James Edmondson, founder of OH No Type Design Co., doesn't take type design too seriously

Type Design and All’s Fine: James Edmondson

By Pollyanna Macchiano

Type designers are fussy—to make a successful typeface, you have to pay attention to the tiniest detail, stuff most of us never even notice. And yet, the OH no Type Company foundry’s mantra is “Life’s a thrill. Fonts are chill.” That attitude comes from the company’s founder, James Edmondson. He likes to keep his type simple and to the point—but with room for experimentation and tons of hard work. We got a chance to sit down with Edmondson and talk through his journey to type design and his analog-to-digital process today.

Create: How did you get into graphic design?

James Edmondson: When I was in design school I talked to a lot of people who were like, “Yeah, I played in all these bands and they needed all these flyers and record covers”...and the way I got in was in the most not-cool way possible. I was interested in calligraphy as a teenager, but I didn’t know there were job opportunities there. 

If you have Creative Cloud, you have Edmondson's Viktor Script—it's part of Typekit

I was also doing terrible design work for my brother’s company. He ran a directory of real estate agents; you can imagine the quality of work going on there. That’s the sort of work I started design with; extremely low-quality commercial work. It was still fun and eventually I floundered around a bit then started going to California College of the Arts and graduated with a BA in Graphic Design. I had wonderful teachers I still keep in touch with.

Then I went to get a master’s in in Type Design at the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague, Netherlands; that’s a year-long focus on type design specifically. Kind of like a type design boot camp.

Create: You mentioned that you still keep in contact with some professors at CCA. What good advice did you get from them?

Edmondson: As long as your hands are busy, you will progress and make discoveries and get better.

Another one of my CCA mentors said, “This is supposed to be fun.” We didn’t end up in design school because we wanted miserable lives, where we’re super stressed out and hating it—this is a job we pursue because we enjoy it and it gives us a certain amount of satisfaction. That’s definitely something I think about. Work is definitely fun for me. 

Hobeaux is also included in Typekit.

Create: What’s the most satisfying part of your work?

Edmondson: I like teaching. The satisfaction happens when I see students making discoveries and figuring things out on their own. Usually at the end of the semester when they’re presenting their work, they have really gone through a lot to make their project look good and work well. It can be enormously satisfying when they talk about what they’ve learned. 

Create: Where do your projects come from? Are they self-created or from clients?

Edmondson: It’s totally half and half right now, which I like. A huge part of a custom typeface for a client is waiting for the client to test things, to gather feedback and to see what’s working and not working. There’s a lot of downtime, which I like to fill with self-initiated projects, which are usually typefaces or drawings or fun little projects for friends. And then I do stuff for my mom and my sister-in-law, just like everyone else.

Create: “Just like everyone else.”

Edmondson: I mean, everyone’s doing free work for their family, right? I cannot be the only one.

Create: Well, it’s only fair, they did a lot of “free work” for you growing up….

Edmondson: Oh, yes. Big time. I’m about to have a kid pretty soon, and I’m thinking, “Oh my god. This is such an enormous undertaking.” I’m getting seriously scared right now. Luckily, my partner is amazing with kids.

Create: What sorts of personal projects do you like to do?

Edmondson: I like to mess around with music from time to time, but it’s usually type design. It’s where I want to focus my efforts, because if I’m making tools for someone—fonts are basically tools—those can continue to be useful for a long time. 

Do you like the exuberant Hobeaux Rococeaux? It, too, is in Typekit.

Even after I’m dead, it’s possible that those will live on in some way. Maybe I’m being super idyllic about it, but Paul Renner designed Futura in 1927 and that’s been useful for almost 100 years now. 

Create: Sounds like you’re already preparing for your legacy.

Edmondson: Yeah, well, when I was working as a web designer, I thought, “I will die someday. Do I really want to look back on a pile of websites?” I like doing that work and I’m totally not dissing anyone who is really passionate about it, but that wasn’t me. So I re-positioned myself and thought, “Yeah, I would be stoked to look back on a pile of nice typefaces as my life’s work.”

Create: Describe your typical work setup.

Edmondson: Laptop, cell phone, sketchbook of some sort. I really like marker paper and a little Moleskine-sized sketchbook. A lot of different sorts of black ink pens and pencils and erasers. But yeah, I’ll be wherever—a coffee shop or at home or floating around San Francisco.

I’ve gotten comfortable without a mouse or external display, so I’m extremely mobile. Ideally there’d be a single place where I could work from all the time, but I also enjoy the freedom of just being able to throw everything I need into my backpack and hopping on the bus. I’m a firm believer that your tools matter and you should have good tools and facility over them and some customization.

I often only have my cell phone and my sketchbook and I’m looking for the most frictionless way to get an idea into a digital format. Adobe Capture does that really well for me. It allows me to keep my drawings going in a digital environment without getting bogged down in doing a high-res scan that will take a long time. It keeps me working at a pace that facilitates creativity and efficiency. I don’t need a super high-resolution scan a lot of the time, I just need to get a drawing onto the computer so I can do another drawing on top of it. 

Create: How do these tools affect your teaching methods?

Edmondson: We always teach students to draw by hand. That is always going to be the fastest way of getting an idea down, testing it, and looking at it and moving from there. We are starting by hand and finishing on the computer. So that means it needs to make the jump from an analog format into a digital format. Because these drawings are not perfect, they are an abstraction to some degree and can be quickly photographed with Capture to be uploaded in two seconds. Capture's pretty logical—I don’t have to hold their hand through every step of the process. If I don’t have to worry about software, it means I can teach what really matters like the basic principles of drawing good type.

Watch James Edmondson draw letters in this time-lapse video.