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David Williams, Manchester’s multi-script talent

A conversation with the founder of Manchester Type about identity, COVID, and his new typefaces.

TYPE Magazine: How and when did you become interested in type design?

David Williams: My introduction to type design came whilst studying graphic design as an undergraduate at the University of Salford, in Manchester. As an introduction to typography my class was given an assignment in which we would interpret a haiku, designing letterforms and a typographic poster which reflected the short poem. Ironically, until that point, I had never really looked at letterforms.

Type is embedded in our lives; from the moment we wake up and check the time on our phone, alarm clock or watch. Despite this ubiquity, most of us don’t consider the design, production or rendering of typefaces. The more closely we look at type, the more complexity it reveals to us. That complexity immediately captured my curiosity and as I learn more about type it continues to provide new challenges, conundrums and questions which maintain my fascination with type design. Once you critically look at type, you cannot really go back to simply reading it.

Specimen graphics for Willams’s first major release, Mansa, available in various optical sizes, weights, and scripts.

TM: Have you had any mentors or role models in the type design field you would like to acknowledge?

DW: The most important figure in my development as a type designer is Gerry Leonidas, Professor of Typography and Programme Director at Reading University. I learned from Gerry when I was studying towards an MA Type Design. Whilst at Reading I was surrounded by a fantastic group of designers and academics, all of whom influenced, challenged and inspired me. These include, but are not limited to, Professor Fiona Ross, the late Gerard Unger, Fred Smeijers, Rick Poyner, James Mosely, Victor Gaultney, Mohammed Dakak and Borna Izadpanah.

Interestingly, when I met Gerard Unger for the first time, he approached me and asked me to take a seat with him. Then, with his typically warm and convivial manner, he gently asked me, “Where are all the Black Type designers?” He kindly introduced me to the work of those he knew of, but he was acutely aware of the apparent disparities within our field.

Williams designed each script of Mansa for use at scale and in text. Here, Mansa Arabic shows its utility in full-page texture and for running text.

TM: What is something you want to accomplish before the end of your career?

DW: Since completing my studies in 2019 I have been busy designing type day-to-day. My occasional trips to Manchester’s library collections remind me how much I enjoyed the practice of research that I was introduced to at Reading. I would like to return to writing at some point, possibly working with some of the typography collections held here in Manchester.

TM: Some type designers regard their work as more-or-less dispassionate tools; others regard their work as extremely personal. How do you regard your designs?

DW: Design does not exist in a vacuum and this is especially true of typefaces. Type tends to reflect the physical and theoretical environment in which it was created. The surface on which it lives, the tools used to make it, its creator, audience and era. Type is shaped by technological, historical and sociological inputs. I, as a designer, am also a part of that equation.

It becomes a question of values. I value functionality and beauty in type. I feel that design must serve its intended purpose, but it is also important to believe in what we do. The large amount of time which must be invested in a type project helps to focus my decisions and avoid working in a way which could become tiring. I suppose, I might say that my work constitutes a personal commitment, serving the needs of people who ultimately use the typeface.

TM: To what extent has your identity affected your career as a designer?

DW: I’m not sure that such a question can be answered with any certainty. Firstly, my career in type design is at an early stage. I graduated from Reading’s MATD in September 2019. Since completing the course I have been fortunate, working on a mixture of personal, contract and collaborative projects. The type community is always becoming more diverse, in part due to globalization.

In March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic removed our ability to socialize face-to-face. This prevented me from attending conferences. From meeting colleagues and peers, both old and new. It also cut short a series of type talks I had begun to deliver in Manchester’s design community. This made it more difficult to develop relationships. However, In the current economic climate, it’s encouraging that I have been able to make the first steps towards establishing myself as a practitioner.

Williams designed Mansa and Firnas Sans to complement each other in each script.

It is possible that the low number of type design jobs filled by people of color, is a seeding issue. That it affects potential designers before they gain professional qualifications. The financial cost of education is prohibitive. The industry in which I work is precarious. Salaried positions are few in number. In the United Kingdom a type designer is faced with a choice; move to London or become self-employed. Starting a career in the creative industries could simply represent too great of a risk for those who are without a financial safety net.

I am from an ethnic-minority, working-class background and I feel it is important to help others. Since returning to Manchester I’ve been offering help to students in the local area. My long-term goal is to develop a robust business and a successful career. This will mean I can become an effective mentor. I can then offer greater support to young designers in my local community, helping them to navigate some the challenges they might face.

TM: What will the world see next from you?

DW: I am currently developing a large family in the neo-grotesque tradition. It’s a substantial amount of work, featuring four widths and nine weights per width. I hope to release the Latin component early next year. Following on from its Latin release I plan to add Arabic script support to the family. In the coming weeks I am also hoping to complete the marketing of Salford sans, a collaborative design in which I created the Arabic component and contributed to the Latin development.

Williams’s upcoming Neo-Grot comes in nearly every weight and width possible, all while maintaining its character.

TM:Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience in type design?

DW: My experience in type design has been extremely rewarding so far. Due to its global nature, the field has brought me into contact with an array of typographic cultures and people; their unique histories and experiences. Each time this happens, my view is broadened, my knowledge grows, and I feel a greater sense that I am part of a diverse and welcoming international community of type designers.

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