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Ken Barber Interview

Ken Barber Illustration

Welcome to Type Theory! For our inaugural interview I am pleased to present Ken Barber of House Industries. Enjoy!

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 1994, Ken Barber moved to New York where he worked for various graphic design firms. In 1996 he joined House Industries in Yorklyn, Delaware full-time. Ken has been involved in everything at House including illustration, layout, copywriting and type design. His work has been recognized by the Type Directors Club, The Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and numerous international design publications. Ken is also a frequent guest lecturer at design conferences, including the HOW Design Conference, where he conducts lettering workshops. He teaches typography and lettering with Ben Kiel at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and University of Delaware.

Ken teaching lettering

Ken teaching lettering

You have a particular interest in the relationship between hand-lettering and type design. The title of your personal website (typeandlettering.com) reflects this interest. What can hand-lettering and type design learn from one another?

While it’s true that lettering and type design are quite different, I am convinced the two disciplines share more in common than the alphabet. Every letterer exercises certain design preferences, and as such commonly employs routines in executing his or her work. Present day technology allows designers to programatically determine type behavior, resembling the choices an artist might make while lettering. Some of my typefaces, most recently those of the Studio Lettering collection, emulate these lettering routines applying the same sort of thinking in a typographic framework. Thankfully I have friends like Tal Leming and Ben Kiel to help with all the tricknological heavy lifting.

Outtakes from the Studio Lettering photo shoot.

Outtakes from the Studio Lettering photo shoot.

Sketches of Studio Sable

Sketches of Studio Sable

Study for Studio Swing

Study for Studio Swing

Above is a study done for Studio Lettering Swing executed with a style “D” Speedball pen and India ink. I did several such studies in an effort to evaluate the silhouette and rhythm of the lettering, which would ultimately become distinctive features of the typeface.

Earlier this year you received the prestigious Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club for Blaktur and Studio Lettering. What about these typefaces helped catch the judge’s attention?

I suppose only the judges can say what it is about my typefaces that captured their attention. Though, I would like to think that they noticed the inventiveness, functionality and draughtsmanship in my submissions—qualities which I hope my work exhibits.

Blaktur

Blaktur

alternative accessed through stylistic sets

Alternatives accessed through stylistic sets.

Blaktur is a fresh take on a fraktur that began as a personal project. Do you regularly work on type related personal projects? Or, are there any other personal projects that you are excited about right now?

During the countless sleepless nights that followed the birth of my daughter, I began toying around with the idea of a stout broken letter modeled loosely after Rudolf Koch’s holzschnitte. After showing the would-be font to the guys at House, we had the idea of releasing it (on a CD of music performed by the House band, of course) during TypoBerlin 2007 where we were scheduled to present/perform. That’s essentially how Blaktur was born.

I normally have my hands full with House Industries projects, so I don’t get a chance to do personal work too often. I will occasionally do some pro bono work or lettering for a friend, but those opportunities are becoming more scarce. Besides, any type work done on my free time—like Blaktur for example—generally makes its way into a House Industries product sooner or later.

Sketches of Blaktur. Photo by Ben Kiel.

Sketches of Blaktur. Photo by Ben Kiel.

House Industries produces elaborate self portraits with each font kit release. You’ve been depicted as a Greek statue, captain of type industry, stunt man, bowler, and a Nasa astronaut with skin discoloration and cranial swelling from atmospheric re-entry. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Are there any other alter egos you are waiting to explore?

Although they’re a lot of fun, we haven’t done any projects in awhile that have called for self-aggrandizing portraiture. As for what’s on the horizon, there are no ego-inflating paintings in the works…but you never know.

Illustration by Adam Cruz of Ken Barber for the House 3009 font collection.

Illustration by Adam Cruz of Ken Barber for the House 3009 font collection.

Much of your work champions the spirit of the blue collar worker. What about the vernacular intrigues you?

The work of the “anonymous,” blue collar designer was my first introduction to graphic design and it made an indelible impression on me. When I attended art school I was introduced to self-indulgent “design for designers” and it didn’t appeal to me. So, I decided to stick with what I knew. Vernacular design lacks pretense; it’s honest and straightforward. It’s that sort of sincere design that I still aspire to create.

During your interview with Typeradio you described your hero as “someone who takes their own path.” Can you name a type designer working today who epitomizes this definition of a hero?

It’s probably far-reaching to refer to a type designer as a “hero.” That title should perhaps be reserved for folks more profoundly impacting our communities. That being said, there are a number of incredibly talented type designers working today: Christian Schwartz, Tal Leming and Erik van Blokland are just a few that come to mind.

House Industries' new studio shortly after moving in. Ken is seated in the back, talking with Andy Cruz and his wife, Steph. House designer, Bondé Prang, is seated in the foreground. Photo by Ben Kiel.

House Industries' new studio shortly after moving in. Ken is seated in the back, talking with Andy Cruz and his wife, Steph. House designer, Bondé Prang, is seated in the foreground. Photo by Ben Kiel.

House Industries embraces an “image as content” credo. What does this mean to you?

I believe that image can be as much a part of the content of a piece of visual communication as the literal message it conveys. This has long been overlooked or dismissed by the design elite, but appears to be making a comeback as of late. This is evinced in the return to hand-done work and the recent trend towards “naïve” lettering.

You’ve been a Jack of all trades at House. In addition to designing type, you have served as an illustrator, designer, copywriter and type designer. At what point did you transition to focus on being a type designer?

As new designers joined House, we each began specializing in those fields that most interested us, and in which we felt we could contribute best. It was natural to leave illustration, for example, to folks who were more competent in that discipline than I. Besides, it gave me more time to focus on what I really loved doing: drawing letters.

Emigre 38 cover illustrated by Ken. Lettering by Allen Mercer.

Emigre 38 cover illustrated by Ken. Lettering by Allen Mercer.

What typeface do you look at and say, “I wish I had created that!”

Anything by Roger Excoffon.

Choc by Roger Excoffon

Choc by Roger Excoffon

Do you always follow the same method when developing a typeface?

More or less. First I see what the given job demands, before making pencil sketches following the intended use of the typeface. Next, base characters are digitized to ensure the project is on the right track. After some preliminary trials, I work up a more comprehensive set for more testing. When the typeface at hand appears to be shaping up, a series of rounds of drawing, kerning and programming are meticulously proofed. Finally, after much typographic tedium, the face is mastered and prepared for retail distribution.

You designed the “Only Vegas” lettering and logo based on an earlier logo you designed for the AIGA Las Vegas Conference. Do you often wish for opportunities to rework past designs?

On occasion we refer to our own work, though most times it’s to ensure we’re not duplicating our previous efforts. However, rarely do we recycle as we did with the AIGA Vegas logo. Michael Beirut invited us to create the mark for the design organization’s big shindig in 1999, but it saw limited use. Rather than let a good idea go to waste, we resurrected it for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority a few years later.

Only Vegas logo

Only Vegas logo

What 3 books would you recommend to an aspiring type designer?

For an introduction to foundational type design concepts, I recommend Letters of Credit by Walter Tracy. Secondly, of course, I have to suggest the House Industries book; readers might not learn a ton about the ins and outs of type design, but it is an interesting study in the connection between the type design and lettering disciplines. Finally, I highly suggest that fledgling type designers read The Complete Guide to Plumbing; after all, aspirants will need some practical skill to fall back on.

House Industries book

House Industries book

You and your wife Lynn periodically make trips to India. Where does your interest in India come from? Have you ever considered combining your love of hand-lettering and love of India by designing a Devanāgarī script typeface?

My wife and I have been Indophiles for well over a decade. A mutual fascination with the culture of India has led us to visit the subcontinent on several occasions. As for designing a Devanāgarī script typeface, the prospect intimidates the heck out of me. One day I’ll tackle it, but I need to do a lot of homework before I’m ready to make a meaningful typographic contribution in that realm.

This is a photo of me with Jagdish Lal Goswami at the Radha Raman temple in Vrindavan, UP, India. Goswami was a well-known artist in Uttar Pradesh, recognized for his charming hand-tinted photographs of the region. His work is part of the permanent collection at the British Museum in London. I was fortunate to have met Goswami shortly before he passed away in 2006.

Ken with Jagdish Lal Goswami

Ken with Jagdish Lal Goswami

Devangari Script

Devangari Script

Do you think your typeface Delvue will come to market before the projected release date of 2023?

Not unless the type market sees a surging demand for highly disciplined, yet quirky, upright italic mono-weight sans serif faces. Until then, users will have to be satisfied with other faces in the genre. Besides, other projects have since been monopolizing my attention.

There has been an explosion in the popularity of script typefaces in the past few years with designers like yourself, Alejandro Paul and Mark Simonson leading the way. Is this a trend you see continuing for some time?

I think the demand for well-executed script faces will continue, just as it has for decades. Although, it will be hard to capture the same buoyancy and vitality that masters such as Roger Excoffon, Imre Reiner and Karlgeorg Hoefer imparted in their metal type exemplars over a half century ago.

monogram for photographer Michael Bühler-Rose

monogram for photographer Michael Bühler-Rose

Can you share some juicy tidbits about any projects that are in the works?

As for detailed information, my lips are sealed—company policy. However, I can say that I am looking forward to the House Industries release of Neutraface Slab. Also slated for publication this year is a typeface designed by Erik van Blokland in collaboration with the Eames Office. I’ll also be taking a crack at my first bona fide text face. We’ll see…

Thank you Ken for helping us kick-off Type Theory! I look forward to everyone’s comments. Cheers, Ty

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Discussion

  1. Tyler says:

    Thanks for the insight into one of the pillars of House. I’ve been a fan of their work for a few years and its always inspiring to get a glimpse into their practice.

  2. Yea! That’s Fresh linked to this article saying, “Type Theory just posted an interesting interview with House Industries designer Ken Barber. His sketches are really beautiful.”

  3. Nice interview. I especially appreciate your survey of sketches, work and home photos. Keep up the good work.

    I posted about it at:
    http://www.element22.com/site/post.php?id=411&cat=2

  4. Sean Cornwall linked to this article saying, “Good interview with Ken Barber of House Industries.”

  5. Hernan Valencia says:

    Great interview. I’m an indiophile as well as Mr. Barber. The one quote that really resonated with me is type as image/image as content. I cannot emphasize that enough in my current design practice. Unfortunately there are a few people here that don’t recognize that principle.

  6. Litherland says:

    Litherland linked to this article saying, “Neutraface slab!”

  7. Birdbeard says:

    Such great insight from such a humble and talented person. I found it so interesting that he cites Roger Excoffon as a hero. I had never given much thought to Mistral and Banco as typefaces, mostly because they’re always used in such inappropriate (and gross!) ways. I’ll have to go back and take another look.

  8. Ken Barber says:

    When you consider the vitality that Excoffon was able to capture in his metal typefaces, it’s astounding. Even the unassuming Antique Olive has a certain je ne c’est quoi about it (pardon the gratuitous French expression) that makes it quite unique, especially when compared to other similar faces of the day. Unfortunately, his accomplishments have been overshadowed by poorly digitized revivals and overuse.

    Folks often forget that Excoffon was also an accomplished calligrapher and letterer. The monogram he made for Fonderie Olive is amazing. Have another look at his work—Roger Excoffon was an extremely gifted and clever designer.

  9. Ken Barber says:

    Thanks, by the way, for the kind words.

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