Typography Spotlight: Mitch Paone

ADC Young Guns 8 winner breaks down the difference between typographers, type designers and more

ADC and Monotype’s Typography Month continues, alongside our ever popular Typography Spotlight!

Just like last year’s Photography Month and Illustration Month, 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.

For today’s Typography Spotlight, we check in with a jazz musician and future sommelier who just happens to also be a kickass designer and ADC Young Guns 8 winner on the side.

New York, NY, USA



 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?

Surprisingly, I took an interest to type at quite an early age. I thought it was cool in grade school to draw my friend’s names in elaborate 3D and bubble lettering. Also, it seemed to impress the girls in my classes then so thought it was a good flirting ticket too 😉 .

I knew fairly early that I had a keen interest in working with type as a potential career path. In seventh grade I read a book of professions and something clicked when I read the description of a graphic designer. At that time I used to trace and try and redraw skateboard and snowboard logos, also I had somewhat of a fetishized interest in graffiti and tagging even though I never really explored that kind of art seriously. That being said it was fairly clear that I was going to study design in some capacity from that point on.

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

I suppose it’s a bit of both. My schooling laid the foundation of my interest however I would say it was severely lacking in good typographic training. I would say my current typographic skill set is a product of my rigorous continued study of the craft both from a historical and technical standpoint. Typography like many other artistic endeavors is a life long study therefore I don’t think it is a thing that one can completely master in its entirety. I find great pleasure in things that take a life long pursuit and typography is definitely one that is incredibly satisfying and challenging simultaneously.

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

Our (DIA’s) core focus is on brand identity work, therefore our typographic direction has to be relevant to each project. We go through an almost gratuitous process on typeface selection and typographic development for each project to make sure it works both conceptually and captures the right aesthetic. I would say we (DIA) do not have an aesthetic style for type or design but structured process that gives our work its thumbprint.

I personally fall in the category of designers that focus on conceptual problem solving versus the decorative illustration side. That being said, if I do lean toward a style it would be the “International Typographic Style” or “Swiss Style” because the typography delivers the copy or written content without a decorative voice. Very much a no BS approach to design.

Walk us through your usual type design process.

Loads and loads of research always is the beginning of a type design, lettering, or design project. For me, you need to know art history, and world history quite well to actually select or create a typeface. Typography is an aesthetic expression of a period of time in history therefore a typeface is loaded with good or bad baggage that you need to fully aware of when crafting a design.

On a very granular level a designer needs to really understand the cultural and historical baggage typography brings to design. Type in a way is marxist art history in letterform. Furthermore, typography carries geographic implications as well. Theres a reason why say Knockout (HTF) feels very American, FF Meta (Erik Spiekermann) feels very German or why Futura (Paul Renner) connotes a bauhaus aesthetic. A typographer needs to really understand these cultural and historical references to make confident typographic decisions in graphic design.

“When one truly understands how to combine the historical, and contextual references of a typeface and then handle it with meticulous craftsmanship, the results can be absolutely sublime.”

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

This is a tough question. I personally fall back on grotesk typefaces (Helvetica, Akzidenz…) because they are very neutral. Luckily there are many contemporary spins on these typefaces such as “F Grotesk” (Radim Pesko) “Graphik” (Commercial Type) “Maison Neue” (Milieu Grotesque) That give a design direction a slightly more unique point of view than say Helvetica would. I prefer this typographic style because it generally produces more timeless neutral design work. There is a reason why a Josef Müller-Brockmann poster still looks very fresh 60+ years later! It’s void of decorative expression.

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

I’ve always been fond of a capital R. and secondarily the B and P too. I really like Rs because they make a or break a typeface for me. They carry a lot of personality and can dramatically change an aesthetic of a typeset depending on which typeface you select. Typefaces like LL Brown (Lineto) Dada Grotesk (Optimo) Circular (Lineto) I think are really good examples of my affinity towards the R character.

Who wins in a fight: serif or sans serif?

A serif will cut you but a sans will knock you out!

The obvious difference between an illustrator and a letterer 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.

To help define this matter in my opinion…

An illustrator is one with an individual aesthetic that is very personal to them. i.e.. Mike Perry.

A letterer is still some what of an illustrator but mainly focuses on hand drawn or custom type styles and is intentionally more versatile stylistically that an illustrator. i.e.. Erik Marinovich

A type designer designs the typeface i.e.. ADC Young Guns 8 winner Kris Sowersby.

A typographer handles the typeface i.e.. ADC Young Guns 5 winner Alex Lin.

To make things more confusing there are many cross over type designers and typographers.

I consider myself an primarily a typographer, a type design hobbyist and an occasional letterer. As a branding focused graphic designer I believe you need versatility in your skills to be able to tackle a the wide range of projects so all of this skills come in handy day in day out. This especially come comes in handy when you are collaborating directly with an expert letterer, an type designer or illustrator because you will be able to properly communicate your creative direction in a clear way.

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

Aside from my hobby/profession as a graphic designer I am a recording Jazz Musician / Pianist. I’ve produced a handful of records over the years and used to perform often the NYC music scene before I opened up DIA. Perfecting my playing technique combined with expanding my musical vocabulary will always serve as a inspiring lifelong challenge. Also, my time as a bandleader has heavily influenced what my role is as a Creative Director at DIA. Good ensemble chemistry produces far stronger work versus prescriptive monarchical leadership in my opinion.

Secondly, I am a huge wine geek and have taken the first levels of the Master Sommelier courses. I very inspired by great winemakers who year in year out face mother nature and deal with endless variables in the quest of creating a sublime beverage.

Lastly, I have an infatuation with astrophysics, quantum mechanics and astronomy. I find those scientific practices force you to be humble and modest because they really keep things in perspective. The realization that we are extremely insignificant to the age and vastness of the cosmos keeps our ego’s in check.

I suppose you could say in a I’m inspired by the things that I never will understand or master in a lifetime. Those are the things that fuel my creative energy.

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

There are so many! I’ll try and pare this list down…

Type Design:
Laurenz Brunner
Aurèle Sack
Radim Pesko
Anthony Sheret
Kris Sowersby

Kasper Florio
Alex Lin
Zak Kyes

Erik Marinovich
Tony Dispigna

What is the most challenging thing about your career?

Selling creative through to clients. Most clients aren’t savvy when it comes to design so they require a bit of education on the value it brings especially in brand identity work. Getting work approved is all about having really great concepts combined with a strong strategic framework and presenting that with great charisma and a bit of theatre. Additionally, we refuse to present work that doesn’t meet our design standards to ensure all of our work that hits the public domain has an intrinsic quality that reflects our studio’s ethos.

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

The seemingly simple act of laying out text in actuality is extremely complex if done correctly. When one truly understands how to combine the historical, and contextual references of a typeface and then handle it is with meticulous craftsmanship, the results can be absolutely sublime.