ABC Dinamo: “Having type conversation, instead of always drawing your own stuff”

Johannes Breyer and Fabian Harb of Dinamo talked to Ilya Ruderman about curating their font catalogue, working on custom projects, and the importance of having right licensing options.

April 16, 2020

Ilya Ruderman (IR): All right! I’ve been following you on Instagram and everywhere for a long time — for many years. As far as I understand, the two of you are the founders of the whole thing. But even when I look at your web page, it’s hard for me to understand how big the team is, who else is there. How many people are involved in Dinamo?

JB (Johannes Breyer): It’s a good but hard question. It changes from time to time. I almost feel like there’s a significant change, a new setup every half year. We started to have interns and collaborate with other people at a veryц early stage of Dinamo. Over the past years these connections continuously added, and our network grew. We’re still not really big, but we always have enough people — if we need more power, we can always invite people from our extended family.

Fabian Harb (FH): Our current team has maybe 10 to 15 people: type designers that work on commissions or internal projects; graphic designers and developers that help us create our new website; an administrator and a bookkeeper keeping track of all business, somebody for the hardware shipping, an external expert for copyright stuff, etc. They all are part of Dinamo in various roles and involvements, but all together allowing for things to keep happening.

IR: Okay, but how many people are working with you directly, Fabian?

FH: In Basel I am with a full-time assistant and our bookkeeper. I moved back here after several years in Amsterdam and Berlin — during that time Dinamo slowly became Dinamo. Our company is now legally based here, but of course a lot of our dynamics comes from Berlin, which is a much more fit place for freelancers than Switzerland, for example.

JB: Things also go through changes — cities change, people might go back to school and focus on their studies, or then they switch to making ceramics. It’s a bit like a fish swarm algorithm. We’re quite able to keep things working while reacting to everyone’s life circumstances.

IR: How do new designers appear at Dinamo? Is it possible for a young designer to send their stuff, like “Hey, guys, I made something which fits your collection and your ideas?” Would you consider that?

JB: Yes, absolutely. It was Seb [McLauchlan] and Alessio [D’Ellena] who came to us — we discussed their ideas, their potential, if there was room for this and that. The typeface, its DNA was already there, but then, after a couple of conversations, we said, “Hey, that has a family potential. How many weights should it have?”

Laica by Alessio D’Ellena

Ginto by Seb McLauchlan

FH: With both of them, our interaction was more like advices, process discussions. We weren’t involved in the immediate design, and we take no credit for that. It’s something that we started to enjoy more the last years — having type conversation, instead of always drawing your own stuff. It’s like someone who runs a record label, talking to the artists and saying, “That could be a nice new record.” As a result of this advice, a nice new project emerges.

IR: Okay, here’s one tricky question. Do you have any verbal concept of your type library? We are also a studio run by two people, and everything we make fits perfectly into the concept of our store. But when you start to grow and invite other designers, you need some sort of statement to understand what is yours, and what’s not.

Imagine, right after this interview is published, you receive twenty applications from young type designers. What would be your internal criteria?

FH: Until now, we react quite intuitively, it’s mostly a question of what feels good, does not double something we have already, but adds something new or different to the catalogue. But whether it is about attitude, a message, an interesting technology, etc. is pretty open and changing from case to case. An addition just has to have something new, different, interesting to our library.

JB: One common denominator is maybe typeface designs that do something new, use a technology that’s only available today. We try to use the means available to us today. Like Grow, for instance — we used a font sample from the 1970s, threw a bunch of scripts from the 2000s onto it, and so this monster was born. Maybe, that’s sort of what we’re looking for. Contemporary in the good sense of the word.

Grow by Johannes Breyer, Fabian Harb

FH: Maybe it’s even more about the “surprising” than the “new”. I know that’s super subjective, but we usually look for something that surprises or excites us, something that feels like a next step, something we didn’t know before, something we couldn’t do before. It’s often about the things we didn’t understand or nobody told us. Neither of us has any formal type design education which leaves lots of stuff to learn and find our own solutions or answers. The criterion is maybe more whether we learn something in the process. With a new project we also want to discover something new.

IR: I don’t want to sound like a shrink here, but you’ve already mentioned a couple of times to me that you don’t have any type education. Is that some kind of sore spot?

JB: It’s an identity crisis: between acknowledging that not knowing too much can be helpful and realizing that there’s a lot we could know better. We’re trying to work in between.

IR: My next question is related. Previously, we’d been trying to push graphic designers to be playful with type — to gain enough knowledge about the letterforms, to start producing custom type. Today, type design education is increasingly available and the competition is growing. Generally, there is more type production happening than ever before. A raw version of a font is published on Future Fonts, and within months I see lots of small studios around the world release fonts inspired by it. Do you feel any of that?

JB: I think the field is quite small. It can also be huge, but I feel like type design is more a small bubble within the big bubble of graphic design. When entering graphic design, we found it very important to work with your own fonts. But I had this moment about two years ago, when I thought, “I don’t want to do graphic design anymore” and I felt as if it would be more exciting to only create the tools. We still do graphic design from time to time, but by now, also there it has become more important to develop with our own rules, work flows and tools. Doing things on our own terms.

FH: Of course, with blogs and Instagram, today we can access things so easily that there are funny echoes happening. But most of the time I don’t feel as if there’s too much direct competition between designers.

With the stuff we release, we try to express our personal ideas and perspectives — things somebody else would also do differently. That’s why I’m not too worried about any competition. We know how we want to work by now and if that is not the way a client feels comfortable, they are probably better off with somebody else.

IR: Coming from another perspective — how’s it going from the business point of view?

JB: We can proudly say that in the past two years we’ve been able to invest more into our own projects, assign more people to them. That’s possible because our business has gotten a bit more stabil. We’re still trying to figure out how to do a lot of things, though. But we’ve been lucky to work with a couple of larger companies, sign solid contracts, etc. A lot of stuff we learned to do better in the last years. But some things are still not so easy at all.


Bespoke typeface and wordmark for Tumblr


Custom alphabets and patterns for Nike Box pop-up shop in Moscow







IR: Another thing I’d like to talk about are licensing and retail fonts, or also about custom projects. The first Fontstand Conference in 2018 was partly about the open data things and some studios showed their business side — not the exact figures, of course, but they gave everyone some sort of insight. We did as well, I talked about the experience of running over the previous two years. I don’t know if you believe in open data, I’m not forcing you to share your bank account details — but I’m quite interested in how your things are going.

FH: I think we’ve been doing better and better. In the first years of Dinamo, we did a lot of running, basically accepting every job and always trying to turn things into something exciting. This increased our financial stability and our visibility. But we also learned how important and valuable good ideas are and that we should not give them to somebody else too quick and for too long.

JB: Today we maintain quite a good balance between custom fonts and working on our own catalogue, and usually no side is taking the upper hand.

IR: Does that mean that you refuse to do custom projects?

FH: Not completely. We still accept them, but they have to feel right and be more according to our way of how we want to work. At the moment we’re doing a custom project again. It took almost half a year to negotiate the contract. But now we have a year of time to complete it. It’s a bit strange and unusual, but it feels really good.

JB: We’re feeling strangely good.


Timeline of a project

IR: Do you have any favorite clients, or the opposite — the type of clients which you would never work for?

JB: Well, obviously we wouldn’t work for a corporation spreading values that we don’t support. But till now, we have never been contacted by such a corporation — usually we get really nice requests. For example, our current project is a corporate font for a luggage manufacturer and what’s nice is that you can work with an archive and a history. And the client produces with great quality and is also looking for a tool of quality — there is a lot of mutual understanding, which creates a tangible collaboration.

FH: I think in the end it mostly comes down to the people involved. If a client is engaged, interested and open for dialogue and development, pretty much every project can turn out great. And I forgot the timing — of course the timing has to be right as well.

IR: At each conference I attend there’s quite a lot of talk about our responsibility to the community — regarding global warming, for instance. Even in type design, people start to express their beliefs, their ethical, political, or environmental position.

I feel this has something to do with the licensing issue. You publish your fonts on a website where anyone can buy them. Eventually, you start seeing your product in very strange places. You might love it, but sometimes you might oppose it. Do you have any ideas about this?

JB: That’s tricky. I think that is part of the game, at a certain point you can’t control the journey anymore. Actually, I remember reading an EULA from a foundry, which said that it’s not permitted to use the fonts in a racist context. I thought that was a really great thing, just to add that to the user agreement. We all should do that too!

IR: It’s a good idea.

JB: Yeah. But apart from such things, I think there’s not too much you can do, if your stuff is for sale online. I don’t know, I would be curious what and how other people do.

IR: For our own type foundry, we put a clause in the user agreement which gives us a chance to recall the license. We state that we reserve the right to take our license back and we’ll refund the money, but refuse the right to use the font. That’s the only thing I could come up with back then. There are definitely some contexts in which I don’t want to see our fonts.


Dinamo EULA

JB: I think this topic of where the fonts end up — this is something like micro-politics. Same with the question of payment. We definitely have a strong sense of… to put it simply, the people who have money — large companies, they should pay properly, while small businesses, design studios, or cultural projects — they shouldn’t pay as much. They should be supported.

We always try to keep an eye on it. With big clients we always try to make sure they get a properly sized license. Sometimes they try to make themselves look small and then we have to chase and catch them! It’s not the nicest thing to do but it’s important, since otherwise this would eventually mean that a small client is paying more than a large client and that’s not fair. I like your idea of revoking the license in some cases. We haven’t had a case like that yet, but it could happen.

IR: Regarding licensing — one more question there. I had never seen a social media license before you guys started doing that — how does that work?

JB: If someone like Coca-Cola designs a campaign, which only runs on social media — which is not too unlikely these days. Social media content can create direct sales, which has to be reflected in the licensing policy. In our licensing system, only companies with more than 100 thousand followers need to pay.


Dinamo licensing options

FH: Another thing that we recently changed is that we no longer charge Desktop Licenses by the stations that install it — but according to the size of the business itself. Before that, a commercial social media campaign designed by one designer would cost a huge company the same as a dutiful student would pay for a font to be used in a school project. Now with a license based on company sizes we feel that the pricing reflects more on the value a typeface has for a user: large companies pay larger fees, smaller companies pay smaller fees.

IR: That sounds fair.

FH: Amen.

IR: What else? Are you working on some new retail typefaces or tools?

JB: In the near future we mostly have to put endpoints to things we’ve started. We’ve produced a lot of stuff because we’re kind of hyperactive. We have those toothbrushes that you saw and a lot of other stuff — lots of it missing the mastering still or not having been photographed for the website yet, etc.


In 2019 году Fabian took 250 Dinamo Darkroom toothbruses to the FontStand Conference in Dublin. 300 more were sold through Dinamo’s web shop

FH: And towards the end of the year, we’re planning to move into a new studio in Berlin, where we want to try out new and different activities, maybe a residency, maybe something like open workshop sessions, or maybe a lectures series, etc. We’ll have a space just by ourselves for the first time and definitely want to explore more how we can work in it and what this place can do for us and all people around us.