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From the UK to the UAE, Manchester Type joins TN.

A scientist in another life, David Williams now spends his days poring over obscure manuscripts and designing type. His foundry, Manchester Type, is TN’s latest global partner. In this conversation with Lucas Czarnecki, Williams shares how his friend convinced him to pursue design; how designing Oriya, Maldives, and Arabic scripts taught him the value of research; and how he finds inspiration within the museums of Manchester.

Lucas Czarnecki: If you remember a moment when you became interested in type design, when was it?

David Williams: I do remember! I was going through changes in my career and trying a few things. A buddy of mine had his own sign painting company, and I asked him if he had any work for me to help them out with. That was the first time I actually thought about typography and letterforms. Like most people, I didn’t really look at the letters, I just read the text.

So, I was helping him out for a while and he says, “you should go to college and learn how to use Illustrator, Photoshop, that kind of stuff. It’ll help you start doing some design for the signs.” I went down there and had a chat to one the admissions guys at the college, who told me that if you do the full course, instead of just this short module on software, it’ll get you into university, and you’ll be able to go and do graphic design degree. I was thinking about going back to university around that time, and I thought, I’m going to give this a go. My friend was probably not too happy, because he was expecting me to go there and just get some skills with the software. Instead, I came back and said, “Hey, I’m only going to be able to work two days a week with you now, because I’m going to college three days a week.” It kind of backfired on him. But I loved the course.

Cloudwater Soda, a fermented soft drink popular in the UK, uses Salford Sans in its stylized can labels.

LC: Why did you love it, compared to your previous careers?

DW: Straight away, it was different. I’d done engineering- and science-based work before. I studied polymer science in college, and I’d never really considered art or design. In that college course, when they took us to galleries and said, “Analyze the art and design. We want you to write an essay.” I thought, “This is crazy. This isn’t work. It’s just fun.”

It was a total change for me, from being somebody who thought about machinery, engineering, physics, polymers, and chemistry to somebody who was becoming passionate about the visual arts. It filled me with joy to be around that environment and to be thinking about things in a completely different way.

After I finished that course, I went to university to get a graphic design degree and loved every minute. From then on, I found myself drawn to typography. I think it was the engineering background—the sort of mechanical and scientific background—it drew me towards the systematized nature of typography. It sits in between art and technical drawing, doesn’t it? I was no fine artist… I couldn’t draw a figure painting or still life. I didn’t have those techniques. But I felt comfortable with fonts and the mechanical kind of nature of them.

Nobody else in the graphic design bachelor’s course gave a damn about making typefaces. Even in the lectures, we didn’t really have specific type training. So, it wasn’t until I discovered Reading University that I found out what type was all about.

Before COVID, Williams delivered a talk on global scripts at St Bride Foundation in London. 

LC: How did you discover Reading?

DW: When I was doing my Bachelor’s, I kept thinking about type, and I would shoehorn typefaces into every single project. If I could make a book—saddle stitch or perfect bound—by hand, draw my own typeface, put it in, and do some editorial layouts… I was happy.

Then for my final project I felt a bit lost and didn’t know what to do. I was about to just make another typeface when I discovered a dissertation written by Aoife Mooney (who graduated from Reading in 2010). She totally blew my mind. In school, it isn’t very technical or rigorous; it’s not like Reading. When I read her paper, I thought, “Wow, I didn’t know you could write like this about typography.” She interwove ideas of philosophy, engineering, architecture, and human history. She touches on so many different things and is so articulate. It was real academic work. I looked and the paper said, “Reading University.” I thought straight away, “Yeah, this is where I need to go.” I changed my whole final project: I made a typeface and wrote a dissertation about typeface design, just to send to Reading and try to convince them that I deserved a place. I made this terrible typeface that no one will ever see. Cast it into the darkness.

LC: But it was enough? Tell me about your time at Reading.

DW: That’s funny. Yes! I sent it in and got a reply from Gerry Leonidas saying I had a place. My time at Reading was incredible. You know, the first time I was in a room with all these people, it made me feel very humble. They were so smart and so well read… they’re such great artists and designers, and they’re so passionate. They were from all these places where I’ve never met people from, and I was constantly learning from them. Whether it was learning about their literary culture, their visual culture, or a region’s cooking… They all brought it into the studio. I loved it.

LC: Did you get to work at all with Fiona Ross?

DW: Yes, Fiona introduced us to Arabic scripts. She covered the history of Linotype, the Monotype drawing office, and her own work with various scripts. She’s so active with research projects as well. Fiona was a big influence for me.

Kathleen Crawford, a screen-casting agency in the UK, uses Salford Sans in their company branding and website. 

LC: Going back a little bit… What is the story behind your first typeface? Was it that final school project, or had you done any earlier?

DW: I had messed around with some bits of type and drawn some letterforms. That project was my first typeface, though. It was a terrible sans serif… Sort of like a worse Helvetica. You know, it is amazing just how difficult it is to learn typeface design. When I was an undergrad, we didn’t have any books about it. I was kind of fumbling around in the dark. I made that horrible sans serif for my project and application. I probably won’t show that to anybody ever. I hope Gerry doesn’t either!

My first real typeface was my Reading typeface, which I’ve completely redrawn now. Because as you know, after a few months, you go back, and you set fire to your work. Type design has a very steep learning curve, doesn’t it? I feel like it will take quite a while before I feel confident about making type.

LC: Describe your work with Google and how that came about.

DW: I do have NDAs for some things, which feels weird. Everybody knows whose names are on the faces. Anyway, the Google guys came down directly to Reading, looking for some designers to get involved with the Noto project. Obviously, I put my name forward. I’ll take any opportunity to learn more and practice more. I was just getting ready to leave Reading, planning to set up on my own… It was the perfect opportunity.

I started off with some small things: doing a little bit of engineering, just simple, quality control stuff. It was a great way to learn how font testing works on the production side, going into other people’s typefaces, trying to find and fix the problems. Because I was given compiled binaries, not open-source files, there was a lot of detective work, which I enjoyed. The relationship and trust grew from there, to the point where they gave me more space to do things. Eventually, I started adding weights to typefaces.

While most designers would need to clean their studio before a photoshoot, Williams keeps his tidy. “No problem,” he said when asked for an office photo, “I don’t work well with clutter.”

LC: Sounds like you were allowed to exercise your scientific nature, as well.

DW: I think so, yeah. It allowed me to figure out different ways of working. Type design is like a lot of small islands. People are doing things and making their own tools and scripting things themselves… It’s not like we have this huge system of customer support networks, where you can find all the answers to each obscure problem online. But I reached out to connections through Reading and other people I’d met or heard about. Working on the Noto project helped me figure out my process.

Eventually, I started to make typefaces for the Noto project. The one I enjoyed working on the most was an Oriya serif typeface, which is a Northeast Indian script. It has a massive character set and takes a very long time, but it’s beautiful. It was also my first Indian script typeface from scratch. I also worked on a Maldives writing system recently. It’s not actually been published yet.

LC: How do you prepare to design typefaces for scripts you can't read?

DW: Getting to do the research into scripts is a big part of making Noto typefaces, especially for scripts for which nothing has been produced before… Or if there was, it had very limited support for that script. You get to do some good research. I love archival research, coming from Reading.

The Maldives writing system was particularly interesting, because they used to have a left to right writing system up until around the 15th century. But I think due to the country’s shift to Islam, changing its national religion, they started to write in Arabic for Quranic and religious texts. They probably realized, as they did typesetting, that left to right and right to left text at the same time is a big can of worms. So, they changed the writing system to a completely new, invented, right-to-left writing system, which looks a lot like Persian Nastaliq, but separated. You’ve got these cascading forms, but they’re separated. It’s very pragmatic and very beautiful. There are court documents—deeds for houses and marriage certificates—that have been written by professional calligraphers in the 1800s and 1700s. They’re beautiful. I used that as research for this writing system.

Packed with symbols, tidy features, a variable slant axis, and a range of local language features, Salford Sans is updated take on the traditional British style condensed sans serif. See Salford Sans

LC: How did you decide to start your own foundry instead of going to work for one of the other ones?

DW: I think if I were younger, maybe I would have made the move to London to work for another foundry. But, for a combination of family reasons and being a northerner from England, I wasn’t enamored with the whole “London thing.” I like the outdoors as well: I’m a mountain biker and I like to go hiking. I’ve got the Peak District and the Welsh mountains both within an hour-and-a-half travel. And I can cycle from my door to reasonably sized hills and countryside. If you’re in London, it’s not really an option.

The fact that I got this relationship started with Google before I even graduated really sealed the deal. I did go and meet some foundries in London. But I thought, “Manchester is much cheaper to live in, it’s nice, I’ve got a good network, and I’ve got some work now.” I decided I’d just pound the pavements and try to get my name out there.

Then COVID happened. No conferences, no meetups. So, I spent two years in my studio on my own, just making fonts and doing work with Google. That’s what got me through the pandemic.

LC: Was the pandemic productive for you as a designer?

DW: I spent nine or ten hours a day… five, sometimes six days a week… working on fonts. There’s nothing else to do! It was either that or going cycling. So, it was very, very productive for me. I managed to sort out my workflow, get the equipment that I needed, set up this nice, little, safe space where I can just work all the time.

LC: Have you found that these global script design projects, which require so much research, have affected your Latin type design process?

DW: At this point I’ve done more global scripts design than I have Latin type design. Maybe I’m not as attached to my own area, meaning English typography. Part of that is also thanks to the Reading experience, where you’re taught by Dutch type designers, Indian type designers, and so on. You get this very global view.

I’m now learning more about Latin type than before. I’ve been researching Manchester’s industrial history. But accommodating other scripts within my typefaces is always at the forefront of my considerations. I can’t imagine designing a typeface thinking, “This is only going to be Latin.” I constantly wonder, “Is this going have an Arabic component? Greek? Cyrillic?” I’m always thinking further than just Latin; I never think of type in isolation.

I do have a very strong affinity for the Arabic script. I’m working on two Arabic typefaces at the moment, and I’m taking Arabic language lessons. I also get quite excited when I go to Dubai and see that Latin and Arabic are together everywhere; it’s a bi-scriptural environment, which is quite unique. I would like my type to accommodate that.

The UK meets the UAE with this Arabic reimagination of the classically British condensed sans serif style. Complete with a variable font, Salford Sans Arabic rounds out Salford Sans’ four versatile scripts. See Salford Sans Arabic

LC: You’ve touched on this, even now talking about Dubai… Where do you find your major sources of inspiration?

DW: I love the libraries, museums, and manuscripts. Obviously, sometimes you have to rely on digital stuff, which is one great thing that came out of COVID: libraries and museums digitized so many collections of manuscripts. That was key in the Maldivian project that I just did. I couldn’t have done the design without those archival materials. I had to find the reason why the fonts look the way they do today, which are derived from some 1945 Xeroxed newspapers. They look like really bad Comic Sans. But I didn’t know that until I did the archival research, finding this old calligraphy, and lithographed typography that was being produced in the 1940s when Xerox got invented. Essentially, I love any old obscure scripts.

In Manchester, we’ve got some really good libraries. We’ve got Cheltham’s Library, which has been around since the 1600s. It’s now a residential music school, but it used to be sort of a priests’ college. They have incredible collections of Adline books, polyglot Bibles, all the good stuff. And then we’ve got John Rylands Library, which is part of the University of Manchester. They have a couple million books, including some Gutenberg Bibles. They’ve got it all. All of that is within walking distance from my studio, so I’m pretty lucky.

LC: What does it mean to you to join Type Network?

DW: It’s amazing. This feels like a real privilege to be involved with Type Network. When I look at the roster… It’s like, “Oh, my God, what am I doing here? That’s crazy.” I know that I’m in great company. Between the support that you’ve shown me from the start and the help Glenda and Guido have given me to refine my typefaces, all the interactions have been amazing. I think it’s a game changer.

Like all Manchester Type fonts, Salford Sans and Salford Sans Arabic can be licensed for print, web, mobile apps, and ePubs. Webfonts may be tested for thirty days, and desktop trials are available upon request.
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