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Interview with Eric Olson

This interview with Minneapolis-based typographer Eric Olson was conducted in July of 2006 and originally published in the Task Newsletter issue #1. We checked in with Eric recently and updated the interview. Where are you right now, why are you there, and what do you spend your time doing? How is it different than your […]

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This interview with Minneapolis-based typographer Eric Olson was conducted in July of 2006 and originally published in the Task Newsletter issue #1. We checked in with Eric recently and updated the interview.

Where are you right now, why are you there, and what do you spend your time doing? How is it different than your life in the city?

I’m in a small town 2.5 hours north of Minneapolis named Deerwood. For the longest time I’ve been questioning the patterns and habits of my work life so when the opportunity for something different came up my partner Nicole and I decided to give it a go. We’re moving to England in the fall so we thought our unused family cabin would be a way to test out life in the “ sticks.” It’s really secluded here. You can even hear the trees—something I forgot you could do.

As for city life, it couldn’t be more different here. Aside from the obvious stuff like seclusion, lack of interesting food, access to media and a host of others, the biggest change is the total lack of BS in my life. The city has a way of turning tiny annoyances into long term stresses. Like, why the hell was I ever stressed out that my neighbor used to bang his door every night when he came home from work?

How much upkeep does your digital type foundry require to continue running? Could you ignore it for an extended amount of time and it would still be operational? What would happen to it if you ignored it for a year?

I suppose it depends. On some days the upkeep is nothing. The web aspect of the business is set and largely maintenance free. On other days, it seems like customers have lined up to call and ask questions. That said, I bet it could go a few weeks without really pissing anyone off and maybe up to a year without any major maintenance.

Past a year though, it could get shady. Assuming I kept up with the hosting bills, I’d give it two years before the word spread that we’d left town. But forget the reputation stuff. If it could run for ten years I’d have an amazing stack of junk mail with titles like “ Cia_lus” and “ R olex Store” that would overload our web host and I’d probably develop some sort of withdrawal syndrome. I love the foundry. It’s my child so I miss it when I’m away. I feel like we fit well together.

What about “ the patterns and habits” of your working life were you questioning?

Well, type design is pretty repetitive so there is always a tendency to fall into work routine habits. I suppose the challenge is to keep producing but stay fresh. Past that though, design (graphic, product etc.) is inherently tied to the location of clients. My work is fairly portable and less tied to regional clients so I thought I would try to work more like a writer. Get out and see things I suppose.

In your daily life, how does typeface design fit in?

It’s what I do 10 hours a day. I guess that’s not 9 to 5. How does 8 to 6 sound?

Online sales may be relatively maintenance free, but the development of typefaces is altogether a different thing. 90% of my time is spent either developing new typefaces or working on custom typefaces for clients. It’s certainly a full time job. Analogous jobs might be writing fiction or family farming. Both are brutally labor intensive, largely solitary, but ultimately very satisfying if everything goes well.

What kind of upkeep on your foundry are you doing now, out in the woods?

As usual, lots. I’ve got a large sans in the works, a few others on the back burner and then our new website. We’re trying to find a way to better display our type through online testers and PDFs while also making the whole system easier to update. In modesty, I must say we haven’t found the answer to that yet.

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Has your type foundry ever surprised you?

Almost everyday. It’s an honor to have people license and use my work so I’m always pretty surprised. I say surprised because right now is a great time to be in the market for type. Within the top tier, the level of quality is devastating. Just stunning. There are some really great typefaces to choose from.

But, easily the best surprise came two years ago from a individual that sent me a series of PDFs showing my typeface Bryant in a branding campaign that he had just completed. It was done, printed, delivered and in use. His question was simple. How much would I charge him for just the six letters and two numbers that he had used? He felt that since the final product came out so smashingly that he should at least throw me a bone and pay for the characters he used from the typeface he stole. I suppose I should have sensed something was up seeing as he repeatedly used the term “ bro” in his email to me.

Do you ever design type when you’re drunk?

Are they that bad? Kidding! No, I don’t drink.

Why and when do you choose to ground your type design in type history? Do you approach these models in terms of improving upon them, mutating them, subverting them …

With regards to Maple, definitely mutating. Maple was both my last hurrah with a historically inspired typeface, and an attempt to push the grotesque model past the edge of reason.

In some ways I have a split personality when it comes to typefaces. Maybe once a week I have a soft spot for something like Maple while the other six days are spent looking forward. The two can coexist, but I’m focusing on the six forward looking days now. If I was an architect I wouldn’t spend my time building colonial revival style homes so the same goes for type—most of the time!

Do you have a certain faith in the appropriateness of typefaces in particular situations?

Allow me to be pluralistic and dodgy. It depends on the audience. I have not a shred of evidence other than my own speculation, but I’ve found that some people are perfectly oblivious while others (like myself) get into a twist over typeface choice.

I can only speak for myself, but since I’m a fan of fiction, it seems necessary for the greater good to point out the phenomenon of moderns (Bodoni, Walbaum etc.) used for setting books. On many levels, the choice makes sense. A new style of writing could benefit from a modern looking face. Fair enough, but the results are maddening. Have you actually read a book set in a modern? I can’t do it. Recently, to use a mainstream example, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay was set in a modern. I only made it halfway through. I should add, only because my sister-in-law claimed it was really good. Otherwise the affair would have never started.

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You mentioned how there are some great typefaces out there right now. Are there some type designers out there that interest you?

In America, Cyrus Highsmith is pretty fantastic. He’s able to get away with some things formally that I would never give a second thought to.

I guess I’m most interested in designers that are nothing like myself. For this reason, I like calligraphy or writing quit a bit. It’s nearly impossible, kind of like Origami.

There are others, but following my criteria for someone unrelated to my tastes, I’d say Fred Smeijers is pretty much without parallel. He’d be my number one.

Do you prefer designing a typeface to meet a specific need, or designing a typeface for general use?

If I had my way, I’d love to do both. Maybe due to the unusually clear criteria, I find custom typeface work really relaxing. When I make typefaces for myself, the entire range of options can be overwhelming and stressful.

Which was the most difficult typeface to design?

I have a new one in development that’s an easy shoe in for the most difficult. It’s that option problem I mentioned above. I tend to consider all of the “ what if” situations. I think if a business manager took a look at my work habits they’d either fire me or quit. I’m always re-doing or re-considering work.

Do you have a typeface you are most happy with the way it turned out?

Stratum. It’s funny too because it was very easy to make.

What is your best selling typeface? The worst?

Klavika is a our best seller largely because it can be used for so many different applications. It’s pretty extensive too so users can pay attention to the finer typographic details with alternate figure styles and small caps if they like.

The worst is probably Kettler. The market for monospaced fonts is pretty limited.

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Have you noticed your faces being used heavily in certain fields, like Stratum in architecture, Bryant in education?

I suppose. Fortunately many of my faces seem to have a niche—which is great. They could also have nothing and I could be a waiter at night! Bryant and Klavika are pretty hard to categorize but through it’s use in Metropolis, Stratum has become associated with architecture. Which I love, because outside of typeface design, architecture is my passion.

Your typefaces are omnipresent in the design/art scene in Minneapolis. It seems that everywhere MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art and Design] students go (and you go) they take the faces with them: the Walker Art Center (where you worked), the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota, Intermedia Arts, the Soap Factory . . . Sometimes I see pieces with your typefaces and I know immediately that the designer is from Minneapolis—do you think you have benefited from being entwined with a school and having an influence on the students (where you taught)?

It’s hard to measure, but I’ve certainly benefitted from the association. I wouldn’t know which typeface to point to, but I feel like my typefaces have something very Minneapolis about them. To some extent, designers seem to have picked up on it. There’s also something very Minneapolis about BluDot but I would be challenged to put a finger on it so maybe I’m imagining things.

As for the MCAD association, the credit has to go to Kindra Murphy. She started using my typefaces very early on and things spread from there. She’s a bit of a cult figure with the students so that helps too!

What is your take on the recent press highlighting Minneapolis as The Design City?

You mean the Newsweek article right?

Obviously I think it’s great but it’s also time for the awareness of Minneapolis design to have some shelf life. Maybe it’s a function of the press, but over 100 years later the Walker is often still mentioned as a new museum! That’s crazy. Minneapolis has a deep (sometimes whisper quiet) pool of design talent that figures into the national and international design scene. It’s ebbed and flowed, but it’s always been around. I mean, Ralph Rapson is in his 90s so it didn’t start with an addition to a museum.

How do you design your life?

Starting a company was very deliberate and designed on my part. After I left the Walker I knew I wanted to make typefaces full time so I rearranged everything to do it. At first the sacrifices were financial, maybe even a little nuts. I went back to working construction (something I did in college and high school), temping and later teaching so I could fund the enterprise. Fortunately the risks paid off, and now it’s all I do.

Further though, I’m always questioning my habits and work patterns. Again, why do I live in the city? How about the sticks for awhile? I’m worried, even scared, about drying up someday, so I’m very conscious of my workspace, music, furniture and even food. Jeez, I sound nuts but I think these things have an effect and can be “ designed” for the positive. How many 50 year old graphic designers have you bumped into recently? Probably not as many as you’d like for an industry that’s been around for several generations.

:: 2 years pass ::

Since we last spoke you moved to England, released a new face called Seravek, created a customized typeface for the New York Times Magazine (named Sunday), moved back to Minnesota, and started and retired a popular modern architecture blog . . . do you ever yearn for simpler days by the lake in the woods?

Yes, and a shoulder rub too! We’ve just hired a consultant and a few contractors to help with a project so the simple days are certainly over.

You said earlier that you found designing custom typefaces relaxing due to having specific criteria to work with. Was this the case for Sunday? How did you feel about the idea of combining two of your own faces?

I suppose this was the case with Sunday. It’s not so much that two faces were combined, that would be an easy job, but rather the attitude of the two were joined. The typeface was drawn from scratch and refined over time with input from the art directors of the magazine.

Who is Will Steger.

When I was a kid I saw him speak just after he finished the unsupported dogsled trek to the North Pole and was pretty blown away by how raw and humble he was. He and Bob Dylan are Minnesota to me.

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Photos: Deerwood, Minnesota, courtesy Eric Olson

  • Tony Venne says:

    I recently moved away from MN and it makes me homesick to see Deerwood. Our cabin is near there. I’m hoping to figure out a way this summer to practice graphic design in the Northwoods. How does one combine cabin life with the design world? If you figure it out someone should let me know…

    BTW I love Mr. Olsen’s work and have used it on several occasions.

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