Typography Spotlight: Jon Contino

Don't call this ADC Young Guns winner a "letterer"

The first week of ADC and Monotype‘s Typography Month has been cruising along, giving love to the type addicts and lettering geeks within the ADC community (we know there’s a lot of you!)

Just like last year’s Photography Month and Illustration Month, ADC Typography Month features a daily Typography Spotlight, highlighting ADC Members and Young Guns who love working with words and letters. Some of the names are already famous within the design community, while others will be new for you to discover, but all of them are card-carrying ADC Members from around the world.

The next designer to step into the Typography Spotlight definitely falls into the “already famous within the design community”: the ‘New Yawk’ alphastructaesthetitologist and ADC Young Guns 9 winner.


portrait1JON CONTINO
New York, NY, USA

(718) 395-2480
New Business: Ben Arditti (773) 818-4438


Where did your interest in typography begin? It’s generally not something kids in kindergarten aspire to be. When did you discover that you could actually make a living out of it?

You laugh now, but in kindergarten, that is exactly what I was doing. I had an intense obsession with sports branding and movie posters from before I even started any type of schooling, and would literally sit on the floor and draw monograms and logos all day. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I even knew how to read or write yet, but I loved the shapes and was constantly tracing and trying to copy things that grabbed my attention.

My mother and grandmother got me hooked on calligraphy at a really young age as well, so I just enjoyed drawing letters. I can even remember old sketchbooks that had various stylized “alphabets” for pages and pages. Just me drawing letters in all different ways.

As for making a living, I’m not quite sure. When I started working professionally at 14 years old, it still didn’t dawn on me that it could be a career. It was a part time job doing something I liked for cash. I don’t think it was until college when I realized that all of my projects could gang up and become a yearly salary.

How much of your ability is self-taught versus through schooling?

Everything I know from a technical aspect is self-taught. My mother and grandmother had a big part in supplying the tools, buying me books, and taking me to exhibits at a young age. Everything after that was just the lack of control over my obsession with design.

How would you best describe your style? How did you foster that style? Do you tend to lean towards one type of lettering?

I’ve always been kind of sloppy when it comes to drawing anything. I’m not a tight, technical artist by any means. I’ve always embraced the idea of raw concept through art, but the designer in me is dedicated to organizing and compartmentalizing all of that stuff. One of my professors in college called my style “organized chaos” and I always thought that fit me well. When you actually look at my work it might not come across that way, but in my head that’s how I see it. Clean, minimal, Swiss-style design has always been a favorite of mine, so I just kind of put my spin on that. I do however love a good turn-of-the-century print ad though. I can’t deny that from seeping into my work.

“I hate the term ‘letterer.’ It might as well be ‘letterererererer.’ I always thought it sounded lazy and awkward. I refuse to refer to myself with that term.”

Walk us through your usual type design process.

Everything starts on paper first. I draw rough concepts in a sketchbook, I start fine-tuning on paper, and I finalize on paper. Once I’m happy with the work, I bring it into the computer to clean it up and digitize it. Sometimes it’s vector and sometimes it’s not, but typically this is more of the icing on the cake than anything else.

What is your favorite ‘practical’ font, one for everyday use?

The funny this is that I’ve been lettering everything for so long, that I kind of stopped using fonts for everyday use. When I designed the Standard Memorandum, I had to choose a font that I thought I could use every day and never get sick of, and that font is Columbia Titling by Typetanic Fonts. It’s the perfect amount of slab, history, and style all rolled into one insanely flexible typeface.

Do you have a favorite letter of the alphabet when it comes to experimenting with design?

That’s a great question. My initial thought is probably an uppercase R. There’s just so much you can do with it. It can get out of hand pretty quickly actually.

Who wins in a fight: serif or sans serif?

Serif. Always. So much style, so much class.

The obvious difference between an illustrator and a letter or typographer is that the latter works mainly with words and letters. Name a not-so-obvious difference between the artforms, one that certainly applies to you.

I honestly can’t tell the difference between my illustration and lettering work. I think I’m the guy that walks the line right down the middle. When I draw an object or I draw a letter, I’m approaching it in exactly the same fashion. To me, there is no difference between lettering and illustration because the processes and goals are exactly the same. Tell a story using pictures, and to me, an illustrated word is just as much a picture as anything else. There’s certainly another side to that argument, but from my point of view, it’s all one in the same. The second I try to separate it is the second I become someone else. I mean honestly, alphabets started as pictures of things anyway, right? How is that any different?

“To me, there is no difference between lettering and illustration because the processes and goals are exactly the same. Tell a story using pictures, and to me, an illustrated word is just as much a picture as anything else.”

What other artistic passions do you have? Where else do you find inspiration?

Anything that has to do with design in general. I’ve been designing mens clothes for years now. I’ve also started getting into interior design with my wife and photography for her brand, Past Lives. Anything you can put a creative spin on is something I enjoy. At this point in my life, I learned that you don’t have to apply different styles to different mediums just because you’re not proficient. I’ve become really comfortable with the type of artist I am and the style I gravitate towards, so anything creative I put my hands on will generally have the same approach as something I letter or illustrate.

Which professionals do you look up to the most in the typography/lettering world?

Oh man, there are so many. Of course the Herb Lubalins and Doyald Youngs of the world are a no brainer, but I’ll spare everyone the history lesson and name a few contemporary artists instead. Kimou MeyerTodd RadomMichael DoretKen BarberAndy CruzAaron Horkey,Benny Gold and Parra.

What is the most challenging thing about your career?

Keeping up with the pace I set for myself. I seem to be constantly ten steps ahead of myself in terms of what I’m thinking versus producing, so it’s a never ending struggle to try and reach an unreachable goal. Sometimes I just need to sleep and my desire to become better won’t let me. The work is easy, the mental exhaustion through self-competition is the hard part.

At the end of the day, what do you love most about being a typographer or letterer?

This seems like as good a platform as any to say that I hate the term “letterer.” It might as well be “letterererererer.” I always thought it sounded lazy and awkward. I refuse to refer to myself with that term. I think “lettering artist” is acceptable, or my preference, “designer.” Anyway, I just love the fact that lettering is all about creating something custom. Like cabinet making or building a hot rod. You’re taking something that anyone in the world can buy off a conveyor belt and be perfectly happy with, but putting a unique spin on it so it exists for one purpose and one purpose only. The idea of customization is the beautiful part, and to be able to customize a word to enhance the emotion behind it is just an added bonus.