Confessions of a Part-Time Type Designer

By Terri Stone

Creative director Bruno Sellés is a co-founder of the renowned Barcelona design firm Vasava. In his twenty-plus years as a graphic designer and art director, he has been responsible for many projects, including covers for Variety, Computer Arts, and Nature magazines; packaging for Hennessy; and hundreds of graphics for Nike apparel. Less well known is that Sellés is also a typeface designer. He recently spoke to Create about that side of his career, including his advice for aspiring type designers.

Create: Do you have formal training in type design?

Bruno Sellés: I am self-taught in mostly everything. I learned from my dad, who was a design teacher, and I’ve worked with many talented people who specialize in type design. I get obsessed with things and I manage to get the knowledge I need to make it work. I’ve spent endless hours reading, drawing, observing, and looking online for technical info.

I did start very early. My first font was designed in the end of the 1990s. [Sellés was born in 1976.] I’m really embarrassed by it now. It was a learning; you have to walk the first steps of the ladder before going up. I gave it away for free as a download.

The most recent fonts I’ve released are more professional. They are more complex fonts with OpenType features and character sets that cover more languages. 

It took a long time to get there. I was designing fonts for the last six years without releasing anything. I would do it, give it a rest, take it up again and revise it. I don’t work full-time on typeface design. I have to find my spare moments to do it.

Sellés doesn’t always design an entire typeface. Computers Arts magazine asked him to create numbers 0 through 9, which they used on the heat-reactive cover of the November 2015 issue. “This is the kind of project I really enjoy,” Sellés says. “It’s a very small set, but it looks like a real font when you see it in the magazine.”

Create: What inspired your design for the Football Club Barcelona typeface?

Sellés: Nike came to Vasava with the brief to create emotional links between the Catalan supporters and the design codes of the kits. The font was one of the most expressive tools we could use to achieve the brief’s goal.

We looked at Catalan artistic movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—architects such as Antonio Gaudí or Domenech i Montaner, and painters as Joan Miró or Salvador Dalí. Eventually, we focused on Gaudí’s Pedrera building and tried to find a small organic component we could use as the basic DNA for the whole typeface. We found that component on the guardian faces sculpted at the chimneys.

It’s very emotional for me to see the numbers on the jerseys of the players. They used it for five seasons in a row, which is very unusual. It became a kind of symbol of Barcelona. Souvenir shops started to make Barcelona merchandise using that font. Then this crazy pro Russian team, they took the font and redrew it as Cyrillic characters and made the font official for their team. That was kind of delicate because the original font was owned by Nike and the Russian team was sponsored by Adidas one of his direct competitors.

These images show the inspiration and the typeface in action—literally.

Create: Do you usually have a project in mind when you design a typeface?

Sellés: Yes. I do not dare to try to make the ultimate sans or serif font. There are so many good general typefaces; it’s difficult to make a new font that stands out in those categories.

So I try to develop fonts for very specific uses or categories. I may want to use a typeface for a magazine or video or whatever and I want it to be very unique. If I design a new typeface for that project, I add value to that project. It has exclusivity.

Create: What’s the most rewarding part of designing a font?

Sellés: For me, it’s the moment in the middle of the process where you are still drawing but you are able to write some text and see how it works together. That’s when you start to see some coherence. It looks like the notes of a score—all of them are different but they work together.

That’s when I start to feel like it’s really worth doing. Then there’s pressure again to finish, and a lot of repetitive tasks, like spacing. It’s a peak of happiness and then going down the hill.

Create: What type design software do you use?

Sellés: When I started in the 1990s, I used Adobe Illustrator and passed the paths to Fontlab, but I never liked it. Five years ago, I discovered Glyphs. It’s very easy to work with and very responsive. The pen tool is fantastic. Now I draw straight into Glyphs, but I do export from Glyphs into Illustrator and Adobe InDesign to do tests on the fly.

Matchpoint came from a proposal that ESPN rejected,” Sellés says. “I really liked it, so months later I decided to develop it for myself.”

Create: What’s your advice for aspiring type designers?

Sellés: Start with certain characters that establish the DNA of the typeface. I generally start with the I, because then you have a stroke. From there I do the “n”, then from the “n” you have information to do the “m” and “h” and “u. Then I do rounded letters, like O. From there you can do the Q and start thinking about the G. Then there are the triangles, like V, Y, and X. Then you can try your letter ideas in a short word, like nova or minimun.

Try to avoid mechanical-looking solutions. Even in a mechanical-looking font, everything is optical. If you copy and paste from one letter to another, you are not going to get a good flow.

You need to work in a structured way. Otherwise it can be very discouraging; there are a lot of different tasks to accomplish. The better you plan every stage, the easier the process is going to be. And testing it on other people is important. You need someone who will tell you, “This is crap, you have to start over.” 

“I wanted to do something structured and monolinear but with a vintage feeling,” Sellés recalls. “My inspiration came mostly from old bakery shops, sweet shops, and cafeterias. Amarissima is very delicate but also mechanical. That took me a lot of time.”

Create: How does it feel to see someone else using your typefaces?

Sellés: Sometimes you feel good, sometimes you feel bad. Mostly you feel happy and honored.

You can also feel humbled. For example, if I see one of my old fonts, I want to hide. Like when you see a photo of your hairstyle or outfit from when you were 15, you think, “Whoa, how could I go through the streets like that?”

We have never had so many trained people working with good tools on type design. Maybe it’s a bubble, but I think it’s good. The more we have, the more we have to choose from. It’s more competitive, the market, but that’s good for everyone.

Synopsis came to be when Sellés was art-directing a book for the OFFF festival. To bring interest to a plain section, Sellés looked for a typeface with the “proportions of a classic Roman font but with a modern twist.” When he didn’t find one, he made his own. “I had lot of time, almost a year, so I invested it in this typeface,” he says. “Now I’m preparing a second version with another style to add to the family.”