Letter-love with Gemma O’Brien

Gemma O'Brien at work on the Peppermint masthead

For many designers, the National Year of Reading means one thing: typography. This is the case for the Sydney-based font fanatic, Gemma O’Brien. The young designer made a name for herself when she released the video Write Here, Write Now (a university project) which became a YouTube sensation. So far the video has had more than 300,000 views.

Today, O’Brien works as a designer at the special effects company Fuelvfx (a Sydney-based studio who create special effects for films including Mission Impossible) and on top of that, she creates fonts and letter-based designs for a variety of hip clients and cutting-edge brands. She recently created a new masthead for the magazine, Peppermint.

Gemma's Peppermint masthead

Gemma's Peppermint masthead

D*Hub caught up with Gemma O’Brien to talk 3-D fonts, For The Love of Type, and the future.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you came into creating typography?
Initially I studied graphic design and wasn’t particularly drawn typography. It was only when I experienced the processes of traditional typesetting that I became obsessed with the discipline. Soon enough I started to notice type in my surrounds and started a blog- For the Love of Type: my experience and self initiated projects led to commercial work and great opportunities.

What is it that draws you to the discipline?
For me, the way that typography and lettering are such an integral part of human culture and expressing meaning is very interesting to me- as a form of design it almost invisibly communicates meaning, mood within moments of being seen. Aside from that, I find the process of drawing letters and studying letterforms very interesting. The bounds of the familiar letter forms are perfect restraints to begin creative exploration.

Why you think there is a resurgence of interest in typography in the last decade?
With the speed at which computers, the Internet and their associated tools and programs became accessible, so too did fonts. Something which used to be limited to the typesetter and desktop publisher was soon available to everyone’s taste. For practicing designers there was also a revived interest of trying to free type from the limitations imposed in the early stages of computers being introduced. Letterpress, hand drawn lettering and experimental type became popular again.

What direction is typography taking in the second decade of the 21st Century?
With the prevalence of screen based culture it’s inevitable that type developments for the web will continue to move forward. So long as we have language and culture, visual representations of words will continue to be explored in both commercial and artistic pursuits.

Take me through a few ‘typographic’ career highlights
Ohhh… The Fedex Box… Write Here Right Now…. Typo Berlin…New York Times…

Where do you find inspiration for creating a new typeface?
I try to look outside the type world for conceptual inspiration, but always look to type history for the precedence of letterforms and styles.

Tell me about the typography scene in Sydney, is it flourishing? Is Melbourne king?
Each have their own strengths- although Melbourne is home to legend Stephen Banham!

Who are the Australians to watch?
Luke Lucas, Luke Ionescou, Toby and Pete, Stephen Banham… Dave Foster [Design NSW: Travelling Scholarship Winner].

Typography by Luca Ionescou

Typography by Luca Ionescou

Three-dimensional typefaces are booming, with fonts being created from everything from body hair to tattoos to cars. Is this a fad or will this become a sustained technique?
Like all design and art there are definitely things that are fashionable. I think the boundaries sill continued to be pushed- type created in different mediums and forms. At the end of the day different purposes and messages of content of the words will yield different typographic executions- those which stem from new ideas rather than popular styles are likely to be most interesting in the future.

What do you think about the work of fellow Sydney typographer, Luca Ionescu, who will be presenting at the next Semi-Permanent?
He is easily one of my Australian designers- his work is amazing and he is actively seeking to activate a typographic community in Sydney through art shows, speakers and workshops. In one word: legend.

Tell me some of your favourite examples of typography?
Stefan Sagmeister’s environmental type installations are epic; Hoefler Frere Jones’ fonts are impeccable, as are Sudtipos’ Ale Paul’s lyrical and calligraphic typography.


What typography from the past do you admire?

I haven’t thoroughly looked through the Powerhouse Museum collection- I would love to see what there is! Each period of type and lettering history offers a variety of styles that provide insight and inspiration for new ideas today. From stone inscriptions to hand lettering and commercial fonts there’s a wealth of knowledge in history.

What does your future hold?
I want to continue to explore type in different ways: hand lettering, learning to create a commercial font and exploring type from a cultural point of view.