Joseph Alessio: Ex Nihilo

Self taught Denver-based ADC Member loves his interrobangs

 ADC and Monotype‘s Typography & Lettering Month is winding down, but we still have quite a few more ADC Members to showcase to the world! Whether you’re designing brand new digital fonts for the world to use, or whether you’re creating free-flowing calligraphy to adorn a wall, you guys know that there is more to written words than just their meaning.

Next up: a Denver-based ADC Member whose self-taught typographic skills “fulfill the nerdiest corners of my soul.”


Typographic Illustrator & Animator
Denver, CO



Where did this crazy adventure in lettering all begin?

My upbringing was unconventional — I was homeschooled in a family of 9, which necessitates creativity in a lot of ways; nearly everything you learn is well outside the cultural normative, so you’re always looking at things a little differently. My family was very musical as well, and I was constantly drawing. In fact, I credit my early fascination with letters to a basic calligraphy book of my older brother’s. In the absence of proper calligraphy tools, I copied the fraktur and uncials with a pencil — and that was my first experience of lettering!

What made you realize that you wanted to make a career out of this, and what convinced you it was even possible?

I didn’t realize that illustration, and specifically illustration of letterforms, was a viable career option until I was college-age and trying to figure my shit out as a self-taught web designer. Dribbble provided an outlet and a lot of great feedback, and I was able to slowly work toward turning my love of letterforms into my primary source of income. I’ve never had formal education, but I’ve spent an obscene number of hours in study and practice. If you set your mind to anything, you can get there, even without taking a traditional route; rarely easy, but always possible.

“If you set your mind to anything, you can get there, even without taking a traditional route; rarely easy, but always possible.”

How would you best describe your style in a sentence? Do you fight against having a telltale style, or do you embrace it as your brand?

I think I’d say I create quality letterforms paired with imaginative concepts, making words into images and vice versa. I don’t think I have a defined style per se, as I enjoy working in a broad variety of media and styles, but there are sensibilities that come out in any sort of work that I produce. I think the underlying themes of self-education, an obsession with letterform quality and respect for other creatives are major aspects.


Walk us through your usual creative process. How do you know when you’re “finished”?

Projects nearly always come in via email, usually through the contact form on my site. I’ll often direct an inquirer to a quote request form to gather info about what their needs are, their budget, timeline, etc. etc. I usually brainstorm on paper but I’ve recently been experimenting with an iPad Pro, which does a commendable job of mimicking the hand-drawing experience, with less of a ‘blank page syndrome’ because it’s so easy to erase and start over.

‘Finished’ usually means the deadline is there! I love minutiae and could often continue tweaking and improving infinitesimally for hours longer than necessary, but the deadlines mercifully cut this short and force me to ship without overthinking too long.

Everybody’s got a favorite brand of marker, a favorite kind of ink, that pencil with just the right amount of heft. What are yours, and why do you swear by them?

I don’t really stick to any particular tool — let’s just say I have commitment issues. In all seriousness, though, I try to keep things fresh by varying processes and media as much as I can. I don’t know if this counts, but my primary tool — no matter the medium — is careful study of letterforms and composition.

What’s your favorite letter of the alphabet when it comes to experimenting with design? Why is that your favorite? (Ampersands don’t count!)

I’d say an interrobang, but that’s not really alphabetical either. K’s, Q’s and Z’s are all pretty close contenders for my favorite; unfortunately they’re not commonly used characters, but the swashilicious opportunities give them an edge.

Who wins in a fight: serif or sans serif?

I’d say it’s a toss-up — sans serifs tend to be in a higher weight class, but serifs have claws!

“Wait, what is that you do again?” How do you explain what you do for a living to people who aren’t in creative fields? What’s the thing they can’t quite grasp about it?

I usually introduce myself as an illustrator—most often ‘designer’ is taken to mean I do interiors. If I have more than a few seconds to talk, though, I’ll try to concisely relay my delight in turning letterforms and language into images. Language and advertising are both nearly universal experiences, so it doesn’t take too long to explain!


Tell us about your favorite project to date. What set it apart from everything else?

Favorite project is very hard to say. There’ve been a couple exciting ones that unfortunately didn’t make it. One of my favorites I think was not a major project but was a lot of fun and turned out really well — this piece for Ismael Burciaga and the Circles Conference. It came out very playful, colorful and the medium and copy melded really well.

What would be your dream project/assignment/client? What’s something you’ve never had the opportunity to do thus far, but would kill for that chance?

I’d really love to do more installations and really large-scale work; I’ve generally been limited to smaller sizes due to practical constraints but I’m looking for ways to let my imagination really run free! Anyone with a cool office wanting some creative dimensional typographic art on your walls — get at me! In terms of dream clients, I’d really love to do some work for an MLB team (go Tigers!), a top-tier symphony, or an automaker — I grew up in Detroit, after all! I also don’t ski or skate nearly as much as I used to, but doing work for snowboards, skate decks or skis is a long-time goal of mine.

What is the most difficult thing about making a career out of what you do? How do you get around that, and what advice would give to others facing similar challenges?

It’s never easy to build a business ex nihilo, and particularly a creative business where you have to convince people that what you do is worth paying for. I’d say the most important thing to remember is to believe in yourself and not give up. The counterpoint to this is that without a lot of hard work, it won’t happen—so don’t be discouraged and quit on your dreams if it doesn’t happen quickly enough, if you invest the effort and time necessary it will start to pay dividends.

“It’s never easy to build a business ex nihilo, and particularly a creative business where you have to convince people that what you do is worth paying for.”

What other creative outlets do you have? Where else do you find inspiration?

Music is huge for me personally! I play (unofficially) seven instruments, and have fiddled around with a few more. I listen to a lot of music, and have played in string quartets and orchestras and folk environments. It’s something of an escape or solace for me. It when I run into creative block or simply need to express myself. Someday I’ll complete all those songs that I’ve left half-finished, record them and put it out there for the interwebs to judge—someday! Other than music, I love literature and poetry (again, language is important to me in all its forms), film, getting outdoors—all these things refresh my mind and often provide ideas.

Which professionals do you look up to the most in the typography/lettering world and why? Have you had any creative mentors?

I could include a massive list here—there’s no end of generous, inspiring people. Claire Coullon and Danielle Evans are my longest-standing friends in the lettering world, both of whom are lovely people and have been integral in how I’ve developed as a lettering artist. Jon ContinoJen MussariRob ClarkeDominique Falla are all delightfully warm and friendly humans. I really look up to Craig WardSean Freeman, Dominic Le-Hair, some guys with a great high-concept approach and enviable execution. I could fill a novel with names here! 

I haven’t had mentors in the proper sense of the word. There’ve been a lot of people of whom I’ve asked questions and people who’ve generously given guidance and thoughts—but again, too many to list!

When all is said and done, what do you love most about being a typographer or letterer?

Honestly what excites me most about working with words is the opportunity to imbue words with visual meaning, straddling the line between language and visual communication, combining things that fascinate me and seeing others enjoy what I do with them. It fulfills the nerdiest corners of my soul and simultaneously gets me out of my comfort zone to be more playful with it all. It’s a privilege and a responsibility to shape communication, and I enjoy it in all its aspects.

Typography & Lettering Month takes place throughout April and May, and is open exclusively to ADC Members. Not yet a Member? Join today!

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