Meet TypographHer

Typographher aka Nicole Phillips is a designer, typographer, publisher and printmaker currently based in Brisbane Australia. She has over 15 years of experience and besides her work in publication design, visual communication and art direction, she is also the creator of “The Typograph.Journal

First of all I want to thank you for taking the time to do this and for the support you have showed to the Type Basics project. 

I did some research (stalked you) and the first thing that blew me away is that you took the decision of opening your own design consultancy, buying some antique letterpress printers, and just went to follow your passion and dreams. What was this process like, and how has it been so far? 

When I was at university I made a whole bunch of assumptions about what it meant to be successful in design and what I thought my career should (& would) look like.

Several years later I had a great job that ticked all the boxes... I was earning a fantastic salary, working on excellent and diverse projects, traveling for work and had the opportunity to lead and collaborate with a team of creatives I respected and admired... On paper I had my ‘dream job’ and everything I had set out to achieve - but I was working long hours, was burnt out, and started to question why I had become a designer and worked so hard for it all in the first place. It was a massive reality check for me. And I realised my ‘dream job’ was not sustainable.

I bought my first printing press as a form of creative therapy. 

It was about using my hands instead of pixels, to engage with creative process. I really enjoyed it and began to reduce my hours at work so I could do more print-play. I started to fall in love with design all over again.

The press collection grew pretty organically and it was my husband who first suggested (and then strongly encouraged!) me to resign and start a business. It had never been on my radar but since having done it I am very glad I made the leap as its a much better fit for me (professionally and personally) than my ‘dream job’ was!

I have been in business for myself now for about 4 years and my business plan has seen a number of iterations but essentially it is based on 50% work for clients (my professional practice and 50% work for myself and for community (my ‘Passionate’ practice

What has been the greatest challenge so far in having a creative business?  

This is a really hard question! In my ‘Professional Practice’ I am very fortunate that all of my work comes from word of mouth - my clients do all my marketing for me. But in my ‘Passionate Practice’ I need to have the confidence to share my work and ideas with my peers. Until a few years ago I had never done any public speaking, never had any social media accounts (professional or personal), and never shared my work online... Which makes me sound like a total dinosaur but I am learning about all this stuff as I go (which makes me nervous and challenges me each and every week!) 


You currently work on 3 projects (Nicoleap / Typograph.her/ Typograph.journal), right? How on earth do you find the time to manage them all?

I have a bunch going on yes!

For Nicoleap typically I work on 2-3 documents or publications for clients at any time. (I have 4 on the go at the moment)!

For TypographHer I publish the journal, curate and write for the site, am working on a new book (‘alphabet is code’), I teach workshops and guest lecture in Aus and NZ, I am also working on a new series of prints which I am super excited about... and I have a bunch of collaborative projects on the go with people in community I admire.

My current workload is too much really and I do need to learn to say no to more - but I really am passionate and excited about what I do so I do have a lot of energy and enthusiasm for things!

As far as how I manage it all I live and die by my calendar. I schedule everything and each project is colour coded so I can ensure my week has the right mix of professional and passionate practice (its like a visual business plan!) I work 6 days a week (and have one non negotiable date day with my husband mike). Usually a work day for me is from 6am-6pm but I do take 1-2 hours out of that each day for exercise, eating and the other admin that comes from being an adult human - so it usually works out that I do about a 60 hour week.


With client-focused work how do you deal with client’s feedback and manage to make them more receptive to more creative and experimental things?

I suspect this will be a controversial answer as it conflicts with popular opinion on the role of a contemporary designer (and so I am a little embarrassed to say) but for transparency’s sake I want to be honest and have to admit this is not a strong point of mine!

In my client work I strive first and foremost for happy clients. I don’t push the experimental boundaries with my clients projects (unless the brief calls for it) - My role is to create design that functions well for the clients needs... (it’s all about them - not me)! 

I should say that this wasn’t always the case - I used to believe the designer’s role was to educate the client and take them through a journey toward the most creative (or most beautiful!) outcomes. I would steer the client toward my taste and aesthetic sensibility. But subsequently I would get really frustrated when a project wouldn’t reach the potential I saw for it. Now I see my relationships with clients differently - I offer advice and input on directions but other than that I try to facilitate what they want.

If you’re fortunate enough to have creative clients (and thankfully some of mine are) you get creative briefs which prompt you to push boundaries which is great. But a lot of the time clients need functional, safe designs so most often my passionate practice is where I experiment, play, take risks and satisfy my own creative urges.


You are quite versatile in your work and the use of typography, using type in both 2 and 3 dimensions from 6pt (in print) to 6m (in the built environment), what is the biggest challenge of working in such different dimensions?

Yes! I was all about book typography for the first half of my career where I worked exclusively in two dimensions - moving into the architectural industry the potential to work large and in 3d was really exciting! Now I love working with both type in books and in the built environment and a lot of the same typographic thinking applies to both disciplines. 

With books you know where the reader will experience words. But with signage and environmental graphics the users experience varies a lot depending on how close they are, what speed they are travelling at and even how tall they are. This was a steep learning curve for me when I transitioned from printed type to built type and in hindsight some of my early built pieces sit a little awkwardly in the landscape because they are at the wrong scale or oriented away from the best viewing points.


“I actively pursue alignment of visual and verbal language to create memorable and meaningful documents and typographic experiences.”

What do you mean by typographic experience? What has been your favourite one?

We all encounter vast quantities of type everyday - I read recently that most adults spend 6 hours a day reading on a device - that astounds me. I don’t work with type in those digital environments much but a big part of the work I do is a reaction to it...

I believe the contemporary type consumer is really overwhelmed with information all the time - often this text is delivered in a fairly bland (or transparent) websafe manner. 

As a typographer working with static text (that is printed, painted and built) I have the opportunity to create typography where the content and form are inseparable...I love that type has the potential to whisper, speak and SHOUT visually or to reinforce the meaning of the text. So I aim to make type more expressive (and in line with how we speak). 

When I use the term typographic experience I am referring to a touch point where the viewer does more than read. I want them to feel something too. A typographic experience can be many things; from books in which the layout and typesetting helps enrich the meaning of the text, to a sign that helps a tourist navigate a city while framing a beautiful view for them to discover. I recently worked on a book about transformers where the text was all shapeset like machines and robots which was a lot of fun! And I am currently collaborating with an artist on the typography for a book which deals with themes of separation and loss so I am typesetting the paragraphs with wide rivers through the text.

One of my favorite typographic experiences to play with is onomatopoeia (words that look how they sound). I like to sketch ideas for these and fill notebooks with different iterations.


Now that we are on the typographical subject I wanted to know who has inspired you? Who would you say are your #typeheroes?

To many to list them all here. But John Baskerville, Beatrice Warde, Oswald Cooper, Alan Kitching, Adrian Frutiger, Sarah Hyndman, Jos Buivenga, Francesco Griffo, Zuzana Licko, David Carson, Derek Birdsall, Jon Barnbrook, Irma Boom have all been sources of influence and inspiration.


I really love how your pseudonym makes a reference to women in typography, and I loooove where it comes from (‘Font.B*tch’), but what do you think women have to give or contribute to typography?

Thank you! I thought it was important to nod to my gender given type is still a largely male dominated discipline. 

I am a proud member of a platform to showcase work, commentary, and research on the typographic fields. I believe some of the most innovative (and exciting) typographic work being undertaken right now is by female designers. Likewise much of the typographic research advancing our understanding of type (and its potential) is currently being conducted and published by female researchers. So I believe women are adding a lot of value to the current industry and hope one day soon there are as many XXTypo’s as there are XYTypo’s! 


What do you think the world is missing? More beautiful,  ornamental and swash-full script fonts, or more geometrical, classic, angled-filled serifs and sans?

I always lean toward text faces, scripts aren’t really my thing. So I would probably say more beautiful serifs like Bembo or Baskerville BUT I am really inspired by (and in adoration of) Barry Spencer’s speculative approach to typography and I was talking with Barry earlier this week and asked him about where he finds the bravery to deviate outside of the constraints of the norm... he pointed out that so much of the type we have today is only very slightly different from every other face out there and that we should allow ourselves to make more radical leaps forward. I think he makes a REALLY good point - so perhaps what we need is new visual language and entirely different type classifications?

Being from NZ, and now living in Australia, how do you think culture affects your work?

Although I have lived in Australia for 12 years (and I LOVE living here in the Queensland sunshine) I still very much identify as a New Zealander. Whenever I draw curves I think of green native New Zealand bush and fluid Polynesian wave patterns rather than mechanical or geometric arcs. 

A few years ago I designed an Ampersand - (I have it tattooed on my right wrist) and I produced a series of letterpress prints of it too. People responded to the character in lots of different ways. Surprisingly in this typographic glyph many people saw a koru (an unfolding fern) they read the form as the source material for my curve inspiration! It really surprised me that one piece of design inadvertently let people see my how much place and culture influence my identity and process as a designer. 


I have to be honest: I haven’t read the Typograph.Journal yet, but I am pretty curious now that I have found some of the questions you try to solve, like: Can a text be readerly and experimental? OMG! Can it? What is your inspiration for this project and solving this daunting topics?

That’s great to hear they have piqued your interest! The journal was born out of a desire to connect with and talk to my peers - there is so much amazing work happening out there I wanted to create a vehicle to share ideas and thinking as well as shine a spotlight on people I think are ACE. The journal is written by designers for designers (and other curious creatives!) it is accessible, conversational, dialogue about design theory, practice and process. And its a great excuse for me to collaborate with people I admire. I am having a lot of fun producing it! Each volume poses a question and explores a particular theme. I love learning and although I have been working in industry since 1999 I still feel like a student of design with lots I want to learn... It sounds a bit indulgent but I pick a theme that is interesting me at the time and the build and curate the content around that so I keep learning and then share the work with others hoping that they will find the topics as interesting as I do... I am working on volume 04 at the moment and am psyched about how that is coming together. And yes absolutely text can be both readerly and experimental! 


Last, but not least: I won’t ask what is your favourite Typeface, but I will ask what are your #typebasics?

Oh great question (and thank you for not asking me to pick a favourite!) 

I learn with my hands. Specifically I learn about type by scaling characters up. I deconstruct each letter into a ‘kit of parts’. Searching for modules and shapes that repeat. Overlaying, tracing, applying a grid, and measuring to unlock the alphabet’s secrets. I find this method the best way to get to know a face intimately and to understand the subtleties and mechanics of each letter. This visual interrogation process has taught me about the ‘shape grammar’ of typography, and demonstrates how elegance, expression, tension and tone are all contained in the geometry of a glyph. 

When getting to know a typeface I look for the:

  • Apex
  • Bowl/Curve
  • Diagonal Stroke
  • Horizontal Stroke
  • Jot/Tittle
  • Leg
  • Shoulder
  • Vertical Stroke
  • Vertex/Crotch...

of each letter and see how much is shared between characters.

When we start to look at letterforms in this way - as a designer rather than a reader - we see the that alphabet is built using a set of prefabricated geometries, with capacity for disassembly and reuse. These shapes form the DNA from which we flesh out cohesive typographic systems.

My two favourite pieces of anatomy are: the shoulder and the leg...

The Shoulder is a curved stroke originating from a stem that usually tappers to avoid visual swelling where the curve and vertical lines meet. And the Leg is the downward stroke of a letter contained within the main body. for example in Kk R and Q.