How Hoefler & Co. Type Designer Troy Leinster Keeps Learning
After over a decade as an independent graphic designer, Troy Leinster (@7roy) started pursuing type design. He first studied closer to home at Monash University in Melbourne before heading to Type@Cooper in New York and later, Type and Media Masters course at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Now Troy is a type designer working at Hoefler & Co and teaching at Cooper Union. We met on a nice fall day at an initially quiet and then extremely loud bar in lower Manhattan to chat about how he ended up in type design, the importance of continuing education and the experience of transitioning between disciplines.
What do you do?
I am a full-time type designer at Hoefler & Co. I pretty much draw and proof letterforms everyday.
Well, let’s start at the beginning. What was your initial interest in type design? And how did you get started?
I was a graphic designer for about thirteen years and I’d always had an interest in type. I’d play around with Fontographer and make fun little font projects. In 2009, I went to a type conference in New Zealand called TypeShed11. There were a few type designers speaking there which really inspired me. When I got back home I started looking for a type design course. I found a small course in Melbourne at Monash University, so I moved down there for while — for a few months just to do this short course to see if I’d like it and what I could make. After that, I asked the guys there, “What can I do next? How can I learn more?” — they told me about the Type and Media Masters course at the Royal Academy of Art in the Netherlands.
Type and Media was my main goal after that. But I didn’t have a lot of type projects under my belt, so when I applied the first time I got rejected. Right after that I came across the Type@Cooper program which had just started up here in New York. I happened to see it on Twitter one day and I thought I’d apply. Thankfully I was accepted. So I came to New York for two months and studied type here. My teachers were Sumner Stone from the Stone Type Foundry, and Sara Soskolne from Hoefler&Co. Basically, after that, I had much more of a folio and felt like I could take another crack at getting into Type and Media, and the second time I got lucky!
Do you think it was that first class in type design that got you into it? Did it feel like it was something you could do professionally from the beginning, or did that develop over time?
The more I studied type, the more I got hooked. I think once I get interested in something, everything else goes out the window and I attack it and I don’t give up. When I didn’t get in into Type and Media, I was devastated — you know, I had my bags packed, I thought I was ready. I wanted to go on an adventure and it just didn’t happen. I could have easily just given up at that point. But I knew I had to get there somehow. So I just put that goal aside and looked for something else that could get me to that next step, a more achievable interim goal, I guess. And then after I went through Type@Cooper I had gained so much more experience. I think I was hoping all this studying would turn into a job. But I was just focussing on gaining the knowledge at first.
Was there anything specific about type design that made you want to move into that after your time as a graphic designer?
Type design felt like a really different discipline. It takes a lot more patience and persistence. It’s an iterative process of making and refining. It’s all about systems and processes. You can waste a lot of time making a typeface if you don’t have a good process. So it was a new challenge for me in the design arena, a specialization that I could add to my skill-set.
I am worried people are going to be a little disappointed when they read this. Type design is so specific and so niche, but once you break through the curtain there doesn’t seem to be too much mystery to it. It seems like there’s a few popular courses and then either you get a job or you don’t. Or you stick with it and develop and practice or you decide not to.
The industry is small, there aren’t a lot of full-time jobs out there. There’s a lot more people working independently making type. There are many different paths you can take once you’ve gained some experience in type design, but I would say you gotta be pretty self motivated to go out on your own.
For most graphic designers, understanding type design is a great extra skill to have. You don’t have to be a full blown type designer, but getting involved and understanding type really helps with your design in general. The principles really cross over. Once you’ve started making a typeface you’ll understand what’s involved. You understand all the hurdlers, the time it takes, the value of type, and how to identify what makes good type. It’s cool to be able to go back to your graphic design studio and be ‘the type person.’
Coming out of Type and Media, how did you end up at Hoefler & Co?
When I graduated, I spent an extra year in Amsterdam working on “Brisbane Text”, an extension of my graduation project — a wayfinding typeface called “Brisbane”. I wasn’t sure what path I was going to take or where I was headed. I just thought, “I’m here for a year, I’m going to make type and see what happens.” I think my backup plan was to start my own little foundry and be an independent typeface designer. But knowing what I know now, I don’t know if it would have worked. I think it was better to keep learning from more experienced people. For me, typeface design is like learning to play an instrument, the more you practice, the better you become at it.
After studying at Type@Cooper, I had met a number of people from the Hoefler & Co team. I reached out to them a year earlier to say I’d be keen to come and do like an internship or something if there was anything available, but nothing really came of it. And then, just as my visa was about to run out in the Netherlands, I got an email from H&Co saying “Hey, what are you doing? We’re looking for a type designer, and we’d be interested to chat.” So I had a phone meeting with Jonathan Hoefler, and within a month I relocated to NYC.
You know when you take a course, you meet a lot of people in the industry, and you never know when an opportunity might arise, or they might think of you when they’re looking to fill a job. I think that’s how it happened—two of the team had taught me before I worked at Hoefler&Co. and Jonathan also critiqued my final project at Type@Cooper. I would never have thought a few years later I would actually be working there!
It seems like your route has been very much about learning, taking classes, and now you’re teaching—do you think that people, if they’re looking for a job, should be pursuing education? And if so, how can you do that uncynically?
I think education should be part of your life. Consistent learning is what keeps me going and inspired. And you know there are periods of time when you’re focused on your career, and then you need some extra fuel to keep you going. Learning something new is that fuel for me. I think about other creative practices and how they might cross pollinate with what I’m doing.
We used to be told to ‘network’, but I’d prefer to meet people through studying. New York is particularly great because there are so many professionals that are teaching and sharing their knowledge. In a class, you have 1-on-1 access with a pro that you would never be able to get by emailing and saying “hey”. Your classmates are also an important part of that network.
Now I’m a teacher at Type@Cooper, I enjoy sharing what I’ve learnt with graphic designers who take my type design principles course. The more I can share my skills, the more there is appreciation for typefaces and using/making type. And, through teaching I’m also learning.
In your earlier years, how did you make that first transition from school to freelance graphic design?
It was a steady transition. There was an advertising agency in Brisbane that didn’t want to employ someone full time—they wanted someone just for a few days a week. So they offered me a space that I could work from. I was able to get my own clients and use the board room and all their facilities. In return I would work a couple of days a week on their projects and be there in emergencies where they needed extra help. It allowed me to have a steady income—it took away a lot of the risk of starting a business.
After a year or so, I did the numbers and thought, “I can survive on my own” so I got a little studio with a friend of mine who was an illustrator. And we just set-up and went from there.
Seems like having these spaces either to learn or to work are really important to you.
Getting yourself out of the house each day is important. You can become a bit of a hermit and it can be a dangerous and depressing situation. You need to set it up in a way that’s not going to let you sleep in and watch TV and all that stuff. Sometimes having a space with other people keeps you accountable. And you’ll meet those people who want to share a space while you’re studying.
This is sort of back where we started, with your day to day. What’s the good bit, what do get psyched about? There’s gruelling proofs I imagine and you’re straining your eyes, but what are the other ups and downs of the daily type designer?
You know when I’m making typefaces I go into a zone, and before you know it the end of the day has come and you gotta get up and leave. When I experience that I know I’m in the right place.
But of course there’s times where things go a bit slower and you have to nut out problems that aren’t working. And then it becomes a little bit more gruelling and a little slower and bit of a struggle you know. When you’re kerning for a month on end, it can really test you. But then it picks up and you’re off again.
You’re always looking forward to the release of the typeface which is very exciting, but there’s also this kinda like sad part about it as well because like the project is over and you have a lot of expectations. And maybe you didn’t get the response that you hoped for from the people out there seeing the typeface for the first time.
There’s a lot of different emotions, it’s a really strange thing to invest your time in. Maybe it’s like being an architect or something where you spend years designing a building and then it’s built and it’s over and you kind of walk away from it. It’s a strange thing to invest a lot of time in something and then let it go. But then there’s always the next project and that’s exciting!
-As told to Jake Brussel Faria, November 2019. Transcribed and edited for clarity.
Watch Abstract: The Art of Design, Series 2, Episode 6. Jonathan Hoefler & his team at H&Co, make the typeface ‘Decimal’.
Jake is a New York-based designer and coder at multi-disciplinary agency Virtually Real and was previously a content creator as part of the lovely SuperHi team.