We discovered Greg’s work online and were immediately impressed by it. His portfolio includes assignments for The Getty, Sundance Institute, and The Autry Museum, among others. After contacting him, we received a booklet of his called ‘Hecho in Los Angeles’ together with an awesome shirt. This led to us having a great conversation about Greg’s path as a designer and typographer, the industry’s changing landscape and what the future holds.
Tell us something about yourself
I’ve been in LA pretty much my entire life… You know, moving here as a small kid I’ve spent quite some time, I’ve seen the good and the bad. The good is, quite honestly, is the weather and the openness, when you’re not tied down to a certain place. It’s also part of the drawback that things are so spread out, but you can go the beach one day, you can go to the desert… The majority of days are really nice, actually the funny thing is it rarely rains, but it’s raining today! (laughs) The weather does have quite a bit of an effect, yeah.
Creatively-wise, what’s really nice about Los Angeles is that it’s messy, it’s not contained, you have to work and search for it. Whereas I think in some place, particularly in New York, it’s all very nicely packaged, and LA is a little bit messier. It’s kinda like the treasure hunt, when you search and you find it, it tends to have more value for you. Also I think the attitude here is different… There’s a lot more optimism, everything seems possible. It’s not ‘fenced in’, so to speak, like maybe New York, or even maybe San Francisco, it’s very open and expectations are kind of low. You know how New York sort of thumbs their nose at Los Angeles for not having culture, I think that’s great because when cool stuff happens it’s even more special.
So that’s what keeps me here, and as far as my design practice goes, I try to utilize that attitude as part of my brand, or my business. There are certain things that if you are just a visitor or coming from the outside you might not quite understand, but being here, being in it, I try to pull that in, to give an attitude towards the work. For example, when we integrate Spanish into what we say, it’s not so much Spanish but rather ‘Los Angeles speak’. Having grown up, my friends and I, we would always integrate Spanish. Maybe not properly, but it just became our slang, and it’s one of those things that is pulling you in. But creatively, I think, my main thing is typography and type design.
Again, in the US a lot of that seems to be centered on New York, people wanna graduate from LA schools and quickly go to New York, that’s what everything is. While here in LA it’s more like the frontier, and this is where I am, trying to utilize my location and geography to gain attention. In New York it would be more like a little fish in a big, saturated, dense pond. Here in LA it’s like I’m the big fish in the desert.
You said you weren’t born in Los Angeles, how did you end up there?
Most people aren’t born in LA, I figure… very few people, my wife being one. My family is from the Midwest, but my dad wanted to get out of there, he didn’t really feel there was much more that could happen. And so he moved us out to the LA area – just like a lot of people that are saying they’re from Los Angeles, but they’ve really come from other locales in the country.
When did your love for type begin to grow?
I think very early as a kid, I was really into music and we had this thing amongst friends – who could draw the best logo and so on. So that was definitely part of the intrigue, and there were a lot of cool logos in the 70s too, rock bands actually had logos! AC/DC, Van Halen… So I gravitated towards it, and I was also really into the surfing scene, and through the early 80s a lot of cool stuff was happening around that. All of it just started to come together, and I was really trying to enjoy it, and one thing lead to another and you start making imaginary bands and daydreaming, you know? If I had my own surfboard company, what would I do?
This lead me into college, where there was one typography class at that time, and you spend maybe two weeks actually doing lettering exercise. Even though it was only one class, I really enjoyed it, and I continued to just work on stuff outside of school. Training as a graphic designer, getting a degree as one, working as one, but always trying to foster my love for type. One day you actually start designing letters, learning the software, figuring out that you can do certain things, and slowly but surely you integrate that into the work you’re doing and it evolves. Eventually it went into not so much graphic design, but rather a focus on type design.
What was your motivation to quit your job at Intersection Studio and start LuxTypo?
I had worked there for 19 years, and honestly, I just needed a change. It’s not that there was anything I didn’t like, but rather not feeling excited about particular work I have to do, and just needing personal change. It was kind of interesting, working at one place for so long is nice in some ways, there are a lot of benefits, but it can be very narrow as well. So it was time to make a shift, and up to that point I had been doing the type design, but that was more work on the weekends and the nights. I started thinking ‘I wanna have my nights back, I wanna have my weekends back’. At that time, seven years ago, I had my daughter, I gotta focus on that too. I want to spend time with her too, not just keep it at the same capacity. I had been thinking about this for a very long time, and at one point I realized this isn’t going to ‘just happen’ unless I do it.
Embrace the fear, embrace the scariness and admit that it’s normal – if you didn’t have the fear, then something would be wrong. Things always seemed to work out so far, so I made that decision, told Michael, my former partner… gave him six months notice! (laughs) My mind was made up, and I thought I’m gonna take off six months to a year, and if nothing happens, nothing happens. And that’s how I did it. In the end you have to reassure yourself you’re not a fuck up, that you’re a resourceful individual and things will be OK. And even if they are not, you’ll make something happen because of the person that you are.
Do you have any type related role models?
A big hero in design is Henk Elenga, he was here in LA for probably ten or twelve years and I happened to stumble into his offices for an internship requirement. That’s where everything came together, when I was exposed to his work and people he was associated with, that really sparked me to go after design, and type as well. So he’s one, but also other historic figures – Max Huber, for example, really big influence.
But type-specific, I think Adrian Frutiger, because early on in my education I was exposed to Univers and I always had a fondness for it. As I got deeper into what I was doing, understanding that just helped me build up appreciation for Frutiger’s work. Quite a bit of Dutch type design in general, like Gerrit Noordzij. A lot of the stuff coming out of KABK in The Hague, not necessarily a singular individual, but more the attitude and approach is a big inspiration.
‘I was fortunate. Early in life, I understood that my world was a two-dimensional one. At sixteen I knew that my work would be in black and white.’
Lots of things changed in the past 20 years, what are the biggest changes in your area of work?
In type design things got very refined, I can almost say matured. In the early 90s and throughout the 90s there was a lot of flash, ‘flash and trash’, part of the whole deconstructive process. I think the biggest change now is that now there’s a lot of good people doing type design, refined type design. Twenty years ago this was not the case, because all the young designers wanted to do flashy stuff. On the other end of the spectrum, designers wanna do old-looking and established stuff. It’s kind of interesting that there’s someone who is 20 or 25 and already has this refined taste. Twenty years ago that would be more associated with someone who is, let’s say, 55. Because of education and type-specific programmes that have emerged and really blossomed, there’s a lot more type designers as well. It still doesn’t compare to the amount of graphic designers, it’s still nothing compared to it, but there are more individuals that can do this and do it very nicely. What I’ve done, personally, is access my graphic design experience to make my type design relevant.
That relevance is the key ingredient, it is due to my experience outside of it, while a type designer who is 26 years old may not have the same sense of context. They do the craft, but how does it fit with everything else? I’ve noticed that the old model of having a big studio and having all these people around is really obsolete. And it’s what pushed me more towards type design, because in graphic design things are getting smaller. Certain people are good with publications, others are keyed into branding, and as opposed to trying to build an agency or an office that is really inclusive, you are pulling in people on a ‘per project’ basis. It’s more and more a specialty kind of thing. And I think individuals like this, because it gives them more freedom and allows to them to play on their strengths.
How do you keep up and stay ahead of all these changes, design trends (‘dribbblisation’), new technologies and so on?
I think how I stay ahead of the game, is I just got 20 years of experience, and I really try to leverage that. The younger designers nowadays, they now things, they’re faster, they’re better in so many ways. But I try to leverage the experience, what I was talking about before, position my work in a sense of relevance, in a sense of context, of knowledge. Just be the network, be the context, as opposed to trying to speak to so many people, which I won’t do very well anyways. I try to be more targeted, to continue building more meaningful individual conversations.
Instead of trying to reach thousands of people, focus on a handful. Because if you go too wide you don’t have the bandwidth to have any sort of more personal interaction. I find it important to slow down, focus and think about the details. Of course, it may not sound like a lot, but then again you make an impression on that person, and then they have their own little ‘network’, and so on and so on. For me that’s a better way of reaching people instead of just going all out. A bit more strategic, I guess. Teaching helps, for sure. I teach at several schools here and being around the students helps me be aware of what’s going on. They know the things better than me, so I utilize their abilities.
How do you feel about font licensing? Isn’t it a bit old fashioned? What do you think of new ways, like providing (web)fonts through TypeKit or similar platforms?
My fluency around Typekit is not that good, to be honest. I think that maybe the model isn’t necessarily what it should be, but definitely hard work goes into it and it should be rewarded by being paid for. I do like certain models included in it, like how many viewers are seeing the font and so on. And I think it’s quite fair, if you are a smaller company or individual with a smaller reach, you shouldn’t have to pay the same amount as a large company. It’s similar in the licensing for print – if you’re a big corporation that’s going to have 60 computers running the font, you should pay more licensing in a special structure. If you’re a smaller design entity, you pay less, and I think that scalability is good. You have to have the ability to offer a product at different capacities, that’s a good idea. It can be as simple as breaking it up so you don’t have to buy the entire ‘family’.
First 90 percent of the job is great and it’s fun, because it’s all idea making, right? And then you get into the last 10 percent of finalization and bringing it to reality, and there it becomes tedious.
Creating a typeface from scratch is an extremely detailed and time consuming job, how do you convince your clients it is worth the wait (and money of course) ?
Good question, because there are plenty of fonts that do the job, right? (laughs) I’ve had the ability to be in the decision-making process of the platform. I’ve had clients who have been brought in to formulate the strategy, so before we even get into the components we work out what the virtues and the merits of the brand are, trying to build around that. Having that ability to shoehorn in that conversation around custom typography, bringing it into the idea of the overall budget – at that level it’s expected that there will be a certain budget to do this work, to do a custom font.
I think those conversations are the main thing, and it’s not that you are necessarily convincing someone, it’s more of an agreement. This is what we want to do with the brand, this is how we’re going to stand out, this is how we’re going to be proprietary… So it would be natural to develop a custom font. And then there’s times when somebody calls me up, they wanna have a custom typeface, we have a nice exciting conversation, submit a budget and end up with ‘Wow, I didn’t think it was gonna cost that much’. Because you can get a font for 95$, sure, but did you just think we’re all gonna create this for peanuts? Again, even with them I try to have a conversation, not trying to discourage them but trying to get them to think realistically.
What I like to do is propose many options for somebody… so even if I’m not handling the brand, let’s just see what your options are. You wanna stand out, you wanna do certain things, you need a font. Some kind of custom typography would enable you to do that. Do we create it from scratch, do we base it off something, do you create your own version of Helvetica or whatever… I just try to give as many options as possible, and that also enables me to work on different capacities and budgets. Sometimes none of those options work, they are just too expensive, sometimes you follow the middle.
Quite a bit of the work that I actually do get around custom type design is the kind where it’s already been determined that they want that exact thing. This part year I had a client, when the brand director contracted me they had already been working on this project for a year, they had already made certain decisions about what they wanted to do, and they had allocated the money for it as well. Those are good, because you don’t have to do any convincing at all.
What’s the most difficult part of the process of designing a typeface?
It’s the last 10 percent! I mean you’ve probably heard this before, but still… First 90 percent of the job is great and it’s fun, because it’s all idea making, right? And then you get into the last 10 percent of finalization and bringing it to reality, and there it becomes tedious. Maybe that ratio is not exact, but the fun part is the creation and all the possibilities. It’s different with developing a font for sale, because you meet certain points and you’re done, it’s quite concrete. But then if you are making a personal font, it’s open ended. In the beginning the ideas are really interesting, you are excited because you’re trying certain things. And you are excited because you are applying what you’ve learned, getting it all together, and now you are ready to get into the tedious work of drawing, of making sure that everything works as a system.
Too many ideas can break it down, and it’s no longer a system but becomes chaotic. That part of stepping out and going into execution, that can be the most difficult. I think there’s a lot of enjoyment in it, but also a lot of anxiety. You come to the realization that this one character that you really like the design of, or maybe it was even the entry point, it doesn’t quite work anymore. So you are tugging back and forth over whether you should change it or remove it. Then you get frustrated, you have to step away. But it’s almost like you become addicted to the pain of it, because when you get on the other end it feels so good. And it’s what I tell my students, this work is not for the weak, the faint of heart. There are moments when you lose sight of what you are working on, because it’s so vast, so complex. You go through a lot of moments when you question yourself.
If you’d make a typeface design for this day in time, what would it look like and which purpose would it fulfill?
My head has been at function and performance for quite a while. What can you do, as a type designer, to enhance the experience of reading? What are things that maybe I can bring to the table that work below the waterline? You know, not flamboyant and not necessarily earmarks for what the font looks like, what the formal aspects are. Just how you engineer it, the consideration to take for it to be clear, and so on. And of course, when you design something specific, you take these into consideration.
But what I’m thinking about is how can I go even further. Can you certain things to the font so that it becomes smaller, and you get more characters per line without compromising legibility. Broadness, language support… You can get very ambitious with it, even too ambitious with it, but a font nowadays has to work beyond the basic alphabet. I think type design also has to be considerate as to how other languages use that font. It can be as simple as a Scandinavian language, which is still a Latin-based font, but there are certain characters that are really frequent. A certain character in Icelandic appears significantly, so you have to invest time in that. Even on a simple level like that, not trying to create a global font, but just having certain considerations, like can someone in Poland use this font? It has everything in place and it feels like it was designed to accommodate that language.
I like ideas around that, and for me and my sensibilities, it pushes me more towards a Sans Serif. For me that’s more forward-thinking because it’s dropped the Serif, it doesn’t have an excess of stuff, it has evolved. It has less things going on in it, so it can lend itself to optimization and performance enhancement. The type family Gustan, that was the approach in that. It’s not a font that goes ‘Wow, look at me!’. (laughs) And I think in some ways, if you do focus on all those really functional aspects, the Wow-effect will come true. And that’s the feeling I get from Univers, it’s very functional and so well executed, and that’s why I like it so much. There’s sensibility and voices in there, and to see it large, it’s a really pleasant sound. It’s not the most amazingly creative, idiosyncratic thing, but its resonance and feel are quite nice, it fits really well.
Name 3 of your favorite foundries.
I have to say Commercial Type, Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes. I think what they’ve released has been a nice balance of history but also bringing it into contemporary context. I really like what they do. Going back a bit, the Paris foundry Deberny & Peignot, Frutiger worked for them, Cassandre as well. They did some really creative things for the time. And also the Italian foundry Nebiolo, Aldo Novarese is a key designer for them. There’s a lot of interesting display faces that they produced. Right now and for a while, I would say, there has been some very interesting and ‘true’ work being done. For example things that Bold Monday do, I don’t know if you are familiar with them, they are Dutch.
When you’re not designing, what do you do?
I like to go surfing, I’ve grown up with it. When I have the opportunity I like to do that. There’s always family stuff, activities with my daughter take up a lot of time. I like to watch her gymnastics, I like to watch these things, even though it’s not like I’m participating. Music, definitely. Design in general, I like product design.
Actually, I like product design more than graphic design. I have a really big interest in stuff around that, more the practical things. I think the whole spectrum of product design, to be honest. If I’m looking at something online, at blogs, that’s the stuff I’m looking at. Occasionally type, but rarely graphic design. Even to the point of travelling to the big show in Milan to experience that, to take it in. What I like so much about it is that it’s design that has a function. If it doesn’t function, it’s a piece of sculpture, and we can it appreciate it to a degree. But when it truly functions, and if it’s done eloquently, it’s really nice. I don’t wanna say I don’t see as much of that in graphic design, but this feels more tangible. I see type design as part of design, it has to function as well and there’s the sculptural effect of it, the beauty of it. And if that works it all comes together and it’s sold as a product to a degree.
What music do you listen to at work or at home?
I usually have something on at work. My tastes are pretty mixed, I think it depends what kind of period it is. Could be electronic music… Kraftwerk is always good! (laughs) But I’m not scrobbling online to find a specific sound, I don’t do that. It used to be that I had to have music, and there were speakers, and I had to have CDs, it was actually pretty cumbersome. You have these tons of CDs and a 6-disk player. That was an opportunity, gives you a lot of choice. Now I could go quite a few hours without thinking about it, and at some point just pick some station off Pandora or pull something through my iTunes.
Learn as much as you can about the people that want to hire you. Brand directors, or senior designers, it’s mostly gonna be people like that.
If we were in L.A. having this conversation live… Where would we meet?
I really like my office, because there’s a lot of stuff you could go through. If it’s a nice day, there are so many interesting areas out here. It’s almost a question of what kind of mood you are in. You could go downtown, you could go to the beach. Next door to my office there’s a hotel that has a nice patio on top of the roof. Even though it’s just a few buildings across, you can see the whole city and it feels like you are somewhere else. What I like to do too is take some people to the Observatory, because you can look at LA and get a sense of why the city is structured the way it is. Seeing how things are arranged, that’s always interesting. And it’s special to this city, definitely.
What would be your advice to young typographers, that want to make it in the business?
There is no substitute for quality, craft and dedication. Sometimes, and especially now, you can get distracted to the point of producing just ‘for show’, because you want quick comments and admiration. The thing to keep in mind is that it’s a long road, and it’s not a race either. So part of it is to have patience and when you do get work, focus on that. Learn as much as you can about the people that want to hire you. Brand directors, or senior designers, it’s mostly gonna be people like that.
Understand what they need and what their concerns are, because ultimately no matter how much amazing work you do, you are there to make their life easier. You provide a service. It’s not to reduce the importance of what we do, but having that kind of attitude will help you quite a bit. You will be able to understand what they need, and then be able to deliver on that. The more you understand, the more it gives you the ability to push it further. You aren’t going off in a side direction anymore, not getting frustrated about it. This understanding of who you will be engaged with is very important, because if everything goes smoothly, they will come back to you. And they will come back to you and refer you to a friend, refer you to a colleague. Developing around that is good networking, not just pushing stuff out there. Of course that’s easier to do, and the other way takes patience, takes integrity, takes a lot of things.
If you wanna be successful and have a long career, that is what will steer you through. And you can still do everything else too, tweet 25 times a day if you want to, that’s fine. But there is no substitute for that other part, no matter how technology changes, it’s always about the customers. That would have been true 40, 20 years ago, and it’s the same thing that will be true 20, 40 years from now. Who knows what platform will exist, right? But this mentality and way of work will always remain.
Who should we interview next?
I have a friend that I went to college with, and we’re still friends, Trevin Pinto. He is a musician, and he is here in Los Angeles, playing in bands and so on, branching out. And over the last few years he has created his own podcast that features non-corporate music. Some of it is punk, some of it isn’t, some has social and political comments and some doesn’t. I think he would be an interesting person to interview, because of this podcast and some of the stuff he worked on. He even produced a fanzine, he’s very adamant about keeping it non-corporate and giving an opportunity to artists and bands that don’t fit the corporate mold. In the past you would get pushed aside, so I think he might be interesting.