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Podcast: Business is Boring #7 – Kris Sowersby, the font designer superstar

‘Business is Boring’ is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound will speak with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and text. This week: Kris Sowersby of Klim Type Foundry.

In the creative industries, like many a business, success comes on the back of a great product. And Kris Sowersby has a product that might sound old fashioned, but is in fact about as good a new business as you could hope for.

Kris heads up the Klim Type Foundry, and makes and sells a range of beautiful fonts, from here, to all around the world. 90% of his sales are international, he sells the digital files and achieves that magical weightless export, with not a cow or sheep in sight.

Kris Sowersby is one of the most awarded designers in New Zealand, having won the prestigious Black Pin at the NZ Best Awards for his work designing the font used for the Financial Times, and other clients include global heavyweight PayPal.

(Image courtesy of Webstock)

Either download  or have a listen below, subscribe through iTunes or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

In terms of that dedication to quality, which is obviously the reason that things have gone so well with everything you’ve done there, some of those companies that you name are very big, well-resourced companies that invest heavily in brand and understand that fonts make up part of how someone sees you. But when you come back to a smaller market, what can New Zealand learn from companies that really care, and can New Zealand companies afford to invest in quality design to make up part of their offering? Do we do enough? Is it valued enough by companies here?

I don’t know if it’s valued enough by companies here. When you look around and you see the quality of the design that companies use and, from a branding point of view, the language they use and how they present themselves and the formal design qualities of their websites and their business cards and their apps – some clearly get it and some don’t, however it’s almost so impossible to quantify the value that design can bring, and there are whole sub-industries dedicated to pushing the idea that design is intrinsic to business being successful, and I believe that.

If you make a mess of your website and you make it hard for people to buy stuff, for instance, as part of the whole web-design philosophy, then you’re going to fail and these sort of things – the things that web design agencies and evangelists have been saying for years and years and years – you see these repeated every now and then by such luminary outlets as Idealog and so forth, and it’s like, “this stuff is old!” The things that you’re saying about how or what to do with design, I mean it’s the same messages over and over again, it hasn’t changed. It’s just more people hopefully paying attention, and of course I say this because I have a vested interest in the design industry continuing as an industry, and I do think it’s valuable.

It’s not just about business and selling stuff, design can help people and so forth. A small but pertinent example is a few years ago I was waiting at a bus stop and there was a woman trying to read the timetable and getting really frustrated, almost on the verge of tears, and I was like, “Can I help you at all? What’s going on here?”, and she goes, “I can’t figure out the bus timetable. It’s all over the show.” I looked at it and tried to figure out the time and I couldn’t. Then I realised that some genius had decided to run the listings horizontally, not vertically – everybody expects a list of something to be vertically aligned.

They’d run all the times like a sentence and so it did look confusing. It took me a while to figure it out too, and I thought this is just the smallest part of how you… like Metlink at the time, I think, in Wellington for the bus network or whoever runs it – this was a job that would have been flicked over to a junior or someone who didn’t care. But it’s the primary point of contact for the brand and for the service and somebody waiting in the rain at the bus stop, trying to figure out when the bus is going to come, and you didn’t even run the things vertically.

That’s just the smallest little instance of using design and typography to help people and to make their lives just a little bit easier. Those sort of principles translate all the way up to high volume… I don’t know, cell phone selling by Spark – or whatever it is that Spark now do.

Looking from the outside in, it seems pretty cool the work that you’re working on. What’s it like if you get a big commission like that? Is it enjoyable? Is it the same kind of like intellectual and artistic challenge as it was when you began?

Yeah, it is. It’s always hard but it’s always good. If it was easy I think maybe it wouldn’t be so rewarding, because anything that’s easy isn’t really that rewarding in the end is it? So the challenge of working with people to try and make a new typeface to say something new that also works for them and what they want, like Financial Times or Paypal, it’s hugely rewarding. It’s a really long process and it’s quite arduous, and there are bits where you just want to give up, but that’s just like any other long process I think. When you see it in the end and you see how they’re using it, it’s an amazing feeling and that’s part of the reason I got into it – to make a tool that designers can use and I think that’s the best part, that’s the pay off.

As a final thought, I imagine you get asked all the time for your inspiration or your advice or the like. What do you say? What’s your piece of advice for young designers who are starting out and might have a dream to make their own font?

When I was a young designer – I’d almost finished graphic design school – I went to some advertising bigwig who’d turned up to an after party for a conference. I went up and said, “Look, I like your work, I’m really interested in making typefaces”, and he sort of stopped me midstream and he said, “there’s no money in fonts, mate”, and sort of dismissed the whole thing out of hand and I was quite taken back. I used that as a bit of anger and fuel to help. Not just that, but sort of as an incentive – not to prove him wrong – but something to work against.

So, if any graduates want to make typefaces, then more power to ‘em. Do it and then make it and see how it works out. It’s not going to be great to start with, the first stuff you make is never great. I mean, we’ve all got dubious work in our back catalogues, but it gets better over time and you’ll get better and you’ll learn – so just have a go and it’ll hopefully work out.

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