An interview with Sawdust Studio

April 16, 2014 , In: Interviews

Keeping our series of interviews rolling, this week we’ve been lucky enough to talk to Rob Gonzalez and Jonathan Quainton, the pair of heavyweight design legends who make up Sawdust studio. Known globally for creating striking and memorable brand identities, and doing things with typography that blows even our font-filled brains, Sawdust are award-winning designers, and they have not one but two fonts available exclusively at HypeForType.

Sawdust is a studio with a huge number of awards and titles to its name (congratulations!) – which ones do you think you worked hardest to achieve? What’s the crowning glory?

Jon: We have picked up a fair bit of recognition since we began which is encouraging but we rarely think about winning awards, there are so many great artists out there and judging all this great work is a subjective affair.

We were pleased to have been involved in the AIGA InsideOut SF exhibition as one of eighteen selected to represent the UK alongside the likes of Peter Saville, Pentagram, and Spin to name a few. Special thanks to Jamie Ellul and Matt Judge for pointing us in the right direction.

The variety of work you’ve done is also vast. What kind of projects do you really love to work on? Which bring the most satisfaction at the end of a job well done?

Jon: It is nice to keep the variety in the work we do — by approaching projects in different ways it helps us keep the approach fresh and exciting, which can also lead to new ideas for future projects. The most satisfying projects are the ones that start small and somehow take on a life of their own expanding into other areas and inspiring other projects.

Rob: We enjoy working on any project that allows us to think in an interesting way. For instance last year we worked on a university ranking book — typically these catalogue-style books can be very dry, very content heavy and often uninspiring so we’re pleased to have smashed those preconceptions and deliver a job that is visually inspiring and progressive.

It’s satisfying when you exceed your clients expectations and surprise them.

Back in 2010, Print Magazine ran a competition for the Carry Hope project, inviting some of their favourite designers to compete for a great cause. Designing a tote-bag for a charity of their choice, Sawdust selected the British Heart Foundation and used a visually distinct blend of shape, pattern, and type to create a memorable and meaningful motif. This clever play on the pumping of blood and the beating of a heart won Sawdust the competition, and proceeds from the sale of the bags went directly to the represented charity.


A lot of your work features a huge variety of typefaces quite centrally to the designs. What kind of impact does typography have on your designs?

Rob: We have always gravitated towards using typography as a creative outlet mainly because it’s such a natural way to communicate. Working with other people’s fonts always proved challenging for us so we eventually felt more comfortable creating our own.

Jon: As typography plays a key role in probably 90% of our work it becomes a crucial element for us to get right. Being able to produce bespoke typography helps set us apart from other designers and becomes an important asset for our clients’ visual communication.

One of Sawdust’s many type-centric projects has been The Esquire Eighty, with their design featuring on the front cover and throughout the book released by Esquire to commemorate their 80th year. Esquire as a brand has a set of extremely well defined and important values, centred around style and trend, representing the pinnacle of ambition and aspiration for many. Sawdust captured the essence of this with just two glyphs.

Sawdust Esquire 80s

How important is typography to your designs? How does it influence the work you do?

Jon: Typography is very important to us — we think of it as the foundation on which our ideas formulate. For us typography is not just a tool for communication it is also the art or visual aesthetic that can draw on human emotions.

You’ve used typography in some really interesting ways, like the concept pasta and the poster for Wired. What are the influences behind those uses? What is the design process like?

Jon: Those particular projects were conceptually driven — the Wired type treatment was directly influenced by the headline — a literal interpretation of what the headline read. All the parts were photographed then pieced together using photoshop.

The Monomyth pasta project was a collaboration between Sawdust, art director Andrew Stellitano and photographer Dominic Davies based on bringing typography and food together. The concept typographically depicts the three main stages of the narrative in Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth structure: Departure, Initiation and Return.

We were tasked with developing letterforms that would eventually be laser cut from pasta and beautifully shot by still life photographer Dominic Davies. Each of the three final artworks were constructed using real laser cut pasta (for the letterforms) and raw ingredients then set in filmic environments.

The type in this project would later be developed to become Lunetta.

This exciting (and delicious) experimental collaboration, Lunetta is an exciting typeface which toes the line between geometric and curvaceous. An extremely tactile and memorable display font with two weights which complement each other perfectly. The single-line creation of each character gives Lunetta an indelible quality which lends dynamism and a sense of kinesics to every use.

Lunetta and NewModern are two fonts which are both exquisite, but they are vastly different. Where did the different inspirations for these designs come from?

Rob: NewModern was born from an experiment that centralised around creating a radical, contemporary version of a classic Didone font style. Our goal was to blend strict geometry with fluid lines — the result was NewModern.

Lunetta was originally developed and put forward as a logo proposal. The design was never used but when we were approached by Andrew Stellitano about creating some type to be laser cut out of pasta of all things, this design sprung to mind. Having a continuous line running through each letterform meant the type could be freestanding and later photographed. For this collaboration only three words were created so when HFT approached us about another release we quickly decided it had to be Lunetta.

Have you ever used either fonts in projects?

Rob: We have done yes — it was never our intention to turn Lunetta into a fully functional typeface so we had been working with it and incorporating it into various other designs beforehand.

NewModern has been one of HypeForType’s most successful fonts, and continues to be a top seller. People are drawn to the unique duality between light and heavy which makes NewModern so vivacious and enticing. Capturing the eye of the reader, the typeface breathes the life and times of the 21st century, its sleek shapes representative of an idealistic attitude of achievement and success, shared across humanity as the driving force behind the success of the human race.

How do you feel the fonts are best suited for use? What would their ideal applications be?

Rob: The beauty behind creating a font is the ‘letting go’. We have seen NewModern used in ways that we would never have expected, which is a good thing. There should be no ‘ideal’ application in my opinion. Experimentation and the capacity to surprise is what makes a font exciting.

Have you ever unexpectedly come across a use of either fonts? What was that like?

Rob: Not long after its release we spotted NewModern donning the windows of Dune (a retail fashion brand) which was unexpected.

Since then we regularly run into NewModern and it’s always a surprise. The majority of the time it seems to be used in editorial pieces often fashion based.

One of the true testaments to a designer’s creative aptitudes is the ability to create something breathtaking within any functional criteria. Sawdust’s skill and ingenuity is displayed in a way which very few could match through the numerals they created for the Shanghai Jiao Tong Top 200 Research Universities book. With a firm grasp on the subject matter, the slick ribbon-like design of the numerals convey both the competitive nature of university rankings and the modern, forward-thinking nature of research centres in particular.

Sawdust shanghai numerals

What fonts do you love, and find yourselves coming back to again and again? And what fonts do you hate?

Rob: We like Avenir and Avenir Next, there seems to be an unassuming charm about it that never fails to seduce us.

You can see more from this astonishingly talented duo at their website, but not before you buy NewModern and Lunetta, available exclusively at HypeForType. You can also read more interviews with some of the modern day’s top type talents at the HypeForType blog.