Editor’s note: In hindsight, XYZ was probably always meant to be. Jesse Ragan’s and Ben Kiel’s careers in type design converged in a natural—perhaps even inevitable—way. In a recent conversation with Yves Peters, they revealed how XYZ came to be and where the young foundry is headed.
In 2000, while still an undergraduate, Jesse Ragan took an intensive typeface design class taught by Cyrus Highsmith at the Rhode Island School of Design. By 2001, he was already interning at Font Bureau under Highsmith’s guidance. Ragan started working at Hoefler Type Foundry (later Hoefler & Frere-Jones) fresh out of college. After a four-year stint there, he hung out his own shingle, doing lettering, custom typefaces, and logo work. He also contracted with type foundries to assist them with design and production—for example, he helped Matthew Carter expand Roster from a compact seven-member family to a powerhouse of sixty styles.
Because Ben Kiel found himself doing mainly typographic work in his graphic design practice, he decided to enroll in the MA Typeface Design program at the University of Reading in the fall of 2004. Upon graduating, Kiel entered the world of professional type design via a position at House Industries. Ragan also did work for the Delaware-based design studio during Kiel’s tenure. After six years with House, Kiel relocated with his family back to his adopted home of Saint Louis. He launched his own typeface design and production shop, Typefounding, where he engaged in custom type work and assisted other foundries and type designers. Ragan was one of his clients—Kiel lent a hand on the brush script Cortado, a custom commission by MP Creative for the shoe and accessory brand Aldo.
Even though there had been no explicit conversations about joining forces, at that point, the pattern had become all too obvious to Ragan and Kiel. “We got tired of hiring each other,” Kiel recalled, adding that “it felt like we were secretly dating.” He concluded: “This made us decide to start a business together so we didn’t have to pay each other anymore.” Although Cortado’s initial commercial release came before XYZ was formed, it turned out to be an explicit trial run to see if setting up a foundry together could work. And indeed it could.
Ragan’s and Kiel’s ongoing respective client work plays an essential role in upcoming XYZ releases. “These projects keep percolating into our commercial releases,” Ragan said. The partners either make special arrangements with the client or wait until the exclusivity period ends before publishing custom families commercially under the XYZ umbrella. Thus, as it expands, XYZ’s library will consist of a mix of existing projects and typographic concepts Ragan and Kiel are eager to explore. “There is some strategy,” added Kiel. “Part of it is: what do we have time for, what is close to being done? But also: now that we have launched, what makes the most sense for the next release?”
XYZ’s launch was warmly received by the type and design communities because the studio published, in Ragan’s words, “three very strong flavors” right out of the gate. “We’ve established a strong voice from the start,” he added. Cortado is a pointed-brush script inspired by illustrator Cecilia Carlstedt’s personal hand. The friendly high-tech Aglet Slab, in seven weights with matching italics, pairs alternating blunt and rounded corners and finials with an underlying framework of 45- and 90-degree angles. The rugged all-caps Export, which comes in both regular and stencil versions, deploys a network of forms and counterforms to create a landscape of alternating bulges and pinches. Because those typefaces originated as solutions to requirements from clients, they perform particular functions and deliberately shy away from being overly speculative. Ragan said: “You have to be cooking the dish that calls for that specific flavor to make the most of it.” Now he and Kiel are looking at client projects for bread-and-butter designs—such as a geometric sans Ragan crafted last year and a bookish serif currently in development for a university—as likely candidates to round out their retail library.
Although they have the business, design, and development aspects down, there’s been a learning curve for Ragan and Kiel in setting up their own foundry, especially with regard to marketing. It’s not completely foreign territory since both have worked for other foundries, but those were mature brands with established identities. Finding a strategy and a voice for XYZ presented an exciting new challenge, and partnering with Type Network is part of a larger goal to help the partners reach a broader audience. “It’s a great collection of foundries; plus, it’s a curated collection,” said Kiel. “They are all people we respect, are friends with, and consider to be peers.”
“I have long admired Ben’s and Jesse’s individual contributions to the world of type and I was thrilled when they launched their own foundry,” said Type Network General Manager Paley Dreier. “I’m so happy they’ve partnered with Type Network and I’m eager to see what the future holds!”
All XYZ fonts are available for print, web, applications, and ePub licensing. Webfonts may be tested free for thirty days. To stay current on all things XYZ, subscribe to Type Network News, our occasional email newsletter featuring font releases, foundry happenings, type and design events, and more.