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Q+A with Max Phillips, Typographic Designer

What influenced you to follow a career in design?
I grew up in a house full of art and architecture books, during an explosion of design creativity in the US of the sixties and seventies. I remember my dad bringing an Eames lounge into the house when I was a small boy. I was amazed a chair could look like that. I was amazed that someone could just decide a chair ought to look like that, and then sit down, draw it out, and have it made. I took a desire to help shape my environment in through my pores.

Why did you decide to focus on typography?
I’ve always been obsessed with letters, even as a kid, and as I’ve gotten older, it’s seemed more and more sensible to develop a specialty you can do better than most people. There’s not exactly a scarcity of middle-aged creative directors, here or in NYC, but very few people anywhere know how to draw letters well.

Do you miss anything about working in New York?
I’m a New Yorker, and I miss many things about my home town, but in terms of work, I prefer Dublin. The design community here is a proper community. It’s been very welcoming, right from the start. There are a lot of terrific studios and young designers making exciting stuff. And the modest size of the city means designers aren’t pigeonholed as rigorously as they are back home, where it’s easy to get trapped into doing the same sort of job for the same sort of clients pretty much forever. As a designer, my home is here.

How have you adjusted to working in Ireland?
Pretty well, I hope. It’s a bit harder to convince people to spend money than it is in the States, but I think that’s changing.

What advice would you give your 20 year-old self?
Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

How would you describe your style to someone unfamiliar with your work?
As a type designer, I hope I haven’t got a style; I hope I’m able to work within whatever style is correct for the client and the job.

How do you manage to keep your ideas fresh?
God knows if they are fresh. That said, collaborating with younger designers is the best way I know to keep from ossifying. And you’ve always got to watch the trends, whether you like them or not. You may not want to do trendy work, but trends provide the context in which your work will function.

In your opinion, what makes a great designer?
Too many things to list, but I’d rate being a good listener very high.

What is your favourite typeface of all time, and why?
That’s like asking a painter what her favourite colour is.

Any words of advice for up and coming graphic designers?
Work to make yourself better, every day. There are a lot more designers out there than the world needs, so you’d better hustle if you want be one of the ones who gets on. Don’t ever disrespect your clients; the work they give you, and the goals they set, are the whole point of your profession. If you’re not willing to take their goals seriously, you don’t have a right to take their money. Learn how to talk back constructively to clients and bosses, because that’s a part of your job too. And don’t ever take the immense privilege of working an a creative field for granted. We’re the lucky ones.

New York born, Dublin-based designer Max Phillips is the proprietor of the Signal Type Foundry & Drawing Office, which specialises in type design, lettering, and branding. A former novelist and toy designer, he now makes useful, attractive things for clients like An Post, Bewley’s, CBS, Christie’s, Citi, FAO Schwarz, and Trinity College Dublin, and collaborates with studios and agencies in Ireland and abroad. His work has been recognised by, among others, the Type Directors Club of New York, Communication Arts, Graphis, the International Society of Typographic Designers, ICAD, and the 100 Archive.

Join Max at our upcoming Type and Lettering Design Crit, taking place at Richards Dee as part of OFFSET//OFFSITE. Limited spaces are available here.


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