Joe Graham – Typespec

  • Tim Isherwood
  • Posted in: Interviews

I first met Joe Graham at Typo London 2012. I had just finished our soft launch of Salford Type Foundry to a room of delegates, and having spoken to a few interested parties afterwards, was making my way across to where our congregation of students were sitting, when I was introduced to Joe, who was sat at the front amongst the students. He introduced himself accordingly, suggesting that he had seen the flyers we had left around the conference hall, and was intrigued, given that his business was working with type, and that he was based in Manchester.

I had to embarrassingly exclaim my ignorance as to the existence of Typespec, but was nonetheless delighted to have met, at an international conference, an enormously experienced and knowledgeable practitioner, from just down the road. As it transpired, Joe, in his calm and considered manner, politely explained the basics of his business but returned the conversation to the ideals and potential direction of STF. Very kindly offering any help he could, we determined to meet again, the first opportunity of which was at the official launch for STF at 52 Princess Street in November, where Joe was able to point out to me the more commercially viable fonts amongst those exhibited, and where we arranged another meeting in which I might quiz him in more detail about how you begin to make a living working with type.


Joe moved here from his native Northern Ireland in the late eighties to study History and French at Manchester University. Although not your traditional route into the world of picas, point sizes, ligatures and leading, it was Joe’s musical passion that drove him to produce an initially cut and pasted fanzine called Recoil, latterly generated on a Mac LC II, producing six issues, which were distributed nationwide, that saw him begin a life long affiliation with design, particularly typography.

Joe’s first position was working for a firm called GBM on Heyrod Street, Manchester in their print bureau. It was his first introduction to digital type, which was itself in its infancy, aided by the Apple Macintosh revolution. The work involved loading jobs sent in on floppy disks or SyQuest drives, created primarily in Quark or Illustrator, then outputting client artwork to film or bromide. ‘Back then,’ Joe explains ‘there were only about 100 Adobe type families and very few small foundries around so most jobs were crated in Helvetica, Garamond, Gill Sana, Franklin Gothic, Futura or Univers. It was invaluable experience dealing with font loading and typographic problem solving, as invariably there were technical issues with client artwork or downloading to the Linotronic imagesetters.’ In the three years Joe worked for GBM, he describes the 16-18 hour days working in, effectively, a windowless factory, as a stressful time with tight deadlines, but provided him with a fantastic grounding for the skills he would later need in developing his career and business.

After GBM, Joe took a recommendation from a colleague and moved to London, taking a role with Fontworks, which was the UK division of FontShop International (FSI). He worked for these various guises for the next seventeen years, initially using his experience from GBM as technical support and progressing to become their General manager in the UK. These were pre-internet days, when customers would meet or phone an order through, it would be prepared on floppy disks and couriered to the client for them to install on their shiny new Macs (although probably more like dull beige plastic circa these times).

It was whilst in London, working under Neville Brody, that the transformation in type usage, design, availability and commerciality was transformed, as with the vast majority of the industry, through the proliferation of digital production. Joe was at the vanguard of this metamorphosis, part of a fundamental shift in what was possible within the world of type. Conferences such as Fuse in 1994 brought together a community of like-minded practitioners, thinkers, technicians, craftsmen and sympathetic salesmen, who began to appreciate and discuss the potential of this newly available technology, driving the industry into this brave new age.

After a period of around seventeen years working at the forefront of the industry, Joe decided to take his considerable knowledge and set up his own company, Typespec, which as his website suggests, offers custom type services and font licensing solutions. The rest, and majority, of our interview was spent discussing what this means, and how he makes it work.

Joe discussed the mechanics and nuances of his business, liaising with agencies, working with clients, understanding their brands and considering how either custom designed fonts, or indeed existing fonts, might be developed, expanded or reconsidered in order to suit the needs of the respective business. His knowledge of contemporary designers and their output is obviously extensive, as it needs to be. Consultancy often requires the demonstration of how a particular font can be made to work, or might offer a clearer perspective on a specific brand. Joe discussed that in the case of an original font being commissioned, it is important that a client sees it as a company asset, a subtle but hugely effective way of establishing a lasting identify, that it can be ‘the best branding tool money can buy’.

Examples of Typespec’s work can be found on their website will see that their clients range hugely in terms of their range and requirements, a most notable recent body of work being for a well known newspaper. I asked Joe if this was a daunting task, a bit like being given the keys to the larder, and he suggested that it was a rare opportunity to develop and utilize a significant range of weights within a font, knowing that all would find a place within the publications hierarchy, from headline to readable text, online and in print. During this conversation Joe discussed the potential rarity of projects such as this, given the difficulty that printed newspapers are facing, not merely from their post-Levinson content, but the significant loss of circulation affecting most dailies, either tabloid or broadsheet.

After discussing the success of the Guardian’s reformatting, from broadsheet to Berliner, and the development by Christian Schwarz and Paul Barnes at Commercial Type ( of Berliner Egyptian, a new font that was required to be infinitely versatile, I asked Joe why there was a need for new typefaces to be created, given the proliferation of typographic matter available, and he said that beyond it being a basic need, a requirement of individuals to craft and create new forms, something that is in a designers psyche or life blood, that there is always scope for beautiful typefaces that help to solve problems, however simple ot complicated they may be. After acknowledging that the Type Spotting game is becoming harder, Joe also recognized that the OpenType format has generated greater possibilities within font design, leading to some genuinely new levels of thinking and usage, such as FF Chartwell by Travis Kochel and RollerType by Nick Cooke.

One of the largest areas for growth is inevitably within the emerging markets of Asia. With literally thousands of different glyphs, Joe says that Chinese is by far the most difficult, which the prospect of designing a font using this system being more than a decades worth of work, but that languages such as Urdu, Gujararti and Arabic, being more calligraphic in nature, are exiting forms to work with and offer a breadth of possibilities not necessarily available in Roman scripts. His sage advice however is to work with a native speaker wherever possible to gain a full appreciation for the subtle nuances required.

Further to our discussion of emerging markets, I asked Joe if it was possible to craft a living solely designing typefaces, to which his response was yes, but most type designers need to supplement their work with more commercially available outcomes, utilizing the transferable skills necessary for generating type to manipulate it into exciting logos or dynamic page layouts. In Joe’s case consultancy plays a large part in Typespec’s working day. Giving advise to clients on how they might manage their font collections more appropriately, discussing potential re-brands, assisting with web font utilization and other technical developments, as well as font licensing advice and guidance.

Lastly, I asked Joe’s advice for budding type designers, what should they look for in terms of skillsets, and he replied that the best current designers are able to straddled two separate facets of the industry, firstly of designing, which requires an understanding of the demands and functions of a letterform, and the ability to express this appreciation with flair and acumen, and secondly, the appreciation and wherewithal to determine the production aspects and technical detailing involved in generating the finished product. Joe cites Jeremy Tankard, the designer of the commercially successful font Bliss (, as a particularly good contemporary exponent of this form of communication. As with most of the typographers I have spoken to, it is a deep appreciation and passion for this format of language that is the most important tool any aspiring typographer can possess.


STF would very much like to thank Joe Graham for his time, insight, knowledge, assistance and kindness