Swiss graphic designer and Grilli Type cofounder Noël Leu
Grilli Type is an independent Swiss type foundry offering original retail and custom typefaces as well as wordmarks to customers from all over the world.
Grilli Type cofounder Noël Leu is a Swiss graphic designer and type designer who started the foundry together with Thierry Blancpain in 2009. He travels extensively across East Asia, Europe and North America where he gives lectures and workshops.
Their customers range from an artisanal butcher in Australia, a specialist coffee roaster in China, and the Swiss government, to commercial organizations like GQ Magazine, Google, New York City’s promotional organization NYC & Company, and agencies like Sid Lee, Wolff Olins, and Arnold Worldwide. With their background in graphic design, Grilli Type differentiates themselves by a very active, visual approach to the promotion of their typefaces.
We spoke to Noël about how his early art school career shaped the future of the business, and how to survive being young, desperate and broke when you follow your passions.
Hi Noel! Nice to meet you. We’re looking forward to your talk at Us By Night next week! I’m curious to know how your passion for typeface design emerged? Can you remember what sparked your interest?
My earliest memory of typography was when a friend of mine told me that there were typefaces with ‘feet’ and ‘without feet’ which he basically meant serif and sans serif typefaces – but up till then I had never really realised that. For me, back in the day before I went to art school what I knew about typefaces was that it was better to use Arial as a typeface for school papers because it uses more space than Times New Roman! Back in art school our first year was more exploratory – a year of preparation, so before you choose a direction you basically try out everything that art has to offer like painting, sculpture, pottery and performance art or whatever, and that was the first time I got hands on with type faces. It was really overwhelming because we had this folder that was passed around at art school that, I don’t know, had 40,000 fonts in it! I wondered how do you actually do graphic design and work with type if you have that much of a choice, and to my mind the easiest way to learn something is to make it yourself; build it yourself in order to understand it.
So I asked a teacher in art school what he thought about type design as a career, and I’ll never forget what he said, he told me it’s way too difficult and I shouldn’t even consider it. And I thought, well that’s interesting. And then I asked another teacher, and he told me that this is not only true but “even if you did master it, there’s no market for it and nobody will ever pay you to do that.” So he kind of destroyed the idea and I started with no hope at all in this field. But for me, when someone tells you you can’t do something it gives you a bigger incentive to prove people otherwise. [laughs]
I find it really interesting when a teacher tells you that you can’t do something. So that was the first reason I got into it. The other reason is I still don’t like so much the notion of graphic design being just a manager of content, I feel that as a graphic designer you can also be a creator of content and if you don’t learn how to design type faces you’re always dependant on using someone else’s typeface without really properly understanding it.
I still don’t like so much the notion of graphic design being just a manager of content, I feel that as a graphic designer you can also be a creator of content and if you don’t learn how to design type faces you’re always dependant on using someone else’s typeface without really properly understanding it.
So you could say this approach gives you more continuity and control over your output?
Yeah, but I think a lot of design functions that way – that the way you learn something is not so much from an intellectual or theoretical angle but from a hands-on approach, as you will eventually understand what the quality of the design can be but you need to be really involved personally to grasp it.
I read that one of your early jobs in design was an internship at Swiss type foundry Moire – how did you get that first opportunity to work with them?
The internship with Moire came about because we were really just starting off with Grilli Type and I wanted to get experience. Later on they they were looking for a publisher to publish their typefaces and they couldn’t find anyone who was willing to publish it right away. We offered to collaborate with them and we promised we would quickly release GT Pressura (as it’s now known). Don’t ask me how, but we managed to persuade them. We were a really small operation, and we didn’t have a big name or a lot of traction at the time, but the guy who ran the studio became quite good friends with us and they became early supporters – they really believed in us.
As soon as work was over for the day we would both get together in our tiny, shitty office and just be spending all our time on this project. We realised that if we continued running it just as a side project we would eventually run out of steam if we didn’t try to make money out of it.
Can you give us a bit of background around Grilli Type and how it started? Was it just a side project before this?
Grilli Type started as a school project. We had this graphic design project to do – it was like a free for all, you could do whatever you wanted, and my friend Thierry and I both felt like we did so much design in class – a lot of projects were basically handed in, and shelved never to be seen again, and we both felt that after all the objective of a graphic designer is to get something published somewhere. We felt our course was really lacking. So we set up Grilli Type as a shop at the art school and opened it as kind of a kiosk where you could buy art prints and small fanzines; we also did woodcut prints and linoprints, silkscreen prints – you name it, we made it – and we published it through the shop. At the beginning we were so broke that we needed to do some fundraising, so took this idea of a calendar with a fireman’s squad and we thought, yknow, we’re art school students, we’re young desperate and broke, let’s do the same thing with art school students.., so we had all these skinny, nerdy guys that were like posing in speedos, and we did a photoshoot with them, and the calendar was a huge success! It sold out in three days – we even had an email from the secretary from the art school saying she had lots of people saying they really wanted the calendar and we should produce more! [laughs]
That’s so great! Can you remember what year that was?
Yeah, it was 2009. I’m Mr December, and Thierry is Mr September I think. [laughs]
Oh I have to see that! That’s brilliant. So how did you then move on to start working with paid clients? Do you remember?
Ah well it’s hard to tell. We started like that as a school project, and then after we left school we all kind of went our separate ways, and did our own thing – after you leave art school you can often fall into this void, after working so passionately on all these projects it’s hard to find clients who will actually commission that kind of work, and you no longer have the security or platform of an art school – so we kept Grilli Type going as a side project, investing our spare time quite heavily. And after a while Theirry was working in Zurich a lot, and I was designing for this girls magazine, doing layout’s for make-up pages and gossip pages – Justin Bieber’s new girlfriend and stuff like that – and as soon as work was over for the day we would both like get together in our tiny, shitty office and just be spending all our time on this project. At one point we realised that if we continued running it just as a side project we would eventually run out of steam if we didn’t try to make money out of it. I actually liked the job I was doing at the time, and the team were great, but I wasn’t passionate about it.
Yes, that is so true. And this is the way a lot of designers start out – finding the time to really grow your craft, nurture it, make lots of work and then somehow figure out if it’s viable. It can be very difficult to know when it’s the right time to take the leap..
I agree. It’s also extremely hard to connect the dots and understand how you end up where you are. And I would say, from my personal experience so far, it’s easier to be passionate about something and then follow through with that and be successful and figure out how to make money and go from that. For us it was a moment of truth. Y’know, we got to thinking – what happens we put all our efforts into this and everyone we know and send e-mails, and talk to people and ask around and do a new website – if we really do all that and put in the maximum amount of time we can, will there be any kind of outcome in traction or generating interest in the type faces? We realised that yes, it’s kind of possible. And then from then on it became a bit more serious as we decided to turn into a business.
I would say, from my personal experience so far, it’s easier to be passionate about something and then follow through with that and be successful and figure out how to make money and go from that. For us it was a moment of truth. We realised that yes, it’s kind of possible. And then from then on it became a bit more serious as we decided to turn into a business.
So what was the hook on the new website? What content did you have on there to start with?
We already had some of our friends on board, and had their typefaces to release including Studio Moire which was already a well known studio in Switzerland, and they also decided to collaborate with us. I also had my own typeface. So I think in the beginning we only had two or three typefaces when we launched the new website.
How did this work financially? Did you operate on a licensing model?
That’s a good question. I think Thierry was more serious about the licensing aspect and turning the operation into a profitable business. He also very wisely suggested that as soon as we had enough money, to invest it into an accountant [laughs] that’s actually the key advice I would give to new designers – get an accountant! Designers are really terrible at managing money.
So at first it was just some typefaces by some friends of ours, and then little by little as we gained momentum we grew, and also from a technical point of view we started licensing typefaces right at the moment when web design enabled you to embed typefaces into a website. Before then you were limited to only using Verdana or Times New Roman or Arial, for example. So the web looked quite dull. But then this technology allowed you to use any kind of typeface and use that in a website. And we were just starting when this happened, so I think it gave us a big push to almost educate people on what they could do with typefaces on the web.
What would you say is the current split between commercial work and designing typefaces to licence?
We are currently expanding the size of the business which has also meant we need to staff up a bit. In the begining it was just Theirry, my business partner and I. Then we got a good friend on board who is a type designer and now we have hired three more people to make sure we can handle commission work on a professional basis.
Prior to that did you work with freelancers?
I personally prefer to have staff rather than freelancers, because then those people really know your business, and type design is really quite a tedious job where you need to be really precise and spot on with the work you’re doing, and we like to with people who understand our work flow. We don’t use freelancers – but what we do sometimes is if we do a customisation of a typeface and it belongs to the designer, we might ask the designer to collaborate on a commissioned version of that typeface for us to sell. So technically that would be a freelancer, but this isn’t a person who is hired by us, just someone very much in our orbit.
Have you then hired people that you’ve worked with before? Who makes up the team at Grilli Type?
We have currently six people in the team including myself and Thierry. Two of them were good friends from our art school time. During art school we didn’t really have type design as part of the classes that were offered, so me and some fellow type geeks started a like a typographic self help group where we met every Friday afternoon after school to discuss our type design projects. So the other guys who were in this group we asked to join the company, as we felt in some ways they’d always been part of it. But also for them, the time was right for them to join. We also hired two people through an ad online, but its’ a good team now, we are really diverse with two of us in Switzerland, one in New York, and Chile and two people working from Berlin.
That’s interesting – so the team are not employed full time?
None of them are hired full time. Some of them are also type designers on their own, so we want to give them enough space and time to work on their own designs. We are also travelling frequently so not having people full time give us much more flexibility and it’s more comfortable for everyone.
You mentioned earlier in the interview that you’re looking to expand on your commercial client work – can you share anything that you’re currently working on?
That’s always a bit tricky because we are sometimes working for quite big clients and they all require us to sign an NDA. We currently have an exciting commission that we are publishing soon, and we are working with a few other quite big companies on a similar scale, but until the project is complete I can’t really tell you anything about this. On top of that even if it was ready, the marketing companies need to approve anything we say! There are a couple I can mention actually: One is for a French accessory company, and another one for a Mexican beauty company.
I think it’s always good to work with the people you look up to and admire, and really try to get in touch with them and intern if you can. You have to find people to connect with, who share the same passions as you to stay motivated.
How to clients find you? Is it mostly word of mouth?
We are pretty active on social media and we have quite a lot of followers for a type foundry (126k). I don’t really know how people find us exactly, but we have become the ‘go-to’ type foundry for interesting typefaces. It’s really hard to know, because we don’t do aggressive marketing. For those two projects I mentioned above, the one project for the Mexican beauty company – it’s my wife’s company. She’s the worst client, she doesn’t even pay me [laughs]. The other company is like a French accessories company, and it’s actually quite interesting because he saw one of our websites and he asked me to help with designing something for his company, but he wasn’t so interested in the type face; he was interested in having a character for his company – a mascot. My business partner told me he was absolutely not interested in taking this project on, but I felt it was an interesting challenge as I hadn’t done it before. And then my wife saw it, and asked me to create something for her business. And the character became the mascot for the company – it’s about as far away from what a type designer would traditionally do as you can get! We’re not so traditional though, I think with Grilli Type we approach our projects with a graphic design point of view; you need to be good at the technical side yes, but we’re more interested in the story telling aspect of type faces and how to design a type face that can really sit into a branding concept for a company.
Can you offer any advice for emerging designers interested in following a similar path in typeface design as profession?
Can I quote someone else to answer that? The musician Brian Eno often gets asked to art schools to give talks, but rarely gets asked back because he always dissuades creatives from getting a job – and I kind of agree. I think for graduates it’s dangerous to go and work for another design company straight away, because that environment, particularly for junior designers, can be really stressful. You still have a lot of energy and creative ideas at that stage, when you leave school, but I see a lot of designers get churned up and spat out of that meat grinder really quickly. It’s very tough. I guess we are fortunate that in Switzerland we don’t have to pay for our education, so we can afford to lay low for a little bit and do our thing on the side, it gives space and time to explore things and figure out where your passion really lies, and really go for that.
In terms of type design I think it’s always good to work with the people you look up to and admire, and really try to get in touch with them, and do an internship – because you are disconnected after art school – and you need feedback to grow and develop. It’s so important. For me, like in the early days with the self help group I mentioned earlier you have to find people to connect with, who share the same passions as you to stay motivated.
Definitely. So, what can attendees expect from your talk at Us By Night?
When I lecture or give talks I prefer to try and construct the talk around a theme. I definitely won’t do a portfolio show – I find those really boring! I think for the people watching I hope to give some inspiration and motivation to follow what they’re passionate about.
Us By Night is a unique nocturnal experience combining an inspiring lineup and an endless nightmarket guaranteed to provide 3 nights you can’t miss. Come for the talks, stay for the experience. Explore the arcade, a wide range of local and delicious food, get tattooed or play some fluorescent ping-pong. Tickets for 2019 are now sold out. usbynight.be