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Nils Thomsen-Habermann at work in his TypeMates office.

Profile, New type

The making of a type trilogy

How Nils Thomsen founded TypeMates, designed the Pensum trilogy of fonts, and decided to trust his users.

Nils Thomsen of TypeMates recently wrapped production on Pensum Sans, the final addition to the Pensum Trilogy. Designed for “text, text, and nothing but text,” Nils says it was the result of many years of tinkering. Managing editor Lucas Czarnecki sat down with Thomsen to discuss designing the type family, founding TypeMates, and the foundry’s license model.

If you can remember a specific moment, when and why did you get interested in type design?

Ever since I was young—let’s say from the age of 14—I have been interested in graffiti, and letters play a significant role in graffiti. Later, during graphic design school, I realized that letters and type are still the most fascinating part of design to me.

What’s the story behind your Pensum Trilogy?

Pensum started as a contrast exercise during my studies in The Hague at the KABK Type Media master program in 2009. The first sketches were based on brush writing and included possible “no contrast” and “high contrast” ideas.

After my studies, I worked on Pensum Pro now and then. I wasn’t up against a deadline with it, so I wanted to take my time, testing all the various details one can add while digitizing type. Ultimately, I wanted to create a modern text typeface with a classical touch.

Even though I had plans for Pensum Sans, I first added Pensum Display. Display came first because an important client, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, asked to buy a display version and paid before the Sans was ready. Needless to say, sans was put on hold while I completed the Display.

Returning to the sans, I took a more creative approach in reinterpreting Pensum‘s Serifs from scratch. It is not a copy of Pensum Serif with the serifs cut off: It’s a brand-new design built on the original’s ideas. I am very pleased with the result.

Nils Thomsen, Lisa Fischbach, and Jakob Runge.

How did you decide to start TypeMates with your business partners, Jakob and Lisa?

First, it is simply more relaxed to work together instead of alone. Second, a broad font library with more families can be more interesting to clients. With those ideas in mind, Jakob Runge and I decided to team up with our type families. It worked out, and soon Lisa Fischbach joined us.

What is your process for creating a typeface?

Oh, difficult question. This differs from typeface to typeface. Sometimes a beautiful sketch of one or two letter shapes serves as inspiration for a completely new family.

As I mentioned, Pensum is based on some rough brush sketches, whereas my other text face, Meret Pro, is based on a lot of hard research on broad nib and pointed pen calligraphy and how to create a working digital text typeface out of those classical models.

While both Pensum Pro and Sans were designed for text, Nils says he enjoys how his users find new ways to create texture with them.

What is your foundry’s license model and how did you decide on it?

We combine web and desktop, as most modern communication needs both print and screen. We also give away free demo fonts because we trust our clients. For now, we’re happy with this system, and our trust has been paid back. Right now, you can test the whole Pensum Trilogy for free before spending money at all.

What is your favorite example of your type being used out in the world? What does it mean to you to see people using your typefaces?

Talking just about Pensum: I really love its use at nzz.ch. Pensum is made for text and nothing but text. And voilà, NZZ uses it for text. They also found a great way to use the face for bigger headlines and create a nice texture with it.

The Pensum series all share the same skeleton, but wear different "clothes."

Also, the heavy traffic website buzzfeednews.com sets their text with Pensum Pro.
Those two examples and many others show me that designers and art directors trust my work and their choice of type gives me a lot of respect.

What do you hope to accomplish with type design?

It’s a passion of mine, so my goal is simply to keep making a living from it. It’s a job that satisfies my creativity and gives me a lot freedom and flexibility.

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