Bonnie Clas is hard to categorize. A self-described "chameleon of design," Bonnie is a typeface designer, graphic artist, illustrator, and letterer whose carefully constructed and colorful creations harken back to a century ago yet factor in modern sensibilities. With simultaneous nods to pin-up and tattoo art as well as vintage fashion, her designs are edgy yet delicate.
As she rocks out to groups as varied as Gorgoroth, Iron and Wine, and Pearl Jam, Bonnie is adept at creating digital designs for websites, designing book covers, illustrating wine labels, and lettering Broadway posters.
After finishing her bachelor's and master's degrees in graphic design and drawing from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, Bonnie moved to Manhattan and worked with Rodrigo Corral, Gail Anderson, SpotCo, Veer, Hsu+ Associates, Type Directors Club, and Apartment One.
Bonnie currently works as a designer for 92Y, a nonprofit community and cultural center in New York City, and teaches lettering at the School of Visual Arts. She also posts lettering samples on her Tumblr blog. Bonnie spoke with us from her studio in New York.
Inspire: What got you started?
Bonnie Clas: Drawing always came easy for me, ever since middle school when I took my first classes. It helped me get my ideas across very quickly.
Inspire: Was your nose always buried in a sketchbook as a kid?
Clas: Definitely. My parents honed in on that. I remember a funny story from when I was really small. I had a room full of toys and dolls, and I got in trouble for something. My parents took away all my toys but left my Fisher-Price art table and art supplies. They knew they couldn't take those away from me. I was still allowed to do art, even if I was in trouble.
Inspire: Is that how you developed a passion for drawing?
Clas: My mom was a graphic designer, and my dad was a printer, so they understood. I took a lot of drawing classes in school, sketching still lifes, copying Rembrandt drawings, and rendering lots of statues and anatomy, figure drawing, things of that nature.
Inspire: Is that why you show an affinity for classical techniques?
Clas: I started out in undergrad and grad school loving the super classical stuff, like Baroque and Rococo art, Dutch paintings, and Renaissance works. That was my end-all, in terms of art. Then a couple of professors turned me on to contemporary art, and that's what I love looking at now more than anything.
Inspire: How did you become interested in type design?
Clas: When I was about 11, I got my first Apple computer. I remember typing the I and the L next to each other in Helvetica, and it looked funny to me. I didn't know why, but I just remember being hyperaware of type and letters and fonts. I think that's always been a constant with me.
Inspire: When did you start studying fonts seriously?
Clas: Grad school was the first time that I officially started delving into type design and learning a lot about the foundation of what I know now. My favorite professor there, Robert Newman, pushed me to think beyond the computer and beyond just using the standard fonts that are on your system.
Inspire: Where do you get your ideas?
Clas: I look at everything. I'm constantly looking at design blogs, and I go to art museums and galleries. I look at art books. I keep a FFFFound account, where I have hundreds of images — everything from flowers and animals to patterns and fashion, you name it. I save anything that is visually interesting or different. I'm also a big fan of browsing secondhand stores. I can get inspiration from seeing a basket of old postcards, people's handwriting, ads on postcards, or any kind of ephemera like that. I love it.
Inspire: Does it matter whether you browse websites, tap around on an iPad, or flip through printed books to get ideas?
Clas: Looking through blogs or online sites can be overwhelming. It's like having the "too many flavors syndrome": you know, too many choices, and then I can't really make a decision. Looking at books and fashion magazines focuses me a bit more. It gives me that moment to breathe before I move on to the next page.
But the Internet has its benefits, too. I can look things up very quickly or connect things faster to other things. I may see an image that leads me to a great blog that might have 10 other images that I didn't even know to look for — and that has its benefits.
Inspire: What about using social media?
Clas: I get a lot of good information from social media, but people can get too caught up in how many followers they have, how many people like a particular thing they did — and that informs what they do next. It traps people into doing their "greatest hits" of something that was really popular, as opposed to trying out something just for the sake of trying it, even if it fails or is radically different from what they've done before.
Inspire: Any particular books or reference material that continually inspires your work?
Clas: The Art of Rock, which has every rock poster from San Francisco in the 1970s up to the late 1980s, is a really great visual resource. I also have a lot of Letraset sheets [dry-transfer type] and Milton Glaser books.
Inspire: What are you reading now?
Clas: I'm reading How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul. Seriously. I'm also reading Keith Haring: Journals, which has been fascinating. I'm also getting more and more into fashion magazines.
Inspire: How do you like teaching at the School of Visual Arts?
Clas: I really love teaching. I get a lot from the students. They aren't necessarily traditional graphic designers; they're continuing education students who might be jewelry designers, textile makers, or psychologists. They come up with these ideas that I don't think would necessarily occur to somebody who is a graphic designer. So teaching has been really inspiring in that way.
The interesting thing is that even among undergraduate students now, or students studying graphic design, there's a more sophisticated level of learning simply because there are more resources thanks to blogs and things of that nature. There's more available for them to hone that visual sophistication.
Inspire: What do you find most challenging about design?
Clas: A lot of people, including myself, want to draw something and then make it fit it into a space. I challenge myself to focus on the fact that negative space is maybe more important than what's being put onto it.
Take a project that requires an illustration. You want a big visual impact, even if it's something small like a wine label. In this context, the biggest challenge is working with space first and then focusing on the level of detail.
Inspire: Print or digital?
Clas: I love print because I love having something tactile. I love the idea of sending what feels like my child away after this labor of love — a wine label or book jacket — and having it come back fully created. I think that's its own reward. But digital provides its own qualities.
Inspire: Are you interested in designing for the iPad — or even on it?
Clas: Sure, I'm interested in adapting my work for the iPad. That might be my next frontier, actually. And I am curious about designing on the iPad as well. There's a finger illustrator named Jorge Colombo who does New Yorker covers entirely on the iPad. It blows my mind that he can do that. The iPad is like a magical box — but I don't own one yet. Every time I get ahold of one, I'm on it for longer than I should be — and then my friends want it back.
Inspire: It must be difficult to translate the printed medium to digital.
Clas: It can be difficult. For example, we did a book cover at Rodrigo Corral Design for Tell-All [by Chuck Palahniuk]. The idea of this book was for it to be something glossy and glamorous. One of the printing specs was to have these clear letters all over the hardback cover that were silhouetted and then glitter would be varnished on top of the cover. You really can't take that design into account when it goes to digital.
Inspire: What's in your toolbox?
Clas: Definitely [Adobe] Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. FontLab has been a staple of mine, too.
Beyond software, it has literally been everything: a lot of ink markers, Pigma Micron pens, pencils of all kinds — mechanical, technical, drawing pencils, paints, you name it. I will try anything. I've even designed with chewing gum.
Inspire: As a letterer, what do you think of Adobe Typekit?
Clas: I'm fascinated by Typekit. It's fantastic that you don't have to rely on the clarity of Verdana solely to make your website beautiful. I love that it's very customized.
I've seen a lot of beautiful websites now that use web fonts. It really customizes things and gives an air of what is special about having a printed layout.
Inspire: I love the Habana poster — the type, the imagery. What was your inspiration?
Clas: The Habana font came from a real love of cigar boxes and cigar labels. I wanted something that made that look a little more contemporary than some of the labels I'd seen.
Inspire: The pin-up image of the woman [above the Habana font name] is great.
Clas: I like pin-up girls because I aspire to look like one. [Laughs.] I like the rockabilly look, too. I think the pin-up girl is the poster child for that look; it's a cool culture in itself.
Inspire: How has your lettering evolved?
Clas: When I started Habana, I only had A through Z uppercase, no lowercase. I started getting to the numbers and realized that those were a bit more challenging. Then I explored alternate characters because I thought if the numbers, which we are used to seeing, present more of a challenge, what would happen if I made the pound sign, copyright symbols, and things that have to be smaller, like subscripts? Now I design for everything, not just A through Z.
Inspire: Why are numbers more challenging than letters?
Clas: I think letters can have the freedom to be a little bit abstract, or more pictorial, than numbers. Numbers have to function on a more technical level. I can't abstract the number 1 without somebody wondering if it's really a $10 sale, you know?
Inspire: Some type designers really hate Comic Sans. What's your take?
Clas: [Laughs.] I think Comic Sans is appalling and amusing at the same time. I've seen it used more than any other font. People think it's approachable and friendly, and yet I cringe when I see it, even in comics. There are just so many better choices out there for talk bubbles and dialog.
Inspire: What advice would you give an artist who's interested in designing typefaces?
Clas: Look at white space and consider the negative space around your letters. Don't be afraid to put a lot of love and nitpicking into your letterforms. That's what makes them really special.
Before you pop open that laptop, try drawing. I can't stress enough that people still need to draw. People are too eager to jump onto the software before they get their ideas down on paper.
Look for inspiration outside your comfort zone. For example, some type designers make the mistake of looking solely at type blogs and websites devoted specifically to the best of type, and they forget to look at things like fashion or fine art. Inspirational sources are everywhere. Look at things and places that might give you a different idea or direction.
Stefan Gruenwedel is the senior editorial producer for Adobe Inspire Magazine. He also produces videos for Adobe TV and the Adobe Developer Connection. Stefan occasionally finds time to make short-form documentaries.