Type Designer at XYZ Type
Jesse
Ragan

Jesse Ragan designs a broad range of typefaces for XYZ Type, which he and Ben Kiel launched in 2017. Beyond making fonts from scratch, Jesse also specializes in customizing lettering for logotypes and helping clients understand how letterforms tick.

Beacon, United States • March 10, 2022

What led you into design?

I like letters. My extroverted side thrills at seeing the things I make out in the world, but my introverted side wants my work to be invisible. Typeface design was a natural fit.

What does a typical day look like?

If I’m being diligent, I start my day by sitting down to plan and prioritize my tasks in my journal/planner, setting my intentions for the day with a coffee in hand. (I started a year ago with the Self Journal, which helped me build the habit, and now I use a loose version of Bullet Journaling.) Being a mostly solitary worker, I don’t have many timed events on my calendar. Journaling has helped to impose structure on my life and keep me focused. When I let that practice slip, the ensuing entropy motivates me to get back on track.

My days are a mix of custom lettering projects for clients, chipping away at the monolithic task of whichever typeface I’m currently developing for retail sale, and administrative tasks for XYZ Type, which I run with my business partner Ben Kiel. Scattered through the week, I have long calls with Ben, client meetings, and mentoring sessions, but otherwise, my schedule is often very open.

Jesse photographing a view of the Hudson River

Life outside of work is much quieter than it was two years ago. After living in Brooklyn, New York for two decades, in 2020 I moved (along with my boyfriend and cat) to Beacon, a small city ninety minutes up the Hudson River. I’m surprised to find how the benefits of peace here can outweigh the excitement of the big city. Since moving here, I’ve made a point of going hiking at least once a week. Living in this beautiful place, with easier access to nature, has been a great antidote to the stress and isolation of the present pandemic.

What’s your workstation setup?

Desk with a laptop and monitor, in front of a bright window and full bookcases
Jesse’s home office

I work primarily in Robofont, supported by extensions/apps like Skateboard, MetricsMachine, Prepolator, and FontGoogles. I’ve reluctantly started tracking my font development files on GitHub so Ben and I can keep in sync. On the business side, I use Cushion to track my time and to keep my projects and invoices organized.

Screenshot of Robofont workspace
Working in Robofont

Where do you go to get inspired?

The overstimulating streets of NYC were my main inspiration for the time that I lived there. It has been a relief to rest my eyes by living in a place where there are not so many letters in my field of vision everywhere I go. Spending more time in nature, my brain relaxes and opens me to new possibilities.

Perhaps I’ve filed away enough snippets of ideas in my head from twenty years in NYC to get me through the next twenty. Memory fades, so I depend on my old street photography collection for reference on projects. I also have about 400 books about lettering and typeface design, which I go back to repeatedly. I could probably get rid of 375 of those and not miss them, but you never know when something will come in handy. I try to minimize the amount of visual research I do on the web.

Photos of lettering, in a grid of thumbnails
Reference photos for the typefaces Escalator and Elevator
Shelves filled with books about typography and lettering
Jesse’s reference library

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I’m fascinated by Kass, a new typeface from Tibor Szikora of Cinketype. It captures a loose rhythm that feels spontaneous and organic yet completely typographic and organized—no small feat in a digital typeface.

Headline text set in the typeface Kass
Kass, designed by Tibor Szikora (Jesse’s pick for an inspiring design)

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

My typeface Study is a tribute to Rudolph Ruzicka, whose work I find endlessly inspiring but underappreciated. It started as one of my earliest serious efforts in type design, and took a long path to completion. I’m proud to finally see it in use and for Ruzicka’s work to have a new audience.

Paragraphs of text and large glyphs set in Study
Samples of the typeface Study

More recently, it was a thrill to see how my clients Champions Design and Order applied my custom lettering for Carnegie Hall and the restaurant Gage & Tollner. Working with them, I was able to help bring new life to these two very different beloved institutions, each over a century old, through dialogue with their typographic histories.

Stylized CH monogram in a red circle
Carnegie Hall monogram
Gage & Tollner logo in gilded lettering on window
Gage & Tollner lettering

What design challenges do you face at your company?

We’ve recently started developing variable fonts. (I’m a little late to the technology—but app support is lagging too.) Designing a variable font can be approached similarly to ways I’ve approached type families in the past, but occasionally I’ll hit on an aspect that makes me rethink a typeface substantially. Handing over more control to the type user makes me less precious about my decisions, focusing instead on a flexible system that can address a designer’s needs. In that way, it’s a bit like the difference between print design and web design.

Ben and I recently developed a fun variable font with our friends at Polymode, which includes an axis for “Realness,” enabling its typographic voice to range from basic to opulent.

Specimen of Polymode Sans
Diagram of Polymode Sans variable axes
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Now I’m working on Escalator and Elevator, which include a broad-ranging variable axis for optical size. Once I figured out how to make the optical size adjustments automatically transition the way I wanted them to from text to display, the variable font started to feel like magic.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

If you’re just starting your career, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be aware of the limits of your knowledge. Seek out one-time critiques or ongoing mentorship from people who’ve publicly expressed willingness to offer those things. They’re out there and want to help you. In some ways, the pandemic encouraged a shift toward more openness and generosity in the design industry, and I hope that persists.

Ever since I stopped teaching I’ve looked for ways to help type designers early in their careers, mentoring people through Alphabettes and AIGA NY, and offering critiques through Type Crit Crew. I appreciate those three organizations making these kinds of connections more accessible to all, wherever they’re coming from, and for free.

It’s important to me to acknowledge that I entered my career from a position of privilege, deepened by studying at Rhode Island School of Design. I found my way to where I am now largely through the professional network and access that privilege afforded. If I can help remove a barrier for other people by having a few extra video calls every week, I’m happy to do it. (If anyone reading this wants to talk, feel free to get in touch!)

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Check out my new typefaces Elevator and Escalator—two new meditations on the geometric sans genre. I’m pretty sure no one needs another geometric sans, but it has become clear to me that customers want more. They keep asking for them. Finding my own subtly unique spin has been an intereting design challenge. The typefaces are still in progress, but they’re available for advance licensing at geometricsans.com.

Also, you can see our full lineup at xyztype.com and subscribe for updates there—we have a lot in store this year!

Samples of the typefaces Escalator and Elevator
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