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Talking Typography and More with Claire Coullon of Op45

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Today we have the pleasure of meeting graphic designer and typographer Claire Coullon. Originally from France but now living in Prague, Czech Republic, she talks about her love of typography, co-running her own design studio with her partner and whether work gets in the way of her personal relationship. She also gives us some valuable insight into her handwritten typography and the importance of sharing with the design community.


Surround yourself in type, obsess over letters wherever you see them; the more letters you look at, the more you can see the possibilities within them and how their appearances differ through age, classification and culture.

Q Hello Claire! Could you please introduce yourself to the Vectortuts+ readers, what you do for a living and what you're like away from typography and work?

I’m a graphic designer and typographer co-running a small design studio called Op45. My main areas of interest lie primarily within typography and print, especially custom type, logo design and branding, hand lettering, layout and book design. Originally from France, I grew up in Europe and the Middle East and currently live in Prague, Czech Republic. My partner and I have been running Op45 full time for just over 3 years and before that, I worked in a design and communications agency in Brussels, Belgium.

When I'm not working, I doodle a lot (although I don't think that would classify as "away from typography"..), love to move around and travel, read, etc. Work does have a tendency to take over free time a lot though, which is something I've been trying to balance out better.

Q How did you first get into typography?

I mostly got into typography during the art & design foundation course I took after finishing school. For each project brief, we had to develop these big A1 idea boards and mine often had letter drawings more than anything else. I spent a lot of time hand drawing existing typefaces, which was great research and practice for learning to recognise the intricacies of letter forms, different styles, etc. During that year I also started getting interested in the translation of the content, meaning and phonetics of language into typographic visuals, something which has stuck with me since.

During my BA degree after that, most of my early projects involved hand drawn type in some way, although I felt at the time that surely I should be doing something else too. I used to try and force myself to do other things, like a bit of illustration, animation, etc. (with generally very mediocre results), until I realized that it's not cheating or 'too easy' to do what you enjoy the most. Over the 3 year course, I mostly did self-initiated projects that primarily used typography, so exploring areas like linguistics, the sounds of different languages, the personification of letters and words, letterpress and print making, combination of type and photography, stop-frame animations, some early typeface designs, etc. My final project was a book that explored the visual form of words, something which I learned a huge amount from. Of course, the work I do now has changed a lot since then, but I think the hand drawn background and focus on process has definitely endured.

Q What is your current set up? Do you use a Mac or PC? A tablet? Which programs do you use?

My set up is pretty simple as I don't really upgrade things unless it's absolutely necessary. I use a Mac laptop and a basic scanner/printer for most of my work, as well as an old laptop screen as a lightbox. I don't have a tablet and usually work from sketches first, vectoring them manually with the pen tool. I use Adobe CS3 (most often Illustrator but also InDesign for anything layout related and Fireworks for occasional web work) and FontLab Studio for typeface work and sometimes logos. Since I work by hand a lot, I use many sketchbooks of different sizes, stacks of printer paper and various pens, pencils, a quill and some brushes.

Q You co-own a design agency, Op45. How did the partnership with web designer/developer Darren Johnson come about?

When I made my first portfolio website years ago, one of my old college art teachers got in touch as she was looking for something similar to showcase her and her husband's paintings. Since Darren had a background in web design and the arts, we worked together on making them a website, a little animation and a short piece of music, which then lead to another project thanks to their recommendation. While working on those, we thought it'd make sense to have our own website so briefly went back and forth on a name and it just went from there. Unfortunately though, we're seriously behind in updating our 'current' website!

Q What has the transition from working as a full time In-house Graphic Designer to running your own studio been like? What has been the pros and cons for both?

It was quite a strange one in the sense that it wasn't planned or even really thought out; it just kind of happened. I left my job when we moved to the UK and while I did briefly search for another position there, we got a few bigger projects and just ended up running Op45 full time. For me, I think working in an agency first was important as it's so different to the university environment, where I worked a lot on self-initiated projects much more often than 'real life briefs', had looser deadlines, etc.

So one of the major pros of working as an in-house designer was definitely becoming comfortable with the technical side of things works: writing proposals, client presentations, coordinating with printers and developers, etc. Another advantage was learning to work with bigger companies within their corporate style, which is a good exercise in restraint by making sure your own personal style is highly flexible and can be inconspicuous. However cons such as; not being able to choose the projects, having less control, not always being able to talk directly with a client during briefings; kept me a little too detached from the work and they would become important benefits of working independently.

Of course though, all this greatly depends on the nature, style and size of the agency as well as your own individual role. Being self employed, I also love being able to chose my own focus, have completely different schedules depending on certain days/clients/time zones, etc. The cons are mostly just the typical issues of dealing with the admin side of running a business, making sure not to let work run into your own time can be difficult to balance too, especially when you enjoy it. Getting known for one design style can be a little restricting, you can end up with less new challenges as you build up a portfolio.

Working together has neither put a strain on the relationship nor forced us to detach ourselves while working really, our rapport remains the same and the studio is always relaxed.

Q How have you found working with your other half? Has working with him put a strain on your relationship or do you completely detach yourself when you're working? Do you find your work/life balance is harder to juggle in this situation?

It comes naturally, we both bounce ideas and suggestions off each other very easily and have done for years. Though we often have separate projects, over the years we've grown reliant on a respect for each other's opinions across all mediums and it especially helps getting feedback from somebody immediately at hand who knows you just as well as they know the work. Working together has neither put a strain on the relationship nor forced us to detach ourselves while working really, our rapport remains the same and the studio is always relaxed. We spend a lot of time together, so there isn't really much of a need to balance work and life in that sense – the two are quite happily woven.

QOn your site you've expressed a love for handwritten typography. What is your basic process for working in this way? Do you prefer hand lettering over digital?

I usually start off the same way I do logos or other custom type work: by roughly drawing out lots of quick variations to see what works best. Typically, I then loosely trace or re-draw better versions based on the rough drafts, considering and improving things like weight, composition and spacing. That said, it depends a lot on the nature of the project and its intended style. For some more lighthearted personal projects, I usually do very little or no planning and draw right away in pen (like for greeting cards or sketchbooks) or simply stick to pencil. The results always have some natural imperfections and a very obviously hand-done aesthetic, but ultimately that's the charm of the approach. I like working this way as it forces me to let go of the details and accept that there's going to be some bad kerning, uneven weights, etc. It makes a nice contrast from working digitally, where I often spend a lot of time refining and making minor adjustments. I don't think I prefer one over the other though, especially because I usually start with hand drawing anyway, whether it'll be digitised afterwards or not.

Q Your website goes into great detail of the past typography projects you've undertaken. It explains the theory and shows the sketches and revisions you've gone through for your work. What motivates you to share such insightful and in depth knowledge with visitors? How important do you think giving back to the Graphic Design community is?

It's primarily simply because I like the process and development of projects, often as much as the final pieces. I always love reading making-of articles for typefaces in particular as they highlight all the details and minute features that might not be evident on first glance. The set up of my website allows me to point out these details, like for example on the Cuberto logo. There's always concepts, specific decisions and reasoning behind visual work so it makes sense to emphasise that and show that it's not just a nice image.

It's also useful to show potential clients how I approach projects and get an idea of the design process. The Bookouture project for example really demonstrates the potential benefit of exploring multiple concepts as we drew inspiration from the best elements of all three initial sketches to create a stronger final piece.

When I first set out to make my portfolio website in this way, I didn't particularly think of it as being especially helpful to anyone as it's not really set up in a tutorial/how-to sort of way, but rather a documentation of each particular piece. I have however since found that it's useful to be able to directly show others examples of specific steps – in particular the sketch to vector stage and how much variation exists between even the most refined sketch and the final digital work.

I'm not sure if I think it's a matter of importance to have to give something to the Graphic Design community; designers and artists have always drawn influence from other works without the need to be actually given anything directly. But if part of what makes working in design so enjoyable to you just happens to do that, then that works out pretty well for everyone.

Q Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, do you have any parting words or advice for those wishing to get deeper into typography?

Simply looking at typography is a great way to delve deeper into it. Surround yourself in type, obsess over letters wherever you see them; the more letters you look at, the more you can see the possibilities within them and how their appearances differ through age, classification and culture. When thinking about specific letters or particular combinations, perhaps look up examples on MyFonts or read through typeface critiques on Typophile; this can be really helpful to look at the different ways in which others have approached the same consideration. Beyond observation, reading detailed analysis about typographic work is also helpful, like the type reviews on the Typographica website or descriptions in books such as Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style. Sketching is also excellent for exploration – whether you are doodling from scratch or just practicing drawings of existing typefaces and letters. Your sketches don't have to be neat or refined, on the contrary, regular rough drawing is much more useful for an understanding of how letter forms are constructed and how they can flow and fit together.

Practice is of course invaluable, but equally so is being aware of theory and the historical background of typography: training yourself to be as sharp and discriminating as possible by not only surrounding yourself with the works of others, but learning to understand the how and why behind typographic successes. I think it's essential to have a good understanding of the basic principles when drawing type, regardless of what kind of work you're interested in. Being aware of the common optical illusions for example is important: horizontals will visually appear heavier than verticals, curved strokes usually seem thinner than straight ones, round or pointed letters will seem smaller than flat-edged ones, etc. Similarly, it's also important to remember that you don't have to restrict letters into fitting an unchangeable grid/structure or force characters that don't flow naturally because the results will often look awkward. Ultimately it's about what looks right to the eye, not strictly what the measurements/guidelines dictate.

Claire Coullon on the Web

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