Designer of the Week: Jessica McCarty

Meet Designer of the Week Jessica McCarty—a designer of “invisible” typefaces whose daily life consists of stumbling upon the craziest of visual inspiration (think 200-year-old hand-carved pioneer tombstones). Read on for a look inside her incredible creative life and the equally incredible work she’s producing at Magpie Paper Works.

Jessica McCarty of Magpie Paper WorksName: Jess McCarty

Name of Studio: Magpie Paper Works

Location: Southern Illinois

Design school attended:
The School of Hard knocks! I never attended design school per se, though I took as many art & design courses as I could while I pursuing a degree. Initially, I studied marine biology, then wound up graduating with a BFA in cinema & photography. It took a decade of agency life to get from that point to where I am today, running a type foundry. My creative journey has definitely been more of a lazy river than a predictable path.

How would you describe your work?
I design “invisible” typefaces; lettering that functions as font software but looks convincingly handwritten in an end product. The styles vary, but my ultimate goal is a typeface that showcases authenticity, craftsmanship and simplicity. (Though, the creation process is often anything but simple!)

Where do you find inspiration?
Just about everywhere. Anything that’s old or handcrafted really draws my eye, as do the surprises of rural life. My husband & I live on an organic farm—each day we come across something visually interesting. Right now I’m designing a font family around our honeybees. Also in my inspiration box is a chalk-rubbing I made from this incredible hand-carved pioneer tombstone that we found in the woods near our farm. Someone, two-hundred years ago, took the time to carve two full-size handprints and a tulip tree leaf into the marker. Those three illustrations are all that’s left of their story. I’d love to honor them with a kind of alphabetic echo.

Who are some of your favorite designers or artists?
Oh gosh, it’s so hard to name just a few! Aaron Draplin, Jon Contino, Mary Kate McDevitt, Brigette Barrager, Laura Worthington, Julia Sysmäläinen & Jürgen Sanides, Tal Leming, James Nachtwey … There are so many talented people working out there right now, this list could go on for (p)ages.

Woolen typeface by Jessica McCarty of Magpie Paper Works

Woolen Signage; photo by Kelly Brown Photography

Photo by Kelly Brown Photography

Woolen by Jessica McCarty of Magpie Paper Works

Do you have a favorite among all the projects you’ve worked on?
It’s really hard to pick a favorite, but the project closest to my heart is Woolen, a hand-lettered italic serif inspired by mistletoe. I based a lot of the letters on a beloved Jean Jannon type specimen. It’s the first typeface I designed after moving to our farm, so I have really fond memories of snuggling up that year with cats & blankets & my inkwell, in front of a woodstove, just having a fantastic time.

Instead of retailing the completed font right away, I decided to first give Woolen to clients and friends of the foundry for a year of exclusive personal usage. I set our holiday cards in the font, printed them on handmade laid paper like Jean might have used, and lettered the envelopes myself. Each card contained a link to a coordinating website where recipients could download their copy of the font. The response was amazing! People loved it and the next year a lot of the designers licensed the font commercially. PBS used it for the titling of their documentary, The Pilgrims, and it’s been really popular with natural/organic lifestyle brands as well. The letters translate well into signage.

Rivea by Jessica McCarty of Magpie Paper Works

Rivea by Jessica McCarty of Magpie Paper Works

Rivea by Jessica McCarty of Magpie Paper Works

Is there a project that stands out to you as having been the biggest challenge of your career so far?
Because I’m a visually-oriented thinker and self-taught designer, my biggest challenges usually involves writing code, particularly when I need to solve a novel Opentype substitution. When I was creating the Rivea font family, for example, I made lots of ligatures. This helps the script flow like natural handwriting. Typically ligatures are an easy one-for-one substitution in the code. But I also wanted to create initial and finial characters, as well as several sets of alternate letterforms and many-for-one substitutions. All of this needed to happen seamlessly, sometimes in sequence. That’s a lot of variables! Thankfully the type community is very generous and another designer with a strong programming background helped figure out the logic puzzle.

It really is a blessing to “get stuck” every now and then. If you’re not scratching your head and asking, “How the heck do I make this happen?” then you’re not growing as a designer.

What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
To make beautiful things with wonderful people that raise others up. I’ve been in development for a few years now on just such a project, with two fellow artists who feel the same way. It’s hush-hush until we launch, but that’s happening in the near future and I can hardly wait!

What’s your best advice for designers today?
Be you, bravely. There has never been and there will never be another you in this moment, so express and celebrate what you bring to the design table! Authenticity resonates.


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Introduce hand-lettering into your repertoire of design skills with this workshop. Denise Bosler, author of Mastering Type, will provide you with the skills you need to add a personal touch to your typographic communication from research and sketching to developing dynamic layouts with custom lettering. You will be given the opportunity to communicate your love of hand-lettering through the process of self-discovery and experimentation as you explore your typographic voice and creative style

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