Jimmy Turrell's bespoke typeface FS Erskine inspired by Newcastle and the Byker Wall

Krista Radoeva Custom fonts
8 Feb’17

For our third ‘Local Characters’ project with It’s Nice That we worked with illustrator Jimmy Turrell from Newcastle to create a custom typeface inspired by his hometown. He grew up in a development designed by Ralph Erskine called the Byker Wall. With its geometric shapes and primary colours the estate, ‘represents a dramatic break in the aesthetic and ethic that dominated the social housing of the sixties in the UK,’ Jimmy told It’s Nice That. ‘It rejects the architectural brutalism that dominated the rest of Newcastle at the time.’ Reflecting back Jimmy realised that the Byker Wall had been a great influence on his work ever since and wanted to create a typeface inspired by it.

When he came into our studio for the first meeting the whole team were really excited about the project. He is super enthusiastic about his hometown and his work - and that is really infectious. Jimmy had lots of different ideas and experiments, so we had to focus on finding one idea that we could turn into an actual typeface. We loved the textures in his work, the feeling of randomness in all the cut-up pieces and the layering. This was the big challenge – How do we produce a functional digital font that incorporates all of these features? Jimmy even expressed his concern that type designers tend to make everything look ‘too clean’, so we were determined to find a way to make a typeface that was true to his style.

I started the development on a small scale with just a couple of letters, experimenting with the design and the technical functionality and capability of the font files. I wanted to create several alternatives for each character, and to make them switch automatically in a random way, which involved a lot of OpenType feature testing. 

After overcoming the technical difficulties I expanded the character set with A-Z, figures and punctuation. I created between 5 and 9 versions of each and set the characters on a ‘bouncing baseline’. The different alternatives, as well as the shifting vertical positioning of the characters helped to improve the feel of randomness.

Jimmy and I were emailing back and forth as I was developing the character set. I wanted to make sure he was happy with the way the typeface was turning out and give him the opportunity to input. We changed the look of some of the characters half way through - it can be hard to picture the typeface as a set until you actually see the characters together.

The next step was adding the second layer of geometric shapes. Since they’re overlaid on the main font it’s easy to manipulate the colour to the red, green, blue and yellow seen in the Byker Wall. The final step was adding the ragged edges to all outlines, again to keep in line with Jimmy’s visuals. The texture is also slightly different across the whole typeface – some characters are rougher at the edges than others. Here is the full character set:

For me this Collaboration was a great opportunity to work on such an unusual typeface. His analogue techniques challenged our digital approaches and pushed us in a direction that we rarely get to explore. In the end all the elements came together to represent the spirit of the Byker Wall. I was really excited to see the typeface in use and how it complements Jimmy’s work.

Read more about this project on It's Nice That

Fontsmith's Brandfont licensing allows brands to create customised typefaces, modify existing library fonts or use them off the shelf. The simplified model allows endless use across every format, read more here.

Sign up to the TypeNotes newsletter for type news, tips and offers.

Sign up to the TypeNotes newsletter for type news, tips and offers.