Interview Series 2012 – Designer and Illustrator Matt Chase

by Sean | July 10, 2012

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Recently we had the pleasure of chatting with designer and typography extraordinaire Matt Chase. Matt has a fun, engaging and playful design style with hints of classic Americana mixed with a more contemporary technique. He is a multifaceted and dedicated designer employing a variety of styles in his work, across many types of mediums. All of his work is very playful, engaging, colorful and just plain fun to stare at.

It’s very evident that Matt simply loves what he does, and has a ton of fun doing it at the same time. Check out our interview with Matt below along with some of his stellar design work!

Twitter: @doble_entendre

What is the most important aspect of typography?

Dang. Loaded question, definitely. Type plays so many roles in design that I suppose its essence may simply lie in its ability to perform the task at hand. Some insane-o Victorian gold-leaf type on the spine of an old dusty book should give you a nudge to crack it open, while Helvetica Bold on a train platform in Berlin only really needs to tell you how the hell to get to Frankfurt. They’re both acting differently but in a weird way they’re also both doing exactly the same thing. Two characters from the same book.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of creating your own custom typeface design?

I’ve only ever started / finished one (mediocre) working typeface but I would liken the typographic advantage to making your own burrito instead of going to Chipotle. You get to have it exactly the way you want it. But very rarely do I find myself in a pinch that necessitates designing an entire alphabet. It’s usually just pulling and tugging on pre-existing faces until I get what I like. A ball terminal here, longer ascenders there, “this ‘G’ needs a spur, dammit.”

To continue the metaphor, this more or less equates to being too lazy to make a whole meal, or being “mostly okay” with how a Chipotle burrito comes on its own, a not-all-that bad situation wherein you can still buy the thing as it is and jam it full of cayenne pepper or sriracha or Cheerios or whatever it is you think the employees of that fine establishment have neglected to include on their menu.

What are 3 rules you always follow when it comes to designing typography? What about with illustrations?

As a rule I avoid keeping rules, but for things like lettering, balance is pretty paramount. It’s easy to overlook or want to ignore but it’s tough to create a good-looking piece of type if things don’t feel in proportion. ‘Mo swashes ‘mo problems. Second rule would be to have as much fun as you can and number three would refer you back to number two.

Similarly, no real rules for illustration, but try not to take inspiration from what everyone else is doing. Don’t hit up the internet for inspiration, hit the newsstand. Hit the park, hit the bar, hit the craps table. Don’t get locked into doing the same thing over and over; take some chances and see what else you’re capable of. What do you want people to feel when they look at your work? Illustration is an incredibly emotive medium—it often has the power to say and do things that design alone can’t. An editorial illustration, for example, can make people feel like they just cheated their way out of having to read 4,000 beautifully-designed words on Iran’s nuclear policy with a drawing that, in all likelihood, you spent less than an hour making. Exploit those loopholes.

Do you have a favorite typeface? What is it and why do you like it so much?

I think any other designer would agree that your relationship with typefaces is akin to any relationship you had before puberty—one week it’s someone and one week it’s someone else. Maybe even more frequently than that. Some faces are just epically classic and I’ll never get tired of them: Didot, Helvetica, Futura instantly come to mind. Those are the Solos and Skywalkers.

But every movie needs supporting actors—I feel like there’s been this crazy renaissance of grotesk typefaces that are totally one-upping the master fonts to whom they probably only thought they’d manage to pay homage. Akkurat, Replica, Brandon Grotesque—they’re all favorites right now. The April issue of GQ used some fat, black sans that I instantly fell in love with. Don’t know what it is, actually, so if anyone reading this has a keen eye for specimen identification, do hit me up.

When working on a print project that doesn’t involve custom typography, how do you decide what font is best? Does it come naturally or do you cycle through fonts until you find one that fits?

By the time I’ve moved from doodling onto my machine I have a decent idea of what I think I might want, which is usually as concrete a decision as I just made it sound. There’s a lot of switching things around. Sometimes I’ll jot a phrase into FontBook and just hit the down arrow on my keyboard until something grabs me.

Can you tell our readers how you defined your personal illustration style? When was that “ah ha” moment? Do you still work to improve your illustration style?

Lately, style has been a pretty secondary consideration when I’m working on something. I think it’s only important in that it needs to feel right for what you’re doing. What I would encourage your readers, or students, or anyone to focus infinitely more on is the substance at hand and how best to make that come alive. Regardless of what the content is, your job is to make it sing, whatever it is—the real challenge is figuring out the best way to do it.

I think it’s easy for people to get caught up in the belief (or, sometimes, the fear) that they need to work in a specific style to either establish themselves, or grow a reputation, or whatever, and I have a really hard time getting behind that. Good work is good work—if you make your style about having the best idea you can, then you’re never going to wind up too far off the mark.

Some people struggle to work with typography – what advice would you give them on layout, readability, emphasis and alignment?

All the old dudes you read about in school did a pretty good job of setting up some ground rules, so that’s never a bad place to start. Simple things like scale and tension can be surprisingly robust tools. For longer pieces (or I guess any piece), the visual flow of the pages plays a major role. Our programs are set up to have us work a page or two at a time, but you have to remember to pull back and see how the last ten pages are meshing with the next ten.

Again, such basic stuff, but so easy to forget. Readers don’t want to run into the same thing six pages in a row–surprise them a little, punch them in the face with some mega-type and then understate the shit out of something. Exaggerate, lie, bend the rules a little.

I really enjoy your ‘US Postal Service’ re-branding project and how thorough it was – what was the most difficult part of this project and is there anything you learned from this?

Thank you much. I think the biggest challenge was actually in committing to the concept, which was simply to visually resurrect the heyday of the Postal Service. It just so happened that I determined that to be 1950’s-era Americana. I kept imagining this June Cleaver kind of neighborly camaraderie, the dog chasing the mailman behind a white picket fence, post-WWII girlfriends writing to their boyfriends still enlisted abroad. Whether we realize it or not, we perceive that time period to be friendlier, and that’s what I wanted to visually translate to the work. “Vintage” ultimately seemed like the best way to go, which, given the near-ubiquitous nature of retro-inspired design that we’ve seen so much of lately, was really hard to pull the trigger on. The rest was so much fun to work on that I couldn’t in good conscience call it difficult, or even work for that matter.

There was a lot that I learned but what has really stuck with me, and what I can’t convey with enough enthusiasm is the opportunity that an uncommissioned or personal—or, in this case, student—project has to let you do some really fun, good work. If you have an idea, just do it. Don’t wait for a client, or the right time or right place, because the right time is right fuckin’ now.

What are some good rules to follow when working with typography?

Push it as far as you can while making sure it still works. Be experimental, be original, and always keep in mind that what other people are doing is absolutely not the only way to do it. There is no right way.

What key skills (technical or personal) do you believe an artist needs to succeed as graphic designer specializing in typography and illustration?

Those are definitely more specific trade skills, but I don’t necessarily think you need anything fancy or innate that you can’t get with practice and hard work. A feel for composition, balance and good taste will get you pretty far.

In looking back at your portfolio, what piece is the most memorable? What did you have the most fun with?

The species flowchart was a lot of fun, mostly because that started as a doodle while I was watching Planet Earth at my parents’ over a holiday and matured entirely on one sheet of paper that I just scribbled on at lunch and stuff. I totally get off writing idiotic copy so that was a great project. But I just finished that recently so I suppose you could surmise from my answer that the projects at hand are always the most fun.

Do you have any final advice for our readers?

Work hard and sincerely love what you do. Avoid being derivative. Be hyper-observant. Don’t take anything for granted.

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