Ray Larabie Interview
Ever had a dream about doing a job you love. The thing about dreams is, that is what they are, "just dreams" - very few of us are lucky enough to do what we really want to do - whether it was a dream as a child or a passion for something as we get older. Most of the time we are put off by our parents, siblings, friends, teachers...whoever...most of the time we never achieve our dream job.
Fortunately I bumped into someone (if it's possible to bump into someone on the internet) who has achieved their dream and is continuing to live the dream.
That person happens to be the typographer Ray Larabie.
In the late 90's when I was looking for free fonts to download, the name that kept coming up time and time again was a certain Ray Larabie. Almost every font I downloaded was a Ray Larabie font - I was thinking at the time who was this superhero to have designed so many fonts - where did he get all the time from and how the hell was he making any money out of it - he was giving them away for free after all!
...Meanwhile time passes by and my wife wants a a superhero font for a superhero outfit she is knocking together...so nearly 15 years later I'm trawling the internet for another font and I come across more Ray Larabie fonts - low and behold there is a contact form to contact the man in himself...anyway to cut a long story short Ray has kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us...
ED: In the early days you were kind of told not to go into creating fonts which is what you wanted to do. Many people are put off starting a business or doing something they really love for various reasons.
RL: In 1987, when I asked my graphic design teacher about designing fonts as a career option, the option really wasn't there. Making your own print quality digital fonts at home wasn't a really a thing yet. Font design was something typographers and graphic designers did on the side. Even if you could design a font on paper, there was no practical way to test it without some equipment and some expert help. There was a good reason not to get into it in the late 80's.
While I was able to make computer fonts at home, I could only make bitmap fonts and that's not smooth enough for print. The PostScript font format was still brand new. You needed a really expensive computer, software and test equipment to make your own fonts. An ecology where you could make fonts and sell them yourself didn't exist. By the mid 90's you could get a computer and font software for about $4000 so making print quality fonts just for kicks was a possibility. I already had the computer. I friend gave me a pirate copy of some font software which I didn't even know existed. I tried it out and within a few hours, I'd made a font. I promptly bought the software and started cranking out fonts in the evenings. I didn't think of it as a business possibility...I had little confidence in my early fonts and rightfully so; they were lousy. Bad spacing, bad kerning, no accents, scant punctuation etc.
ED: So how did you manage to make your love affair with fonts into a business?
RL: It was gradual and partly due to the changing marketplace. When I started, there were few options for selling fonts. You could sell them yourself, maybe request a shareware fee or you could go through a distributor. These distributors curated their fonts. There was a quality bar and I was clearly unable to clear it. About 5 years into it, it struck me one day that I could make a go of it as a business. By that point, there were distributors that catered to independent font designers and the fonts weren't really curated. There's was nothing standing in my way.
ED: What advice would you give to people who are thinking of starting a business in a creative field?
RL: Start right way with quick, exploratory projects. I don't mean starting a bunch of experiments and not finishing any of them. Make quickly executed, practical things that people will use or enjoy in some way. If you do experiments, you don't get real feedback from what will eventually become, your customers. Give stuff away if you have to and try to get feedback. People throw lots of compliments when you give them free stuff so you have to ask for the negative stuff. When you show someone your work during it's progress, they might have an opinion on it. But they're just trying to be helpful. They might not know the real implications of what they're saying. Don't stop and ask if you're doing it right: just do it. They let people try to use it. They might discover some real, practical problems that make it unusable. That's the stuff you need to know. When you do quick projects that require little or no planning, you tighten up that feedback loop and have more fun. It might not apply to everything but it certainly applies to fonts.
I've seen a lot of people give up on their dreams and it's always the same story. They don't want to start small. They plan a mega-project...their magnum opus. Since it's a big project, it requires lots of planning. But they lack the experience to make a practical plan. How do you know how long it takes to do something if you've never done it before? You can find out how long it takes other people to do it but that doesn't mean much. How can you anticipate problems you don't even know exist? These people plan and build and build. Partway through, they ask for feedback and get some encouragement. But the further they get, the more they realize that they've made something terrible and unfixable. The mistakes they made go back to the very foundation of the project. They haven't even finished their first project and it's time to start all over again. And still at this point, they haven't gotten proper feedback from people who actually use it. It happens with font designers all the time. I suggest perhaps starting with a fun, all-caps display font rather than a 16-weight, text font superfamily with proper italics covering every known language. If you start with small projects, and you find out it didn't work out so well, you can just go on to the next one and learn from your mistakes rather than spending all your time repairing.
ED: Did you get lucky at any point – was there a definite point in time (apart from your grandmother giving you dry transfer lettering sheets) that gave you the green light to go ahead with the creating all the fonts you did?
RL: My lucky point was being born at the right time. There was a short gap around 2000 where it was ideal to start a career as an independent font designer. Between the time the barriers to entry were removed and the market was highly saturated was only about a 10 year gap. If I were starting right now, I'm not saying it would be impossible but it would have been an uphill struggle. There are a lot of font designers now and a few thousand more fonts than were around when I started.
ED: In another interview you've done online you say “I just started working on fonts because I couldn’t stop”.
Do you suffer from any “illness” such as Asperger’s syndrome – something which drives you to do things repeatedly as well as giving you an eye for detail. If so, do you feel this helps you in your business and have there been times when this has been a disadvantage?
RL: No, I'm not really like that. I remember the Asperger's kids at school and they were waaaay smart. I think it's because I grew up in the woods. Like, really really in the woods. No stores. No other kids. Just a river. I also hate sports and the outdoors. That combination gave me the ability and willingness to sit at a computer from morning to night. Even after moving to the city, I still preferred to click around on computers. After a long day at work sitting at a computer, I'd come home and sit at a computer some more and make fonts. I didn't start out with a good eye for detail, or any particular magical font abilities. It was just pure attrition. I spent the evenings of my 20s and 30s, not watching TV, not going out anywhere. Just making fonts night after night. It's more like what you might call nerd syndrome.
ED: What is your favorite font that you have created?
RL: A display font called Computechnodigitronic. It's the one I use as the header on typodermicfonts.com. It's all straight lines and not particular complex to construct. It doesn't even have a lowercase. It was a real balancing act. With segmented LED fonts, there are rules. You can break the rules, but if you break the rules too much, it spoils the illusion. I made it just readable and bold enough to get the feeling of segmented LED without actually following the rules. If you really look at it, it makes no sense as a segmented font. But the end result is, what I think is, the first segmented LED headline font that you don't have to strain your eyes/brain to read.
ED: What is your favorite font that somebody else designed?
RL: There's a fashion cycle with fonts so fonts I used to love, have lost their sheen. These day's I'm into this foundry called Latinotype. Their fonts are exactly in tune with what's happening now. There's an headline font called Trend as well as a hand drawn version. Simply superb. It's not really avant garde, just visually aligned with 2013. If you look at that font and scroll through an average Pinterest board, you can see how it would fit right in.
ED: Obviously we are running a business site that helps people start up their own business – what advice can you give for people choosing fonts for their business logo?
RL: The Non-Designers Design Book by Robin Williams (ED: Nanu Nanu!) will give you enough knowledge to confidently choose the correct type of font. It's a quick read with lots of examples. Although this book will help you choose the right kind of font, when it comes to choosing the actual, specific font, you have to consider fashion. A Burberry navy jacket and a Walmart navy jacket have the same function but don't make the same impression. People are more aware of fonts than you might think. Even if they don't know the name of a font, there's an unconscious judgment that occurs. Some people can't tell the difference. Just like with navy jackets. But a lot of people can. The danger of using well worn free fonts is that someone will judge your business, based on that. If you use a free font for your logo, it sends a message...probably not a good one. But it depends on the business, I suppose. There are lots of places where free fonts are appropriate but I think it behooves any business to put their best foot forward. Are there classics that never go out of style? Absolutely. If your business is more of a black tie affair, a classic that might be more appropriate than something exotic.
ED: You were born in Canada but now live with your wife in Japan – what kind of impact did this have on your work?
RL: I spend a lot of time studying Japanese, so that cuts into font design time but I'm exposed to lots of different design trends that I would have been in Canada.
ED: We sell various things on another site we own. What is our logos font (without cheating?) on this site: Funky Kitsch
RL: That's Rosewood. Comes with Adobe products so you see it a lot. It's a beautiful font, based on a 19th Century metal type called Clarendon Engraved (I think). My honest, first impression was, "It's that font that I got with Photoshop".
ED: Correct...and wow...bonus points for extra information - you know your stuff! If you were to choose another font for us – what would you choose?
RL: I think you'd be better off going with something compact and heavy but organic and containing copious amounts of funk. Rosewood is more of a circus, cowboy feeling. It's kitschy in a technical sense but not funky. None of the members of T-Connection, Con Funk Shun of the Gap Band would allow it on one of their album covers.
The yellow is a bit light on white but it's no problem if you go with something heavy. It rules out any thin choices. So we'll only look at heavy fonts. It's should be gaudy. That's the kitsch...curls are good idea.
Since it's a logo, you should go with something out of the ordinary. Using something your site visitors already have in their fonts folder might not make a good impression for a site that's offering quirky fun. That might be okay for headlines and body copy, but you can't compromise when it comes to your logo. I think logo is not the kind of place you'd want to use a well-known classic. From practical reasons, I think you can use all caps so you can keep it tight...a lowercase y wouldn't allow you to stack the lines vertically tight. I like Tomato by Canada Type. It's funky but not well known. Moon Star Soul by another Nagoya based designer really does it for me. That's one of my favourites that you don't see out in the wild too often but it might be too mechanical looking. If you want more grit, think about Manicuore by Pintassilgo. If you were to pick one of mine... Soap oozes funk. I'm not sure if it's the right kind of kitsch as it's not really gaudy but has that seventies jumble store feel. Maybe Acroyear. You can have the words ascending and kind of interlock them. If you look at the gallery samples, you can see how it works when you tilt it. It's plenty weird, definitely funky and and I think you could call it kitsch.
ED: Looks like we'll have to change our font logo now - wish we hadn't printed off those 10,000 leaflets! Does anybody want to buy 10,000 unused leaflets advertising our business - hmmm.
ED: Last question, So in general how do you choose a font?
RL: Web fonts are easy because you can change them if it's not working out. You can use a service like Typekit that will let you try before you buy. You're sort of renting fonts with Typekit so there's no big font investment you need to make. Google fonts is a free service but you have the same potential problems that can occur with free fonts. Some of those fonts are getting pretty familiar...to be polite. If there's a web site devoted to complaining about a particular font, you may want to choose another one. But I think there are some cases where these fonts do the trick. There are some that resemble classic styles, at text sizes, they're barely distinguishable from the real thing. And you can always just try them as a placeholder until you decide to use something else. If buying a font and hosting it yourself is more your style, there are sites where you can test the fonts in your browser before buying. All web fonts all look wonderful on the latest iPad, but they still need to perform well on old fashioned monitors. I mean the ones where you can see the pixels. Fontspring is a font retailer that lets you test the fonts in your browser so you can see where the breaking point is. When you scale fonts down, you eventually get to a size where it's just not looking great. Have a look at my Bench Grinder font on Fontspring.com. Click on the @fontface panel. If you're using Google Chrome in Windows you can see how from 21 pixels and larger, everything's looking fine. Smaller than that that and the lowercase g closes up (ED: Attention to detail) . It might be passable in some cases but if your primary purpose is a font that's used for 10 pixel captions, then you'd want to choose a different font. It's a good idea to use Chrome for testing as it has at the time of this interview, rotten web font rendering(ED: LOL - it's good because it's bad!). If it's passable in Chrome, it'll look delightful in other browsers. Some designers charge a lot more for web fonts. Mine are the same as the base price, depending where you buy them. My regular desktop license allows you to do your own web conversions but a lot of font designers don't allow it so check those details before you buy.
ED: I'd like to thank Sir (I've decided to knight him) Ray Larabie for his in-depth answers. I think there are some real gems in there.
It seems clear to us if you are going to get on in life and business you have to be dedicated to your business, you need direction, you need to have good subject knowledge, and lastly you need a little bit of luck as well. All these ingredients come together beautifully in the superhero that is Ray Larabie.
Keep living the dream...