Mathieu Desjardins (Pangram Pangram Foundry) talks the importance of collaborations, the inevitability of font piracy, and the merits of being self-taught.
Ilya Ruderman: Could you tell us more Pangram Pangram? How big is the team? How many designers are making the fonts? Do you have editors to post articles in your journal?
Mathieu Desjardins: In fact, I started Pangram Pangram on my own three or four years ago. Right now, it’s just me running the thing. Though, I have four collaborators who design fonts from around the globe, soon there will be five. For the moment, we have 23 fonts in total. Five of those were produced by someone other than me.
The way I work? Right now, I’m actively looking for new collaborators. I search around for typefaces that I like, and which I feel as being on trend. Then I reach out to people and ask them if they want to have their fonts released through Pangram. This is how the studio (and the collection) is growing.
IR: Do you sign exclusive contracts?
MD: Yes, I only sign exclusive contracts. In the end, I don’t want to have, like, 200 fonts in the collection. I prefer a small amount — curated by a small amount of collaborators. I don’t want to have 50 collaborators, or 50 type designers. I want to have a few of those who make more fonts. Just to keep the content nice, fresh, and curated. As for the journal, I have three more writers besides me.
I would like my journal to be more in-depth and diverse. So, I would like to hire competent people to contribute to my journal. In 2020, I want this to grow a bit more, — and see where it goes. I’d also love to have more things like this last font I’ve released in collaboration with an artist named Baugasm.
IR: He’s quite popular on Instagram. A celebrity.
MD: Yes. (Laughs.) When I design a font, I have my own ideas and stuff like that; I create a context. But I said to myself that I should reach out to artists to get more context for my fonts. And instead of just creating one for a random context, I can have the artist’s context! Like, I have talked to Baugasm and he had some ideas, but basically I did the whole thing (well, we had had a brainstorm beforehand). It is sort of a win-win situation where he gets a font that he can use in his design, and for his art — and I get the promotion from him.
IR: I can imagine how big this promotion is! Baugasm has a lot of followers. Can you perhaps share with us some sketches, or the ideas which were never published? To explain the work process — I know what he does, how his graphics look, — but how did you transform them into the black-and-white forms? That’s super interesting. Any directions you’ve been considering? Sketches?
MD: He sort of had this moodboard of fonts — which, I think, he had been gathering for some years. Baugasm showed it to me and I was, like, ‘Okay, that’s really interesting.’ I made my own board, and then we compared the two.
At that point, I got some good ideas — like, some details I wanted to put in the font. At the time, he was working on 3D renders, stuff like that. Droids and human machines. He was like, ‘These are nice!’ And I was, like, ‘Okay, this could be some modern, futuristic-feel type, grotesque-ish’.
This font has some monospace features. Big inktraps; the forms are super geometric. That was the idea. He started on some designs, we came up with the name Neue Machina. Then I started drawing letterforms. I showed them to Baugasm, he was super-happy. And so was I! I am probably not pronouncing it right, but the author’s name is Vasjen Katro. He’s from Albania.
Neue Machina by Mathieu Desjardins & Baugasm, 2019
IR: You’re very enthusiastic about this particular font, since it is freshly released and you’ve probably received a lot of feedback. Though I would also like to talk about other fonts from your collection. Tell us, what is ‘type today’ for you? What does todayness, modernity in type mean?
MD: There’s a lot of exploration in terms of trends going on now, which I like. For example, I wrote an article on brutalism — and it is going in several different directions. You see pixelated fonts, you see a mix of regular fonts and pixelated fonts. Sometimes in the same word you can have both serif and sans-serif glyphs.
I recently stumbled upon a guy on Instagram who found this old book about hand stitching letters. It’s like all those pixelated letters, but super-decorative. I think there is a trend there. What I truly like is that many people are exploring typographics-only design.
We recently had a conference in Montreal, and I was talking about how, obviously, content is the key today. You want a piece of content first. With typography, you can tell your story, share your whole content with just words. Typography is the primary ingredient of every communication.
IR: How would you illustrate this ‘content first’ concept? Mobile interfaces, some UI, probably?
MD: Yes. Web, or even print. I’m more of a web guy myself, but we see many websites which are just type, and they work. They’re increasingly beautifully designed, — because people are playing with type a lot more. Good trend.
IR: Who else is behind Pangram Pangram? I could barely find any names, except yours. I know that some fonts were created by other designers. Grafier is made by Alex Slobzheninov, but the fact is not mentioned anywhere on the Internet. (Shortly after the interview we published Grafier in our Tomorrow collection — editor’s note).
MD: On the front page it’s written ‘designed by Alex.’ This one was him and me. I did all the diacritics, and some glyphs. When it’s just mine, I usually don’t write it.
IR: Why not indicate your own name?
MD: The website is always a work in progress. At first, everything Pangram was me, and I didn’t specify my name at all. The more it grows, the more it makes sense to put the name. Initially, I didn’t put my name in the journal articles as well, but recently I started to add it — there are going to be other people, it now makes sense. Good point, in fact. Neue Machina, I did it myself from scratch.
IR: We are increasingly addressing Cyrillic, — which is not my primary interest but still interesting. How did it happen that you have Cyrillic?
MD: It’s a big market! I get a lot of traffic from Russia and other countries where Cyrillic is used. And that’s a sort of a personal challenge, too. Small story, actually!
I like fashion. When designing Gosha Sans, I was into this designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy. I just thought I could create a font with this name. I simply wanted to give it this Russian feeling. It became my first Cyrillic set. Later Alex came in — with his fonts supporting Cyrillic (well, most of them).
Gosha Sans by Mathieu Desjardins, 2018
Machina was second. I did all the glyphs and sent them to Alex to validate if they were okay. Missed a couple of details, obviously. I like…
It’s a cat! (Laughs.) Cyrillic letters and shapes are very interesting. Of course, I’m not speaking the language, not seeing it on a daily basis, which is an extra challenge, but I think the market is there. I just want to make the fonts as complete as possible.
A couple of people from Greece were writing to me about the Greek script, and I was, like, ‘Yes, I might do that eventually’. Greece is not that big a market though. I had felt that Cyrillics were the next logical step.
IR: Because it’s quite close to Latin, right?
MD: Yes, some forms are pretty similiar, and the market is big, and it just makes sense.
IR: It’s the first time in my interviews that someone considers the Cyrillic market as a big one. It used to be super-tiny and full of piracy, but now…
MD: Yes, that I know.
IR: That’s interesting that you feel different. I like that. Okay, how did you meet Alex? Online, I suppose?
MD: I saw his fonts on Behance. At that point, he had Agrandir — one of his first ones, and it was pretty complete. I thought ‘Ah, this is interesting. It’s a bit quirky but also very flexible.’ I wrote to him and he was very glad to participate in this project. He’s super-talented, Alex.
Agrandir by Alex Slobzheninov, 2018
Then he had a font called Objectify. He had Subjectify, and Objectify. I looked at it and thought ‘Yes, maybe we can change the name a bit.’ And he said he was updating it and so it was going to become a new font. We called it Object Sans.
Then Grafier, he worked on that one for one of his clients. It didn’t have all the diacritics so he invited me to do a collaboration. I did all the missing glyphs, and we launched it. Alex is finishing school, I believe. He has one or two fonts that I’m interested in having.
IR: Let’s talk about some business. You have your own perspective, as far as I know. At the moment you have this super-deal you promote — for 20 bucks one can have dozens of your fonts (Pangram Pangram Font Starter Pack includes 23 titles. — editor’s note). Can you tell us about this concept — in terms of design, first of all?
MD: I’m a designer, graphic designer — like I was in my whole career. I always found it hard to release new typefaces into the market: most of the time people just share typefaces, exchange them, — and then use them for free anyway. I am not going to challenge that behavior, — I’m going to go with it, and provide free fonts (or free ways to share fonts) so that designers can work with them. When it’s time for a commercial project, it’s usually not these people paying for it. It’s a client, or an employer. That’s the logic.
Most of my traffic is people seeing a link to my font, seeing something about it. They get to the font page on my site, download the font, — and then they go away. And I thought that’s too bad because all my fonts are free — I’m sure they would like to download my other fonts. Oh maybe I could create a ‘download all fonts’ button. Then I started doing other stuff like my Instagram posts and all that. Then came the idea that I could package that into something, add more weights that aren’t available elsewhere, or some other stuff, and then sell it as a pack for 20 bucks. It’s like a win-win, because people get the whole pack of fonts. And this gives me more visibility. People can try all my fonts and eventually buy them. That’s the business part.
IR: You never had the experience of releasing fonts without free trials? Do you believe that this traditional and conservative way of selling fonts is outdated? Do you monitor your fonts in use? How do you control big licenses? By seeing some project and checking out whether those guys have any license at all?
MD: It’s the give and take, I guess. Because with this model, you obviously can’t control everyone using the font. People do what they do anyway. So, in a sense, it’s just going with the flow. For me it’s the way to go.
IR: I like your concept of trust for designers.
MD: Yes, trust-based. But sometimes I look around the web and find my fonts. When it’s small projects, I’m, like, ‘Okay, whatever,’ but when it’s bigger projects I contact them. Usually people are very receptive — ‘Oh, sorry, the designer used it.’ Sometimes people just forget. But I get around 200,000 downloads a year. I know that people use my fonts in commercial projects without paying licenses. I just keep an eye, and that’s it.
IR: I like the way you collaborate. It’s super smart that you’re trying to address different trends — fashion design, some pop culture, or something like that, — for the benefit of type and typography. It is also a smart way of rethinking the global type bestsellers.
Helvetica is a huge brand, I see some fonts which remind me of Helvetica in your collection. Futura is a great brand — and I also see something there which reminds me of Futura. It’s a smartly organized small catalogue. Did you actually plan it that way, or it just happened like this?
MD: No! But it’s a good point, actually. You are in fact the first one to notice. But yes, with Pangram Sans I was, like, ‘Futura is used a lot,’ and I wanted to create a geometric sans that has the same feeling — but is different, obviously.
Pangram Sans by Mathieu Desjardins, 2016
Neue Montreal — I wanted to design like a very nice grotesque workhorse, a bit like Helvetica. When I started my collection, I wanted to cover the basiсs — have at least one alternative to each major workhorse font. I wanted a nice condensed face, a nice extended one, a nice neo-grotesque, a nice geometric sans. At this point I think I’ve covered enough basics. From now on it’s going to be a bit funkier… or trendier, I’d say. I’m probably not going to create another grotesque, like Neue Montreal in the near future, — it would be pointless. The idea behind it was to provide those key fonts in collection.
Neue Montreal by Mathieu Desjardins, 2018
IR: Besides the one you just published, what is your favorite font of collection? Which one of them is the real you, so to say?
MD: Neue Montreal is the one I use for my brand, and all the communication, stuff like that. This one is the most versatile, I feel. I really like that one. It’s very complete with the italics and all. The thing with all the fonts I designed is they all have a story. I created each of them at a certain point in my life. Take Charlevoix: I was doing a trip in this region in the province of Quebec called Charlevoix. It was very inspiring, and I spent two weeks there designing that font. Each of all my fonts has a personal story. But if I was to give you a clear answer, I would say it’s Neue Montreal.
IR: And which one sells better?
MD: Right now, Monument Extended is a big-seller. It wasn’t planned this way, but I guess I hit the trend of extended fonts: a lot of people are using the extended styles of Druk or Titling Gothic. A bit of luck — but also a bit of good research, I would say.
Monument Extended by Mathieu Desjardins, 2018
IR: Can you please name some studios that you admire, or which you follow, looking forward to their new releases? Like, ‘Oh, yeah, finally a new one’?
MD: [laughs] I truly like what ABC Dinamo are doing right now. Their offering is really diverse; they have nice collaborations; they do a lot of research. I feel they’re really on top of what makes a cool type foundry these days. Of course, I like what Grilli Type are doing…
IR: So, you are really into Swiss?
MD: Yes, of course (Laughs.).
There’s this guy who started his own a short time ago. It is called KOMETA. He does nice stuff. He is really good at it, I like his work. I’d have to check up on my Instagram to see whom I follow.
I like to look at what other people are doing — but at the same time, not that much. I simply want to keep my mind clear.
IR: And could you name more typographers — web typographers, print typographers? Anyone you really enjoy on Instagram or elsewhere? Or maybe some users of your own fonts who do it the best?
MD: Since my fonts are free to download, I put the ‘Use them and tag me’ on each download page. I get many people tagging me. Some of the works are good, some not so good. Some are great. Do you know the artist Felipe Pantone?
IR: Is he Canadian?
MD: No, he is Spanish (Argentine-Spanish, actually; — editor’s note). He does these crazy gradient art pieces. A while back, Pantone did a Corvette with his style. I really like his work, so I reached out to him, as with Baugasm. He said it would be interesting to do something like that. We’re talking about it now.
Then there’s a studio in Italy, I think, called Studio Temp. They do super nice graphic design with type. They did all the graphic design for the new Louis Vuitton collection which I really liked.
IR: Let’s see, Bergamo. It’s beautiful. It’s interesting to see so many studios these days! Quite recently, I did research and found a list of graphic design studios, globally. Can you guess how many design studios there are on our planet?
MD: Just in Montreal, there’s so many! I don’t know, maybe 50,000?
IR: Not that many. Actually, I couldn’t find a figure larger than 3,000.
MD: Okay. But still.
IR: Still quite impressive, yes. I am sure they don’t know everyone, like small studios or the ones that are super fresh. Maybe it’s twice more than that, or even three times more. I checked Moscow, this database listed something like 15 studios — the biggest and the oldest ones. But I know at least 20 younger ones myself… So, perhaps it’s not super relevant, but at least it gives some understanding of the size of the market for us.
My next question will be about the future. Perhaps you could tell us about a typeface you are working on right now? Upcoming releases? Or, maybe, some other plans?
MD: Well, I recently launched my new one…
IR: So you’re taking a break?
MD: I’m never taking a break! (Laughs.) I always have a lot of letters and shape ideas. For one, I did a condensed serif. And a super-contrasted typeface, also serif. Plus, I don’t know if it’s going to work yet, because it’s in the beta, but I was trying to create a variable grotesque. That would shift from being just a regular font to a pixelated font — and all the in-between. It’s not really that possible because you have to create all the points on the curve, which are to turn into squares. I did some tests this week, and it was like, ‘Oh, no, it’s probably not going to work!’ But we’ll see. Maybe I’ll just create a font, with pixelated alternatives, that might be something. I’m also working on a custom font for a small agency here in Montreal. That’s almost done. It’s like a modern serif, quite nice. Then there’s another nice design studio in Montreal, which is rebranding… They want a custom typeface.
Also, I’m reaching out to more collaborators. Usually when I’m in-between typefaces, or designs, I try to work for my website — add some journal articles, all that stuff.
IR: I have one more question. You already mentioned in your interviews that you’re a self-made type designer, and came out of graphic design into the type. Do you miss formal education? Miss the feeling of having some basic knowledge?
MD: Pretty much all my life, it’s been like that. Even in graphic design, I learned everything by myself. Of course, I don’t know what I don’t know. But when I see something that I don’t understand, or that I can’t do, I try to learn it.
I’m not the best type designer in the world, — but I don’t think I miss the knowledge. When I see something that I don’t know, I just try to acquire that knowledge.
I do things, I publish them, I see how they work, I readjust them, I republish. It’s more like an iteration process. I don’t think of myself as somebody who does perfect type. I just want to create a nice space with a good selection of fonts. — I’m constantly going back to each one of them, and make them better.
I am not super technical about type: I might not be as informed as other people who have education, courses on the history of type, stuff like that, — but I believe that my approach works too! (Laughs.)
IR: But, to the younger designers, would you advise them to go and study? Or would you rather have such a nice experience with doing everything by yourself, that you just can advise like ‘Don’t be afraid, go for it if you like it! Just educate yourself, everything you need is already there’? What would be your advice?
MD: Personally, I have never been a fan of school. I always thought it was a bit too structured. Since you’re teaching something to 30, or 40 people, it’s like it has to be a certain way — so I like to learn things myself. Beyond that, I’d say, ‘just try it, just try to do something, and see where it goes’.
Of course, the knowledge and the background are important. For me, it’s more like acquiring it as I go — rather than learning, learning, learning and then okay, three years later, finally trying something. That’s not my approach.
I think that today, with the knowledge that’s available to everyone, and with all the software which is pretty easy to use… I’d say just try it, just do something and put it out there, and see what the reaction is, and then go from there. My type practice started like that.
I didn’t wake up one morning like, ‘Yes, I want to create a foundry.’ No, it was more of ‘I bought this book and it really resonated with me, because it was super hands-on.’ And then I was ‘Yes, I’m going to try to do an E’, — and then I ended up with a font. After that I decided ‘Okay. I’m going to give it for free, and see what people say.’ It’s more like a step.
Then a next step, another next step, you know? That’s my approach in general in life. (Chuckles.)
IR: Is there anything you would like to say to Russian designers, specifically, or to those who read this interview?
MD: I don’t know. I’d say if you’re a graphic designer, just do stuff and put it out there. There are some people who, when they do something, always have to validate it with a bunch of people. Like, ‘Is this okay?’ ‘What’s your comment?’ I am personally the complete opposite! (Laughs.)
I do something and yes, of course, I check with a couple of key people. But it’s just that I have an idea, and I just do it, and I launch it — and I just go like ‘This is 100% me, what do you guys think?’? Or, ‘Is it going to work or not?’
Don’t look for validation that much — because usually people have their own point of view, and they don’t know your background, and stuff like that. Just do ‘you’. And don’t try to do something through the eyes of others. I’d say something like that, yeah.
IR: That’s wonderful.
Read more interviews with type designers:
Philipp Neumeyer: “Nothing will ever get done”
Maria Doreuli: “I avoid any lists of criteria as much as I can”