The magic of typography is that we, as people who consume it and take it in, rarely know the ins and outs of the behind-the-scenes decisions. For example, we see rebrands like Burger King’s and love the look and feel, but often don’t immediately think to credit the creative, groundbreaking typography for making us instantly feel warm and nostalgic.
In order to dissect this a little more, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Max Ottignon, the co-founder of Ragged Edge in London. Ottignon is the brain behind redesigns for brands such as Papier, Mindful Chef, Laka, and East London Liquor Company, and he’s well-known for constantly challenging the status quo in the typography world.
Ottignon spoke with me about pursuing conflict over convention, designing for a purpose, and transforming design standards. Our conversation was unpretentious and inspiring, and his passion for breaking barriers in typography was palpable. While his views on creativity stem from a type-driven lens, his belief in using visuals to affect change are easily applicable to all realms of design.
Your main goal as a designer is to inspire global brands and consumers to take different approaches. What advice would you give designers if they don’t know how to stand out?
Most categories have a clear set of conventions. That could be overall tone, messaging, or use of similar visual elements, such as color, illustration, and art direction— or, of course, typography. Some of these conventions might be useful to help people understand the product, but the more of them you adopt, the harder it will be to get noticed or remembered.
So the trick is to figure which conventions you need to keep and which you can throw out, but breaking the rules isn’t enough on its own. You need to try to do it in a way that helps you tell the story of why your brand’s special. Can you borrow conventions from other categories? Or even create some that are brand new and unique to your brand?
We live in a crowded world of constant overstimulation. How can modern typographers and designers do something that hasn’t been done before?
Doing something that hasn’t been done before doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel. When choosing a typeface, context is everything. A bold, condensed sans serif might be ubiquitous in sport, but it might be much more distinctive in a healthcare brand.
But it’s also about how you use it. Even the most common typefaces can be made to feel distinctive. How can you set the type in an unfamiliar way, or combine it with an unexpected secondary typeface? Type never exists on its own, so how can you combine it with other graphic or motion elements to create something that feels fresh, new, and exciting?
Do you think brand designers can create disruptive design through typography alone? How can designers combine strategy and risk?
Good strategic thinking should help make bold decisions feel less risky, not more risky.
If you’ve got a strategy designed to help a brand stand out, then it follows that the design approach should follow suit. Your challenge as a designer is to find a typographic approach that delivers on the strategy. Bold for bold’s sake is hard to justify, and gets very subjective, but if you can rationalize the bold decisions you’ve made by referring to the strategic requirements, you’re in business.
In your opinion, what brands have successfully created compelling typographic design?
Bespoke typography played a very significant role in Burger King’s drive to a more nostalgic, wholesome era. By rejecting the generic, corporate, shouty type of fast food, they created a warm, custom serif that felt almost hippyish. Combined with the rest of the elements (particularly color and art direction), JKR’s new identity is hugely successful in communicating the new strategy in a way that feels markedly distinctive.
Mucho’s work for Piedmont Art Walk uses a lovely, understated gothic sans as the foundation for its identity (A2-TYPE’s A2 Gothic), but the magic is in how they use it. It’s applied in a highly illustrative way, from the expressive typesetting of headlines through to the wonderfully animated monogram. To me, that’s a great example of using type in a distinctive way, without having to compromise on overall functionality.
Can you describe a few brands you’ve created at Ragged Edge and how the typography was determined?
With East London Liquor Company, we wanted to position the brand as the antithesis of the botanical bathtub bullshit of many craft spirits. That meant rooting the brand firmly in East London, its home. We created a bespoke typeface as the centerpiece for the visual identity, amplifying a tone of voice that wasn’t afraid to speak out against the ridiculous affectations of craft spirit marketing. The type was designed to incorporate letterforms created from elements in and around their distillery. The resulting grungy aesthetic landed the brand’s tone, while the glyphs themselves spoke to provenance in the most un-craft spirit way imaginable.
Our rebrand of Papier, the DTC stationery company, required a softer, but no less distinctive approach. The brand strategy centered around the magical possibilities of the blank page, encapsulated in an evocative icon designed to represent “pages of possibility.”
We wanted to take that idea into the brand’s typographic language— a direct contrast to the elegant, yet unremarkable typography of many of the brand’s competitors. We chose Betagne’s Self Modern as a headline typeface for its idiosyncratic, magical character. And we set it in a combination of italics and caps to give Papier’s voice a wondrous feel. Still elegant, but immediately recognizable, and true to the idea at the heart of the brand.