Whether it’s a challenging legibility in favour of visibility, using typographic technology as a form of storytelling, or exploring rage through empowering letterforms, Marie Boulanger represents the future of type design. A future of individual expression, a future of emotive technology, and a future that celebrates the form of function.
In a remarkable, eminent tale of linguistics, graphics, travel and independent practice, the London-based French type designer has come quite a way to reach where she is now; regularly taking up the mantle of live host for Adobe France, alongside her role as brand designer at Monotype. Throughout her prolific personal and professional practice Marie boasts her masterful command of electrifying letterforms as a form of storytelling and individual creativity. Not only setting a standard within the contemporary scene, but fundamentally – and expertly – challenging what came before.
We’ve spoken to Marie about her journey to becoming a type designer, the influence her childhood plays in her practice, and the advice she’d give someone just starting out in the industry.
How did you first get into type design, and what do you find most exciting about the discipline?
One thing I always like to say is that I didn't find type design, it found me. Even as a child I used to draw alphabets for fun, almost as a self-soothing tool. I have always had an absolute fascination for written words and language in general, and I just needed a bit of time to figure out how to best channel it. My first steps into higher education were actually in Linguistics, at University College London, where I studied syntax and phonetics, among other things. But I was such a visual person that I very quickly realised I needed some kind of creative outlet, I was quite miserable on that course. To this day, I still find it incredibly exciting to explore the relationship between written information and the visual form of language. Getting letters to express things in just the right way, walking the line between type design and lettering; I don't see myself ever getting tired of any of it. I also love how attentive to detail it has made me, how much it has changed the way I see things, proportions and shapes. It's a privilege to see the world through that lense.
Your practice is so fundamentally mindful, what drives and inspires you to channel your thoughts into letterforms?
That's very kind! Despite the despair of multiple lockdowns and a worldwide pandemic, my inspiration didn't suffer too much. If anything, my practice strengthened a lot. My head was exploding with ideas and feelings that I wanted (and needed) to express. I'm not entirely sure where that creative drive comes from.
As a child I'd go from one creative obsession to another, curating exhibitions on the life cycle of insects, creating a new version of Monopoly where I built the board, illustrated the cards and banknotes; writing up comedy sketches and designing costumes for them. The drive was both furious and incredibly joyful.
Now that I've taken time to find my craft and somewhat polish it, I think through things a bit more and focus on things which feel important. It's a more controlled process, but the motivation is exactly the same, fuelled by everything around me. Sometimes it's big things, like social issues or world events, sometimes it's a small detail of my everyday life. I'm also very inspired by the sensory world, colours, light, sensations; it's all so deeply beautiful.
Vulva is an exceptional feat of form and thought, can you tell us the story behind its creation, and what it meant to get it out into the world?
Thank you for mentioning it. It's not the most finished of my projects, and I don't have any plans for releasing it as a commercial typeface anytime soon, but it is work which transformed me. It was fuelled by absolute rage. I tried to write songs, I tried to draw, I tried to paint, but nothing seemed right to channel my anger. At this point, it was slow-burning. I drew the V the day before International Women's Day, thinking of the word violence.
It just came to me like a punch in the gut, the shape of the letter V, the negative space, the word vulva. Thinking about violence against women, inequalities, wage gaps, the fact that Roman Polanski (a convicted child rapist) was about to receive a major film award in France, and my own traumatic experiences of sexual abuse and assault. I stayed up all night drawing the basic letter set, like I was possessed. I never thought type design could ever become a medium of self-expression as powerful as I have found it to be, and that was revealed to me through Vulva.
The variability of the typeface very much cements Vulva as a typeface of contemporary life. How does Vulva’s variable technology add to the meaning and story behind it?
The variability is fully integrated into the typeface's premise and story: the progression from Light to Black weights gradually reveals the stylized shape of a vulva in several capitals. This to me represents my own voice (and many others) getting louder and louder. The use of negative space is also very much conscious, echoing the space that I myself was sometimes scared to occupy, or the silence I was forced into by shame or fear. I think the variable design space is a huge creative playground which will continue yielding incredibly creative results.
You’ve previously discussed how your high-contrast serif Faubourg challenges the notion of legibility in favour of visibility. How would you define these two terms, and what role did they play in the architecture of Faubourg?
I'd say that legibility puts the word before the typeface, and visibility puts the typeface before the word. Yes, focusing heavily on one or the other will make very different typefaces, but I don't think they are fundamentally that different. More like two sides of the same coin. What I always tell myself is that type is never a pure material, unlike clay or pigment. It always comes with linguistic information. More than being read or seen, words want to be understood, and that can mean different things. When I initially drew Faubourg I didn't focus on any aspects of letters which could make them more legible. I don't think the idea of legibility ever even crossed my mind. I wanted loud, proud and beautiful letters for logotypes and branding. The process was almost entirely reversed from what I learned in school with calligraphy-based alphabets, where you'd work from your tool, probably look at lowercase first with control characters, build the character set from there. I think it made me realise there were many ways of doing type design. Until of course I regained some sense and went through more traditional rounds of proofing and redrawing, and made sure it could actually handle a block of text somewhat decently. Two sides of the same coin!
Faubourg found its inspiration from within your childhood, what role does nostalgia play in the research behind your process?
I refuse to get swallowed up by the idea that things were better before. Most of the time, they were not. But certain aesthetics, objects, and ways of doing things speak to me very strongly. Some of that comes from nostalgia; most of it is just a real fondness for analog processes and techniques.
During my first year studying graphic design, our first assignment was about the word "wall" and we had to do visual research. A lot of people came back with moodboards filled with the same images from Pinterest. I didn't use it or know about it at the time and came back with film stills and photocopied book quotes. I'm not saying I knew better - I was truly clueless and it took me much longer than most people to make decent graphic design.
That anecdote stayed with me. I pushed myself to go beyond what was here, now, easy, accessible, and a lot of the time that meant going back to the past. It gives you the luxury of distance, and it personally allowed me to find inspiration which was truly my own.
Indicative of the warm, ephemeral tone of your work, you crafted an absolutely remarkable set of stamps, with a bespoke letterform for each letter of the alphabet. What was most challenging about developing the set, and what did you learn along the way?
I cannot emphasize enough the profound effect this project had on me. I think it was the ultimate proof that very restrictive briefs often yield the best results. It felt like I was totally immersed in the little world I created, and like every stamp offered infinite possibilities. It actually took over my life a little bit, I had really intense dreams about stamp collecting and got targeted ads for stamps several months after the project ended.
The most challenging aspect was knowing when a letter or a stamp was done. Some came very easily and were a slam-dunk, some took me several days. I think the worst offender was the Q, I redrew it around fifty times. Also, the sheer insanity of creating so much work in such a short amount of time while trying to balance several other projects.
It made me extremely patient with my own work, and realize the importance of connecting with people along the way. People were ecstatic when I published a stamp of their own country. I thought that was quite beautiful, how deeply people yearn for connection, recognition and visibility.
Whether it’s Faubourg or Vulva or any typeface in between, there is an elegance and decor to their construction. Where do you draw the line between form and function?
I don't. Sometimes form is function. Beauty is a function. Power is a function. If Vulva was used in a protest sign or a title sequence for a feminist film, the letters would add an extra layer of meaning through their shape, and would serve the function of supporting the written message. Of course, I wouldn't encourage anybody to typeset a novel using Vulva, that would just be a painful experience. But to me the line is very thin, if not blurred. Even if the form itself isn't extravagant or overtly telling you something, there are still many, many ways to convey meaning through letters, because there will always be some kind of relationship between what is said and how it's said. That tension is why type will always remain the most beautiful material to work with to me.
If you were to give someone wanting to start out in the type design world one piece of advice, what would it be?
At the risk of sounding old and boring, I would remind them that it's a very, very small industry. Knock on the right doors, be curious and be kind. Or, more succinctly, as my dad would say: "you always meet people twice."
If you couldn’t be a type designer, what would you want to be instead?
Choice paralysis would consume me, but ultimately I'd go with owning a food-based business. I secretly follow a lot of wedding caterers on Instagram, which for some reason brings me a lot of joy. Coming up with a different menu every time, making lots of delicate little canapés, I think that'd make me really happy.