Designers, Interviews

Balancing the Grind With Wayne Thompson, Type Designer & Hand Letterer at Australian Type Foundry

July 12, 2019

Fascinated by letters since he was a teenager, Wayne began with rub-down lettering and worked as a signwriter, photographer and journalist before settling into the design profession in the late 1980s.

After many years as as Art Director, Wayne started Australian Type Foundry in 2001 and currently works full-time as a type designer, handletterator and typography educator.

Balance the Grind spoke to Wayne about his career to date, designing typefaces, music as a creative outlet and more.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your background and career?

Originally I wanted to be a journalist, but discovered design almost by accident while at uni. I worked as a garden-variety graphic designer in studios and ad agencies for a long time, gradually realising that I wanted to specialise in typography.

It’s a different landscape now but, back in the 90s and 2000s there really weren’t that many fonts available to designers, and in Australia our design industry was initially suspicious of online font purchases. So I just started making my own fonts which eventually became my full-time job.

2) What is your current role and what does it entail on a day to day basis?

It’s fantastic. I design typefaces and brandmarks for my clients, and I love every minute of it. For typefaces, I start with rough sketches and refine them using tracing paper before digitising them using a vectoring program.

Once the typeface is in production, it can be a long process of vectoring large character sets, testing and refining. Some of my client projects can take weeks to complete, so an average day is simply moving that process along at whatever stage it’s currently in.

I also teach typography at university. I enjoy helping students realise the value of something they see every single day. When I show bad kerning for the first time, many students say to me “I can never un-see it.”

I also enjoy the mentoring aspect of teaching – beyond actual teaching, there’s a longer term guidance aspect to teaching that I find very valuable.

3) What does a typical day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

For instance, recently I was tasked with designing an original sans-serif font which was suited to reading text. It’s incredibly hard to find originality in that genre, and the constraints of legibility mean that you can’t just add bells and whistles.

I see it as a problem that my client can’t solve, so they have asked me to solve it for them. People think it’s about being creative, but it’s about decision making and problem solving. The best creatives are those who have developed a versatile tool box of skills and solutions that they can apply in combination.

I also want to add a dose of reality here: I spend time every day doing irritating admin tasks: deleting spam, dealing with enquiries, quoting, managing tech which won’t work/sync/connect etc.

And, because I work from home, domestic tasks have a way of intruding. If it starts to rain you have to get the washing off the line.

4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?

I wish I could give you some startling revelation here, some kind of magical solution to productivity. But I suffer from distractions and intrusion of life like anyone else.

Although, perhaps I’m not as inefficient as I had always thought; recently I was introduced to WorkFlowy, a listmaking app which I use for day-to-day production.

As each week rolls by I see what I was doing the previous week, and it’s a nice reminder about how much I really have completed.

But speaking of shortcuts, I am a big fan of keyboard shortcuts. I am so impatient that whenever I repeat a task even once, I go looking for a keyboard shortcut and take the trouble to make and install one. It’s really worth the initial effort.

5) In between your job, life and all your other responsibilities, how do you ensure you find some sort of balance in your life?

Exercise is incredibly important. I’m lucky, I’m obsessed with football so I play in and coach soccer teams. It allows your mind to focus elsewhere – the concentration required allows me to put all work stuff aside.

I also play guitar in a duo called Nerds and Music. Creative outlets other than your work are very valuable, and I think that all creative disciplines inform each other and make you a better practitioner anyway.

Lastly, I think it’s crucial not to see downtime as wasted time. Some time is meant to be wasted.

6) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

Sheer bloody-minded persistence. Resilience and persistence are in many ways more valuable traits than creativity. People have this idea that you are born creative, they say things like “I’m not very good at drawing.”

And it drives me nuts, because nobody is born good. You have to practice, and accept up-front that it will be hard work. And I don’t know why, but this gets overlooked all the time.

Because it’s hard, it’s damn hard to find a work niche, and develop a style for which you become known, and there are so many barriers that it’s no wonder people give up. But if you want it enough, persistence rather than talent will get you there.

7) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I’m a big fan of Karen Cheng’s book Designing Type. I also love the Typism books, an Australian-produced yearly collection of handlettering pieces from around the world. These books are full of so many incredible techniques you can’t help but be inspired.

8) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Constantly tell myself “stop fucking around and get on with it.” I have even been known to leave a note saying that on my desk, so I find it in the morning when I arrive.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Be interested in a wide variety of things, including politics. Democracy is under threat and it can only be saved if enough people take an interest in keeping leaders honest.

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