It’s hard to believe Production Type has only existed since 2014. In addition to running one of the most productive new foundries in recent years, French typeface designer Jean-Baptiste Levée has released one extensive family after another while still finding time to work on large, prominent custom type and branding projects for clients such as Air Inuit, Carrefour, Vanity Fair, Christian Dior, Liberation, or Renault. But while it may seem that Production Type has suddenly exploded onto the scene, Levée is no newcomer; when he founded Production Type, he was already a seasoned professional with 10 years of experience in the field.
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Originally from Normandy, he studied for a BA in Graphic Design at the renowned École Estienne in Paris and stayed on for their MA course in typeface design. “My dad worked at the post office and my mom was a French teacher, so I had to do something with letters! But seriously, from when I was about 15 I wanted to be a layout artist. I didn’t really know what graphic design was, but being the guy who does the layouts seemed to be the most interesting thing. My big break was getting accepted into Estienne where I spent 5 years. And there it was the classic student story: I followed the path of least resistance. Working with type in graphic design was the easiest and most effective way to produce satisfactory work, but at some point I noticed that shaping my own letters also felt like genuine and profound authorship, that I could truly control everything on a given surface.”
Before founding Production Type, Levée worked as a type designer for other type foundries and in 2009 co-founded BAT (Bureau des Affaires Typographiques) with Bruno Bernard, Stéphane Buellet and Patrick Paleta, back then “the first French type design and distribution company since the 1980s.” In 2016, BAT became a subdivision of Production Type managed solely by Levée. (Some former BAT typefaces like Acier and Synthese are now also on Fontstand under the Production Type label.) “It took me a while to realize what I wanted to do with my own output, but it was clear that it wouldn’t be under a brand with my own name. That’s also why we have other designers jumping in, like Yoann Minet and Loïc Sander. It’s about having a common vision about what type design is. Art directing a catalogue is quite different from just drawing type. The ‘vision’ I have for a foundry extends beyond a single person’s touch. I want to put up useful type that has an edge. And these designs require a specific presentation. Founding a company empowered me to do all those things and it’s tons of fun to drive all this.”
The foundry launched with the families Panorama, Cogito, Gemeli, Gemeli Mono, Origin Super Condensed, and Gemeli Micro available for pre-order, a unique feature of Production Type’s sales strategy for new typefaces. Since then the catalog has grown by another 10 families, but Levée is still sitting on a remarkable backlog of work. “The release schedule for our first year included type families that had been in the works for five years. Our upcoming release Columbia was designed 4 years ago.”
“I reject the idea of ‘the golden age of the ancients who held all that there was to achieve in type,’ as if all we could hope for was to equal them at best.”
Production Type’s catalog is especially strong in the sans-serif department in flavors ranging from industrial to stressed to angular, to round and informal, but more serif families are in the works. The core team currently consists of Levée himself, two designers and two non-designers on staff in Paris, but in reality Production Type is a much larger network of type designers, font engineers, graphic and web designers, authors, proofreaders, and developers collaborating remotely as needed. The company’s philosophy and output feel very international and contemporary.
The story of Production Type coincides with—and has influenced—a huge increase in interest and output in type and typography in France in recent years. Has there been some sort of catalyst or key event behind this revival? “There’s certainly been an increase in skilled designers due to more educational offerings. In the past 10 years, courses like at ESAD Amiens, Estienne, or the ANRT (Atelier national de recherche typographique) have experienced kind of a second spring. At the same time, French designers have gone to study abroad. A lot of the young designers have an international presence while the previous generation is still struggling with the English language. This is not trivial at all! But today it only takes a social media account for the broadcast to be efficient. There has been growth in cultural output—book publishing, publicly funded initiatives, lectures and conferences, microfoundries, awards—but at the end of the day, this has only had a limited effect so far because there’s not a lot of overlap between the cultural and the business spheres. The state of the retail type market hasn’t changed much. Although there’s been more custom type commissioned, more books published, more courses opening, I still don’t really see a general growth of the font market. I feel the current type design output barely makes it past insider circles. For young designers it’s as hard as it’s always been.”
17Production Type font families available to rent on Fontstand for a fraction of their retail price.
As a teacher who has worked at several schools in France, Levée knows this firsthand. “I used to think my professional background would be an issue in the realm of academia. I’m not a scholar and I’m more focused on type in the real world, in real hands. But in Amiens, where I currently teach, we’re educating future professionals, not researchers. I try to teach type design and not type drawing. The drawing part is easy to learn in a year or so, but being able to art-direct a typeface takes some attempts, some failures, and some experience. I share all of that. My background enables me to evaluate whether a design stands a chance in the future or not, whether it brings something different to the discussion. I love research and history but am not a fan of backwards-looking typefaces. I reject the idea of ‘the golden age of the ancients who held all that there was to achieve in type,’ as if all we could hope for was to equal them at best. I don’t know why this paradigm still survives in type design today, even though it’s been dropped in many other fields. Looking into the past for inspiration doesn’t mean that the outcome has to look historical.”