27/04/2020
Insight

In conversation with type designer Martin Vácha and DixonBaxi senior creative, Dan Allan on the making of Pluto TV Sans.

As part of the rebrand of Pluto TV we developed a custom typeface with a focus on legibility across many platforms and formats, featuring distinct details unique to the streaming service brand. We catch up with Martin Vácha and Dan Allan about the collaboration, craft and challenges behind its creation.

Getting just the right angle. Detail of one of many work-in-progress refinements.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
MV: I am Martin Vácha, and I founded small independent type-foundry Displaay in 2016. I studied graphic design at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague and had a few internships during my studies. I worked as a graphic designer in Studio Najbrt for 8 years, and a year ago, I quit because of my passion for typefaces and an obsession with creating new forms. My focus is developing typefaces and I often collaborate with a wide range of design studios to craft custom typefaces.

DA: I am Dan Allan, a creative lead at DixonBaxi, my primary goal is to inspire the team around me and ensure that we get the most out of our talented team. I take a lot of pride in being able to work with such big brands but it comes with the responsibility of creating something brave and original, and with the experience I have it’s important that I lead a team from the front but also give them room to flourish.

What was the initial brief for Pluto TV Sans?
DA: The Pluto TV brand was centred around the ‘Portal’ design system, an idea rooted in the planetary origins of the streaming service, and so we also needed a unique touch that captured the qualities of both the new logo we had developed and the off-center attitude of Pluto TV.

We wanted to create a beautiful yet functional typeface family that would give Pluto TV a clear visual voice. We chose a geometric approach to provide legibility and character at all sizes, especially within the UI of the app, and also have the ability to have impact on-air and in out-of-home advertising when we needed to be more epic.

MV: It was to create a sans typeface family which reflected the distinct details of the Pluto TV logotype created by DixonBaxi. To craft a typeface that was precise, highly legible, yet had a dash of character to reflect the slightly quirky attitude of the brand.

We had many conversations with both Martin and the Pluto TV team on the subtle nuance of every character.

Looking at the full character set.

How did you develop and refine the typeface?
DA: Once we’d established a design for the Pluto TV logo – which in itself took many months of exploration and refinement – we knew that the upward angular cuts would play an essential role in the typeface. So we experimented with the degree of the angles to ensure that they worked cohesively. And also which characters needed a cut and which did not.

Another fundamental characteristic of the logo was its tight kerning. As a result, we spent a lot of time to ensure that the metrics and kerning worked when we reduced the tracking without the need to manually kern. We led the process by working with the semi-bold weight, which captured the strength and attitude we wanted across the Pluto TV and allowed us to quickly test the typeface in the context of the brand.

MV: DixonBaxi designed the Pluto TV logotype and chose to initially work with our Gellix typeface as a basis for the custom cut, so we began to modify and craft that typeface. We had a couple of our ideas, DixonBaxi had a couple of their ideas, and there is, of course, the client’s voice, so it was all stirred in few rounds of feedback to lead us on the journey to the final typeface.

Can you tell us the stages of crafting the typeface?
DA: First, we had the exciting experimentation phase, where even the weird and wonderful is relevant. Then we refined a chosen approach that best suited the brand, and its intended application. And finally, we tested the typeface across different brand applications, tweaking it along the way.

MV: Not everybody knows that one of the most critical parts is paperwork. To be honest, not my favourite part, but I always try to do that conscientiously. So the offer, time-schedule, license, NDA, etc. need to be done with precisely the same care we take to refine the typeface. 

We usually do a few rounds with a beta version, and after twelve rounds, in this case, we had a green light to go to the final round. In essence, this includes revision of metrics, kerning, shapes, interpolation, adjusting other technicalities etc. After that, we deliver final files. 

Many who use Pluto TV won’t see the little details - but they are there.

What were the biggest challenges in crafting the typeface?
DA: The biggest challenge in creating a geometric typeface is creating something that feels original. The market is saturated with geometric fonts because they are so effective in what they do, so we had to make sure that ours stood out and was rooted in the overall brand story behind all of the elements that make up the Pluto TV brand system. 

MV: Uniqueness and Chinese support. Please don’t ask us to do this 😉 I believe we always want to execute something new or unique for our clients and I guess they also expect this. At the same time, we know this is an impossible mission. Today with so many fonts, we can only come close to creating uniqueness, and this could even be recreated the next day accidentally or intentionally by someone else.

Tell us about the different weights of Pluto TV Sans.
DA: We crafted 8 different weights for Pluto TV Sans, all the way from Thin to Black. It was really important that we had this variety to give the brand different levels of expression, allowing us to create clear hierarchy for more functional applications of the brand (ie lower thirds) and bold emotive moments throughout promos and marketing. Our key weight was Semi Bold. We felt that it had a great deal of flexibility at multiple sizes and also aligned well with the character of the brand.

MV: The Gellix font itself contains 8 weights, so we had to develop a custom set for Pluto TV Sans for a wide range of uses and expression across the brand. We also customise interpolation values a little bit based on discussion with Dan and his team.

What did you enjoy most about the collaboration?
DA: As with all collaborations, I enjoy learning from the process. We all approach our work differently and have many ways of inspiring our design work, to simply have the opportunity to work with, and learn from, another super-talented type designer was a great opportunity.

MV: You always learn something new, and that’s good. To be honest, I enjoyed the fluid motion graphics which DixonBaxi made for PlutoTV. That’s still a great feeling if you see that fonts you worked on are used beautifully.

The 8 different weights.

The Semi-bold weight is the primary one used across the brand. It had just the right balance of premium, legibility and boldness.

One of many pages that detail type use across different platforms.

Massive billboards take over cities across the US. Simple, iconic - a signal in the noise.

What advice would you give creatives who are crafting their own typefaces?
DA: The most important thing is that it speaks for your brand; the experimentation process is critical. There’s always a desire – fuelled by excitement – to start crafting the design on a Mac too soon, but I can’t stress the importance of sketching enough. To truly align it with the brand, you need to first exhaust all possibilities in a sketchbook, fully exploring the brand system to unlock the thing that makes it unique, functional and beautiful.

MV: Sign an NDA, and we can tell you all secrets! I think there is lots of fantastic creativity in this field. I actually miss tangible technical support. If anyone wants to join our team to support our technical challenges, let me know 😉

The different weights give the Pluto TV team the flexibility to adapt different campaigns and future-proof the brand.

Check out some of Martin’s other typefaces here.