Test Pilot Collective has been producing exciting typography from its Pittsburgh base since 1998, racking up more than 50 viable commercial faces in that time and using these to deliver some beautiful design work.
While the Collective's typefaces have been used by the likes of Starbucks and Nikon, there's also a wilfully experimental edge to their style. One thing's for certain though: design is all that matters to them. "It's our life," they say. "We eat, sleep and shit design. Seriously, all we do is work."
Meeting of minds
Test Pilot Collective is currently made up of two individuals, Joe Kral and Matt Desmond. Messrs Kral and Desmond met through the auspices of Mr Chank Diesel, the Minneapolis-based "master of hand lettering". The two had crossed paths earlier but didn't get around to talking design - they were moving too fast.
"We had actually met a year earlier while skateboarding," explains Joe, this reference being interesting because, though not explicit in their typography, the 'street' is definitely present. While Matt was studying in Minneapolis, he "met up with Chank and became a member of the original Chank Army. That's how we eventually met." It was a meeting of minds, says Joe: "Many nights we talked about what we wanted out of a perfect type company." The Collective has been in existence "in the real world" since 1998: "In our heads it actually existed a lot longer than that."
Influence and method
"Anything from a simple piece of grid paper to the local graffiti or a random old sign somewhere" - the sources of influence are many and varied for Test Pilot Collective. Joe lists Jonathan Barnbrook and Eric Gill among his typographic heroes, though neither Joe nor Matt had a particularly successful brush with academia the first time around. "I think I learned more after college than I did when I was there," Joe laments his choice of advertising design. "It didn't really click in my head until college was over and I started buying design books and magazines, seeing all the crazy design being done." Away from the strictures of the classroom, Joe began to gather pace creatively: "It finally clicked that I was in this for good, now all I do is think about typefaces and design." Maybe still a little unsure this is permitted talk, he adds: "I think there's something wrong with me..."
There doesn't seem to be; the typefaces coming from Test Pilot Collective have a freshness to them which, at least in part, comes from this unorthodox approach to the subject. "I've designed a few experimental fonts that have never sold a single copy," says Joe. Not exactly a boast, but the willingness to put the time in when it could be used to grease the wheels of commerce shows his commitment.
Test Pilot Collective produces typefaces with immediate character. From the broken-down digital of AOL Sucks to the blobby futurism of Fourforty, there's feeling coming off the page right away. That's why initially it seems strange when Joe mentions that: "Most of our fonts are based on a strict underlying grid."
The immediate reaction is that any kind of rigidity will limit the appeal of a typeface, but no: "We try to set a few rules for a typeface and stick to them. As the typeface progresses, and certain letterforms don't quite look right, then the rules get bent a little." Even 'difficult' faces such as those based on Joe and Matt's handwriting still hang together nicely and it's this that makes them good fonts.
The initial idea can be as free-wheeling as you like, but if the execution is sloppy then the final output will be useless for typography. "The main thing is having all the letters look like they belong together," says Joe. After all, "They're all part of a family."
Considering the up-to-date style of the design they produce, both Joe and Matt have great reverence for the classics. "We love all of the old utilitarian typefaces," says Joe. "Faces such as Univers and Helvetica will always remain in our designs." A look through the Collective's collected 'front page' designs demonstrates that this pedigree is reflected in their own typography as well as influencing their design.
"They are all you need," continues Joe, who's not impressed with fashion. "We would pick Helvetica over any new 'trendy' font." By the same token, the overuse of certain faces should be dealt with: "There are a lot of typefaces that we would like to erase." It's the proliferation and overuse of 'trendy' typefaces which bothers the duo: "It's mostly inexperienced designers who are guilty." But Joe's taking no prisoners: "Time to buy some new fonts and go back to school..."
'First page' madness
While Test Pilot Collective fonts have been favoured by the likes of Citibank and Wired magazine, the design skills of the Pittsburgh duo have not been laying idle. "We get our fair share of custom-type design work," says Joe, mentioning probably his biggest client in this area: "Citibank has been using a custom version of OCRK-Bold Square for the past few years."
However, it isn't easy to get by on type alone: "It would be nice if we did a little more custom-type design," sighs Joe. "And if they would pay a little better..." This lamentable fact forces Joe to admit that: "We probably do more graphic design work than type design."
This isn't such a bad thing. Taking a look at the archived 'first pages' on the Test Pilot Collective website, it's hard to find one that isn't immediately affecting, demonstrating a great balance between type and graphic elements. In fact, "I originally started designing typefaces," says Joe, "because I wanted to be in control of every aspect of the design." Nothing left to chance from photography through to typography.
"Matt and I came up with the name when we were out eating pizza," says Joe. Considering these inauspicious beginnings, it seems almost bizarre to find the Collective's biggest client is one of the world's largest financial behemoths. The bank's use of Joe's take on the classic technical OCRA typeface has been a strong wind in Test Pilot Collective's sails. Joe was surprised that Citibank was going to use it, but has an explanation for their choice: "I think it was a smart move. It's unique enough to stand out from other typefaces."
Asked whether his work is experimental, Joe is undecided: "Yes and no," he says. "It depends on the project." Or maybe this is making your mind up but in both directions.
"I like really dirty, layered, obscure design, but I like super-clean Swiss design too." This philosophy is akin to Citibank's deployment of 'experimental' accounting techniques whenever they deem it appropriate.
Keep coming back
The advantage of working with type is a kind of creative freedom which graphic design more generally doesn't have: "With Test Pilot I have freedom to design whatever I want," says Joe. This is possibly why Test Pilot Collective's work is so appealing, because the compromise so obvious in a lot of design isn't there. "No client telling me what needs to be bigger or a different colour. It's what I love to do," he explains. Joe and Matt are in their element.
That doesn't mean it's all plain sailing though, "Now, if we're talking about doing client work..." Joe isn't quite as chipper now, "...that can be a different story. Most of the time it's great but, sometimes, it makes me not want to design any more." That's probably a familiar feeling for most designers, particularly those with an experimental edge. But where else could you say? "I get paid to 'play' all day. Can't beat that!"