief me and have me produce and develop my own concepts under their direction. Sometimes people know exactly what they want, and sometimes they want to sit down with me and figure it out together. All of it can work well, as long as everyone respects the other’s expertise. That can mean a client being willing to hear that their ideas might need some changes in order to work typographically. It can also mean me being willing to hear that my own ideas might need to change, or even be scrapped, because they don’t fit the client’s vision or their end client’s needs. You have to listen.


Type seems to be reimagined, reengineered, hacked, 3Ded, augmented, democratised for social use and much more these days. Do you see these trends as being good for pushing typography forward or more as creative foibles that have a finite lifespan limited to the creative community.

The main technical story in type right now is variable fonts, where a single font file can produce an endless array of weights, widths, contrasts, and so on, controlled by sliders. And right now people are having a lot of fun with it, mostly in little self-initiated projects. But I think most new design technologies go through a baroque, ‘Hey-Check-This-Out’ phase as people explore new possibilities, and then settle down into more classic forms with time. If the OTVar standard is widely adopted and supported, which is not a sure thing, I suspect the same thing will happen.

OTVar may improve the onscreen quality of type in responsive/adaptive typography. It may also solve technical problems, like kashida for instance, which is the practice in some scripts like Arabic and Hebrew of extending the width of single characters to fill out the measure of a column and make it flush on both sides. Right now that can only be done in calligraphy; OTVar might one day make it possible to do it in type.

But the forms of type are governed more by the eye and the mind than by technology. Technology has an effect on the way type looks, but the basic forms and organisational strategies we use for text type today would still make sense to Gutenberg.


What are you working at the moment? Any secrets you can share?

I’m planning to release a big new workhorse sans serif family this fall. I’m also expanding my Center superfamily, and I’ve begun some collaborations with other designers, so eventually the Signal type library won’t be all me. I don’t think there are any secrets in this business, except the secret of how to get paid in 30 days, and no one’s ever told me that.


Words: Richard Seabrooke


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