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INTERVIEW: Sophie Brown

INTERVIEW: We discuss Strato Typeface with the extremely talented Sophie Brown, the designer responsible for one of the most detailed typefaces TDF has seen to date. Strato is a layered typeface inspired by the many facets of the city of Rome. A slightly humanist sans serif font, Strato is proportionally based off classical Roman inscriptions, but with a modern twist. Strato comes in six styles. They each reflect different elements and textures of Rome - old stone carvings, woodblock illustrations from ancient books, and modern signage. 

Hi Sophie, first off, congratulations on the launch of Strato. We've had some great feedback so far. Tell us about yourself – where do you live and what is your 9-5?

Thank you! And hi! Well, I grew up in a sleepy little seaside town in Port Stephens, Australia, but for the last couple of years I’ve been living in Newcastle. I actually have a couple of 9-5’s (and also a 5am – 1pm!). I’m a graphic designer for two separate faculties at the University of Newcastle; I’m a radio producer for the ABC on both local and national programs; I intern/hang out at the Australian Type Foundry; I do a bit of freelancing; and in my spare time I obsess over type.

Tell us how you began your journey to create Strato, and as a multi-talented designer, why you chose the path of designing such a detailed typeface for your first release? 

Last year I took a short master’s course on typography, put on by the New York School of Visual Arts, in Rome. That’s where Strato started. I wanted to make something that reflected all of the different facets of the city: the ancient v-cut stone inscriptions, the woodblock illustrations found in old books at the Biblioteca Angelica, the modern signage. I was drawing on a lot of different things for inspiration, so a layered typeface seemed like a great way to consolidate all of those.

That said, I’ve never attempted anything like this before. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I love a good challenge, but when I started out with this project, I had no idea how huge a task I was undertaking. I’m really glad I did it, though!

Reham Ibrahim and Sophie photographing the ancient inscription at the Museo dell'Ara Pacis Sophie (Right) photographing the ancient inscription at the Museo dell'Ara Pacis.

How long did Strato take to complete? What were the major issues you had to overcome while designing, if any?

All up, I was working on Strato for just under a year, and it was an incredibly steep learning curve. There were a tonne of major issues I had to deal with, but I suppose the main one was perfecting the alignment of the different layers. It sounds simple enough, but it wasn’t.

I’m paraphrasing in layperson speak here, but in the more recent versions of the Creative Suite, Adobe changed a default setting so that type was aligned according to the ascender height, and not the baseline. There would be a very small handful of people this change would have affected, and I was one of them. It meant that half of my styles didn’t align, no matter what settings I adjusted in my font software. I had to enlist the help of a very clever and experienced font developer to work out a solution, but even then it still took him a few weeks to resolve.

What inspired you to keep at it and push yourself to complete this typeface? Most people would have given up, I would imagine.

There were many times when I was slumped sadly at my laptop, totally frustrated with the lack of progress. I hate not finishing things, though, and along the way I had some really motivating feedback. When I was in Rome, I had to give a presentation to all my classmates, teachers, and a panel of industry people, and the response I had was overwhelmingly positive. I put some of that work in progress up on my Behance page, and it got featured on Typography Served. My good friend Wayne Thompson, from the Australian Type Foundry, was very sympathetic to my struggles, too. He'd always give me a push when I needed one. Plus there was the interest and encouragement I had from Ten Dollar Fonts.

Every time I hit a brick wall, I’d just try and picture how great I’d feel once I finished Strato, and that kept me going. This sounds pretty dorky, but the day that Strato officially launched on TDF was a huge adrenaline rush for me!

What is your most and least favourite part of type design?

My favourite part of type design is the beginning; the initial process of putting pen to paper and sketching out possible ideas. This is where the DNA for the entire typeface is born. It’s the most creative part of type design, and I find that really exciting.

The part where I tend to get most bogged down is nearer to the finish line. There is an awful lot of complex coding, and hundreds of settings that need to be precise in order for the typeface to function properly. It’s very mathematical, clinical, complicated, and after months of slaving away at creatively developing a font, I find this stage to be the most off-putting. There’s nothing visual about it, and the slightest error in the code can break the font in strange and unusual ways.

Who is your creative hero and why?

I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for Louise Fili. Her work, her style, her attitude; she's fierce. Everything she does is elegant, but somehow with a mischievous, sometimes fiery undertone. She's a fountain of knowledge on the history of design and typography (I have all her books!), and her lettering is gorgeous.

I don't know whether she inspires brilliance or if she just attracts it (probably both, I'd say), but either way she is surrounded by talent. She's married to Steve Heller, one of the most prolific design academics in the world (who also taught at this course in Rome, and whose books I also have many of). Steve and Louise are the ultimate power couple of the design world. They collaborate a lot, but even as independent individuals they complement each other so well. Louise employed Jessica Hische before she became a household name; and she herself learnt under Herb Lubalin. Who knows how far back that pattern of apprentice-becoming-the-brilliant-master goes.

She was one of the teachers at the course I did in Rome last year, so I got to spend a little time with her. I feel really intimidated in the presence of such greatness, but my first meeting with her face to face was as she was pushing a glass of prosecco into my hand, so that put me at ease!

If you had to pick only two typefaces to use for the rest of your life, what two would you pick and why?

That's a really tough one! But I suppose I'd have to pick some typefaces with large and diverse families (or is that like wishing for more wishes?). Two of my all-time favourite fonts – for their versatility, beauty and simplicity – are Mrs Eaves, and her sans serif counterpart, Mr Eaves. 

I don't remember when exactly I discovered Zuzana Licko; I think it was while I was looking at Jonathan Barnbrook's work on Emigre Fonts. I immediately fell in love when I saw Licko's Mrs Eaves. A beautiful design isn't much without a story or a message behind it, and Mrs Eaves had both grace and relevance.

Licko took Baskerville's renowned namesake typeface and really played with it; she softened the contrast between thick and thin, she made the letters shorter and wider. It was an experiment in legibility, but also an homage to Baskerville's mistress. Quite apart from all that, I just think it's a really flexible typeface. It comes in a bunch of weights, italics, small caps, and has the most extensive and beautiful range of ligatures. And then there's Mr Eaves, which is all those things again, only in a more modern-looking sans serif body. I think between Mr and Mrs Eaves I could scrape by fairly comfortably. I actually have my resume set in these fonts!

Any plans for a second typeface anytime soon?

Yes! A few years ago I started a handwritten, rather flourish-y script typeface. I almost finished it, but then I got sidetracked and totally consumed by Strato. I’d really like to finish that script typeface. I recently dusted off the files for it, and cringed a fair bit at the overall look of it, but I do think there’s something salvageable in it. It’ll take some pretty serious renovations to get it up to scratch, but I’m excited to get started!

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us Sophie. We are super excited to keep working with you.

Strato is currently 50% off until April 20th 2014. Download here.

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