Featured Studio

Klim Type Foundry

August 2019

Klim Type Foundry is closer to a shop than a traditional service-based agency, as Kris Sowersby, Director & Lead Typeface Designer explains. We hear from Kris about the ups and downs in his journey between graduation and starting Klim; the backstory behind the foundry's name, and the plan to tour 'There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface' exhibition internationally.

Did you have a plan for graduation and what actually happened?

I studied graphic design and my plan was to get a normal design job in an agency. After graduating in 2003 I freelanced for a while as a graphic designer, then moved to Nelson and worked as a vinyl signwriter / designer. I began work on my first typeface, Feijoa, in my spare time. After about a year of this, I moved back to Wellington started a design business — The Letterheads Ltd — with my friend Angus Murray. We did this because the job market was tight and nobody was hiring. It was hard. We had neither real experience, clients nor money. We struggled along for a while, and got to a point where there was only really enough money for one of us. Luckily, about this time Chester Jenkins from Vllg contacted me and expressed interest in publishing Feijoa. He gave me invaluable technical advice and support, and it was eventually launched in 2007. The first royalty cheques from the sales of Feijoa were very encouraging, enough to enable me to focus on type design full time under the aegis of the Klim Type Foundry.

How does the local culture of where you live affect your design work and getting clients?

Despite being a small country on a rock in the middle of the ocean, we’re relatively progressive. We were the first to climb Everest, split the atom and give the vote to women. We used to think of ourselves as culturally isolated. One of our poets described it as like being in a small room with a large window, and we like to look out of it. We’re well-travelled and multi-cultural. Our design scene is small, but well informed, confident and very good. We don’t get a lot of attention internationally, but that’s ok. We know what’s going on out there in the US, UK, Europe and elsewhere, but they don’t tend to know what’s going on here. It’s a good position to be in. For my own work this requires patience — acquisition of primary typographic source material is hard and takes time. I have to know the typographic histories and contemporary cultures of lots of countries, because there isn’t much to draw upon here.

Our primary business is selling fonts over the internet on the retail market. We take commissions from clients, but we’re closer to a shop than a traditional service-based agency.

How did you name your practice and what does the name represent to you?

“Klim” is “milk” spelled backwards. As a student in the early 2000’s I was really into The art of looking sideways by Alan Fletcher. One of the double-page spreads was a massive word in all caps: ZAUM. The caption reads:

“ZAUM was a word invented by Russian Futurists in 1912 to demonstrate that a word can be given any meaning. ZAUM, they claimed, wasn’t meant to mean anything. At least that’s what they said — if you see what I mean”.

I have always been fascinated by language, and was intrigued that the Futurists has simply “invented” a word and given it a meaning of non-meaning. At the time I’d drawn some typefaces and was fabricating a foundry for a student project I was struggling with. I needed a name, so in the spirit of the Futurists I started reversing words to see what would result. Milk became Klim. It was OK for the project, so I used it.

At the time everything designed in Europe was considered superior to things designed in New Zealand: French linen, Italian furniture, German tapware, etc. We had a toxic dose of “cultural cringe”. I imagined that Klim sounded vaguely European, so I could escape the perceived shortcomings of being designed in New Zealand. Thankfully, over the last twenty or so years, New Zealanders have learned to like themselves again. We’re not ashamed of our own cultures and cultural output.

After graduation I needed a name for my foundry, and considered dropping it. My mates convinced me to keep it, so I did.

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One in-person meeting is worth a thousand emails.

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What are your three must-read design books/blogs/podcasts and why?

Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention by Stanislas Dehaene. This book draws on scientific research and describes how we process written language. It’s a fascinating attempt to describe exactly how humans — across all cultures and writing systems — turn abstract written symbols into meaning.

Detail in Typography by Jost Hochuli. A very good manual on how to make typography. Well written and easily understood with clear illustrations. Hochuli uses decades of experience to explain deep craft fundamentals.

Modern typography by Robin Kinross. A relatively short survey of typography since 1700, defining “modern” as a consciousness of action, rather than a narrow style. Kinross is an excellent writer, his understanding of typography in a wider sense is almost unparalleled. He’s a clear, generous writer.

What advice would you give students graduating in 2019?

The internet is great, but there is no substitute for meeting people in real life. Humans are fundamentally social. One in-person meeting is worth a thousand emails. Get involved in things, especially local design community events and organisations. Go to conferences, if you can. Employers are partially looking for skills, but also looking for personality. Nobody wants to hire a talented asshole.

What’s on the cards professionally and personally in the next 12 months?

We’re launching a totally new website, organising to tour There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface exhibition internationally, building a studio and continuing to release new typefaces.

Websites: klim.co.nz and goods.klim.co.nz

Instagram: @klimtypefoundry

Twitter: @klimtypefoundry

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