Jesse Ragan is a letterer and maker of really, really beautiful typography. He spends his days creating unique typefaces in his studio located in a former pencil factory (Perfect, right? It’s also the same building where the Design*Sponge office is located!) and recording his daily inspirations on his new blog. Jesse’s work has a liveliness to it, thanks to his combination of hand drawing and computer techniques. I’m so completely inspired by Jesse — I wish I could take one of the classes he teaches at Type@Cooper, a typeface-design certification program that he also co-founded. Read on for more from this talented gent! — Ginny
All photos taken in Jesse’s studio by Max Tielman
1. Design*Sponge: What is in your toolbox? What are the tools you can’t live without?
Jesse Ragan: For sketching and note taking, I use Muji’s simple ruled books. They’re cheap, so I can focus on getting ideas down rather than making a beautiful object. For more precise drawings, I use mechanical pencils, a click eraser, and grid trace paper, like Clearprint Fade-Out vellum. The grid keeps my drawings consistent, and the translucency allows me to erase and redraw on alternating sides to refine shapes.
I spend the majority of my time using RoboFont and other specialized programs. Most of the software I use was programmed by other typeface designers when the tools they wanted to use didn’t exist. My 1200 dpi laser printer is another crucial tool. It’s helpful to evaluate my work away from the screen, and nothing beats high-resolution print. I mark up my printouts in red pen and then go through my notes onscreen afterward.
2. Design*Sponge: Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel _____________.”
The full interview continues after the jump . . .
3. Design*Sponge: What is on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?
Jesse Ragan: I keep a bunch of old books about typefaces and lettering at my desk, and I pull them down for reference on a regular basis. By analyzing the decisions designers have made in the past, and understanding their successes and failures, I can get to a good result more quickly.
4. Design*Sponge: How do you keep yourself organized? Do you have an agenda book, and do you make to-do lists?
Jesse Ragan: I use Workflowy to organize to-do lists, notes, and lecture outlines. For a daily to-do list that’s not as overwhelming, I usually keep a plain text document open on my computer, with my immediate tasks prioritized.
5. Design*Sponge: If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?
Jesse Ragan: Unlimited time! I never feel like I have enough. It takes so long to finish a big typeface family, especially working alone. Recently, I was working on a type family that has 60 font styles: six weights and five widths, in Roman and Italic. It’s a lot to keep track of.
6. Design*Sponge: What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist/designer?
Jesse Ragan: When I was a student at RISD, my teacher Cyrus Highsmith warned me not to hold onto my ideas as precious commodities. You’ll never really run out, and getting stuck on one idea makes it harder to come up with new ones. I still struggle with that.
7. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks?
Jesse Ragan: Earlier this year I moved to a shared studio space in the old Faber pencil factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. There are a bunch of tremendously talented illustrators and designers in the building. We get into some interesting discussions, which helps to keep my creative energy flowing. If I get stuck, I make a note of where I stopped, then walk around to see what other people are working on.
8. Design*Sponge: Where do you like to shop for inspiration?
Jesse Ragan: I feel like I don’t have to look for inspiration, since I’m bombarded with letterforms all day every day. Living in New York, the amount of typographic visual stimulation can be overwhelming. I take a lot of photos of interesting signage lettering and refer to them later for inspiration. Now that I’ve taken a bunch of these photos, I just launched a blog to share them publicly: We Will Be Close.
9. Design*Sponge: If you could peek inside the studio/toolbox of any designer/artist/craftsperson, whose would it be and why?
Jesse Ragan: Rudolph Ruzicka. Since he was largely self-taught as a typeface designer, I’d be curious to see what techniques he used.
10. Design*Sponge: If you could make a master mix-tape of music that is inspiring you at the moment, what would it include?
Jesse Ragan: Gabriel Kahane, Owen Pallett, Stephen Sondheim. I enjoy music that combines elements of classical and popular music, especially if its complexity is just beyond my grasp. When I really need to concentrate deeply, my ace in the hole is Philip Glass’s opera, Einstein on the Beach. It resonates with the repetitive but nuanced tasks of typeface design. It’s like the sound of human and machine becoming one.