Mitch Paone: All That Jazz

ADC Young Guns 8 winner brings a musical approach to type and graphic design

 ADC and Monotype‘s Typography & Lettering Month continues — right on into a second month. Yes, there too many type geeks and lettering nerds within the ADC community to squeeze into April, and so we have expanded this celebration of letterforms into May. 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.

Today’s featured ADC Member is also an ADC Young Guns 8 winner, so you know he has plenty of creative chops, but Mitch Paone also brings plenty of wisdom and insight to the table.


Graphic Designer / Type Designer
TriBeCa, NY



Where did this crazy adventure in lettering all begin?

Looking back at my childhood I had a fairly intense creative upbringing. The way I see it now that it was more clever parenting than anything. I was a real handful growing up and constantly needed constructive outlets to put my energy otherwise I would be getting into trouble. To deal with this my parents put me in just about every extracurricular activity possible both in sports and the arts. What was particularly beneficial was the amount of artistic avenues I was able to explore at such a young age. By about 18 years old I had either sampled or was studying the piano, singing, drawing, painting, and even acting. All of this was a very constructive outlet for my hyperactive energy level. The exposure to all of these creative outlets would ultimately would lay the foundation for my career.

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

I’ve made a career more or less out of handling letterforms rather than designing them. I’ve always had a fascination with type because it is both functional and beautiful simultaneously. The way a graphic designer handles the type or the aesthetic of a type designers font provides the artistic personality to how the we perceive a communicated message. I relate this to the way “timbre” is used in music or speaking. Tibre meaning the character of a specific sound whether that’s a voice or from a musical instrument. Typography and type design is the tibre. Type breathes the desired personality into the written message. I find the very subtle combination of art and function very alluring.

I never really thought too much about the career implications about typography and type design specifically. To me, possessing strong typographic skills is paramount to becoming a great designer. Beyond thinking conceptually the ability build structure and hierarchy in a beautiful way solely using type is the most important task a graphic designer will have. I believe if anyone puts the lifelong hard effort and time into honing these skill and loves doing it naturally a career path will materialize. The goal should be focused on your craft not the end result.

Beyond the typography work I’ve spent the last 3-ish years dedicating a lot of energy into learning type design. This path has been for the most part self initiated and self-taught. Recently, my friend, mentor and master type designer Matteo Bologna has taken me under his wings teaching me the more nuanced details of type design which has dramatically sped up my development in the area. Luckily, I can share some tips in music theory and animation as a fair trade for his brilliant lessons and sharp eye! Within the last few months or so the hard work is starting to translate into typefaces that might have commercial potential.

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’d like to hope the aesthetic of DIA’s work is a result of our strategic creative process placing emphasis on our client’s business versus our personal taste.

Do you fight against having a telltale style, or do you embrace it as your brand?

Since our work is primarily in brand identity I think it’s irresponsible to impose stylistic preference onto clients. Branding work should be strategic. It needs to be both an honest and conceptual reflection of a business’s mission, product/service. Since our creative process is rooted in the much of the methodologies of the Bauhaus and Modernism this may translate into an aesthetic point of view in our work but it’s not a deliberate style.

For my personal foray into type design it’s a little different, I’m currently interested creating typefaces that have a sneaky twist on tradition. What i’ve learned through my jazz music background is that music performance and composition is most effective when you challenge with the listener’s expectations. What is to say this can’t be done in type design or graphic design? In music there is the this strange area where you can play something intentionally “wrong” but it is done with such conviction and precision that it becomes irrefutable. The result is often a strong visceral response listener leaving them with a polarizing impression of what they heard. This is the artistic approach to my current type design work. Typefaces that can perform well technically but leave the viewer scratching their head trying to figure why they love it or hate it so much. Regardless of someone’s criticism the goal is create a memorable impression. Say if Ed Benguiat was taking art direction from Emil Ruder. Voila, you get modernist type jazz! I think that could be pretty interesting.

“… music performance and composition is most effective when you challenge with the listener’s expectations. What is to say this can’t be done in type design or graphic design?”

Walk us through your usual creative process. How do you brainstorm?

Our projects generally come through referrals or RFPs. I won’t bore you with the full branding exercise but the creative process is the most interesting part so i’ll focus on that.

we spend as much time needed reading and gathering as much information and imagery on a project’s subject matter. If the client is a photographer for example. We read up and collect imagery on just about everything to do with photography, cameras, film, exposure process, lenses, lighting… In addition we read up on the function and history of these details as well so we really understand the subject as much as possible. Our research folders are somewhat absurd filled with 1000s of images all organized into specific categories so we can keep track of it all.

Conceptual Reps-
Using the imagery we collected we begin to create sketches based on visual cues from the each category. For example, we would generate artboards full of sketches that just deal with the view finder aspect of the photography. Then another round on lenses, then another round on lighting. And so on. Also, it’s very important that we have zero attachment to work. We make a point to pass our files back and forth keeping the ownership to the entire office versus the individual designer. More collective brain power = more possibilities! Also there is a deliberate reason we call this “reps”. This basically brain exercise. We are pumping ideas until we are completely exhausted. It is critical that we do not worry about making things “look good” during this exercise. We are only searching for something conceptually powerful.

Criticism & Aesthetics –
Once we have identified a few conceptual territories that seem to resonate with the team. In this stage we are developing a design system that supports the visual concept and using our research on the the project’s audience to drive the “look” of the work. Much like the prior phase we generate as much iteration on the layouts, typographic systems, color palettes as possible. Once we have exhausted our options we then few options that have the most engaging impact visually while still being on strategically correct. Once we wrap up this phase we tidy up everything for presentation.

Overall, allowing yourself to get in a flow of generate work without personal criticism and and being wholeheartedly collaborative pushes the work to it’s outer limits. Since design (particularly branding) is rarely for us personally we need to be able to hand it off like a thoughtful gift for a friend. Aside from the the business aspect I feel this type of work somewhat of a selfless form of creatively since it’s done for others. If we are too attached to the work we suffer and then our creativity freezes.

Our creative brainstorm begins once we have collected enough conceptual and formal research on a project / brand’s content, product or subject matter. We use this material to inspire what we call the “reps” phase of our creative process. Repping is literally generating all possible iterations of a visual concept as fast as possible not caring about the way things “look”.

It’s sorta like a stream of consciousness sketching from whether that’s on paper or on computer it doesn’t matter.

What is your favorite ‘practical’ typeface, one for everyday use? What about more decorative typefaces?

Plain by Francois Rappo. It’s unbelievably well drawn and somehow finds its own unique place among the staple grotesk typefaces such as Akzidenz, Universe and Helvetica…

Dan Rhatigan’s Ryman Eco is interesting because its decorative quality serves the functional purpose of saving ink.

Who wins in a fight: serif or sans serif?

The block serif is a real sandbagger.

“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?

Thank god for Apple. They’re one example almost any non-designer can relate to when it comes to design and branding. I generally break down the reasons why they are successful corporation and how design and branding have a huge influence on why that’s the case.

Most people don’t get the type design thing because it’s a craft that takes a particularly trained eye to understand. To most there is no difference between Antique Olive and Univers and that’s totally OK. This is pretty similar with my jazz music background. There is always those people that say “it just sounds like a bunch of notes”. But if this is what we enjoy doing at the end of the day who cares what they think. I do believe however there great design both aesthetically and especially conceptually resonates to everyone regardless of the general population’s lack of education in the field.

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

I can’t say I have a favorite project as I tend to look back and see what improvements need be made in everything. Our project for fashion photographer Greg Sorensen marks a pivotal point in our studio’s development. In my opinion it was the first time we were able to create a conceptually driven flexible, responsive living breathing identity system. You are thinking WTF does that even mean!? I wont go on an on about it so here is the link, and you can decide whether its successful. That’s what matters anyway, right?


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 would love for us to create an identity for a (or all of the) major NYC musical cultural institution(s). My life has been inspired by music and it drives so much of my personal and DIA’s creative force. Afterall, I’ve been studying music and playing piano for almost 15 years prior to the first time I opened up Photoshop! It just makes sense that an opportunity like this presents itself someday.

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?

The most difficult thing about making a career in design is detailing with the whirlwind of personalities. Egos, and personal tastes generally don’t align what the true goal of a project so it’s important that you are very sensitive and empathic that way you can navigate every situation with a level of diplomacy. However, at the end of the day you still want to maintain ethical and creative integrity and this a challenging feat. I often say brand identity work is 90% psychology 10% percent creativity. Making sure your clients are educated in your process and convincing them to take risks is more difficult to than coming up with good ideas. Without this skill your creative work will rarely see the light of day.

“…at the end of the day you still want to maintain ethical and creative integrity and this a challenging feat. I often say brand identity work is 90% psychology 10% percent creativity.”

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

I’ve been playing piano with a focus in jazz for almost 30 years. My interest and study in all aspects of music has had a major impact on my creative process and is ingrained into how DIA operates. Beyond music, my interests Astronomy, Astrophysics and Zen Buddhism have been a very intense source of inspiration both in life and work. All theses things deal with the understanding of nature, energy and the universe and they really put human life in perspective.

“It is the knowledge that I’m going to die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive”

– Neil Degrasse Tyson

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

Francois Rappo, Radim Peso and Ludovic Balland. These three designers to me are trailblazers in the type design and typography world. Their work is has a strong point of view but all of its is based of a tremendous amount of fundamental skill and study.

Philipp Hubert and Matteo Bologna are both friends and personal mentors. I have great admiration for both of their work.

Philipp’s keen and harsh criticism always pushes my work to better and an unexpected places than I would imagine. I enjoy his brutal honesty comes from a caring place so I’m all ears. His mentorship have dramatically improved my compositional and typographic skills.

Matteo’s mentorship is very similar too. He too is never short of a harsh piece of feedback however lucky for him it’s hidden in in an italian accent! My journey into type design would be really a dead end without his help.

Both Matteo and Philipp are perfect examples on the importance of a mentor apprentice relationship. Outside of your office and personal study it’s important to surround yourself with people that are far more talented than you and open yourself up so learn as much as you can from them. To me this is the best and fastest way to grow.

“…it’s important to surround yourself with people that are far more talented than you and open yourself up so learn as much as you can from them. “

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

Just like my love for jazz music, it’s a lifelong quest of learning. With type there is always something new, different and interesting around each corner.

Oh, and one last note! Don’t take yourself seriously, take your work seriously! It’s important that we take a wholehearted effort into everything we create and not let personal and external criticism deter that path. Whether it’s a typeface, business card layout, poster, or even an email signature. Ardently treat it like there will be no tomorrow and then your full creative potential reveals itself.

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