Tobias Frere-Jones

The Society for News Design is excited to announce that Tobias Frere-Jones is joining our lineup of speakers for the SND Charlotte workshop on April 19-21 in Charlotte, N.C.

For more than two decades, Frere-Jones has been one of the world’s premier type designers, creating numerous typefaces that news designers use every day, including Interstate, Poynter Oldstyle, Whitney, Gotham and Retina, across mobile, tablet, desktop and print news products.’s Greicy Mella chatted with Frere-Jones about creating type that has become mainstream, how the type design world has changed over the past two decades and what he plans discuss at the SND Charlotte workshop.

HOW DOES IT FEEL KNOWING THAT YOUR TYPEFACE, GOTHAM, HAS BECOME PART OF OUR MODERN DAY VISUAL LEXICON? It’s a little strange. As any designer, I like seeing my work be favored, get used and become popular. Gotham has gotten to some other level where it’s just generic now; it’s numbing to see it become a default. I walked into a department store and all of the in-store signage was in Gotham. I walked across the street to another store and the typographic palette there was exactly the same. It’s like a blanket has been thrown over the landscape, making it all generic. That’s the last thing I would ever want to do, so it’s a strange place to be. I never wanted Gotham, or any other font for that matter, to become a straitjacket.

DO YOU THINK YOU ARE CREATING TYPEFACES THAT ARE IN DIRECT COMPETITION WITH OLDER CLASSICS? The short answer is yes. But that’s not out of any contempt for what came before. I think it’s inevitable to learn from what was before and to build on that. [British type designer] Matthew Carter has this great way of putting it: “We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants, but that also obliges us to look further out.”

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT NEWS DESIGN DURING YOUR INTERACTIONS WITH SO MANY OF THE WORLD’S NEWSPAPERS? I’ve discovered that often the newspaper designers are more attached to their typography and more aware of its particular flavor and nuance than they might realize. I’ve found out pretty consistently that designers, particularly designers that have been at a newspaper for a long time and haven’t been through any kind of redesign, find it hard to imagine the paper in any other way.

I’ve also discovered that, not only in newspapers but also magazines, people have become so used to working around shortcomings of the type that they use that they are so accustomed to getting out a hammer and the duct tape to get the headline to work. It’s a bit surprising for them to hear that this can actually be fixed in the font. I can build that into the font so you don’t have to do this again. That’s kind of nice news to deliver to someone. 

IF YOU COULD SAY ONE THING TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF, WHO IS JUST STARTING AT RISD, WHAT WOULD IT BE? It would probably be: take more notes, remember to eat, get more sleep. Though I doubt I would actually listen to any of that, I think that’s what I would try to get through.

HOW HAS THE TYPOGRAPHY FIELD CHANGED FROM FROM WHEN YOU ENTERED IT TO NOW? It’s changed a lot. The awareness in visual literacy that the customers and their readers have is so much higher now. I don’t have conversations anymore about whether or not type is something worth budgeting for.

There are also more people doing this now than there have been in any point in history. The tools that we have are amazing, but at the same time, what’s expected in a font is also rising immeasurably. In the early ’90s, if a font showed up on the page and didn’t crash the printer, then it was a success. Now, that wouldn’t begin to describe the bars that we need to clear. Much more is expected of us now, which in the end is a good thing. 

I do miss that there weren’t so many good names taken back in the early ’90s. You didn’t have to think so much about what to call a font. Now you have to go through dozens of candidates before you find one that is not used by someone. That part has gotten harder.

SPEAKING OF NAMES, TELL US A BIT ABOUT FRERE-JONES’ DEBUT OF MALLORYI wanted to see if I could make something that had certain aspects of British typographic tradition combined with the outgoing energetic friendliness that characterizes a lot of American typography. Was it possible to make something that holds both of these qualities together? The reason I came up with this idea is wondering what would happen if I tried making a typeface that had the same provenance as I do because my father was American and my mother is British. That’s actually how I got the name Mallory: it’s one of my middle names (and it was also a name that wasn’t taken!)A less obvious goal for Mallory was to play well with other typefaces. Palette building is really an under-appreciated challenge for designers: pairing one typeface with another, managing their relationship, deciding which font gets assigned to what content. I wanted Mallory to combine readily with other typefaces, because it’s pretty rare for a typographic palette to have just one family.

Mallory designed by Tobias Frere-Jones; contributions by Graham Bradley, Erin McLaughlin, Aoife Mooney and Tim Ripper
Mallory designed by Tobias Frere-Jones; contributions by Graham Bradley, Erin McLaughlin, Aoife Mooney and Tim Ripper


WHAT ARE YOU PLANNING TO COVER IN YOUR SESSION AT THIS YEAR’S WORKSHOP AT CHARLOTTE? The session is going to briefly trace the origin of Retina, the second font released by Frere-Jones Type. The broader story will be about the difficulties that newspaper typography faces in adjusting to screens of many different kinds, which is now a central part of the news environment. This problem is very new in some respects, but if you look inside of that, you’ll see that some parts are very old. The way we see letters and interpret them as words doesn’t depend on how they’re delivered. Even better, the history of newspaper typography is full of really great clues and leads on how to make type thrive in this environment.

Register now

About SND Charlotte

• Don’t miss your chance to UNITE & REBEL, register today: Register
• Book your hotel room (before they run out!): Use the SND discount link
• Check out the lineup of speakers we’ve announced for the workshop. What a team!
• Don’t miss the Think Before You Make pre-conference day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center