ginny branch stellinginterviewswhat's in your toolbox

What’s in Your Toolbox: Jesse Ragan

by Ginny

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 _____________.”

Jesse Ragan: When I’m in my studio, I feel engaged. Designing typefaces can be a very isolating task, so it’s crucial for me to get out of the house and interact with other creative people.

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.

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  • This is such an interesting art form. The style of letters can convey so much, and I think its often overlooked. I especially love lettering from the 40s and 50s in old magazines, cars, or vintage electronics.

  • Thank you for sharing this! I also have a blog sharing found typography/signage (in Chicago) so I look forward to following Jesse’s blog. It’s also nice to see the traditional materials he works with (i.e. non-computer related).

  • Thanks for the kind words, folks. I will be selling some new typefaces very soon. In the meantime, please let me know if anything on my site catches your eye, and I’ll be happy to discuss licensing options.

  • Can you explain the alphabet poster? No F, G, Y, and the I/J are the same. Inside font joke? :-)

  • Hey Jesse, One of my fondest memories is visiting my uncle, Dr. Robert Leslie, at his typography business in New York City. He was a graphic artist and loved typeface. He was also the most enthusiastic and positive person I have ever met, and that lasted well beyond his 100th birthday! Good luck to you.

  • I was a graphic designer for many years (started back BEFORE digital media) and though I’ve been out of the business for 10 years, I’m curious: why do we really need fonts with 6 weights and 5 widths? Do you think sometimes that with so many choices on the market, its easy for designers to pick the wrong font for the job? I’m especially referring to the trend among magazines to use very thin type in small sizes that get lost over a photo–the printing process -at least on large runs like magazines-hasn’t caught up yet to the complexity of choice in typefaces.

  • I really enjoyed reading this interview- typography is such an interesting form of design and I like any type of design that you can do without a computer. Hand lettering is one of those things that I wish I had more time to do, but for now I’ll just live vicariously :). I loved reading the part about what Jesse does to get through creative blocks and I can’t wait to have a few minutes to check out his blog!

    On a somewhat related note, have any of you seen this video over on Vimeo? Kind of cool. All of the lyrics to a Bob Dylan were hand lettered and then put into a stream of photos…check it out if you haven’t.


  • HA! That “Lettering for Reproduction” book brings back “not so fond” memories of the Typography class I took in art school. My book in floating around the house somewhere. It’s good to see that someone can make a living doing something so incredibly hard as creating letters. I am in awe of you, Jesse!

  • @Jennymontyinsd: The alphabet above my desk is a letterpress proof of wood type from the Museum of the Printing Arts in Leipzig, Germany. (Lucien Bernhard’s typeface Heavy Antique Cursive.) I think the limited alphabet reflects which letters are included in their collection.

  • @Julie: I agree that many typefaces suffer from bloated family size. Not every design needs a wide range of weights and widths. However, large type families give graphic designers a broader palette to choose from. That certainly doesn’t mean they should use every style in a single design, though! Fine typography is all about subtle adjustments. If using a narrower version or an extra light brings greater refinement to a piece of graphic design, then it is a valuable addition to the type family.