Anti-utopian type design with Monotype’s Charles Nix

Monotype recently introduced a new typeface called Ambiguity, created by its Type Director, Charles Nix. Its unusual proportions deliberately challenge typographical conventions, going wide where a letter was once narrow and vice versa. I had a chance to talk to Nix about the genesis of Ambiguity and the state of type design; The conversation was interesting enough that I felt I should publish it more or less intact.

The interview has been slightly edited for clarity and conciseness. I started by asking for a little background on Monotype and what Nix does.

Charles Nix: Monotype is a very old company. It’s at least 125 years old, if not hundreds of years, just based on the number of foundries that have consolidated over the last 200 years. The current iteration of Monotype is the largest purveyor of digital fonts in the world.

The Monotype Studio is a discrete section within it that creates and manages type collections. There are around 60 of us, a dozen or so of which are type designers.

We help customers navigate the library, because it’s vast. We make do typeface recommendation, identification, pairing; we also help customers by modifying existing typefaces slightly in order to make them perform more uniquely.

And lastly the studio does custom design work, so we work with customers in order to identify their type needs, then create custom type solutions from the ground up.

Devin Coldewey: You mentioned the company is an amalgamation of foundries and studios from a century and more. The digital era seems like an exciting and weird one to be in type because the tools are so strong and distribution is so straightforward. Is this a good time to be in type versus 10, 20, 50 years ago?

Nix: I mean, you’re talking to a type designer, so any time working on type is a good time. But I agree with what you said, this time and this company, I want to say it’s all been leading up to this moment.

The tools and communication regarding typography, the typographic plenty, the awareness of typographic history, all these things are so amazing and focused at this point, there’s no more exciting time in the history of type to be involved.

Coldewey: What do you think is the biggest change in the last decade or so? Digitally the adoption of high-DPI screens has probably made type look a lot better, but I don’t know whether it’s actually changed what people do, or how it’s designed or approached.

Tools, distribution, and awareness — those three things are coming together to create the greatest typographic plenty in the history of the world.

Nix: There’s a triangulation of factors that are affecting type design at this point. One is the tools — and I always make this distinction, popular tools versus democratic tools. The tools aren’t democratic, but they’re popular enough, and they’re available enough, not freely obviously, but much much more freely and more accessible than any time in the 500 years of type founding, right?

As you pointed out, type is and has been for the last 30 years software. And slightly longer actually, if you look back to the early, early digital type, but now and in the public consciousness, it’s software. So distribution is crazy fast, and widespread.

My mother, she’s a special case because she helped my dad, who was a printer, so she knows more about type than most mothers. But in 1985 she could probably name five or six typefaces off the top of her head. And now she and everybody else’s mother has a favorite typeface, right?

That’s a huge change in the way that the world views type. What will come into sharper focus in the coming years is how those people harness the ability of typefaces to help modulate their own language, to help tell the story of what they say in print.

So tools, distribution, and awareness — those three things are coming together to create the greatest typographic plenty in the history of the world.