Thierry Blancpain

Co-founder of Grilli Type

Runs Informal Inquiry design studio

"When a company wants to get kids addicted to tobacco, judgement is easy. But often those judgements aren’t so easy or clear."

Raphael Roake: How do you navigate ethics in your practice?
Thierry Blancpain: I’m both a freelance designer and a co-founder of Grilli Type. Two different jobs bringing up different ethical questions. I believe ethical behavior is mostly situational and there are rarely absolute guidelines. As a freelancer I’m lucky enough to have quite a lot of freedom to pick my clients, and work with people and companies that I respect and want to see succeed and do good in the world. For example, I recently got to redesign ProPublica’s logo and wordmark. ProPublica is a non-profit newsroom producing amazing investigative journalism. You can’t ask for much better clients than that.
As the co-founder of Grilli Type, other questions are in the foreground. We’re a small company but we do have employees and type designers working with us. That requires a certain amount of leadership, empathy, and also exercises some pressure – people’s livelihood depending on our success is not something I take lightly.
At the same time, we’re sometimes also the last people our customers want to deal with, as dealing with us involves reading an EULA. Who likes to do that? I definitely know I don’t enjoy that side of it too much. But I get to put a product out into the world and then designers create wonderful things with it. And that’s a wonderful gift. We don’t deal with companies that we don’t want to deal with for custom work, but we don’t prohibit sales to specific industries or companies, either. One of our guiding principles has always been to treat all of our customers the same – at least to a degree that makes sense.
Lastly: we’re designers, and while all decisions are political and I think everyone has obligations as citizens and simply as humans, it’s also important to know your place in the larger scheme of things. We design and sell typefaces.
RR: Are there any specific challenges when it comes to type design?
TB: Type design is design, art, technology, and craft rolled into one. Selling type on the other hand is a business activity and different foundries are more or less serious about that business side of things. We want to have fun and enjoy what we’re doing. If we’re miserable, why go through all the trouble in the first place?
So, over the years, we’ve always approached running Grilli Type with a focus on building a sustainable, fun hub for our and our friends’ (type) design activities. It being sustainable involves selling typeface licensing on a continuing basis, which I interpret as making products that other designers want to use, but also promoting them in a way that we ourselves would want to see typefaces promoted as.
A few years ago, that lead us to designing extensive minisites for each release, but also for example to design and produce a wooden children’s toy that was never going to make a profit. For me it’s about balancing things I need to do with things I want to do, and Grilli Type has been a very generous opportunity to do just that.
RR: Do you think we (as designers) have a responsibility to consider and challenge things such as the ethics behind the companies/products/services we engage with? How far do we push that with clients or bosses?
TB: Yes and no. If someone wants to license type from Grilli Type, I don’t think it’s my place to judge their business and then tell them about my judgement. When a company wants to get kids addicted to tobacco, judgement is easy. But often those judgements aren’t so easy or clear.
I do think it’s my job to run my own business in a way that is ethical and fair. It’s my job to run it in a way that respects all stakeholders: the customer at hand but also our type designers, our employees, ourselves, and then of course consider the larger contexts like our societies and the environment.
Ethical behavior is simple in theory, and often much harder in practice. It’s easy to be behave ethically when there’s nothing at stake. By applying some common sense guidelines to our own company’s behavior, we try to treat all of our customers the same and avoid some of the tougher decisions – because we’ve already made them. Our pricing is set, and everyone gets the same price. The way how we sell is set and everyone plays by those same rules. And so on. We’re quite Swiss about these aspects: take it or leave it.
RR: Are there any cases of this happening in your practice or in the wider industry that you thought were interesting or different?
TB: There were some very public instances of people behaving horribly towards their employees or business partners. I’m not sure how people can act in such ways and still sleep at night, but obviously it’s possible. It’s also definitely not the way I would want to live my life. Similarly, there’s certain clients I wouldn’t want to work for, but this is always on a case by case basis. Not being a horrible person seems like a pretty easy first step.
RR: Any advice for young designers on navigating this space in their careers/beyond?
TB: I’m speaking from a position of privilege, and decisions are easier when nothing is at stake. We can say no to a client and still make rent and have food on the table. Alleviating some of the pressure on life choices that student debt or debt in general exercises, and gaining some of that freedom of choice seems incredibly important to me.
But it’s cheap to preach to just be lucky after you’ve won the lottery. Just do the best you can.