Wayne is a Type Designer, Letterer, and Teacher. He is the man behind Australian Type Foundry, where he designs and markets new fonts, as well as teaching typography and conducting workshops around the country.
I met up with Wayne Thompson for an interview during his brief visit to Melbourne to speak at Pause Festival. It was a nice evening in the greek quarter of the CBD, where got to discuss the highs and lows of Type and Lettering over a beer or two.
Most people seem to arrive at Lettering from different angles. Do you remember how it all started for you?
Yes, I was always interested in lettering, even as a kid. I didn’t even realise at the time what it was, it’s the kind of thing that you look back and realise later on.
When I was about 12, in the mid 1970’s, I had a relative – A guy named Alan. I only met him once or twice, and wasn’t well aware of what he did. He had his studio up in North Sydney, and worked as a commercial artist, or Graphic Designer of sorts. He was a heavy smoker, and developed emphysema and passed away. My father was the family member put in charge to go to his studio and clear it out in the weeks after he died. I remember one day my dad came back one afternoon with his car full of stuff from the art studio. Brushes, pens, paper, samples, tools of various kinds, a huge collection of books, amongst them a Letraset catalog. These were like the font catalog of the days. He said ‘Do you boys want any of this before this goes to the dump?’ and I was like ‘Oh my God look at this! Yes!’
I remember being completely enamoured with this book full of fonts, I didn’t even know what a font was back then, but I loved the fact that you could express the same concept in so many different visual ways. For context, most of fonts at that time were really crazy wacky 70’s ones, display fonts and a few Helveticas. I remember I would open it up and try to draw or paint some of the letters on bits of wood. I had no idea that graphic design as a job even existed.
At the end of high school there was a work experience program, and I chose to go with some local Signwriters. Warren Roberts was really good with me, we went on all these different jobs, climbed ladders, and painted signs on big boards. It was fantastic for me to see you could deal with lettering on a daily basis.
When I later went to Uni I did a Communications degree and thought I’d become a journalist, but I soon discovered Graphic Design and became a Designer. Whilst working in Graphic Design I discovered type as such as integral component I deliberately started to move my career and job choices towards it.
What kind of jobs were you doing when this begun to shape up as a career?
I was an agency designer, and you’d get given jobs like developing new logotypes for real estate. 1990’s font menus weren’t like today’s, we’d have a choice of 20 or 30 fonts… You know, the classics that were 100 years old and were the first to be digitised. So you would do jobs for clients but they would all look the same because you didn’t have many typefaces to choose from. It began to occur to me that I should design type of my own. I started because I wanted to be able to use something other than the existing fonts. I would draw enough letters in a logo, and clients would say “Oh, I love these letters! Can we have the font?” And I’d go, “Oh sorry… there ain’t no font. I drew that in illustrator.”
They’d get real annoyed at me. I started thinking maybe there was a way I could finish out the character set and develop it into a font. I was interested enough to keep pushing. I would send fonts I’d designed overseas to different studios, I would send laser prints to places like ITC, Monotype, Adobe, asking if they would publish it. So I got into it that way. I would get letters back from type designers overseas giving me pointers and helping me with early designs, and it was on from there.
What aspect of Lettering compels you most?
I love the sheer level of expression you can get in something that comes from your hand, the feel of pencil on paper, or brush on substrate. When you do stuff digitally, It just doesn’t have that direct connection to the final outcome, and that’s what I love most about creating lettering.
In Lettering, what was a moment or job you learnt the most from?
Phew, yeah. Around my Uni time I dabbled a bit in doing Signwriting as a career, and did a few commercial jobs, just as a newbie. I charged money for them but not very much. I made mistakes and learnt a lot during this time.
I remember a particular job: A client that came through a family friend, who ran a carpet and vinyl laying business which had two big white vans. He had asked me to paint his business name on his vans so that they could be seen as he drove around town people saw it. I got my Letraset catalogs out and worked really hard to lay these letters out. I had spent almost all day painting a single side of the van ‘Carpets & Vynil’. The sun was going down and the client came back. I asked him what he thought about the job, and he replied “Mate it’s Great. I really love it, except you spelt “Vinyl” wrong.’ I was mortified, I was there until late at night under the porch lights, fixing everything up.
The lesson I learnt that day was to not rush things. You’ve got to step back and take a proper look at things. Another lesson I learnt there was letter spacing, nothing teaches you about letter spacing like only having one chance to get it right.
It’s funny, I probably would’ve become a Signwriter because I really did enjoy that, but this was all happening around the time when computers and vinyl were coming around, and people were just throwing their brushes away. It’s funny it’s come back now, and people are understanding the value of the craft.
I have dozens of stories just like this one… I think it’s a rite of passage of sorts that designers must go through, and you learn a lot.
What is something you have discovered or learnt recently?
I find that when I’m teaching students I often learn things in return. At first when I started teaching I assumed I would try my best to teach the things I knew, figuring it was a one way street of sorts. Soon after I understood that you learn things back. All sorts of things, not just design. You learn things about people’s lives that help you understand things that are going on in yours. Of course you also learn techniques – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a student use a particular keyboard shortcut, and asked them: “Hey what have you done there!?” – “Oh you do it just by pressing this, this and this.” And it’ll be a useful trick I have never known about despite using the software for decades.
Recently I’ve been studying a Masters of Typeface Design from Reading University, and one of the reasons I undertook that after thinking about it for many years was because I wanted to fill in some gaps in my historical knowledge. The things I’ve been asked to go through have already begun to bridge that gap and payed off in a big way. In the past I might’ve thought ‘Do you really need to know about history to be able to do something on paper?’ I’ve realised it really helps to have a knowledge of historical background, so I’ve been reading a lot about the typographic path that got us to the present day, and I find it to be helpful to inform your current practice.
What is something that you wish you had known or wish you were doing back when you started?
Hmm, I tell you what. I wish I had a mentor when I started. When I started and wanted to be designing type full time, there was no one. There was nowhere you could go to learn, or no one you could seek out to ask questions. I made heaps of mistakes, and depended on old forums for knowledge. I wish I had a mentor to reassure me that it’s okay to make mistakes, or that what I was doing was right, or hopelessly wrong. For that reason I find I now intern and mentor some people in Newcastle. A young lady who was very interested in type would come spend some time at the studio once every couple of weeks and it wasn’t like: “Hey intern, here’s a job, I want you to work at this job, and then I’m going to check on it and say ‘You did this right, you did this wrong.’” It wasn’t like that, it’s more of a mentoring process. We work together, talking about all things type as you go along a days work. I find this model of mentoring to be very useful, and I wish I had someone like that back when I started out. I think that those of us who are senior in the industry have a certain responsibility to offer something back somehow, in whatever form.
Tell Us About your workshops, why did you start?
My workshops are many and varied, but I begun them because of the mentoring idea I mentioned earlier. I figured people wanted some guidance on this stuff, specifically typography. I had some hand lettering experience that I could offer, and I knew there was this rising interest in the workshop culture, so it was also a business opportunity for me. The thing I wanted to primarily communicate to the students is that the tool creates the letter, or the DNA of the letter derives from the tool. Even if it is a digital typeface design, it somehow needs to have some reference to the tool that created its forms originally. It’s not just pencil on paper, it’s chisel on stone, sign painters brush, etc. My workshops were structured around trying to communicate this to students through using these tools and understanding the marks they make on paper. I wanted people to have the tools to create good type.
Can we expect you to be teaching in Melbourne in the near future?
If you talk me into it, I reckon you definitely could.